[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. A case can also be made for Yoda. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]
For a pretty long time, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial was the top grossing film ever made, and it’s still one of the most beloved. The title character is a space alien. Who plays him? It’s hard to even begin to answer that question. There were so many people involved, and they all contributed something. But it you rule out the obvious suspects – Spielberg, who directed the movie, and Melissa Mathison, who wrote it – it’s still a pretty long list. And when you actually try to sit down and cite specific people, what you end up with is a case study in why
there should be an Academy Award for outstanding collaborative performance.
The voice of E.T. was provided by Pat Welsh, an old woman who lived in Marin County, California. She was a two pack a day smoker. And when you listen to the dialogue, you can tell.
But 16 other people contributed just to E.T.’s voice. Supposedly one of them was Debra Winger, the star of Midnight Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman. It’s impossible to tell which voice actors did what , because their contributions are filtered through the sound effects wizardry of a legendary sound wizard named Ben Burtt. Burtt worked on a lot of classic science
fiction, fantasy and horror movies, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Wall-E.
Who performed E.T.? And how many were there? It depends on the scene. The physical creation of E.T. was mainly the work of creature designer Carlo Rambaldi. Among other things, he created a lot of audio animatronic versions of the title creature for the 1976 version of King Kong. He also did the aliens for Spielberg’s previous science fiction movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And he did the mechanical head effects for the original Alien.
When you see E.T. acting in closeup, and he’s reacting with great precision to the human actors around him, you’re seeing a very sophisticated, partly mechanical puppet, being manipulated by several people.
When you see E.T. in long shot, it’s a little person wearing a suit.
For some of the close-ups of E.T.’s hands, they went old-school and got a mime named Caprice Roth to wear prosthetic gloves.
I mean, you can’t really can’t argue that E.T. is an underappreciated film. Not only was it a huge hit, it got nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director and original Screenplay. And it won four technical awards, including best visual effects. But it still seems like kind of a shame that E.T. himself could not be recognized as an astonishing, singular creation. The system just isn’t set up for it.
The title character is a really just a collection of inanimate, inorganic things created in a workshop. But the parts are made so lovingly, and lit and shot and voiced with such imagination, that they that sell the illusion that E.T. is Elliott’s best friend, that he’s a creature with a personality and even a moral code. And I think if there had been an outstanding collaborative performance category that year, E.T. would have taken it for sure.
He’s one of the greatest fantasy characters in the history of cinema, and a walking, talking, living, breathing argument for a collaborative performance Oscar.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism.