Camera Trickery in Back to the Future II
How Zemeckis Hid the fact that Crispin Glover is not in the film
I’m one of the many people out there with a great amount of love for the Back to the Future series, but I’m also probably in the minority in my belief that Part II is every bit as good as the original. The amount of expertise displayed by the filmmakers in making a tangential timeline with multiple copies of characters both easy to understand AND entertaining is a feat in and of itself.
One interesting piece of trivia that some might not realize is that Crispin Glover, the actor who played George McFly (Marty’s dad) did not act in the film. You might be thinking”But I remember seeing him in the 1950s sequences!” Well, that’s because Robert Zemeckis (Director) and Dean Cundey (Director of Photography) used several clever tricks to make you think it’s the same dude.
I won’t get into why Crispin Glover isn’t in the film as there are several differing opinions on both sides of the debate. I want to look at the strategy used to work around that fact in order to highlight the great attention to detail that was paid to make it seem so natural.
The first part of the film where George McFly makes an appearance is when his much older self pays a visit to Marty’s house of the future. You may remember him like this:
This is actually the simplest technique used: Makeup on a different actor. A completely different dude was hired and ostensibly given the direction to do his best Crispin Glover impression. Zemeckis is a bit fortunate here that since this scene is in the future, George McFly has aged quite a bit and even Glover would have required makeup here. Do not discount the fact that George is upside-down, either. They work it into the story a bit with the line about “throwing my back out on the golf course” but I suspect that it also has to do with the fact that it’s harder for us to process his face this way.
The next sequence where we see George is when Marty goes back to the past to the very time which he visited in the first movie. I absolutely love how Zemeckis and Bob Gale interweave the narratives here in a way that is never just a tongue-in-cheek nod to the first film. So, we get our first glimpse of George after Marty trails Biff to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. Biff walks into the gym and looks around.
Marty hides in the foreground before the camera does a rack-focus to Biff.
And you’ll notice the guy in the back behind Biff: George McFly. He’s far enough away here that we don’t notice that it’s a different actor, even while he’s in focus.
After this, Biff exits frame and Marty pulls up his trusty spy-binoculars to get a better lay of the land.
We then CUT to what is supposed to be his POV from the binocs.
Now, let me assure you that that is indeed Crispin Glover as George McFly. The thing is, that shot is being reused from the first film. Also, if you look at the angle of it, it’s a low shot looking up at George which is totally inconsistent to Marty’s position. It’s a testament to the power of editing. The fact that we see Marty look in the previous shot, then they cut to this and throw the binocular overlay on it hides the awkwardness of it.
*This technique is very similar to one that Spielberg uses in Jurassic Park when switching from CGI dinosaurs to Animatronic ones. He gives you the real animatronic ones in the closeups and the CG dinos in the wide shots in order to sell you on them.
So we then cut back to Marty in order to assure the audience that what you’re seeing is his POV.
And what’s interesting is that when we cut back to George, it’s essentially the SAME SHOT, only without the binocular overlay:
Same angle and everything, but they’re tricking you into thinking this is a completely different shot by removing the overlay.
The next scene with George takes place in the background when Marty goes into Strickland’s office to get the sports almanac. While Marty radios Doc, outside, through the window we witness the pivotal moment from the first film from a different perspective.
Again, the actor is far enough away that we don’t see him clearly enough to surmise that it’s a different actor.
He goes through the scene the same exact way Glover did in the first film. Zemeckis is relying on our familiarity with that first film to gloss over things a bit. He can even have the actor turn to camera, but the foreground action combined with the fact that it’s far away manage to hide it.
So Marty runs out to see the MEGA-PUNCH in action since he didn’t get to witness it the first time:
And we cut in a bit closer:
The fact that it’s nighttime is helping, but George immediately turns away from camera as he lays Biff out, further obscuring our view of his face. George then does his Knight In Shining Armor bit:
And we cut in to a closeup of Lorraine:
Tilting up with her as she stands and looks into the blurry foreground half-face of Crispin. This is yet another re-used shot from the first film:
As they join hands in romantic fifties bliss, we get a behind-shot while they walk off-camera:
Further obscured by the rack focus to Marty as they pass:
Marty then high-tails it back inside to the dance, where his parents are dancing.
Again, his back is to the camera and he’s repeating a motion that we recognize from the first movie; that Georgie-boy wave. Marty (old Marty. errr… First-Movie-Marty) waves back and George goes in for the space-time-continuum saving kiss. (Still facing away from the camera)
And for the final appearance of George, we cut out to the conversation from the first film where First-Movie-Marty says goodbye to them.
We get that closeup then we cut wide outside to see real Marty looking on:
Notice how George is in the background AND in shadow. He then moves up to place a jacket on Lorraine:
And the very INSTANT his face comes into view, we rack focus to Marty in the foreground:
Marty then moves out of frame and we get the only real instance where you can clearly tell that a different actor is in Crispin-makeup:
As you can see, a lot of thought and effort was put into hiding Crispin’s disappearance from the film. Obviously the fact that the story hinged very much on George McFly being present complicated things, but this is a great example of how the filmmakers were able to use a few very clever camera tricks to make sure you didn’t notice a thing. It’s a great film made greater when you can recognize the craftsmanship that went into it.