Multiple Academy Award winning sound designer/editor Ben Burtt and Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron gave the full house at the Egyptian Theatre an insider’s view of the technical artistry that went into making THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOOD (1938), which screened to regular outbursts of thunderous applause.
Their presentation included a cornucopia of rarely-seen production stills, production art, personal photographs of cast and crew, short sound recordings from the studio archives and even home movies taken on set by Basil Rathbone. They began by donning leather Robin Hood caps and rolling a short piece of Technicolor footage of the Warner Bros. lot, with portions of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD set visible in the background. Thus, they cleverly invited the audience into the time and place of the film’s making, then systematically explored how the greatest action adventure of all time was crafted.
They discussed the logistical challenges posed by a film with such a sizeable cast, who not only had to be trained in sword fighting, archery and battling with quarterstaffs, but also had to be housed in a vast tent city for extensive location shooting in Bidwell Park near Chico, California. This location shooting likewise presented many technical challenges. For one, certain man-made features had to be added to the forest to achieve the right look for “Sherwood,” and to ensure all of the necessary stunts could be performed. (They shared photographs of a large oak tree being built from the ground up, to ensure Errol Flynn could swing from vines on its boughs without risk). Also, a special sound truck had to be on site to capture all dialogue properly, given the ambient noise, and boom mics had to be placed creatively (sometimes extended from a boat in the middle of the creek). Also, massive lights had to be placed around each shot to eliminate shadows from overhanging branches and ensure enough light for the early three-strip Technicolor stock (which had to be shot at an ASA of 5).
Burtt and Barron also shared many landscape matte paintings, with sections blocked out in black where the action would later take place. This controlled double exposure process—of shooting the matte painting, then shooting the action with a mask over the lens that blocked out all portions of the frame except those that were black in the matte painting—allowed the action to blend seamlessly into the landscape, thereby transforming Northern California into a medieval English countryside replete with castles. By first showing stills of the matte paintings, then rolling the action in the film and superimposing this over the matte, Burtt and Barron gave a simple and elegant demonstration of how movie magic is created.
And they didn’t stop there, turning next to the sound effects of the film. After noting that the screenplay contained numerous mentions of the terrifying sounds the arrow shots should make, Burtt became fascinated with how the sounds were created. He first added wires and other objects to arrow shafts to try and get the sound. When that failed, he and friends made large batches of arrows with different shaft materials, feather configurations and splits for the bowstring, until he finally found the right sound (discovering in the process a real arrow was used for the effect).
But the highlight of their presentation came in a series of short film clips they shared with the audience. These included numerous takes of the battle sequences (which editor Ralph Dawson would view daily, selecting the best and cutting them into seamless action), as well as home movies shot on set by Basil Rathbone. These remarkable movies featured such surprises as Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) snuggling up to the dastardly Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), and Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) pretending to be titillated by his sidekick Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles)—a clip that brought the house down.
The presentation was itself a thing of magic—a true mass market education in filmmaking that allowed everyone to see why the film cleaned up in the technical categories of that year’s Academy Awards, winning for Best Art Direction (Carl Jules Weyl), Best Film Editing (Ralph Dawson) and Best Music (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), as well as being nominated for Best Picture. The only movie magic Burtt and Barron didn’t bother to explain was nonetheless evident to everyone in attendance today—to wit, the magical performances by an immensely talented cast.
It would be hard to name a film with a more perfect ensemble: Ian Hunter as King Richard the Lion-Heart, Claude Raines as his treacherous brother Prince John, Rathbone as John’s right hand Gisbourne, Flynn as Robin Hood, Knowles as Will Scarlett, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, Alan Hale as Little John, and so on the list goes. Not only is each perfect for his role, but together they capture something that has too often been absent from adaptations of the Robin Hood story, and is practically gone from modern films: merriment. We feel the joy these actors seemed to feel in being together—the camaraderie, the mutual respect. We can’t help but feel caught up in that emotion, which helps to explain what a rousing experience it was to see the film in the packed Egyptian Theatre today, to rounds of applause, outburst of laughter and occasional gasps at the lush Technicolor beauty or the stunts of derring-do.
And when Flynn and de Havilland get together… Well, that is the real, ineffable magic of the movies.