Early in an actor's career, he or she may make brief appearances in films as part of building a reputation within the industry. After they are already established they may make brief appearances for the enjoyment of working with old friends or to fill their schedules during hiatuses between television shooting seasons. Robert Picardo has a long list of such credits, playing a wide assortment of smaller film and television roles. In this column we explore these roles allowing you, our readers, an opportunity to enjoy the Brief Appearances that he has made.
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In a previous column I described Innerspace, one of several Steven Spielberg comedy/special effects films, which has a somewhat convoluted plot of high-tech corporate espionage and theft. The movie stars Dennis Quaid as a daring but irresponsible test pilot, named Tuck Pendleton; Martin Short as Jack Putter, a Sad Sack grocery clerk; Meg Ryan as Tuck's estranged girlfriend, Lydia Maxwell; and Robert Picardo who plays The Cowboy, an Arab who fences stolen technology. In Part 1, I described the role of the Cowboy and how Robert's performance created the character. In Part 2, I'm going to describe technical aspects of the film that made elements of the performance work better - how the film used special effects to fool the viewer.
There is one technical aspect of film production that Robert enjoys participating in himself, because it gives him additional elements to work with when acting a scene. He is especially free to do this when working with his friend, Innerspace director Joe Dante. He says, "I like whenever possible to use props in a unique way. Sometimes that can involve the manufacture of props. I can give Joe an idea up front and if he likes it then he has me meet with the prop man." The prop Robert devised for Innerspace is used in his scene in his hotel room where he is grooming himself for the evening and singing "I'm an old Cowhand." In the scene there is a boom box built into a suitcase that looks like it's covered with a black and white cowhide. Robert explains the genesis of the idea, "I was doing this play [at Berkeley at the time] and I saw this kid on the street who had built his boom box into a suitcase and it was rolling along - and I thought that it was very funny. So I had them build that." Robert specified wheels on the prop version as well and it was used in a scene where he entered the hotel, the most beautiful hotel in San Francisco, pulling a large suitcase that's on rollers with the music built into it. That scene was cut from the final version of the film so that the scene in the room is the only place where the suitcase-boom-box is seen. This prop is just one of many that Robert has devised during his career. He says, "I can be either the prop man's nightmare or dream depending on how they view me. I've gotten thank-you letters from prop men, or else they don't want to work with me again!"
Although the props are where Robert makes his technical contribution, his performance is significantly enhanced by special effects throughout the film. The focus of the special effects wizardry supporting the role is the physical transformations that the character makes. Jake Putter, the character played by Martin Short, under the control of the miniature submarine in his bloodstream, is transformed to look like Robert's character, the Cowboy. But the Putter-as-Cowboy character is played by Robert, not Short. Robert explains, "Rather than try to make Martin Short up to look like me, they decided to have me perform Martin Short inside my face. So they put a Martin Short-style wig on me and we cheated the height difference and I played him playing my character The Cowboy." Cheating the height difference was a combination of the simplest of special effects. First, Robert did their scene together without shoes and Short wore lifts. They also gave Robert a bigger jacket because when they put his jacket on Short it looked huge.
As simple as that portion of the effect was, to make the audience really believe it required much more sophisticated effects. A typical technology to use for this kind of character switching would be "looping." In this case, Short would loop Robert's performance by matching his timing, emphasis and tone as exactly as possible, then the film would be recorded with Short's voice instead of Robert's. However, when Short tried to loop Robert's voice in that scene where the audience first meets the Cowboy with Meg Ryan, it didn't work - they didn't like it. What they ended up doing was using Robert's voice but they pitched it higher and they put in some of the harmonics of Short's voice. If you listen carefully, the first couple of lines are Martin Short - he looped Robert's voice for the first three or four lines. Then it goes into Robert's voice and they continued to blend a couple of Short's looped lines with Robert's. The effect is so good that Robert concludes, "They fool the audience, vocally. You hear his [Short's] voice first and then by the time its mine, you're not aware."
In a single shot following Putter's transformation into the Cowboy, Putter comes out of the bathroom as the Cowboy, Meg Ryan looks at him and backs off from him, and then after a moment she runs around behind him and goes into the bathroom and sees The Cowboy lying in the tub. Robert played both characters in the shot! For that trick shot, Robert had a break-away costume on and while he was explaining, as Putter, what had happened, he paced out of frame for a second and Martin Short paced back in. The camera stayed on Putter's back, so you couldn't tell the actor had changed. Meanwhile, Robert ran behind the camera, tore off the blond wig, tore off the costume, the hairdresser put the new wig on him, he jumped in the bathtub (they had a pull-out wall - a window in the wall) and then they put the panel back in. The shot concluded when Meg Ryan came into the bathroom and found the Cowboy in the tub in his skivvies. Robert indicates that each take was incredibly strenuous, "I was, of course, panting from all of the running but I had to hold my breath. It took something like 24 takes to get it right and I was ready to throw up at the end."
The final bit of special effects for Robert in this film occurs when the Putter as Cowboy character, under threat of torture from the villain, suddenly and violently reverts to his original Putter form. Robert's face looks like it's exploding and his cheeks and lips flap violently. As you watch it you have to wonder what sort of camera magic they used to get the effect. But the effect was much simpler than that. Robert had a pressure hose with 250 pounds of air pressure, like a laser jet of air, that he shot into his parted lips when the camera got close enough so that the hose was below the frame. The air is what makes that incredible effect of his cheeks snapping. Robert reports that it wasn't painful, it just dried out his mouth very much. As long as he got it perfectly into his parted lips and there was no spill over from his parted mouth that would blow his hair, it worked very well. Robert says, "That's one of those $1.98 effects that people can't figure out how you did!"
If you haven't seen it already, you should find an opportunity to see Innerspace. The blending of Robert's performance and simple and sophisticated special effects creates an incredible illusion and a memorable character. Watch for the special effects and envision Robert executing them take after take while simultaneously playing the character and adjusting his performance based on direction from Joe Dante. Then you'll know that the actor's craft is part performance, part mechanics, and part raw athletic determination.
© 1997 by Chris Powell. Reproduced on the Official Robert Picardo Home Page with permission of the author.