My inspiration: An abridged history of playing with scale in media

I am often asked where I derived the inspiration for creating work with tiny figures in a world of big food.  It always sounds to me as if the person asking thinks it is some odd, abstract idea that was hard to come by.  But in truth, when you consider how common the concept of mixing scale (scale juxtaposition) is in the media it's almost incredible that contemporary artworks with elements of mixed scale aren't more common. 

©2010 20th Century Fox

©2010 20th Century Fox

When I was a child I was particularly attracted to the story of Gulliver's Travels and principally with the Lilliputians. Published in 1726 as a social satire, the idea that people of vastly different scales could exist in the same world was fascinating to me.  The dramatic and comedic potential of the concept definitely holds up, whether it is being employed in the 18th century to skewer human nature or in a 21st century comedy like 2010's Gulliver's Travels with Jack Black, which is just the latest of many adaptions for the screen this story has had.

Though it was the primary mixed-scale story that made an impression on me, it was hardly the first instance of this in literature.  There are many classic tales of giants stretching back into mythologies of various cultures, and even in the biblical story of David and Goliath.  What child has not heard the classic children's story of Jack and the Beanstalk or read Lewis Carroll's story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?  Both stories involve characters who deal with issues of scale.

©1972 John Vernon Lord/ Houghton Mifflin Publishers

©1972 John Vernon Lord/ Houghton Mifflin Publishers

Another childhood favorite – and no doubt one that inserted into my subconscious the idea of tiny people with large food – was The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord. Published in 1972 the book was about a town besieged by giant wasps. The townsfolk decide to build an enormous jam sandwich to trap them.  I won't spoil the outcome.  The book is still in print.

©1957 Universal International Pictures

©1957 Universal International Pictures

Almost as soon as motion pictures were invented the industry was exploring clever special effects (including mattes, composites, back projection, etc.) to achieve both something visually interesting that served the story but that would also save money by obviating the need to build large practical sets, as in 1902's Le Voyage dans la Lune or Fritz lang's iconic Metropolis in 1927.  The field of fantasy and Science Fiction cinema burgeoned in the 30's and 40's and particularly came into its own in the 1950's as films became more creative and spectacular in the face of rising competition from television.  It is in the 1950's where we begin to see scale juxtaposition used to great effect in films like 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman released the following year.

      ©1958 Allied Artists Pictures Corporation

      ©1958 Allied Artists Pictures Corporation

There was a dramatic mix of scale to be found on television too.  Land of Giants from 20th Century Fox Television aired 51 episodes on ABC from 1968-1970.  Set in the (then) future year of 1983 the premise was a group of people who while traveling from Los Angeles to London on some kind of high-speed space plane encounter a weird storm and crash land in a place where everything is vastly out of scale with their bodies.

©1968 20th Century Fox Television

©1968 20th Century Fox Television

Not every instance of scale juxtaposition is center stage in the plot.  Sometimes you find it at the periphery, as in the scene near the end of 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in which the character Mike TV jumps up on a platform and beams himself "in a million pieces" to a television on the other side of the room before his exasperated mother retrieves him with her fingertips and puts him in her purse for safe keeping.  I think he ends up being sent to the taffy pulling room.

©1971 Wolper Pictures Ltd.

©1971 Wolper Pictures Ltd.

My childhood in the 1970's seemed something of a renaissance for films, television and advertising that utilized the concept of scale juxtaposition to sell a plot point or a product.  When I was very young I distinctly remember a particular segment of the Captain Kangaroo show that involved a family of tiny people who lived behind the books on his bookcase.  I've scoured the Internet in an attempt to find some visual record of this recurring mise-en-scène but I've been coming up empty. Though typing "Captain Kangaroo" in the search field on YouTube generates predictive search terms for "little people" and "bookcase people" which leads me to conclude that others are also searching for evidence of this elusive segment.  My recollection is that the characters didn't speak. Every so often the Captain would move a few books aside and check in on the secret world of his tiny friends, living among life-sized animal crackers boxes, Campbell's soup cans and the discarded wooden thread spool they used for a table. 

By far one of my favorite Saturday morning shows as a kid was the Krofft Supershow which aired on ABC from 1976-78.  One of the segments of this show was a serial called Dr. Shrinker.  Its premise was a group of teenagers who become stranded on a deserted island with a mad scientist who had invented a shrinking machine.  Over the course of the series they struggled to survive despite having the doctor, his henchman and a hungry cat in hot pursuit.

shrinker 3.jpg
©1976 Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions

©1976 Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions

That was around the same time that another favorite TV show, 1974's Land of the Lost, often pitted regular-sized people with stop motion animated dinosaurs of towering size.  While it is not a classic example of Science Fiction scale juxtaposition – as the people and the dinosaurs are both their proper sizes despite the historical mashup – I did watch quite a bit of this show in reruns and it did have the same look as Dr. Shrinker because it used the same Chroma key special effects.  Just as Gulliver's Travels has been remade repeatedly, Land of the Lost has been redone too, first as a television series in 1991 and later as a $100 million Universal Pictures film with Will Ferrell in 2009.  The original series had its charms, but one wouldn't think that the cheesy production values of the original would be such rich ground for successive efforts.  Beyond Hollywood's capacity for recycling old ideas, I think it demonstrates that the concept of mixing scales is powerful and compelling.

©1954 Toho Co. Ltd.

©1954 Toho Co. Ltd.

If Saturday mornings of my childhood were about the Krofft Supershow, then the afternoons were about the Creature Double Feature on Boston station WLVI Channel 56.  Once again, I was being exposed to a mixture of scale in the badly dubbed Godzilla television shows from Toho Ltd., based on the original 1954 film.  And once again, Godzilla is another idea that apparently has been compelling enough to be remade multiple times.

                                       ©1976 Paramount Pictures

                                       ©1976 Paramount Pictures

Virtually identical in concept – another large monster rampaging through a civilization a fraction if its size – was the 1976 Dino De Laurentis film version of King Kong that fascinated me as a kid.  I had this movie poster on the wall in my bedroom for a number of years.  And on my first trip to New York City my brother and I insisted that our parents take us down to see the World Trade Center and the place where King Kong met his demise.  The memory added poignancy to the experience I had years later, as a resident of lower Manhattan, watching with my own eyes as the iconic towers of the World Trade Center disappeared from the skyline and fell into a cloud of gray dust.  King Kong too has had multiple iterations: from the 1933 original with Fay Wray to the contemporary 2005 Peter Jackson blockbuster.  I prefer the Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange version from '76 as it was the first version I saw.

©1976 Paramount Pictures

©1976 Paramount Pictures

Another film that made a strong impression when I was a kid was 1981's The Incredible Shrinking Woman.  A comedy satire about the prevalence of chemicals in our modern society, the movie starred Lily Tomlin and Charles Grodin.  This one is a bit different in that the process by which Lily Tomlin's character Pat Kramer gets smaller happens gradually over the course of the film, as opposed to going instantly from large to small as in so many other movies.  I think the film is also particularly good at exploring a vast range of emotions, from the initial comedy of a person trying to cope with her rapidly diminishing size (having to wear her daughter's doll's clothes), to the real danger of being gobbled up by the garbage disposal in the kitchen sink.

©1981 Universal Pictures

©1981 Universal Pictures

I recall my that my mother visited family in Los Angeles several years after this film was released and during a tour of Universal Studios she was able to interact with some of the leftover, oversized props from the film.  Just as the life-sized piano sequence in the 1988 20th Century Fox film Big became iconic because of the fun that the characters demonstrated on screen, people seem to not only enjoy the idea of tiny people but also the absurdity of becoming tiny themselves (if only for a moment) in contrast to oversized toothbrushes, shopping carts and other props.

While being exposed to periodic scale juxtaposition at the cinema and on television shows, there was also TV advertising that commonly featured a litany of tiny mascots or some kind of mixture of scales that was meant to grab your attention, from the Rice Krispies guys, to the Keebler Elves, to the Jolly Green Giant to the Pillsbury Dough Boy.  Of course, who could forget the tiny Ty-D-bol man in his mini motorboat negotiating the chemically dyed rapids of a toilet bowl?

 ©1982 Ty-D-bol Corporation

 ©1982 Ty-D-bol Corporation

Another favorite was the Ralston Purina chuck wagon.  In this commercial, a tiny horse-drawn conestoga wagon would go racing past a dog which would give chase into the kitchen where the wagon would disappear ghost-like into a cabinet while the dog would make a bee line to a waiting bowl of Purina Dog Chow.

  ©Ralston Purina Corporation. Circa 1975. Ad agency unknown.

  ©Ralston Purina Corporation. Circa 1975. Ad agency unknown.

And just to prove the power and resiliency of the concept of scale juxtaposition, here is an example of a 2012 print advertising campaign for a line of Ben & Jerry's frozen yogurt that is obviously very close to the spirit of my Big Appetites work.  Can you think of other advertising concepts that are still just as effective over decades?  There can't be very many.

©2012 Ben & Jerry's Homemade (Silver + Partners/NYC)

©2012 Ben & Jerry's Homemade (Silver + Partners/NYC)

Moving back to the realm of cinema, another film I enjoyed in the 80's was the 1987 Warner Brothers film Innerspace with Dennis Quaid and Martin Short in which a scientifically shrunken Quaid pilots a kind of space capsule through Martin Short's body.

©1987 Amblin Entertainment/Warner Brothers

©1987 Amblin Entertainment/Warner Brothers

And of course I must mention Disney's Honey I Shrunk the Kids which did huge box office on a small budget back in 1989.  This film comes up quite a lot when I speak to kids of all ages during school talks and art exhibitions. Despite the 26 years that have elapsed since the film's release it is clear that new audiences are discovering it and its sequels – one of which played with scale in the opposite direction with a child blown up to ginormous size.

©1989 Buena Vista Pictures

©1989 Buena Vista Pictures

©1989 Buena Vista Pictures

©1989 Buena Vista Pictures

A number of people I've spoken to at exhibitions have mentioned the Borrowers.  Based on a 1952 British book, with a number of television and film adaptations, it wasn't one of my influences for Big Appetites. Though I did see the 1995 film adaptation of another British book that involved tiny people in an out of scale world:  The Indian in the Cupboard.  

      ©1995 Paramount Pictures

      ©1995 Paramount Pictures

There are a range of other films that could be mentioned here, including James and the Giant Peach, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or even PIXAR's Toy Story series in which out of scale people, objects, food and toys are mixed together for effect.  The point really is that scale juxtaposition is a strong, culturally recurring construction with a ubiquitous presence in literature, cinema, television and advertising.  It speaks to a strong human interest in not only miniature things but also how those things exist in contrast to other objects (and people) of varying scales.

Upon reflection it makes complete sense to me that being immersed in this concept in my childhood would provide strong inspiration for the Big Appetites work I would begin creating in late 2002.

If you know of other movies, shows or advertising that plays with scale, or  I've forgotten one of your favorites, please mention it in the comments.

All text © 2015 by Christopher Boffoli. All Rights Reserved.