Creating the Look of Another Dimension in TZ’s “Little Girl Lost”
Anyone who’s read a book or a short story by Richard Matheson can tell you: The man knew how to write.
He didn’t need flashy dialogue or over-the-top descriptions to pull you into another world. A few strokes of his lean prose was all it took. Whether the setting was a dusty saloon in the old West or a far-flung planet in another galaxy, you could easily see it in your mind’s eye.
But when it comes to TV and movies, a writer can’t count on his words alone to transport you. He has to rely on actors, directors, and set designers.
Fortunately, when it came to The Twilight Zone, Matheson was in good hands — “television’s elite”, in Rod Serling’s words. Take Season 3’s “Little Girl Lost”.
In his seminal book on TZ, author Martin Grams Jr. recalls how the show’s art director approached Zone producer Buck Houghton to ask a very good question: How were they supposed to create another dimension?
He showed Houghton another page in the script where it said, “INTERIOR: LIMBO.” He asked, “What’s that supposed to be, Buck?” Houghton’s reply was, “It’s up to you.”
“He broke his neck to make a limbo set,”
recalled Houghton proudly. “That’s challenge and response. That’s what the scripts were full of. From the assistant prop man to the cameraman, they worked their ass off. They wanted to do the scripts justice, and that made a lot of difference in how the episodes looked. The crew was absolutely thrilled to see how the shows were going to come off.”
Needless to say, so was the audience. Even TZ fans who aren’t particularly fond of this episode can’t deny the otherworldly appeal of getting a warped glimpse of what the world beyond our everyday senses might look like.
Today, of course, TV producers could use CGI to create that disorienting extra dimension. In 1961, though, it was old-school practical effects or nothing.
As Houghton indicated, though, the TZ crew was up to the task. “We did a lot of it with putting oil on glass and moving it in front of the camera,” cinematographer George Clemens (who had won an Emmy for his Zone work) says in Marc Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion. “And secondly, where we were unable to achieve all the results we wanted, we put it in the optical printer.” Adds Zicree: “Additionally, Clemens double-exposed reflections from a mirrored ball onto these scenes.”
Who can argue with the results? I’m pretty sure I’d want Mack to help me get back to the “normal” world, too.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!