An Extra Life On… Gulliver’s Travels

I have to say, despite the mild discomfort and the worrying lack of pudding, Robin Hoodwasn’t all that bad. In fact as far as ‘work’ goes it was a bit of a laugh. The good thing about it – the admirable thing – was that very little was done on green-screen. I’m pretty sure most people reading this will know what I mean by that, but in case you don’t – It was the Real Deal, yo!

Yeah okay the castle was polystyrene, but it was actually there and not ‘added in Post’. Yes a toddler with a tantrum could’ve battered his way through the fortifications, and yes stray arrows did pierce the flimsy wall and have to be plucked out with a well-aimed rope, and yes many more arrows were added in post-production at a cost of a grand each. A few Extras even got crushed to death, like in Ben Hur. No not really. But everything else was genuine, painstakingly and lovingly captured on up to seven (yes, seven) cameras at once.

Contrast this with Gulliver’s Travels, where much of my time was spent literally surrounded by great walls of luminous green, as if I were a microbe on the Joker’s scalp.

The first scenes we did were inside the ‘Lollapalooza’ village, filmed on an old army parade-ground near Aldershot, where us Supporting Artistes played casual townsfolk enjoying a lazy day out, a heavenly relief from storming a castle in heavy armour. The town centre was real enough – food-stalls, flower carts and the like – but any surrounding buildings were magically CGI’d onto five-metre green walls marked with calibration points. Gulliver, you are no doubt aware, was a giant, but of course he (played by Jack Black in yet another of his note-worthy ‘sensitive’ roles) did his bits elsewhere and was added later. So that the Background could follow his movements, we would be told to look at a tennis ball on a pole, or an orange cross on a cherry-picker. During the scene where he fights with a similarly-sized robot (you know you’re in a bad film when a giant robot gives Jack Black a wedgie), we were following not one but two fluorescent tennis balls on long poles, our heads tracking side to side as if watching a tennis match, with the A.D. shouting ‘Look at Gulliver! Now the robot. Back to Gulliver. He hits him… they wrestle… WEDGIE!!’ and us lot reacting accordingly, to the best of our abilities. (I can’t recall the exact sequence of events, but I have no intention of watching the film to remind myself.) It was a dazzlingly sunny day, and we’d been told not to wear sunglasses (apparently such technology had not reached far-off mythical islands), so had to stare up into the bright sky unprotected. Myself, I’m particularly sensitive to light, and couldn’t keep my eyes open without being blinded, so if you pause the DVD and spot a guy in the crowd with his eyes scrunched shut, possibly streaming, that’d be me.

The big bad robot won this round of the contest (Booo!) but later in the film Gulliver would get his revenge (Yaaay!). It’s fun to speculate how he did this, since I’ve no what actually happened. I like to think he sailed off to Skull Island, buddied up with King Kong, and trained for many days in a loincloth in the jungle, lifting huge rocks, smashing his shins against Jurassic-sized trees, then swimming back to Lilliput with the gorilla on his back. All to a soaring 80s power-ballad.

Anyway, after the mano-a-robo tussle, we moved to Pinewood Studios for a different kind of battle, where we swapped shorts and t-shirts for naval uniforms. Thick, heavy, waxy-coated uniforms, that kept the water out, and the sweat in.

Oh joy.

This time I was one of the bad guys, so was yet again cheering the loser (I now better understand why people support Manchester United.) I was proudly stood behind the Blefuscian King, once more staring at a tennis ball in the sky, cheering as our man (well, robot) struck the early blows. But then Jack fought back, no doubt recalling at a crucial moment his training from Skull Island, and defeated the metal beast. I’ve no idea how, I really don’t remember. But what I do remember is that the food here was decent. Despite the fact we had to queue behind the crew before getting served – nothing unusual there – the grub was good. And that counts for a lot. If you ask an Extra if they were on a particular film, they will often respond as so: “Yeah I was. Food was good on that”.

Feed your armies well, and they will serve you well.

And then there was Anvil Head.

Let me tell you something. If you’re ever job-hunting and see an advert for a Third Assistant Director, do not apply. The ‘Thirds’ are the liaison between the Crew and the Scum. They are the ones who sign them in, tell them to go where they should go, tell them they shouldn’t be where they are, tell them not to wander off because they’re needed (nearly always a lie), and so on. I’ve met very few good thirds, and those who are rapidly move up the ladder, because to be a good third you need to be a nice friendly likeable person, but at the same time not so loveable that you can’t give people firm directions when needed. Much like a teacher. So the good ones soon get promoted, which therefore, logically, tells you that most thirds are cretins.

None more so than Anvil Head. I can’t recall his real name, but he was a laughably bad Third, with a squat body topped by an over-sized anvil-shaped head, and all the social skills of a tapir. As he came over to announce in his comically nasal voice ‘Alright guuuuuys, back on set now’, it was customary to ignore him at least the first two times. Eventually though we’d clamber up from whichever shady resting spot we’d found and trudge back to set, re-fastening whichever items of clothing we’d undone. However it was comforting to note that, no matter how little worthiness we felt we had as Extras, we would never achieve the genetic low-point that was Anvil Head.

The set at Pinewood was not the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage that some of us would work on later for Harry Potter, but an imposing structure made of those big iron shipping containers, stacked five-high in a rectangle.  (This, for building regs purposes, is classed as a temporary structure. Like a garden shed.) Through a narrow gap in a corner we slipped, brushing aside a flap of green felt, to discover that the entire walls were draped with it. Hundreds of square metres of bright green fabric, onto which would be generated a vast ocean and an armada of ships. One of these ships, though, was real. I say ‘real’, it was in fact half a boat – like a cut-away cross-section in a maritime museum – propped on pistons. We clambered aboard and took our positions, myself, being an officer, on the poop deck (snigger), overlooking the crew. Enormous fans billowed the sails as the gurney rocked the boat side-to-side, cannons went off, and water sprayed over the deck. These scenes, despite the stifling heat and the urge to tear off your neckerchief, rip open your thick coat and gasp for air, were pretty good fun. Gulliver was talking to the Captain of the ship, so yet again we were gazing up at an orange mark on a pole. But, unlike before, Jack Black himself was on the ground below us, in front of his own little green-screen, over-acting his piece into a microphone and splashing around topless in the ‘water’, his chubby arms slashing at the air, ape-like. This was the first and last time that the lead actor joined the Second Unit for filming, but it was certainly memorable. After all, it’s not every day you get to see Jack Black’s mighty moobs bouncing around.

Next time… Wand waving and celebrity belching on Harry Potter 7

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