This assignment will be looking at Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future: Part II, in particular, the portrayal of the town of Hill Valley in the years 1985, 1955 and 2015, as well as the alternate 1985. This includes investigating production processes, the use of product placement to create a more immersive and relatable world, and the advances in filmmaking spurred on by the film, such as digital shot compositing.
Sources to be used for this assignment include the film itself, the interview of Michael J. Fox from Inside the Actor’s Studio to gain a more personal recollection of the filmmaking experience and the ‘behind-the-scenes’ featurette found on the BttFII DVD, for a first hand perspective on the filmmaking process. Other sources include the book Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art and Craft of Making Motion Pictures by Thomas A. Ohanian and Michael E. Philips for information regarding the process of digital shot compositing and an article on product placement titled How Product Placement Works.
The key story element in the Back to the Future series is time travel, providing the opportunity to go anywhere, at any time. The film uses the H.G. Wells rules of time travel, meaning that the characters are able to travel through time, but not space. The fact that the films are somewhat limited to one location (with the Delorean only being able to travel through time, and not space) meant that Zemeckis and his team had to reinterpret the town of Hill Valley in three entirely different time periods, not to mention the alternate 1985.
In the original Back to the Future, the set for 1950’s Hill Valley was constructed initially and the 1950’s scenes were shot first. The production team then weathered the set to appear worn over time, so that the town would appear convincingly aged by 1985. In the sequel the team had to meticulously recreate scenes from the original film, as well as creating a futuristic envision of Hill Valley in 2015. This task was assigned to production designer Rick Carter and his team. Carter comments on his initial thoughts for the future Hill Valley, saying,
“We had to, in a sense, get everybody to get past the images that came from Bladerunner, you know? Smoke and the chrome and everything, and I just felt that it was important that we be as detailed as they were, but that we convey a different tone” (Rick Carter, 1989)
The production team strived to portray a believable future that retained the humorous tone of the previous film, as well as retaining the essence of Hill Valley at all times. This was achieved mainly by modifying the original set, as well as making some set pieces visual landmarks, constantly reminding the audience of their location. For example, throughout each time period the clock tower in Courthouse Square helps the audience to differentiate between time travel and simply moving to another location. Its familiar construction remains the same throughout each interpretation of Hill Valley, reinforcing the fact that the characters haven’t simply moved, but the world around them has changed itself over time.
The tone of the 2015 Hill Valley is somewhat of a parody of modern day consumerism, poking fun at what is now typical of modern society. The film picks up on the idea of extreme convenience, creating a world where lifting a finger could be considered a chore.
“There's also quite a strong undercurrent of bleakness. The shopping mall Consumerville of 2015 — all video screens, holograms and a middle-aged Marty being fired by his Japanese boss — is hardly enviable for all its hi-tech trimmings” (Tunney, 2008)