Roll Plate! Shaky Cars & the Rear Projection Effect

What constitutes a movie as being timeless? A film that stands the test of time against ever-changing styles and fashions is hard to find, but after a recent re-watch of Dr. No, I was surprised how timeless I actually found it. 

There are a few reasons why Dr. No has held up so well over the past 56 years and being the first Bond movie, it set the bar for 24 films that followed. It's an exceptional, suspenseful spy movie at its core—Connery's coolness and exuberant sex appeal is truly timeless in itself. 

However there are things that have not held up so well over time, which of course is easy to say while I sit high and mighty in 2018 watching a film from 1962. For starters, Ursula Andress's entire character is the epitome of Hollywood's over-sexualized female roles—the cherry on top is that her name is Honey Ryder, in case you forgot that detail. Honey Ryder set the stage for the look and naming conventions of the Bond girls that followed (remember Plenty O'Toole? or Holly Goodhead?). 

The only way this could be more evocative is if the knife were between her legs.

The only way this could be more evocative is if the knife were between her legs.

The nature of Bond's leading gal isn't the only cringe-worthy moment of Dr. No. While I could go on and on about the suggestive nature of the film's women, there could be an entire novel dedicated to the character of Dr. No himself. If you're not familiar, Dr. No is supposed to be half Chinese and half German... and I don't think I need to tell you that Joseph Wiseman was not half Chinese and half German himself. This resulted in a weird makeup job that made Dr. No look less like a man of Chinese decent and more like your recently divorced middle-aged neighbor with too much Botox.  

"If it's warmer than 60 degrees out, the convertible top goes down."

"If it's warmer than 60 degrees out, the convertible top goes down."

But there's something else that makes Dr. No rather un-timeless that, oddly, was the absolute most jarring to me: and that's the car scenes. It's that classic and so recognizable look where the camera is seemingly planted right on the hood of the car while the fore and backgrounds move in non-synchronized trembles. 

It's almost like watching an improv group imitate a driving sequence on cafeteria chairs. The aggressive leans, dramatic steering wheel movement, and oddly disconnected background make the film seem so incredibly staged and, frankly, it just looks bad

(In my defense, I did just recently watch the latest Bond film, Spectre, which has more impressive car scenes.)

Sam Mendes obviously had the advantage of modern-day special effects on his side, while Terence Young had to make due with the technology made available to him in the early sixties. We can say that Dr. No is a victim of the times but that still doesn't answer the burning question:

Why is everything so shaky?

We can first blame the theatrics of old car scenes (in Dr. No and the film's contemporaries) on the actual steering of an older car. The lack of power steering in old vehicles literally made it much more difficult to control a car by the wheel, resulting in what now looks like overly-aggressive turns when the driver is supposedly driving straight. 

That's the complicated answer to maniacal steering in classic films, and while nowadays I don't have to whip my wheel left and right while cruising along in my 2016 Toyota Corolla, in 1962 James Bond did. Power steering is only a part of the answer as to why old car scenes were so migraine-inducing. Firstly, the steadicam didn't come along until the mid-seventies, making a steady shot in 1962 rather difficult.  

Adding to this mess even further was a technique called the rear projection effect. Put simply, the rear projection effect is a technique where the subject is placed in front of a large screen while the background is cast from a projector behind the screen. The image being cast is known as the 'plate'. 

Since the foreground and background were not filmed together, this accounts for the out of sync bumps and motions that never seem to line up. It also explains why the subject and background in old shots often have a difference in lighting. 

Eventually technology got it better (as it tends to do) and front projection was figured out, making these cast images become a lot sharper (fun fact: front projection was actually a technique fully developed in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) and by the time blue-screen effects came around, the rear projection effect was pretty much thrown aside forever. 

The next time I watch a movie that used rear projection for its car sequences, I'll try not to be so hoity toity about the lame special effects. But I live in the twenty-first century and am used to Michael Bay films, so can you really blame me?