The story of "The Time Machine" exists in four distinct worlds. Wells clarifies, "The first world is New York at the turn of the 20th century. We then move to what for us is the near future, 2030 and 2037. Finally we arrive in the distant future where we find the idyllic world of the Eloi juxtaposed with the dark world of the Morlocks, which is a sort of Dante's inferno. Each world has its own visual style."
The film opens in New York City in 1899, which was another variation on the original story, which began in London. "New York at the turn of the last century was an extraordinary place," Wells explains. "It was expanding at an exponential rate, and was a cultural melting pot, as well as a hotbed of scientific development. It was a quite suitable place to set the story."
Rather than use a soundstage, the filmmakers opted to film these scenes on location in upstate New York, which retains the old world charm of the then-burgeoning city of New York. Production designer Oliver Scholl and his team completed the look with elements of the period, while the costume department was able to obtain a large portion of the day's fashions from vintage wardrobe houses in Los Angeles and England. The region provided its own wintry blast of cold air by hitting the production company with two separate blizzards. "We were there in the dead of winter, up to our knees in snow," Wells remembers. "We were freezing cold, but it was well worth it because it gave us a reality you can't fake on a soundstage. You'll see it in the actors' breath, which is no visual effect."
It was during the location shoot that the filmmakers added one of their favorite homages to the George Pal film. It came in the person of Alan Young, who played Philby in that earlier film, and who appears in a cameo as a flower seller in 2002's "The Time Machine." Another kind of synchronicity occurred when the wardrobe person handed Young the wing collar for his costume. Inside in faded ink was written "Alan Young"-incredibly, it was the very same collar he had worn in the 1960 film.
The exterior of Alexander's home was filmed in Albany, while his laboratory and greenhouse were created on a soundstage at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. "A great deal of love and attention went into Alexander's laboratory set because it is the physical embodiment of our main character. It is a way of telling the audience a great deal about him without saying a word," Wells states.
Set decorator Victor Zolfo took particular pleasure in obtaining or creating antiquated items that reflected the time, the place and the character Zolfo says is "more than a renaissance man. He is interested in just about everything that was breaking news at the time, from evolution to physical sciences to astronomy to electricity, and all those pursuits had to come together in that one space."
The myriad equations on the wall-to-wall chalkboards were configured by a mathematician to ensure accuracy. Among the most difficult items to obtain was the wide variety of vintage clocks and watches needed to illustrate Alexander's obsession with time. The production ended up with about 100 in every shape and size, including one that was featured prominently in 1960's "The Time Machine." Again, though unplanned, it was a happy accident that became another of the filmmakers' little tributes.
Simon Wells and Oliver Scholl could let their imaginations run wild in the design of the Eloi and Morlock habitats. "My background in animation was extremely useful in the conceptual process of imagining a world that simply doesn't exist. I'm used to starting with a blank sheet of paper and creating a whole world from scratch," Wells says.
"I come from illustration and he comes from animation, so we spent hours together, literally throwing drawings back and forth," Scholl offers. "To have a director who understands designs and loves to play with them is a gift from my point of view."
Despite the collaborative process, ideas for the Eloi's world were not jelling until DreamWorks principal Steven Spielberg made a suggestion. Scholl recalls, "Steven mentioned it would be interesting if the homes of the Eloi were about going towards the sky, towards the light, towards freedom, in contrast to the Morlocks who exist in darkness."
Wells adds, "Steven threw out the notion that the Eloi should try to get as far away from the ground as they can and that they enclose themselves in a kind of cage at night to be safe. Oliver did a tremendous job of bringing those ideas together. He went away and overnight came up with a design of swallow's nests perched on the cliffs-things of the air rather than of the earth."
High above a riverbed, the Eloi village was built entirely on the sheer side of a cliff with interconnecting bridges and walkways. The village was primarily erected on the massive Stage 16 at Warner Bros. Studios, which is 98 feet high from floor to dome. The cliff face superstructure, complete with a working waterfall, stood 65 feet tall, and was constructed of steel beams with a foam exterior and tubular steel "huts" and walkways made to look like bamboo. The waterfall was achieved using a 650,000-gallon water tank with an eight-inch irrigation pump that drew the water up to another 350-gallon tank at the top. A spillway was then created to send the water cascading down to the "river" at the base of the set.
For the cast and crew, the height of the cliff dwellings was no illusion. Walter Parkes laughs, "If you look at some of the early outtakes, you can see the actors kind of glancing down as they do their lines. It was disconcerting for them at first."
"It was a tricky set to work on," admits Guy Pearce, who spent the better part of a week 50 to 60 feet in the air. "You're walking along two-foot wide platforms with a somewhat perilous drop on either side. Paying attention to your footing obviously seemed rather important."
While it might not be unexpected for Alexander to seem unsteady negotiating the elevated walkways, the actors playing the Eloi did not have that luxury. Stunt coordinator Jeff Imada remarks, "The Eloi should appear to be totally familiar with living up high, and be able to move, climb and swing on the cliff walls without a thought. It took a little tweaking with extra safety bars and putting actors on cables to make everybody feel comfortable."
For director of photography Donald McAlpine, the lighting on the cliff set ranged from bright sunlight to flickering firelights. The former was accomplished with massive crown lights rigged on either end of the stage. A 60-foot by 40-foot "cloud" suspended on a massive industrial crane allowed the cinematographer to simulate dusk, and more subtle lighting gave the effect of glowing firelights to ward away any demons in the dark.
To the Eloi, those demons take the shape of the dreaded Morlocks, who live beneath the earth in a chaotic maze of tunnels and caverns. Oliver Scholl says, "If the Eloi are about building very organized structures out of natural materials, the Morlocks are about building very chaotic structures out of artificial materials. They're trying to dominate nature and suppress it."
The Uber-Morlock's chamber had pools of water that sent patterns of light on the eight-foot high ceiling. McAlpine notes, "We shot with the camera down moderately low, and used the pools of water to cast a reflected light from these water sources oscillating on the actor's faces. The effect was very successful."
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