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In 'Downsizing,' A New Addition To The Large History Of Tiny People In Film

Dec 22, 2017
Originally published on December 22, 2017 5:51 pm

The long — and admittedly odd — tradition of people shrinking in the movies goes back at least to 1901, with a silent film called The Dwarf and the Giant. The most recent is the new movie Downsizing, directed by Alexander Payne (Election, The Descendants). In between is an entire canon, ranging from Fantastic Voyage to Innerspace to Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

The fascination with making people small on the big screen makes sense to Payne.

"We already are tiny," he said in a recent phone conversation. "Every year, we find out more from astronomers just how tiny we are in the universe."

In Downsizing, a team of scientists develops a way to shrink people to save the environment. After all, tiny people have tiny carbon footprints. But the incentive to get small is economical. Shrinking gets marketed to the middle class as a way to live large. When you're only 5 inches tall, you can move to a grand mansion the size of a dollhouse in a special, tiny, planned community, replete with golf courses and Cheesecake Factories, where savings stretch much further than in the big world.

"In Leisureland, your $52,000 translates to $12.5 million to live on for life," explains one pitchwoman to the main character, played by Matt Damon.

All irony is intentional, Payne says. "People are getting small in order to consume more," he points out.

But the notion of getting small to save the planet was explored earlier in a horror movie from 1936, says film professor Julie Turnock. In The Devil-Doll, scientists try to fight world hunger by making people shrink. "The technology in that movie is developed for the same reason: to save resources," she says.

However, unscrupulous characters (including a grandly cross-dressing Lionel Barrymore) use the shrinking technology for nefarious purposes. The Devil-Doll came out during the Great Depression, and Turnok says shrinking people in the movies often reflect economic anxieties.

"We owed a great deal of money and I had no job," moans the main character in The Incredible Shrinking Man, who is literally diminishing in stature. That 1957 science-fiction classic speaks to all kinds of Cold War concerns, from radioactive exposure to changing gender roles.

"The person at the top is now at the bottom, and the patriarch of the house is now being chased by the house cat," Turnock notes, which in itself became a shrinking-people-movie cliché.

"There's normally someone who gets attacked by a cat!" Jake Morrison, a special effects supervisor, says.

He watched a ton of shrinking movies before working on the superhero film Ant-Man. The live-action movie from 2015 features a suit that shrinks the main character to the size of an insect. In keeping with the theme of economic anxiety, he is an ex-convict trying to pull his life together.

Morrison used something called a macro lens to create a hyperrealistic world where a mote of dust is gigantic and a bathtub drain is perilous. (Ant-Man avoided cat clichés, but there is a brief run-in with a mouse.)

He says that in fact, you can tell the story of Hollywood special effects partly through the story of shrinking movies. "Every single shrinking film is essentially the best use of the technology that was available at the time," Morrison says, pointing to a 1959 live-action Disney film about a leprechaun.

"Darby O'Gill and the Little People did some amazing work with forced perspective where they poured so much light on set, so everything was in focus," he says.

Forced perspective is essentially the same trick people use when they're standing far away from the Eiffel Tower and take pictures to make it look as though it's pinched between their thumbs and forefingers. In Darby O'Gill and the Little People, one actor was filmed from a distance so he seemed the size of an elf.

"Way ahead of its time and always pushing the bounds," Morrison observes approvingly, adding that advanced variations on the same technology — forced perspective — was also employed in the Lord of the Rings movies to film the dwarves and hobbits.

People have always been attracted to stories where people get littler, such as Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels. There's a pleasure to the idea of being invisible, of being able to creep into tiny spaces. And right now, the metaphor is more obvious than ever, says director Payne, for stories of people feeling diminished by the world and the scale of its challenges.

"The purpose of a what-if, science-fiction social satire premise, like the one we have in Downsizing, is to give us perspective on the real world," he says. "And to let us see — in an entertaining way — [and] help us look at these problems and give us some distance from them."

And also, to remind us that small things can have significance.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A financially strapped couple is taking steps to make a big change.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWNSIZING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Please state your full legal names.

MARTIN: Actually, it's a very small change.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWNSIZING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Following the procedure, your bodies will be approximately 0.0364 percent of their current mass and volume.

MARTIN: The premise of the new movie "Downsizing," starring Matt Damon, which opens this weekend, is people choosing to be made physically very small. It's the latest of a long and, well, odd cinematic tradition of characters shrinking on the big screen. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It goes back to at least 1901 with a silent movie called "The Dwarf And The Giant." There are classic shrinking movies like "Fantastic Voyage" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." In "Downsizing," scientists shrink people to save the environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWNSIZING")

SOREN PILMARK: (As Andreas Jacobsen) The cause of all the catastrophes we have seen today is overpopulation. We're proud to unveil the only practical remedy to humanity's greatest problem.

ULABY: Tiny people have tiny carbon footprints. But shrinking is being marketed to the middle class as a way to live large. When you're only 5 inches tall, you can move to a grand mansion the size of a dollhouse in a special tiny planned community where your savings stretch much further than in the big world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWNSIZING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) In Leisureland, your $52,000 translates to $12.5 million to live on for life.

ULABY: The irony is intentional, says "Downsizing" director Alexander Payne.

ALEXANDER PAYNE: People are getting small in order to consume more.

ULABY: Something about the experience of being small is magnified by real life now, he says. Just open a newspaper.

PAYNE: The enormity of hideousness we're reading certainly makes me feel quite small and powerless.

ULABY: The notion of getting small to save the planet is nothing news, says film historian Julie Turnock. She points to a horror movie from 1936 called "The Devil-Doll" where scientists try to fight world hunger by making people shrink.

JULIE TURNOCK: The technology in that movie is developed for the same reason - to save resources.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DEVIL-DOLL")

HENRY B WALTHALL: (As Marcel) Think of it, Lavond, every living creature reduced to one-sixth its size, one-sixth its physical need. Food for six times all of us.

ULABY: Things don't turn out well in "The Devil-Doll," which came out during the Great Depression. Turns out a lot of movies about shrinking people reflect economic anxieties.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN")

GRANT WILLIAMS: (As Scott Carey) We owed a great deal of money, and I had no job.

ULABY: Like "The Incredible Shrinking Man" from 1957.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN")

WILLIAMS: (As Scott Carey) Every day it was worse; every day a little smaller.

ULABY: "The Incredible Shrinking Man" speaks to all kinds of Cold War concerns from radioactive exposure to shifts in gender roles. The hero, says Julie Turnock, is literally shrinking in stature.

TURNOCK: The person at the top is now at the bottom. And the patriarch of the house is now being chased by the house cat.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAT MEOWING)

ULABY: Which became a shrinking people movie cliche.

JAKE MORRISON: There's normally somebody who gets attacked by a cat.

ULABY: Jake Morrison watched a ton of shrinking movies before working on the superhero film "Ant-Man." He was its special effects supervisor. The live-action movie from two years ago features a suit that makes the hero insect-sized. Morrison used something called a macro lens to create a hyperrealistic world where a mote of dust is giant and a bathtub drain perilous. You can tell the story of Hollywood special effects, says Morrison, partly through the story of shrinking movies.

MORRISON: Every single shrinking film is essentially the best use of the technology that was available at the time.

ULABY: Like one of his favorites, a live-action Disney film about a leprechaun from 1959.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE")

JIMMY O'DEA: (As King Brian) Will you wish your wish now?

ALBERT SHARPE: (As Darby O'Gill) I will indeed.

MORRISON: "Darby O'Gill And The Little People" did some amazing work with forced perspective where they poured so much light on the set so everything was in focus.

ULABY: Forced perspective is essentially the same trick people use when they take pictures, say, of the Eiffel Tower that looks pinched between their thumbs and forefingers. In this case, one actor was filmed from a distance so he looked like an elf.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE")

O'DEA: (As King Brian) Well, Darby O'Gill, 'tis pleased and delighted I am to see you again.

MORRISON: Way ahead of its time and always pushing the bounds.

PAYNE: That's a brilliant film. That's brilliantly done.

ULABY: Director Alexander Payne says "Darby O'Gill And The Little People" pioneered techniques still employed 50 years later. The "Lord Of The Rings" movies used forced perspective to film its dwarves and hobbits.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY")

MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins) I'm surrounded by dwarves.

ULABY: People have always been attracted to stories where characters get littler (ph). Think "Alice In Wonderland" and "Gulliver's Travels." There's a pleasure to the idea of being invisible and being able to creep into tiny little spaces. Right now, the metaphor is more obvious than ever, says Alexander Payne, for people feeling diminished by the world and the scale of its challenges.

PAYNE: The purpose of a what-if science fiction social satire premise like the one we have in "Downsizing" is to give us perspective on the real world and to let us see in an entertaining way - to help us look at these problems and give us some distance from them.

ULABY: And to remind us that even small things have significance. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET SMALL")

TROUBLE FUNK: (Singing) What you going to do? Let's get small. Do you want to get down? Let's get small. Now, what you going to do? Let's get small. Do you want to get up, y'all? Let's get small. Now, what you going to do? Let's get small. We have to take your height, yeah. Let's get small. Now, what you going to do? Let's get small. Say what? Let's get small. Because (unintelligible) when you're on the floor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.