Sunday, 7 October 2007

So See-More-Able

Thanks to a flurry of evening meetings for work, I’m a bit behind with matters blog-related, so I only just read this entry on Blog@Newsarama:

"Law & Order creator Dick Wolf and Disturbia director D.J. Caruso are teaming up to adapt Max Allan Collins’ Johnny Dynamite for television.

Variety reports that the series will employ the same green-screen technology used for the movie 300 — a first for network television, should the show be picked up."

A first for US television, perhaps, but Brits with long memories may recall the BBC’s 1982 adaptation of the Daily Mirror comic strip Jane, a comedy about a woman who continually loses her clothes while foiling German spies in World War Two.

Green-screen – or Blue-screen, or Chromakey, or Colour Separation Overlay (CSO), call it what you will – had been used by the BBC ever since they adopted colour video cameras. It was used to insert pictures behind newsreaders, and it was used for special effects on series such as The Goodies and Doctor Who. The results were not always impressive. In 1978, about a third of the Doctor Who serial “Underworld” was recorded by inserting live actors into model caves, reputedly because the set designer had blown his entire budget on a single spaceship control room. Bits of the actors disappeared in the process, and they all had yellowish lines surrounding them.

By the early 1980s, the problem of successfully isolating the foreground image from the flat coloured background had been solved. But there was still no way of creating realistic imaginary backdrops cheaply. Matte painting was an elaborate and slow process, modelwork always looked like modelwork, and the modern standby of computer-generated imagery was not yet available.

Jane solved this problem by embracing it. The backdrops, and even some of the props, were high-contrast line black and white drawings, with a little added spot colour. The action was framed as if taking place within comic-strip panels: sometimes with two or more panels onscreen at once. Common devices from comic strips, such as sometimes putting figures in plain black silhouette (originally intended to lend some variety to a three-or-four panel tier) are replicated. Batman-style written sound effects were eschewed, but thought balloons were used to show us how Jane’s pet dachshund, Fritz, reacted to events.

Jane was made in five episodes of ten minutes each. Ideal for YouTube, you might think, and, indeed, you can find the first series starting here. Although that’s a QuickTime-sized image of an off-air VHS recording with Danish subtitles, it does give a reasonable idea of how the programme looked on-screen.

Unless you have a particular fetish for mid-twentieth-century ladies’ underwear (or for lead actress Glynis Barber, who shot this in-between her roles in Blakes 7 and Dempsey and Makepeace), you’ll also find that, even in ten minute chunks, the serial gets dull rather quickly. It is probably one of the most faithful strip-to-screen adaptations ever, being an amalgam of two wartime stories from the Daily Mirror, “Hush-Hush House” (January-April 1940) and “Jane’s Rival” (October 1940 – May 1941), but what had seemed funny and racey to readers in the 1940s appeared rather quaint in the 1980s. Given the artificiality of both the plot and the way it was presented on screen, it is hard even to get too worked up about the series’ blatantly sexist and exploitative premise.

Even so, the series seems to have struck a chord. At the time it was made, the comic strip had not appeared in the Daily Mirror in decades. But over the next few years, there was a second TV serial (sometimes called “Jane in the Desert”), a theatrical movie, Jane and the Lost City, which was filmed on conventional locations and was, generally speaking, as complete a waste of celluloid as could be imagined, and, in 1985, a revival of the comic strip itself, apparently at the insistence of the Mirror’s new owner, the well-known crook and bully Robert Maxwell.

The combination of live-action and line-drawing backgrounds wasn’t repeated, so far as I can recall, outside of children’s programmes such as Jackanory. But it was a worthwhile experiment, and, taken on its own terms, produced an effect rather more charming, and rather less bumptious and overwhelming, than its present-day CGI successors.

(The title of this post, by the way, comes from the theme tune to Jane, written by Neil Innes, late of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and the Rutles. He rhymes it with “You’re adorable”.)

Glynis Barber in Jane, BBC, 1982

Jane “Jane’s Rival”, script by Don Freeman, art by Norman Pett, Daily Mirror, February 1941, reprinted in Jane At War, Wolfe Publishing, 1976

1 comment:

RAB said...

As a matter of fact, Jane was shown at least once in America...edited into a single fifty-minute special for airing on public television here. I expect any weaknesses the original may have had in ten-minute chunks were only magnified by watching it in one unbroken sitting. I remember it mainly for the Neil Innes theme song, and of course the spectacular beauty of Ms. Barber.

That quote from Variety is a bit misleading. American television has used chroma key insertion every bit as much as British broadcasters have. Many American children's shows in particular have used it to provide all their sets and backdrops on a low budget. One called Land of the Lost used this method almost to excess back in 1974. I don't know what new techniques were used in 300 but whatever they are, that's the stuff the article is saying would be new to our network television.

(And "network television" is only a subset of "American television" but that's a whole other can of worms...)