Friday, November 15, 2013

The Secret of Why Harper Goff Didn't Get an Oscar for 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA

Friday, November 15, 2013 - by Maurice Mitchell 6

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) - Harper Goff on the "wheelhouse" set
Check out 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea concept art by Harper Goff and find out why he never got an Oscar for his incredible work.

Every Friday, I feature artwork from a classic of science fiction cinema. This week's "Flashback Friday" post is on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first science fiction film produced by Walt Disney Productions, and the only science fiction film personally produced by Walt Disney. It won two Academy Awards in 1954 but Harper Goff, who director Richard Fleischer said "designed everything," got nothing.

Oscar snubs are common, but this injustice that is undeniable.

In the latest issue of the Art Director's Guild's bi-monthly magazine Perspectives, production designer Tom Walsh wrote a fascinating article on production designer Harper Goff's Oscar snub for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Ralph Harper Goff was an American professional  production designer, art illustrator, artist, musician, and actor who worked on legendary films like Fantastic Voyage (1966), Willy Wonka& the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Casablanca (1942).

Check out the rest of the images after the jump (click to enlarge).

Harper Goff's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Concept Art
First, here are some concept drawings and paintings from the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) production.
















How Goff Designed for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Goff wrote a memoir about his designs and creative decisions based on the original Jules Vern novels:
I was assigned the task of getting together a 'true-life' adventure film using some exceptional underwater footage shot in a laboratory aquarium, by Dr. McGinnity of Cal-Tech's Marine Biology lab in Carona Del Mar. Walt (Disney) thought inasmuch as "20,000 L.U.T.S." was in public domain we might do worse than use the title for a current True-Life adventure short subject. Walt went to England and I stayed in Burbank and made a story-board of a live action version of the classic using McGinnity's footage as a sort of ballet episode where Nemo shows Aronax the wonders of the deep. Walt liked the story-board well enough to have me give an 'A.R.I.' (Audience Reaction Inquiry) to a group of exhibitors who were in town. They were enthusiastic and the rest is history.

In motion pictures, the text of a classic like this subject is sacrosanct like the Bible! The 'word' of Jules Verne is not to be made light of, so the duty of the production designer like myself is to take the sometimes arbitrary [descriptions] of the Nautilus as recorded by 'J.V.' and "make it work".

a. Jules Verne while foreseeing brilliantly the atomic submarine of today, did not at that time invent the periscope, the torpedo tube, or sonar. He did not prophesy closed circuit television. According to Verne, if Nemo wanted to see what was going on the surface, he simply poked the glass ports of the conning tower out of the depths and took a direct look. He risked his vessel, himself, and his crew by ramming the enemy at frightening speed. If he wanted to study the marvels of life under the surface, he reclined in his [elegant] bay window lounge, and passed the hours studying the marine life outside the amazing pressure proof window of his luxurious salon. These items dictated much of the direction of my production designs.

b. Nemo is quoted by Verne as telling Aronax that "I need no coal for my bunkers. I have instead harnessed the very building blocks of the material universe to heat my boilers and drive this craft". No one can doubt Verne meant Atomic Power.

c. It is not sound economics to study and design obviously unnecessary parts of the Nautilus if it will not appear on screen. The crew's quarters were thus unaccounted for. In Verne's original text Nemo from time to time leaves the chart room and steps directly into other diversified areas of the submarine. Directors do not like to slow down the action and clutter up a dramatic moment by showing actors leave a room, lift a hatch, enter another room.

d. At the time Captain Nemo constructed Nautilus on Mysterious Island, the iron riveted ship was the last word in marine construction. I have always thought rivet patterns were beautiful. I wanted no slick shelled moonship to transport Nemo thru the emerald deep and so fought and somehow got my way. On Mysterious Island Nemo had the white hot heat of a volcano to help him build his dreamship, but I am sure that flat iron plates profusely riveted would have been his way. His stock pile of material was always the countless sunken ships uniquely available to him alone. Even the Greek amphora and the works of art that graced his great salon was salvaged from wrecks.

e. The free diving suits - (self-contained) were developed by myself with the assistance of Fred Zender, and exceptionally able underwater man. The helmets were souped-up Japanese pearl diving helmets. We masked the scuba gear, let water into the helmet, put a breathing tube in our mouth, the clamps on our nose and one night in 1952 Freddie and I walked slowly from the shallow end to the deep end of the Santa Monica pool. Lead around our middle and 16 lbs. shoes...it worked! Many had predicted failure. This formed the basis of the suits that appeared in the film. We spent 9 hrs. a day, 7 days a week for 8 weeks at Lyford Key in the Bahamas, underwater! Never lost a man, Fred was in charge of safety.

f. 20,000 Leagues was the second cinemascope picture to go into production. Fox had the world rights to the anamorphic lenses developed by a French inventor named Chr├ętien. This lens "squeezes" the horizontal dimensions of a scene into half the normal area on a cinema frame. If projected thru an anamorphic projection lens it "unsqueezes" this image and the resulting image is widescreen. Fox had only one lens to lease and this meant that Disney could not shoot miniature set ups while the main action sequences were before the cameras. I hit upon the idea of having the prop miniature shop build a "squeezed" Nautilus miniature. The model was built half as wide and half as long, but just as high. Even the rivets were "squeezed". This one miniature was shot with a normal lens. If care was taken to insure the Nautilus remained on an even keel, the resulting footage was more than adequate. When "unsqueezed" by anamorphic projection, the image of the Nautilus was stretched to normal proportions. Of course the bubbles looked strange, but no one seemed to mind. The success of this experiment made it possible for the special effects department to make its necessary footage of many of the underwater miniatures simultaneously with principal photography of the actors.

g. My idea has always been that the shark and the alligator were the most terrifying monsters living in the water. I there for combined the scary eyes of the alligator that can watch you even when it is nearly submerged....with the dangerous pointed nose and menacing dorsal fin - its sleek streamlining and its distinctive tail. The disgusting rough skin of the alligator is well simulated by the rivets. As Verne insists that the Nautilus drove its way clean threw it's victim, I designed a protective sawtooth spline that started forward at the bulb of the ram and slid around all outjutting structures of the hull. These included the conning tower, the diving planes, and the great helical propeller at the stern.

Why Goff never got an Oscar for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
So, why didn't Goff get included in the Oscar nomination instead of his assistant? It's commonly believed the Academy of Motion Pictures had a Art Director's Union byline that forbade a nomination for an Academy Award to anyone without a union card. This meant that Goff's assistant John Meehan, who was a member of the unioin, received the award instead of Goff. This, it turns out, is patently false.

The Perspectives (2013) article says,
"The Academy rules at that time clearly stated that neither a film and or its makers needed to be members of any union in order to qualify for award nomination or recognition. Then, as now, the Academy did not adjudicate nominees’ qualifications, deferring to the production’s producers or to the Academy’s various Branch Executive Committees. In the case of the Art Directors Branch, its Executive Committee at that time deferred to the SMPAD for the review of qualifications for all the potential Art Direction nominees. The SMPAD was the same group, of course, that had previously denied the studio’s request for a dual credit for Mr. Goff and Mr. Meehan."

The 28th Academy Awards rules from 1955, under "Art Direction Awards - Rule Eight," simply state:
5. All Art Directors and Set Decorators in the industry shall be eligible to participate in the submission of entries (Paragraph 1). Only Art Director and Set Decorator members of the Art Directors Branch shall be eligible to participate in the Preliminary voting (Paragraph 2) . All members of the Art Directors Branch shall be eligible to participate in the Nominations voting (Paragraphs 3 and 4).

6. In order that the list of Art Directors and Set Decorators shall be complete, a list shall be obtained from the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors, the Allied Property Craftsmen, each studio, and any other available source, and shall be checked and approved by the Art Directors Branch Executive Committee. This Committee shall be charged with the responsibility of the preparation of a full and complete list of Art Directors and Set Decorators.

There's no mention of a union card.

So, why didn't he get nominated? Perspectives magazine article says,
"On the face of it the answer seems simple enough, but the greater truth is now lost to time; those who lived these events are no longer with us. The fact is that the Walt Disney Studio did not include Harper Goff’s name on its formal Academy entry paperwork, so only Mr. Meehan and Mr. Kuri [were] placed into nomination. The other fact is that prior to its Academy submission, the Walt Disney Company had formally requested the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors (SMPAD), which was the precursor to the ADG, to give its permission to include Harper Goff in a dual Art Director credit along with John Meehan. This formal request was denied by the Society, ensuring that Harper Goff would not share in either the award or any formal Academy recognition should the work win, as it eventually did.

"As a postscript to this story, it was reported in a 2004 Variety article that the Academy had eventually (and quietly) sent an unmarked, blank Oscar statuette to Mr. Goff as a well-intended gesture to partially correct for what it considered a significant oversight. This sounds honorable, however when asked, they responded that they have no record that any such exchange or gift ever occurred. The Academy is well noted for its tight management and oversight of the coveted statuettes, so the mystery continues. The real truth is that Oscars tarnish with age, but Harper Goff’s work has not. Despite the Academy’s oversight, a supremely talented and gentle giant of an artist/designer has left us with a visual legacy of rich imagery, admired by all. The patina on his Nautilus only appears more inspired with age and time."

Harper Goff died of undisclosed causes on March 3, 1993 at the age 81. Goff will be posthumously inducted into the Art Directors Guild (ADG) Hall of Fame - along with Robert Clatworthy and J. Michael Riva - at the 18th Annual Excellence in Production Design Awards on February 8th, 2014.

See more of Harper Goff's work on the film at www.vulcaniasubmarine.com

I'd highly recommend reading the latest free issue of Perspectives magazine. I'll have a review next week.

Click on the links if you want to see more of Harper Goff's work and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on my blog.

Images from Perspectives magazine (2013) and vulcaniasubmarine.com

What do you think of the concept art? If you've seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea what did you think?

Official 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Synopsis
Climb aboard the Nautilus ... and into a strange undersea world of spellbinding adventure! Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre star as shipwrecked survivors taken captive by the mysterious Captain Nemo, brilliantly portrayed by James Mason. Wavering between genius and madness, Nemo has launched a deadly crusade across the seven seas. But can the captive crew expose his evil plan before he destroys the world? Disney's brilliant Academy Award(R)-winning (1955, Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects) adaptation of Jules Verne's gripping tale makes 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA a truly mesmerizing masterpiece!
Directed by Charles A. Nichols, Richard Fleischer
Cinematography by Franz Planer
Starring James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Ellenshaw, Elmo Williams, Vincent Di Fate
Release Date: November 22, 1954
Copyright 1954 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Maurice Mitchell
Lover of science fiction and art.

6 comments:

  1. Thats interesting, I never knew of the snub. He sounded like a genius of his time. I have fond memories of the movie and the book my dad had made me watch and read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I appreciated this movie more when I got older (as opposed to when I saw it as a kid). I often wonder how certain movies get awards and others do not. They don't let us real people vote on these things, do they?



    Have a great weekend!

    ReplyDelete
  3. When I was a kid it was just a cool octopus, but now I see what an amazing film it is Karen.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Crazy enough, Four of these paintings were sold on ebay around 12 or so years ago. I know because I bid on them but unfortunately I didn't have the guts to go any higher. (starving artist at the time.... ) All four combined went for around 1500 if I remember correctly......

    ReplyDelete
  5. Harper Goff designed and built a mechanical suit for the tentacled alien for The Thing from another world. Have you some idea how we could find some drawing or pic of it? Are some archives of his works somewhere?

    ReplyDelete

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