Unsung Heroes: Silent Running’s Drones

After the success of Easy Rider in 1972, Universal Studios gave five first time directors a shot to make their first full length feature on $1 million dollars, with complete creative control. Douglas Trumbull, after a fruitful collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, chose to write and direct another science fiction film. Only rather than a grandiose mediation on “life, the universe and everything”, to paraphrase The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Silent Running is a more heartfelt parable on man’s destructive and problematic relationship with the natural resources of Mother Earth. Bruce Dern as space botanist Freeman Lowell, together with his robotic drones, disobeys destruction orders and hides out on the spaceship Valley Forge with the last remaining forest, maintained in a bio-dome.

Trumbull said ” Part of Silent Running is the relationship between Bruce Dern and his drones. It’s not 2001 – machinery isn’t malevolent. They’re simply tools. Look, here you have this guy who’s a murderer (Lowell traps his crewmates in a dome they’ve set to blow and sets them adrift). He’s alone on a vessel that’s as isolated from the rest of the population as possible. he’s beginning to crack, to feel his conscience. So he creates companions by reprogramming the drones.”

Wayne Smith, “special designer” for the film said “Six months went into the research, design and construction of the three drones. We wanted them to be machine-like in appearance, but not formidable; therefore it was important that they be small in stature, less than three feet high.”

When he was in London filming 2001, Trumbull saw the film Freaks, which amongst other “strange” sights, featured amputees. He was struck by “This remarkable, beautiful guy, with this amazing agility, leaping and running on his hands through the room, jumping on chairs, etc. And not once did you feel horrified. You’re amazed and respectful at his adjustment. That impression stayed with me when it came time to cast the drones. I knew what I wanted.”

There was resistance from the studio. “Producers are the most unpleasant groups of humans on the earth. They said we could use midgets or children, but not amputees – we had to fight very hard for that.” Once initial successful tests were carried out to ensure a bilateral amputee could walk on his hands with a prototype suit on, the hunt began for suitable performers. Two Vietnam veterans, Leland McLemore, and George McCart, acted as “drone consultants” in the manufacture and wearing of the suits. The four actors were:

drone #1 Dewey (Grey) : Mark Persons

drone #2 Huey (orange) : Steve Brown and Cheryl Sparks

drone #3 Louie (blue)     : Larry Whisenhunt

Larry Whisenhunt, aka Louie

The actors found the drone suits comfortable but awkward when walking. They were made from ABS plastic, vacuum-formed in pieces and assembled together, weighing 20 lbs, including the manipulator arm, which could be removed when the camera wasn’t rolling. A difficulty for the actors in making themselves heard led to an improvisation in the film. At one point Bruce Dern enters the rec room and the drone facing him taps the other drone facing away on the “shoulder”, then he also turns around.

The performers loved working on the film. At that time amputees weren’t exactly given many opportunities. Cheryl Sparks, however, was already a sports fanatic, proficient in many outdoor pursuits, such as horse riding, swimming, surfing, water skiing – nothing held her back. Mark Persons went on to join the Screen Actors Guild. You can see them during filming in part one of the making of Silent Running here.

The crew were determined to make the drones totally non-anthropormorphic: “No faces, no eyes, nothing that is glaring out.” Their emerging personalities came solely from the performances within. The small four square pink light is possibly a drones “eye” – during the poker scenes with Dern, Huey looks at his hand of cards and the lights blink on and off. Other little indicators are a foot pad absently tapping, or a drone leaning in as Lowell works on Huey, his manipulator arm hopelessly fluttering as Lowell tries to repair the damage he caused when he drove into him.

The manipulator arm was designed by Don Trumbull, the director’s engineer-designer father. It was a small, pnuematically and radio-controlled aluminium device that gave the drones the dexterity to weed, play cards, weld and perform surgery. For the scene where a drone operates on Lowell’s busted leg, a dummy leg was created. Douglas Trumbull operated the armature himself, with a small circular saw that cut away the bloodied material.

Universal later tried unsuccessfully to sue Twentieth Century Fox, claiming R2D2 was an infringement of their design (George Lucas admitted they were an inspiration), but Judge Irving Hill threw the case out before trial, stating “No one has a monopoly on the use of robots in art.” The last poignant image of Silent Running shows Dewey, now sole custodian of the final forest, watering a plant from a dented, flower stencilled watering can, tending the plants until the day short sighted bureaucrats call them back and Mother Earth can nourish her bounty once again.   

silent running dome

Originally posted 2013-02-16 11:40:02. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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