Harold Lloyd — ‘Now or Never’

'Now or Never'

Harold Lloyd’s “Now or Never,” directed by Hal Roach and Fred Newmeyer, includes a memorable sequence in which he appears to be caught on top of a train.

The final impression is stunning and we might pass it off as something done “by crazy movie people in the crazy ‘20s.” But these folks weren’t so crazy at all.  This 2 1/2-minute sequence is a terrific example of editing and camera trickery. The director of photography was Walter Lundin, who did many of Lloyd’s films,  including “Safety Last!” and the editor was T.J. Crizer, who also worked on “Safety Last!”

Let’s take this sequence apart and see how they did it without CGI. Keep asking one simple question: “Where is the camera in this shot?”

The setup: Lloyd’s character is trying to avoid being caught on a train, so he climbs out a window.

'Now or Never'
Lloyd climbs to the roof of the railroad car. Ask yourself: “Where is the camera?” Obviously, this is a set.

"Now or Never"
Back in the railroad car: Drat! Where did he go?

"Now or Never"

Reaction shot from Lloyd: Ha! I fooled them!

"Now or Never"
The porter closes the window.

"Now or Never"
Uh-oh! Trapped.

"Now or Never"

Lloyd on top of the train – which begins moving.

"Now or Never"

Notice these objects on top of the train. These will be important later.

'Now or Never"

"Now or Never"

Meanwhile, oblivious to what is happening on the roof of the railroad car….

'Now or Never"

OK, “where is the camera?” If this were reality, the camera would have to be on an adjacent moving platform.

This is actually a set with a mockup of the railroad car. The rapidly moving background is nothing but a “revolve,” a endless loop of painted scenery to give the impression of motion. To add to the appearance of a moving train, the mockup is being bounced up and down as if it’s in motion. Notice that the vent on the mockup doesn’t match the roof of the actual railroad car.

"Now or Never"

And for an extra dash of realism, let’s add a wind machine or two.

"Now or Never"

Cut away to someone on the roof of a train.

"Now or Never"

Back to the set!

"Now or Never"

A shot from the roof of the train, possibly taken from the top of the locomotive, showing what Lloyd would see.

"Now or Never"

Lloyd gets a cinder in his eye. Notice how tacky the “revolve” looks in screen captures. Obviously, nobody planned on someone dissecting this sequence 92 years later!

"Now or Never"
Back to a medium shot of Lloyd on the mockup of the train car.

"Now or Never"
He almost falls off the train – but it’s just a mockup.

"Now or Never"
Whew! He catches himself and gets the cinder out of his eye.

"Now or Never"
Ah! That’s better…. but wait!

"Now or Never"
Uh-oh! As realistic as this looks, we’re being fooled. We can tell because the vent he’s hanging on to doesn’t look that way on the actual train. If I were going to do this shot using 1920s technology, I would build a second mockup on a flatbed truck and have it drive close to the edge of a canyon. How ever they did it, we are being fooled here.

"Now or Never"
Gag shot. His heart is thumping in his chest.

"Now or Never"

Reaction shot on the mockup of the railroad car.

"Now or Never"
Looking down.

"Now or Never"
A long reaction shot.

"Now or Never"

A continuation of the shot from the top of the second mockup.

"Now or Never"
Lloyd climbs back up to the roof of the first mockup car.

image
Back to the set and the first mockup.

"Now or Never"
Lloyd almost falls off the car – but it’s only a fake.

"Now or Never"
Hanging off the second mockup car – another angle.

"Now or Never"

Back to the first mockup.

"Now or Never"
Lloyd as seen from the front of the train. Notice we suddenly have mountains! This is the only sequence when we can be certain he was photographed on a train. (Correction: It’s the second time we can be certain he was on a train. There’s a quick shot of him on the roof earlier in the sequence).

"Now or Never"

Reaction shot because he sees….

"Now or Never"

Uh-oh!! The camera is on the roof of the train.

"Now or Never"
Reaction shot … continued. Lloyd turns and starts to run for the back of the train.

"Now or Never"
New angle. The camera is at the side of the tunnel.
"Now or Never"
Someone is on the roof of the train. Notice that the real car doesn’t match the vent and valves that were on the roof of what was clearly a mockup.

"Now or Never"
A great stunt. But there’s no way to tell whether this is Lloyd or a double.

"Now or Never"
Another view from the roof of the train.

"Now or Never"

A closer angle. The film is speeded up at this point, but I’m not enough of an expert to know if the camera operator “under-cranked” or it was manipulated in some other way. Because of the distance and the speeded up film, it’s impossible to tell whether this is Lloyd or a double.

"Now or Never"

Back to the previous angle, still running.

"Now or Never"

Until he gets to the back of the train and dives for the roof.

"Now or Never"

The train comes out the other side of the tunnel…

"Now or Never"
… and Lloyd, covered with soot, is clinging to the back of the train mockup.

"Now or Never"

And he drops down to the back of the train.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1921, Film, Hollywood, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Harold Lloyd — ‘Now or Never’

  1. aryedirect says:

    Excellent disection. Movies require a great deal of work and planning to give us the illusion of reality. That is the true magic of film.

  2. Lee Rivas says:

    The magic of movies. To me CGI movies of today have lost that realism factor and are too hokey for me. Great job.

    • aryedirect says:

      Amen. Lloyd’s work and others mastered plausible reality in a way few CGI technicians can or do. People will marvel at Keaton and Lloyds topsy-turvy world long after today’s best CGI will looked dated and tacky.

  3. CatM says:

    That breakdown was so thrilling I just had to go back and find the clip on youtube. It took a minute but I found it. http://youtu.be/Ne9HjgYLG9c?t=7m38s If the link is sulky, the sequence starts at 7:38.

  4. Charles Seims says:

    Although the road name is painted over on the coaches, you can see enough of the lettering to identify it as the Southern Pacific. Wasn’t this shot at one of the tunnels on the Coast Route through Chatsworth? That was a very common location for railroad action scenes.

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