THE SPECIAL EFFECTS OF THE SUPERBOY TV SERIES
Superboy was painted green by video-compositing whenever he was infected with Kryptonite.
Article by Rennie Cowan
'Superboy' was shot on a fairly small budget, much smaller than it's later adversary 'Lois and Clark', but often looked high-profile, if not, lavish. Top industry names always appeared in the credits, like Jackie Cooper (who directed several of the 1st season episodes; watch "Kryptonite Kills"). The Superboy production team consisted of several other veterans from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies like the Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. And the Line Producer Bob Simmonds (who served as production executive on Superman I, II, and III). And third, the FX pro Bob Harmon who "flew" Superman in the movies (did all the wire work), and repeated that task on the 'Superboy' TV series.
To give a good example of "lavish sets" just watch the third season episode "Carnival". That set was built entirely inside a Universal sound stage and made to look like it was night-time. Gerard Christopher stated to me that it was made to look like it was night and when he first walked inside for the first time to see the Carnival set he was blown away and said to himself, "Wow, this is amazing." The episode "Carnival" also contains one of the best flying shots of the series, where Gerard is on wires and flying past all the carnival tents. It was truly a spectaclar flying shot to be remembered.
The 'Superboy' writing team consisted of top DC comic book writers like Cary Bates, the Executive Story Consultant on the series, and Andrew Helfer. The FX crews did a multitude of creative flying effects during it's four year run, not to mention some impressive animation (all done on video; via, video-compositing), make-up/prosthetics by Rob Burman, and wardrobe and set design. Shooting started on the series on August 15th to meet the October 4 week series premiere in 1988. A season of episodes usually took six months to shoot. Bob Harmon's flying team did incorporate slightly different techniques for the flying and animation (the effects didn't have to be as elaborate as a feature film projected on a 70-foot screen, but thanks to video-paint-box-technology, the methods were easier, faster, and cheaper), so the effects were distinctly tailored to the size of a TV screen.
The fact that all this was being done on television didn't hinder the show at all--it was clear by the 3rd and 4th seasons that the 'Superboy' team was doing television better than anybody. If Alexander and Ilya Salkind were going out of their way to make audiences forget the painful memories of their 'Superman III' and 'Supergirl' (not to mention the non-Salkind-produced 'Superman IV: The Quest For Peace') then watching 'Superboy' sure did make up for it! The great thing about the Superboy show is there was always an ample amount of kryptonite on the set. According to Barry Meyers who played Bizarro, the pieces of kryptonite on the show was merely cheap plastic bits that were painted, and the lens on the camera is what gave it its' funky glow. Gerard Christopher kept a funny set piece and placed it in his garage at home; it was a sign that read: "Beware of Kryptonite".
There was no guarantee 'Superboy' would make it beyond the original 13 episodes ordered for the 1st season. The budgets were held down for the first half of season 1 and this is why the FX work really couldn't be exploited like they had been during the following seasons. This is very apparent as those first episodes appear to have a 'real world' documentary feel to them rather than an adaptation of a comic-book character. High-end video cameras were often used for some of the first location shooting. Those first episodes were rough around the edges, but they were natural and captured the tone of the first year of college exactly. Thde later seasons with Gerard Christopher were indeed shot on 35mm film. Gerard stated to me personally that everything he did on Superboy was shot on 35mm. He said, "I know what they shot on. I was in front of the camera everyday."
Mirroring the unfortunate circumstance with the Superman IV extra footage of Bizarro 1 and Christopher Reeve, Viacom/Paramount has destroyed all the original Superboy 35mm prints. Yes, they burned them. What survives are Ilya Salkind's three-quater inch copies of the series, and Gerard Christopher's VHS master tapes which are all being archived to DVD. Gerard Christopher is uncertain whether or not his seasons/episodes are actually sitting in Warner's vault at this present day. He stated to me, "I'm not even sure if there are copies in a vault!" Nevertheless, Warner Brothers certainly has season one archived in their vault. But as far as the later seasons are concerned, because of copyright issues (and the price) Ilya Salkind is the only one who has the best copies. And until a deal is struck between Salkind, Viacom and WB, an Official DVD release will be on the wayside for fans.
Going back to season one: instead of focusing on Superboy and his extraordinary powers, the Producers decided to lean on simple stories that would develop the three central characters of season one...Clark, T.J. White (Perry White's son), and Lana Lang. In the episode "The Foreign Exchange Student" (one of the original 13 episodes), we learn of T.J. White's first love, Natasha, who is from Russia. A simple story, not necessarily intriguing, but nevertheless it developed the T.J. White character into a likeable counterpart for young Clark kent. We really got the feeling of close friendship between these three, even more so than in season two (in which T.J White had left to work for his father's paper, and Andy McCallister became Clark's new roomate). That natural feel was something that got lost as the series became more professional and established.
By mid-season 1, Superboy was starting to gain good ratings and one can really notice this budget change in the FX, and the apparently more complex scenes that make use of multiple-camera set-ups, as the money started to roll in. But at this point, it wasn't a hit show. And being in number 28 of syndication didn't mean the show would last. Gerard Christopher stated that when he got hired Ilya asked him to go into his office and he told him, "The jobs of 120 people depend entirely on you. So consider yourself pressured." Gerard's performance did beef up the ratings on the show. In fact, Gerard worked more hours than Stacy Haiduk because he was playing two different characters. He would work double time, then in order to keep his physicque in shape, he'd work out at the gym at 11:00 PM at night.
For season one, production was primarily centered at the brand new Disney-MGM Studios facility at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. All the interiors were shot at soundstages there. Disney World amusement areas and other surrounding properties were used for the exteriors (with other locations, when needed, to take place around the Orlando area). Seasons 2, 3 and 4 were shot at Universal Studios, Florida. Superboy was the first TV series as well as the first non-Disney project of any kind to be filmed at Disney-MGM. You have to hand it to the Producers on this one, they really made use of all the MGM locations. But wasn't until Ilya moved the production to Universal Studios that the show unleashed itself. We often saw adventures taking place in the big city, Capital City, which was a metropolitian location (basically, the 'Superboy' TV show's version of Metropolis). But if you go only 10 miles from the Capital City location, just outside of the studio lot and facilities, we can see the location for the corn fields of Smallville!
Both the Disney-MGM and he Universal Lot provided many different looks to choose from--the big city look, the small-town look (for the town of Smallville), University of Central Florida (Clark's college, Shuster University), the beaches in Orlando, and bogs and swamps (for some of the more mysterious episodes, like "The Lair"). These locations were basically the "world" of the show, and often times we'd see the same alleys, buildings and landscapes appear in subsequent episodes, but dressed (disguised) differently to pose as an alternate location. For example, the alley where Superboy dropped into in "Roads Not Taken" was the same alley seen in "The Sons of Icarus". This was hardly noticable, however, because each episode was only a half-hour long. And the action would usually engage a viewer from any deep or dire inspection.
The flying shots for 'Superboy' were one of the most accomplished aspects of the production. The flying was generally done a couple of ways. Like in the Chris Reeve pictures, the Superboy actor was suspended by a large crane with small wires that he would wear on a harness. A crane would pull or move the actor to give the illusion of flight. A man above them could control the movement (right or left) by the use of a steering wheel. A wire-shot could also be performed in front of a blue screen and matte that has a background of cars or buildings. The second season episode "Brimstone" is a good example of early blue screen/matte work on the series; we see Stacy riding on the bike of a motorcycle with Philip Michael Thomas. The gracefullness of flying had a lot to do with the actor. Gerard Christopher was in great shape (physically), so he had the ability to keep his back, arms and legs straight and to arc his body in a believable manner in different motions. John Newton was in his best shape towards the end of season one; so sometimes during those first few episode he simply lost balance during landings.
It is hard to notice at times when you would see the bottom of Newton's feet stagger a bit during the landings, but in his favor, he also wanted to use a Tai Chi techniques unlike any other actor flying the cape; a different approach all-together. They often looked artistic and interesting. Gerard kept it traditional - arms straight forward; everything like Chris Reeve. Gerard, being a tri-athelete in real life, made it look easy, which it certainly was far from. According to the book "Superman vs. Hollywood" by Jake Rossen, Gerard was harassed by one of the wire-guys during the second season. The wire-guy often left him hanging to pay attention to a woman on his lap. Gerard was actually afriad of being injured with that controlling the ropes. The unsafe wire-guy was eventually replaced with someone else more dependable after Gerard made it clear that he simply would not show up unless the wire-guy was replaced.
Generally, the show's dead-lines were tight and screen time was limited because 'Superboy' was a half-hour syndicated show. Seven-and-a-half minutes of commercial time was carved into each segment, so that left us with a 22/23-minute episode to tell a single story and make it believable. Anywhere from 6-10 script pages were shot a day, which would consume anywhere from 4-6 full days of shooting for a single episode. Yet 'Superboy' did have the benefit of the easier to use, faster technology (very basic video/computer software) for all the animation, which was responsible for the wire-removal on all the flying shots. In this regard, many brave and sometimes very dangerous flying shots could be attempted. In the episode "Metallo" we see an outstanding shot where Gerard Christopher is being lowered into a stadium with nothing underneath him but hard floor.
Gerard Christopher is suspended at least 20 feet above the ground for this "wire-shot" in progress. A blue-screen was often used in conjunction with wires which were never to be seen on Superboy.
Comparing this method to the earlier Christopher Reeve films where Bob Harmon and his team had to be very inventive about hiding wires, and doing time-consuming and complicated optical/composite shots, you will rarely see wires in Superboy. In fact, there were no wires to be seen in Superboy at all. Once wire-removal had been completed on video, via simple computer/video software, the flying shots were put back onto film without the worry of matching the color and tone of the live action footage. For this reason, the wire-removal in Superboy was in fact cleaner than the Reeve Superman films. For the Reeve films, many wire shots had to rely on time consuming, frame by frame delicate wire paint-outs that an animator would hand-paint directly onto the celluloid. For 'Superboy', this long and involved frame by frame technique wasn't necessary.
All wire removal was spotless in 'Superboy' compared to the Reeve pictures, because of the high resolution compositing that video offers. So, in that regard, did Bob Harmon's flying team make audiences believe a boy could fly? Believing is an understatment! In fact, the flying shots were the best part of the show. Because wire-removal was cheaper and faster, the flying in 'Superboy' often pushed the envelope. One of longest flying shots in Superman History is said to be in the 'Superboy' episode "The Bride of Bizarro, Part II". In this particular episode, we see Superboy fly through Lex Luthor's lair (which was a very wide warehouse) for a rather lengthy amount of time (roughly ten seconds). The second longest flying shot is most likely seen in the episode "Carnival".
One of the best flying shots of the 'Superboy' series. Superboy takes a narrow flight 20-30 feet upward inbetween a winding flight of stairs. This flying shot appeared in the episode "Rebirth" Part I.
Other magnificent flying shots are seen in the episodes "Carnival" and "Werewolf". In "Carnival", Superboy is suspended about 10 feet above the ground, smoothly and gracefully gliding past several carnival-atmosphere-settings. In "Werewolf", we see Superboy glide down through a stretched and narrow hallway of an office building. In the episode "Young Dracula" Gerard Christopher is seen gliding extremely low through a very long hallway. That shot was actually not done on wires (and it looked great!). During the 3rd and 4th seasons, the flying shots became pretty daring, probably because night-time shooting had become predominate and more creative use of wires could be done. And since the wires were hardly (to never) noticeable, why not use them to the hilt? Season 3 also made use of more green screen techniques for the flying shots; and because the flying was at night, the rotoscoping on the bluescreen work looked much cleaner and realistic than if it was at day time.
John Haymes Newton flying shot with no wires to be seen.
Removing the wires by video-compositing was faster and cheaper to do, yet, why not save more time and money? It is interesting to reflect on 'Lois and Clark', a show that premiered a year after the legal debacle and lack of DC approvals on scripts for 'Superboy' by Warner Brothers (read the article about the lien here: The Death of Superboy ) and had the bigger budget, yet incorporated "cape-out", an inferior effect that opted not to show Superman flying, only flapping his cape in front of the camera! 'Superboy' aired several years earlier, yet all Bob Harmon's flying team did was very simple and cheap video-compositing on very basic video/computer software. By the 3rd and 4th seasons, the flying shots were looking very cool; enough for critics to say it rivaled the flying shots seen in the earlier Christopher Reeve 'Superman' pictures.
The Kryptonite Kid throws a wave of kryptonite-force on Superboy's body.
The process and effect of Gerard Christopher turning green when exposed to green kryptonite was not in use until the second season, when the episode "Bizarro, the thing of steel" premiered. At last, for the first time a live-action Superman character on television, or film turned green from kryptonite exposure! This was how it should have been done in the Christopher Reeve movies, actually. It's a part of the comic book lore. In the comics, Superman turns green when exposed to green K. It was only in the Superboy cartoon (which precursed the Superboy TV series) that Superboy did indeed turn green for the first time on TV. It may surprise some why Richard Donner did not use the green-effect in his Superman film. By the time Luthor was ready to dump Supes into the pool, his skin should have been a pale green tone. Perhaps it may have been too time consuming to be done on film (and expensive).
The frames of Gerard Christopher doubling over from exposure to green K were indeed painted, but by video-compositing. The end results were much faster and easier to accomplish, and it was at a higher resolution than could have been done on film at that time (which used the process of optical-compositing). Many a Superman fan for years had dreamed of seeing the Man Of Steel (or Boy, in this case) turn green. It was a more primitive FX than would be done by today's standards, to be sure, but not so primitive by the early 90's standards. However, it appeared that in order to make Superboy look like he was gradually turning green was not so easy. Superboy/Gerard Christopher doesn't gradually turn green (as should be the case with kryptonite exposure). The video-compositing effect meant it was all or nothing. Suddenly his skin is totally green. And then, once the kryptonite was taken away, his skin was instantly back to normal.
As was mentioned earlier, the FX work really couldn't be exploited until after the first season. Superboy was SERIOUSLY under budget and under staff-ed during the first season. As simple as most of the FX was to create back then, it's even simpler and cheaper to not do it at all, which was the case of Superboy's 1st season, and maybe even the reason why they didn't have Superboy turn green during season 1. Because there was no guarantee that 'Superboy' would make it beyond the first 13 episodes ordered (for the 1st season), budgets were held down. Yet the creativity increased and a very animated feel emerged into the second season, which was, I dare say, much like a dead-on interpretation of reading a comic book. The series suddenly felt like it was intuned to the true "spirit of Superman", the clothing of the villians became more out-landish and bright colors filled the sets. Even the make-up and prosthetics being created for the show were sometimes quite amazing. And probably far beyond what one would expect of a syndicted TV series. Bizarro, the imperfect duplicate of Superboy, was made to look very life-like. Even creepy. But what a pleasure it was to see a character straight from the comic books protrayed so vividly.
Bizarro dressed up as Kent-Clark.
If one took away the actors and replaced them with digital characters, the episodes of the second season could have easily been mistaken for a cartoon. We did get a glimpse of these changes during the first season, I have to add. "Alien Solution" and "Revenge of the Alien" felt very much like a second season episode...yet, I argue that something was still missing. Much to the producer's delight, Gerard Christopher was willing to do anything and everything they wanted. Gerard Christopher was enthusiastic, very physically animated and was willing to play Clark nerdy. Some say he went too far on the nerd-act. Unlike Newton who felt that Clark Kent should be vunerable instead of clumsy, he was not as physically fit and sometimes difficult to work with, according to accounts by the Salkinds. So when it was Gerard Christopher's turn to step up to the plate, he decided to play Clark Kent to the extreme. Very nerdy, and very goofy. And sometimes, very funny. Gerard Christopher did all kinds of crazy stunts to make himself look foolish, even jump on top of a slightly moving car while wearing a heavy sweater and heavy shoes in 90 degree Florida heat. He wanted to make an impression. This was his chance to be remembered for being the definitive Superboy (not unlike what Kirk Alyn was to George Reeves; the first but not the last, and not the most remembered).
The innocent feel of Richard Donner's 'Superman: The Movie' was lost well into the second picture. Likewise with the Superboy series. By the 3rd and 4th seasons, the title was changed to 'The Adventures of Superboy' and a dark and mysterious feel emerged called film noir. You'd never guess what a low budget Superboy had to judge from the results. You've got to give the devil his due. The Salkinds did a great job with the series even if they rarely spent time on the actual set. To sum up, the production work on the series was one that intended to capture the lore of the comics, and then some. There was a little bit of Batman in there, and Tales From The Crypt too. Visually, to television standards, it was years ahead of it's time. You have to appreciate how the show progressed over a 4-year period. WB's Smallville series has the luxury of computers with fast processors, and I have yet to see an episode that flows so genuinely in sync with the spirit of Superman.