Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN (1978) — the movie that first legitimized the superhero genre for mainstream audiences and foreshadowed the contemporary age of the comic book blockbuster — took its subject seriously and made audiences believe that a man could fly – no small leap, given the effects of the period. It was a cinematic flight of fancy in an era before digital effects, when practical innovation and filmmaking workarounds were required to produce the Man of Steel’s “movie magic.”
There was one scene that, even today, stands out to the director as a particularly notable production challenge: Superman’s quick change to Clark Kent (both Christopher Reeve) after dropping Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) off on her balcony after their “first date.”
During an exclusive talk with AFI Premiere Circle members last month, Donner revealed that he achieved the very seamless transition by filming a projection of Reeve and then including the actor himself in the same scene – to create one impressive, uninterrupted shot. Watch the clip and then read the director’s play-by-play below.
No computers in those days, none. Ninety percent of the things were impossible to do, so you made compromises. I wanted to do something in SUPERMAN that was a cinematic feat. I asked myself, “How am I going to get Christopher Reeve to be Superman, fly away, and 19 seconds later come in the door in a totally different wardrobe, totally different makeup everything and have the audience go, ‘Oh wow, it’s Superman!’”
I wanted to find something in the film that we could do where people will look and say “How did they do that?” Now, with computers, anything you say you wanna do, you can do. It just takes money.
We built the set of Margot’s apartment, with the balcony where he flies in with her and flies out, very early on. We ran the whole scene. Then, we separated the balcony from her apartment and did a shot of Christopher flying in with Margot and dropping her off and she walks off camera. So we have that piece of film and we stay on that piece of film and Christopher flies away in the film.
So we put the front projection machine on tracking wheels. But then we took that piece of film of Christopher flying in with Margot and Christopher flying away. We put the front projection machine up on the balcony in its entirety.
We did their love scene where they come in and Margot slightly exits. She’s in the foreground, but in the background it’s really not the balcony, it’s a screen! And on that screen, we are projecting what we had shot four months earlier.
And then when Christopher leaves, we have to break the camera away from this ton unit, which was projected on a piece of glass. It’s a mirror but instead of the reflection part of the mirror being in the back, it’s in the front.
In any event, we’re re-photographing Margot in the foreground. and Christopher flying off. We’re re-photographing him in film flying away.
Then we move with Margot and go through a little bush an enter her apartment. We go to the door and, of course, Christopher’s there.