There’s a certain style to movies from the late Sixties and early Seventies that managed to maintain a PG rating through subtlety. It’s not that you don’t know someone is violently murdered off screen or that the main characters just participated in some illicit act. The story is told in a way that allows your brain to fill in the details. If you don’t know what the details are, your innocence isn’t tainted by the images or the dialogue. One of the more clever cinematic tricks, used primarily in zany comedy from the crew that spawned The Kentucky Fried Movie and British television like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was the use of illusory images in place of onscreen intimacy.
The thing these companies had at their disposal was access to stock footage, either through a licensing budget, or in the case of Monty Python, likely through the BBC archives. If you wanted to do something similar in a short film today, tracking down the clips would take hours of browsing newsreels and paying prohibitive licensing fees. Or would it? It recently occurred to me the Internet Archive; particularly the Prelinger Archives and Universal newsreels are perfect for this sort of thing.
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Yes, there are public domain movies waiting for you to make that memorable movie moment. I’m not sure where the practice officially started (I’d love to hear from some movie historians). It seems like something we might have seen first in cartoons, later having spilled over into television and movies. The thing I find most interesting about the idea of substituting silly visuals in place of gratuitous sex is that most small children watching won’t have any idea what’s going on, adults are in on the joke and you can keep the movie family friendly without offending anyone.
Finding usable footage in the Archive proved to be a bigger task than I initially expected. You can’t just dial up a selection of scenes perfect for building the perfect love scene. First, you need a ballpark idea of the type of footage you want. The standard fare for this sort of sequence involves freight trains, rockets, explosions, collapsing buildings, dams bursting, volcanic eruptions and a host of other symbolic visuals.
I downloaded a ton of archived footage before I found anything usable. Mac users have it easier at the Internet Archive because most of the footage as MPEG-4 video immediately recognized by iMovie. The MPEG-4 files are also considerably smaller, which means less time spent waiting for downloads. You need QuickTime Pro for Windows if you want to do any MPEG-4 editing.
The MPEG-2 stuff is workable on either platform, but you either need a video editor capable of processing MPEG-2 or you need an app to batch convert the files. Windows Movie Maker will not recognize any of the Internet Archive video formats. I used Adobe Premiere Elements, which imports MPEG-2. My backup plan was to convert the files using Digital Media Converter.
Once you’ve found usable clips, you need to build a sequence of clips on your timeline. Because this was merely an exercise to see what was available, I used some clips from a movie in the Prelinger Archives to set the scene in a fairly cheesy manor. There’s plenty of footage I didn’t go through, due to time limitations. For an idea of what you can do with some of the footage in the Internet Archive, take a look at my Sixties Movie Sex Sample.
All these silly sequences have a few things in common, progressing through stages of enlightenment. There’s the setup; the exchange between the actors where it appears they are on the verge of tearing each others clothes off followed by some symbolism of arousal. The next stage is illusion to some kind of body contact with gradually heightened intensity. The final stage of the sequence implies some kind of climactic event, like volcanic eruption, explosions or dams bursting. The closing of the scene switches back to the actual couple either appearing as if nothing happened or in some disheveled state. My example sequence is probably less than perfect because I didn’t have a great setup and there are a few things I’d like to tweak to make scene changes work, but I’m sure viewers get the general idea without anything “dirty” actually taking place.
No digital clips were harmed in the making of this production. The clips were taken from the following selections:
Universal Newsreel: Deny Rocket Lag. Atlas Firing Keynotes U.S. Missile Build-Up, 1959/01/29
Universal Newsreel: Nazi Film Shows V-2 Rocket Test, 1946/05/02
Prelinger Archives: Atom Bomb
Prelinger Archives: Men, Steel and Earthquakes
Prelinger Archives: Safe Roads
Prelinger Archives: Is This Love?
Prelinger Archives: Redwood Empire Special and Lumber Mills