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Making Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Updated)

Posted January 15, 2012 01:18 PM by Robert Siegel

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was recognized as a motion picture phenomenon. From its first openings, critics were awed. Audiences responded in record numbers. There was vital renewed interest in UFO phenomena, and even that phrase, Close Encounters of the Third Kind became part of our language. A Columbia Presentation in Association with EMI, it came to the screen with impeccable credentials. The writer and director was Steven Spielberg, director of Jaws, among the all-time worldwide boxoffice champions. The producers were Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips, producers of the Academy Award-winning "The Sting" and Columbia's explosive Taxi Driver. Special photographic effects were created (from Spielberg's concept) by Douglas Trumbull, who fashioned the visual imagery for Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey. The Technical Advisor was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the outstanding authority on UFOs in the world. The musical score was composed and conducted by John Williams, who had scored both Jaws and Star Wars. Backed by an advertising-promotion-publicity campaign, steeped in the excitement of the movie itself, Close Eenounters generated enthusiasm and acclaim.

Versions of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind laserdiscs, DVDs and Blu-ray contain many extras about the making of the film. When compiling this column, I tried to find other information that may not have been part of some of those extras but that certainly pertain to the film. Enjoy!

UFO'S, The Controversial Phenomenon

"It was shortly after dark and ten or twelve men all watched it. It seemed to move toward us, then partially away, then return, then depart, It was bluish...then reddish...luminous, not solid." — Jimmy Carter, President of the United States, from his official UFO report submitted when he was Governor of Georgia.

"No direct evidence whatever of a convincing nature now exists for the claim that any UFOs represent spacecraft visiting Earth from another civilization..." — From "The Condon Report," submitted to the United States Air Force by the scientific team headed by Dr. Edward Condon of the University of Colorado.

"Intelligent beings from other planets regularly visit our world in an effort to enter into contact with us...NASA and the American government know this and possess a great deal of evidence. Nevertheless, they remain silent in order not to alarm people...I am dedicated to forcing the authorities to end their silence." — Gordon Cooper, astronaut, at a UFO conference.

These are among the comments, pro and con, which have fueled one of the most intriguing controversies of our time. It is estimated that more than 18 million Americans believe they have seen Unidentified Flying Objects. Of these "glowing discs," "shimmering lights" or "pulsating spheres", did any originate outside our own solar system? Do they represent attempts by intelligent beings to observe or contact us? The release of the motion picture, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, deepened the controversy. The film eschews the sci-fi trappings moviemakers had relied on since Georges Melies fired a plywood rocket at a cardboard moon in the early silent era. Instead, Spielberg rooted his imagery in an awesome body of scientific data, which has been growing daily, ever since "mystery airships"' were first "sighted" in the skies over Europe during the late nineteenth century. (These "sightings" were first dismissed as hallucinatory hysteria. But as one investigator later pointed out, "scientific knowledge of powered flight in 1896 and 1897 could not have led to the invention of airships with the characteristics the witnesses described.")

Spielberg's guide, as he immersed himself in three decades of UFO detection, was the distinguished astronomer, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, former director of Ohio State University's MacMillin Observatory. In 1948, Hynek became the nation's leading UFO sleuth when he was retained by the Air Force to head Project Blue Book, a continuing study of UFO phenomena. Hynek admitted he began the project as a skeptic. Twenty years later, after investigating 12,600 reported sightings, he felt that only the outer shell of a scientific breakthrough had been probed. "About 95% of UFOs turn out to be IFOs — Identified Flying Objects such as advertising planes, Venus, or weather balloons," he later stated. It was the official attempts to dismiss the remaining 5% as hoaxes and hallucinations which disturbed him.

Report from Ottawa in Canada

"How can hallucinations appear on radar, break tree branches and scare animals?" he asked. "How can they leave physical traces or stop cars? We're dealing with something far more complex than hallucinations or apparitions." Such speculation contradicted the official Air Force position that "no sightings, categorized as unidentified, represent technological developments beyond the range of present knowledge." Parting company with the Air Force, Hynek founded the Center for UFO Studies in Evanston, Illinois, where the monumental task of computerizing, cataloging and investigating more than 100 daily UFO sightings continues. It was here that Spielberg, following the monumental success of Jaws, sought the truth that would underlie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and found even the film's title.

To help categorize UFO sightings, Hynek had divided them into three kinds of "close encounters," sighting a UFO, physical evidence of the encounter, and actual contact with alien visitors. It was an encounter of the "first kind" in 1947 that launched the modern era of American UFO sightings. Kenneth Arnold, a Boise, Idaho businessman and an experienced Air Rescue pilot, reported seeing nine disc-shaped objects flying in loose formation. Their motion was undulating, he told newsmen, "like a saucer skipping over the water." The term "flying saucer" became part of the language. "It's a misnomer, if there ever was one," stated Hynek, pointing out that UFOs come in a dazzling range of shapes and sizes, from "luminous tear drops" to "diamond shaped projectiles" to "brightly lit chariots," depending on the observer.

Several of thousands of newspaper reports over the 1900's

What President Carter witnessed in Leary, Georgia in October 1969 fits that description. Carter was waiting for an outdoor meeting to begin when a sharply outlined, self-luminous object appeared in the sky. "Ten or twelve of us watched it; the brightness attracted us," he recalled in an official UFO sighting report. "It made no noise but it was clearly visible for several minutes." While the President is the most prominent world figure to have filed a UFO sighting report, he is hardly alone. Among the other Americans who believe they have sighted a UFO are John Gilligan, Governor of Ohio; astronauts James McDivitt and Gordon Cooper, and scores of people from all walks of life, including scientists, airline pilots, astronomers and government officials. Encounters seem to come in waves, according to researchers. In 1939 and again in 1946, Scandinavia was a center of UFO activity. A sudden rush of sightings in the southern United States in 1952 was followed by similar waves in France and Africa in 1954 and South America in 1957. (UFO reports became relatively infrequent until 1967 when they again accelerated.) To skeptics, the fact that UFO reports come in clusters confirms the "mass hysteria" or "hallucination" theory. To those who believe they represent some extraterrestrial visitation, the answer is equally clear. Each new wave signifies a separate incursion of the earth's atmosphere.

A page from the report of President Jimmy Carter

Most professional UFOlogists refuse to accept either theory, on the grounds that there is insufficient data to support a positive conclusion. But when the answer does come, Hynek predicted, it may shatter some of our most cherished scientific tenets. "Remember that for 99% of his cherished existence, man believed that the earth was the center of the universe," he points out. "What makes us so certain that our present belief structure is any more sacrosanct?" The sensationalism surrounding close encounters and the risk of public ridicule makes investigating UFO reports — and Close Encounters of the Third Kind particularly — extremely difficult. "A person may not be reluctant to report to friends, or even to the police, that he has seen a strangely behaving light," says Hynek. "But he has quite a different attitude when it comes to revealing a close encounter with a UFO, particularly if humanoids were involved."

Famous UFO photographs (clockwise)Milledgeville, GA; Lake Tiorattiny, NY; Chicopee, MA; Moonstucket, RI, all in 1966 and 1967

The concept of extraterrestrial visitors is not as improbable to many scientists as it is to the general public. They reason that since there are billions of suns in the universe, apparently capable of supporting planetary systems, it would be miraculous if we didn't share the cosmos with other life forms. In Hynek's view, there is one significant obstacle to accepting a concept of cosmic travel. "As an astronomer," he points out, "I know what distances are involved and I don't think people appreciate how vast the universe is." For an alien civilization; from another solar system to reach us, he continues, it would require technological skills so advanced that our science cannot envision them. Meanwhile, the documentation grows, as more than 100 UFO sightings are reported daily, throughout the world, some 5-10% of which defy identification or rational explanation. A Newsweek story on the subject of contacting other worlds, summed up the speculation this way: "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

Taking a step beyond the visions of the past

In an obscure building near the boat basin at Marina del Rey. California, a series of remarkable experiments continued for more than a year. They had nothing to do with the pleasure boats and luxury yachts docked a few hundred yards away. Instead, they were devoted to a different kind of craft which millions of people have imagined and only a few have claimed to have seen. Thirty-four-year-old inventor and filmmaker Douglas Trumbull and a staff of 35 skilled technicians were at work — in well guarded secrecy — envisioning the extraterrestrial vehicles which would fill the sky (and the screen) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This creative imagery is on view when the movie, which probes the mystery of UFO phenomena, is viewed.

These are the picture's human stars. But following its initial New York and Los Angeles openings, equal credit for what one critic called its "stunning impact" went to Trumbull's photographic effects, including a climactic 30-minute "visual feast." An acknowledged leader in his field for his work on Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey, Trumbull admitted that in Close Encounters of the Third Kind... "we have attempted to take a step beyond the imagery of the past." The challenge was straightforward — to draw upon documented reports of UFO sightings throughout the world, to create lights, shapes and vehicles which might represent the technology of an advanced society, somewhere in space. His imagination; he admits, was fired by the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who served as the film's technical adviser. Trumbull is something of a space specialist himself, a reputation he picked up when doing backgrounds for animated films made for NASA and the Apollo 17 program. One of his short subjects, "To the Moon and Beyond," was a hit of the 1964 World's Fair. Seen by Kubrick, it led to his assignment on 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Model of the mothership

Trumbull next created the special effects for "The Andromeda Strain," then wrote, directed and produced the space drama, "Silent Running." At first, Spielberg who conceived the visual effect concepts, doubted that Trumbull would agree to design the effects for another director's film. But there was no one else, he felt, who could cope with the challenge. Spielberg admits he breathed a sigh of relief when he received Trumbull's rapid response to the draft screenplay: "I feel this is the movie I've waited all my life to do. When do we start?" A native of Los Angeles, Trumbull had come a long way since he started as a free-lance technical illustrator, then joined Graphic Arts (a Los Angeles animation house) to do background drawings. The he became vice-president of Future General Corporation, formed in 1973 and was considered one of the world's leading developers of new motion picture processes and entertainment concepts.

Shooting the mothership and Dr. J. Allen Hynek, researcher for the film

He was not without pure imagination and ideas. These included a new audiovisual ride system for amusement parks, using motion picture film and effects and Shows-can, a revolutionary process for movies to be shown on a mammoth screen larger than any utilized to date. Future General's expansion had seen it take over four buildings in Marina del Rey, of which the newest structure was acquired solely for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Under Trumbull's direction, it was transformed into a 13,000-square foot miniature studio, crammed with sophisticated optical and electronic equipment. Included was a unique sound stage completely shrouded in black, it had dolly tracks running both horizontally and vertically, linked to delicate electronic controls. Another advancement which contributed to Close Encounters of the Third Kind was Trumbull's invention of what is known as a "motion control system." "Without going into much technical detail," he explained, "it's a means of controlling every camera movement — panning, tilting, dollying — to achieve an illusion of reality, while focusing on fantasy, in a way that was impossible before." Would Trumbull care to describe the process — and his work — in greater detail? "It's so mind-blowingly complicated," he admits with a grin, "that sometimes even I don't fully comprehend it." In film, he later went on to doing special photographic effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and worked on the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios Orlando. He has recently narrated and appeared in a series of documentaries including Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, made last year.

Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut, the brilliant French filmmaker who wrote, directed, produced and sometimes even plays major roles in his own movies, said he never expected to act in another director's motion picture, nor in America. He did both with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was his admiration for the work of Spielberg that prompted Truffaut's American screen debut. "Steven attracted me," he said. "I knew his work. I had confidence in him. When he called me in France and said he had written the role especially for me, I didn't think he was serious. I assumed he thought I spoke English." Actually, Truffaut did, but he was hesitant to admit it and felt more comfortable in his native language. When Spielberg explained that the script called for him to speak French, with another actor cast as his interpreter, Truffaut asked to have the script sent to him. "Steven sent me one script in English, then another in French," he recalled. "I read it and I knew I would be able to act the part, so I accepted." While his films, including the Academy Award-winning "Day For Night," have been made on much shorter schedules and much smaller budgets, he was lavish in his praise of the younger generation of movie makers, many of whom he has influenced. Describing Spielberg, he commented: "Steven is remarkably modest, despite his successes. He is very stable emotionally and very even-tempered. He may be full of anxiety, but he knows how to hide it; there was a strong feeling of confidence on his set. And his energy is tremendous."

Francois Truffaut in a rare photograph with Alfred Hitchcock (best quality available)

Directors who have had the strongest effect on him include Hitchcock (who inspired his mystery thriller, "The Bride Wore Black") and the late Ernst Lubitsch, whose photo he carried wherever he traveled. "Lubitsch knew that to make people laugh, or cry, or become concerned, you had to tell an interesting story," Truffaut pointed out. "His movies were at the furthest end of the scale from documentaries."Concerning his own reputation for "upbeat" films, he admitted,"That is intentional. I don't like films which end in failure or futility. If you ask people to bear with you for two hours of story telling, you must leave them with a sense of optimism or even exultation. Endings which have a double meaning are fine, because so much of life is ambiguous, but not those which make life seem cheap or useless." He was particularly pleased, on reading Spielberg's script, by its climax. "It was absolutely perfect," he said during an on-set interview. "But I would never tell you how the picture ends, since I wouldn't want anyone to spoil one of my films that way."

Poster from Czechoslovakia

Francois Truffaut was born in France and became a lover of films at seven years old. He left school at age fourteen to work. At 15, he founded a film club and met the French critic Andre Bazin. He directed his first short film in 1954 and two years later helped Roberto Rossellini with several projects. When he married Madeleine Morgenstern, the daughter of an important film distributor, he was able to form his own production company which he called "Les Films du Carrosse. His big break came in 1959 with his first big full-length feature The 400 Blows. He had two daughters (though was later divorced). He continued to work in films after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his last writing on the project "The Man who Loved Women" (1983). He died in 1984, right after that film was released at the young age of 52 from a brain tumor. His salary for Close Encounters of the Third Kind was $75,000.

After the release of the film, more was added to the posters than the long country road, but all posters were designed to provoke a sense of wonder and amazement

Dreyfuss and Spielberg reunite

Richard Dreyfuss had been described as a "sought after" young actor. But what pleased him most was that the seekers invariably rank among the industry's most brilliant and respected directors. His first starring vehicle was "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" for Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. In "American Graffiti," he worked for George Lucas who went on to make Star Wars. The pounding adventure of Jaws allied him with Steven Spielberg, while "The Goodbye Girl" linked him with Herbert Ross of "Funny Lady" and "The Turning Point." Dreyfuss was then reunited with Spielberg in what the actor called the most "demanding" and "emotional" effort of his career, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(l-r) Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Steven Spielberg and Richard Drefuss on the set of Jaws

In the film, Dreyfuss portrays a power lineman who is among the first to witness bizarre lights and shapes in the sky over Indiana. The experience drives him to the emotional edge and lures him to a remote southwestern plateau where the answer to the mystery may be waiting. Jaws was an exhausting physical challenge," Dreyfuss pointed out. "But making Close Encounters of the Third Kind was something more, an emotional experience in which I was bombarded by the most dazzling visual effects I had ever seen achieved." Despite the impact of the movies in which he has appeared, Dreyfuss did not regard himself as a "star." Not yet. As he said for a BBC interview in 1978, "I've been working at my craft since I was 15 years old and I still don't feel I'm completely trained as an actor." Dreyfuss called his attitude "realistic" rather than modest. "I think every actor hopes to become a star," he continued. "The only one who ever said, 'No, I just wanted to be a working actor' — and made me believe him — was Henry Fonda. And he's a star in the truest sense of the term." Dreyfuss' favorite actors, besides Fonda, were Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Fonda is the only one he has came to know, having joined him several years prior in a Los Angeles stage revival of "The Time of Your Life."

Rare alternate poster

"There are certain people you grow up to regard as sources of wisdom and talent. I used to stay up all night watching television for Fonda's best work. He has given three or four performances that I think can't be beaten. For me, Fail Safe' and The Grapes of Wrath' were particularly remarkable films," Dreyfuss stated. He regards Brando as the greatest actor, with a genius for imagination and attention to detail. "He excels in those areas more than any other screen personality," the young actor said in the interview. De Niro, he believes, is "the best young actor of the generation." Bogart, Tracy, Cagney and Garfield were earlier stars he worshiped. Some of his other favorites at the time included Jack Nicholson, George C. Scott and Al Pacino. "Watching a great actor at work is always a thrilling experience," he said. "It teaches you a great deal — including how much there's still left to learn."

In an interview with People Magazine in the late 1970's, he claimed, Jaws, was, I felt, really my first huge challenge, and most of it was physical. The amount of work we did, and the terrible time we had with the shark and filming was at times disheartening, but I took it one day at a time, showed up for work, and we worked it all out. I was absolutely thrilled with the results of Jaws. After the music score was added and the editing was completed, we had a private screening and I just sat there in amazement at what this new director was capable of. That is why I didn't even hesitate when I was asked to play in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My role in this film is much more emotional, the complete opposite of Jaws. After all, I have to really go bonkers but in a realistic way because it is not the fault of my brain but something that has been put there." His last few films included Piranha 3D in which he played a short part in the opening, a take-off of his character Matt Hooper from Jaws, even wearing the famed ocean costume.

Unique poster art from Poland, where movie posters were always very artistic

Spielberg's fascination with life in the Galaxy

Close Encounters of the Third Kind follows nearly four years of speculation, curiosity and intrigue. Much of the interest focused on the film's 30-year-old director, Steven Spielberg, working for the first time from his own screenplay. His first feature, "The Sugarland Express," had prompted high praise from critics such as the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, who called it " of the most phenomenal directorial debut films in the history of movies." Spielberg's second picture was Jaws of course among the industry's all-time worldwide box-office champions. With Close Encounters of the Third Kind Spielberg probed the mystery of UFO phenomena, a subject which has held a lifelong fascination for him. Otherwise, relatively little was revealed about the project. Principal locations were protected by round-the-clock security guards. Those involved were sworn to secrecy. Spielberg insists that while the air of mystery heightened interest in Close Encounters of the Third Kind... that wasn't its purpose. He and special effects designer Douglas Trumbull were experimenting with new forms of visual imagery. To reveal them prematurely, he believed, would diminish their impact and "spoil the fun."

Spielberg behind the scenes

The extraordinary reception which greeted Close Encounters of the Third Kind in its initial New York and Los Angeles openings confirmed that Spielberg's secrets were worth protecting. Oddly enough, the picture was not Spielberg's first cinematic encounter with UFO phenomena. As a 16-year-old schoolboy in Phoenix, Arizona, he acquired his first super 8mm movie camera and used it to make a 2 1/2-hour movie, "Firelight," about strange lights in the night sky. "Firelight" cost $500 to make and earned back its cost in its one and only public screening. "We packed the family station wagon that same night and moved the next day to San Francisco. I've only looked at that film a few times myself since then," he recalled. "The subject never lost its fascination for me," he said. "I'm awed by the possibility of other intelligent life forms in outer space, perhaps a civilization hundreds of millions years old and far more advanced than ours.

Spielberg behind the scenes

Spielberg switched from UFOs to war stories after his family moved to San Francisco, but continued his filmmaking in 8mm and 16mm. Then he advanced to California State College at Long Beach and to 35mm. One of his short subjects, titled "Amblin'," won awards at the Venice and Atlanta Film Festivals and brought him to Hollywood's attention and would later become the name of his production company. Signed to a director's contract by Universal Pictures, he had just turned 21 when he directed Joan Crawford in his first television feature, "Night Gallery," That was followed by more television films, particularly the ambitious ABC-TV chiller, "Duel," which went on to set foreign boxoffice records as a theatrical release.

Spielberg on break

Moving on to the big screen, Spielberg made an impressive debut with "The Sugarland Express," followed by the spectacular success of Jaws. But even while Jaws was in preparation, he was at work on the first 25 pages of the screenplay that would eventually become Close Encounters of the Third Kind. "Every movie is, or should be, a new kind of challenge to its creators," says Spielberg. "In Jaws, the challenge was to make terror interesting and novel, not just terrifying. "In Close Encounters of the Third Kind the challenge grew out of how little we really know about UFO phenomena." How does Spielberg describe the film? "It's a cosmic mystery," he replies. "In that sense, I hope that it answers a few questions and suggests new and even more provocative ones." Spielberg contacted Jim Henson to help create the first alien shown, but he declined.

Alternate U.S. Poster

Locations From Wyoming to Alabama to a remote hillside in India, Hollywood veteran Joe Alves spent months in search of the proper scenic backgrounds. In Wyoming he found the bizarre but natural setting he sought for the film and one which matched the description in Steven Spielberg's screenplay. It was here, at "Devil's Tower," a unique mountain setting in a desolate area near Huelot, Wyoming, that he found the place so fittingly majestic and visually and emotionally inspiring for the backdrop where the climactic sequences were to take place.

Devil's Tower in Wyoming

From Wyoming, the company moved to its major location in Alabama and established headquarters in Mobile. On the outskirts of the city, a World War II dirigible hanger had been found after another cross-country search and was converted into a movie sound stage six times the size of Hollywood's most spacious stage. In planning the set required for the film's spectacular climax, it was found that the largest such space in Hollywood fell far short of accommodating it. The hangar measured 450 feet long, 250 feet wide and 90 feet high. Its conversion and construction of the sets demanded staggering amounts of varied materials. They included: 54,000 board feet (approximately 10 miles) of lumber; 19,000 feet of steel scaffolding, 29,500 feet of nylon canopy, 16,900 feet of fiberglass, two miles of steel cable, 5,000 yards of cloth backing, 1 50 tons of air conditioning, 26,000 square yards of terrace concrete slabs and 7,000 yards of sand and clay fill dirt. The nature of the set itself and what transpired within it was, from start to finish, veiled in top secrecy. Only those required for the filming were permitted entrance after displaying proper identification badges, checked by an around-the-clock-security force.

Francois Truffaut and Spielberg; Glenn Erickson, production assistant, studies pre-builds

It was felt that, for maximum impact, the audience's exposure to these sequences should be when the complete motion picture is shown in theaters. Away from the hangar, a spectacular sequence was filmed in Bay Minette, Alabama, a small town 30 miles east of Mobile, where hundreds of cattle, sheep, cars and trucks, together with 2000 "evacuees," joined in a continuation of the mass exodus scene. From Alabama, Close Encounters of the Third Kind moved to Washington, D.C. for scenes in which ABC Television's noted news anchorman Howard K. Smith played himself. Next, came a journey to distant India. In Bombay and other nearby settings after months of negotiations, Spielberg directed stirring scenes in which Francois Truffaut, in his search for a solution to the mystery of the skies, observes the awesome spectacle of thousands of Hindus praying and chanting as they respond to the bewildering phenomenon. The India "close encounter" scenes, which had taken the film company around the globe, pointed up the worldwide extent of the continuing UFO mystery.

Musical Score

The musical score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind reflects the genius of John the time two-time Academy Award winner...eight time "Oscar" nominee.... composer-conductor of Star Wars and Jaws. To mirror the scope of writer-director Steven Spielberg's vision, Williams composed a remarkable eighty minutes of original themes, then enlisted the services of a full 110-piece philharmonic orchestra, during weeks of stereo recording sessions.

The result is a bold, sweeping surge of music that dramatically complements the images on screen and stands by itself as a listening experience. Williams said of the 5 tones used that have become famous, "The five tones were chosen based on nothing more than the facts that the intervals were far enough apart and that the tones were pleasant to the ear..and the last note raises up one tone. When I was sitting at the piano going through thousands of ideas, we decided we were not going to write a jingle or commercial rhyme. We wanted the first note to bed for a response."

Dozens of record labels released music from the film, the most successful outside of the soundtrack was Meco's disco version on the "Encounters of Every Kind" album.

Williams was careful in creating a score that would be memorable to the audience after they left the theater. He felt that when people walked out of the film, they would be, in a way, stunned with what they saw. He knew this score would be a bigger challenge for him and spent four months composing the score, careful to make the ending as "fantastic and awe-inspiring" as the visuals themselves. Arista Records issued the score as a stereo sound track album. They also released a"disco single," based on the picture's recurring theme, but it was disco producer Meco who made the charts with his disco version (previously Meco had hit the #1 top 40 spot with his Star Wars theme, though his theme for Close Encounters did not make the top ten.) The larger theaters would play the theme during all sittings except that Columbia sent a note to the theaters not to play the final musical sequence.

Advertisement for the original soundtrack album

Spielberg on the set and with composer John Williams

Close Encounters at Charles C. Gates Planetarium in Denver

For one group of dedicated star gazers, there's a special significance to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They were the astronomers and technicians who designed the exciting,, informative, "star shows" seen at major planetariums. The renowned Charles C. Gates Planetarium in Denver fashioned a brilliant space spectacular around the Close Encounters of the Third Kind theme. It began with a sky full of IFOs (identifiable flying objects) which are frequently mistaken for balloons, meteors, aircraft lights and shooting stars. Then it moved into genuine UFOs which, despite scientific sleuthing, remain a mystery. The possibility that these objects come from advanced civilizations, beyond our solar system, is raised in fascinating detail. Finally, the three kinds of Close Encounters are defined, and while Columbia's key art of a lonely road and glowing sky fills the planetarium's vast dome, the narrator draws the conclusion that..."We are not alone..."

The Gates Planetarium is housed in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

The presentation was enhanced by the "STP Star Projector," an instrument which could simulate the position of the stars and planets from any point on the globe at any precise moment in time. It was a dynamic show which the Gates Planetarium agreed to make available to any other planetarium in America on request...and without expense. The project was based on several ideas" • The fictional tale which Steven Spielberg unfolds in Close Encounters is based on extensive, accurate scientific research. • The film's technical adviser is Dr. J. Allen Hynek, professor of astronomy at Northwestern University, former director of the MacMillin Observatory and one of America's most respected astrophysicists. (In fact, Dr. Hynek's taped comments were a fascinating part of the Gates presentation.) • Everything about Close Encounters of the Third Kind...the creative talent...the scope of the production...the special effects technology...guaranteed an association the planetarium would be proud of. Science and industry museums, college planetariums, observatories and other institutions which indulge in sky watching also did their part across the nation, many others creating UFO displays for the public.

German Poster

Close Encounter Trailers

The sense of anticipation...wonder...and growing excitement... that was the heart of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind campaign. A five minute trailer was made available. Unique in length, unique in concept, it suggested that what you will soon see has never been seen before, showcasing the stars, the story and the scope of a way that made moviegoers eagerly await the film itself. Two thousand trailer prints—in three versions, 70mm, 35mm scope and 35mm flat — were struck off to satisfy every exhibitor situation. Putting the trailer to work was essential. Spielberg along with the Columbia advertising department also worked hard to create an advertising campaign that would provoke a sense of wonder and fascination. Several dozen designs were created but rejected by Spielberg who wanted simplicity and wanted the same image used world-wide. He envisioned a long road in the country with a glimmering light at the end. The artists went to work and the famous image that covered books, posters, soundtracks and souvenir books was born. This is an image that still lives on in people's minds and when one sees it, even without the film title, usually know exactly to what film it pertains. It won several awards in advertising and awards with-in the movie industry.

Dolby sound

In 1979, the name Dolby for millions of hi-fi and stereo cassette owners had grown to mean the finest, truest sound possible. Motion picture audiences who had experienced the Dolby sound system in such films as Star Wars and "A Star Is Born" began to recognize the added dimension of entertainment they could expect when they saw the name Dolby. Soon they would experience the remarkable contribution the Dolby system made to the total enjoyment impact of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film was released with Dolby encoded prints in 70mm six track stereo in selected theaters and in 35mm stereo optical nationally. Keeping in mind that the huge 18 to 35 year old audience was the same audience who enthusiastically purchased Dolby equipped stereo cassettes and playback machines, and automatically recognized what the name Dolby meant in terms of entertainment, many experiencing it with Star Wars, Columbia prepared special advertising-publicity-promotional material for all theaters using the system with the film.

Columbia heavily urged theaters equipped with Dolby to take advantage of the material to generate cross-plugging tie-ins with every major store specializing in sales of hi-fi and stereo equipment (e.g. Radio Shack) as well as department and variety chain stores carrying these items. They urges theaters to make each of these sites a showcase for Close Encounters of the Third Kind by posting one-sheets and stills,in their front windows and in-store displays...combining Dolby and the movie and Dolby equipment the store sells. They provided stores a supply of Close Encounters of the Third Kind iron-on patches and T-shirts that could be offered to the store's customers who bought Dolby equipment. Columbia Suggested that the store tie in which a local radio contest promotion would work well by contributing Dolby equipment for prizes, and that it could use any of the contest promotions for their own in-store promotions which they could advertise in newspapers and radio. The link between Dolby and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — Dolby stereo equipment which is heavily advertised and promoted — and stores selling Dolby equipment — could be forged into a chain of excitement that turned-on the huge 18 to 35 years of age audience for each engagement.

Italian poster

At the time, Dolby sound was relatively new, its biggest claim to fame to date was Star Wars, in which hundreds of theaters converted to Dolby stereo. By the time Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released, hundreds of additional theaters had installed the equipment, and in talking with Dolby for this column, there was a big upsurge in installations prior to (and due to) the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While the larger cities by this time had many of the theaters equipped, smaller town across the country and indeed around the world began equipping their theaters for Dolby Stereo. In 1965, Dolby first introduced Dolby A noise reduction for the professional market. That was followed by Dolby B for consumer products in 1968. By 1970, Harman Kardon had equipped their first cassette tape recorder with Dolby with others following. In 1976, Dolby introduced Dolby Stereoฎ, a highly practical 35 mm stereo optical release print format. The same year, Dolby introduced Dolby Surround with "A Star is Born," which encoded the two tracks of any stereo source with four-channel surround sound and in 1984 Dolby released AC-1, their first digital encoding system. 1991 brought Dolby AC-3, now known as Dolby Digital, its first application was as a sound format for films. In 2005, Dolby True HD was introduced for HD-DVD and Blu-ray disc. And two years ago in 2010, Dolby held the first public demonstration of 5.1-channel surround sound on a mobile phone using Dolby Mobile technology.

Romanian poster

Merchandising Close Encounters

T-shirts, posters, souvenir books, paperbacks, hardcover and photo-novel books, toys, apparel, wall decorations, belt buckles and jigsaw puzzles — all bearing the distinctive ad art look for Close Encounters of the Third Kind were available at thousands of the nation's stores participating in the mighty merchandising campaign. Columbia Pictures set up deals with over one hundred nationwide companies that included products that had to do with the movie, and some were merchandised as UFO material.

Close Encounters merchandise

UFO Phenomenon

"We are not alone..." That thought ran through the Close Encounters of the Third Kind campaign, linking the reality of UFO phenomena with the imagery and dramatic excitement on screen. It was the basis for two exceptional accessories which Columbia created to back the movie's engagement. The first was a special UFO one-sheet which bluntly states the facts of UFO sightings throughout the world. The upper portion of the poster is Columbia's powerful key art — a desolate road and a glowing starry sky. Below, moviegoers would discover that "every fifteen minutes, someone sees a UFO"...that they range in shape and size from tiny "luminous tear drops" to glowing projectiles as large as a football field... that UFO experiences are classified under three kinds of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of which the "third kind" is the most extraordinary, contact with alien beings. It was an intriguing second one-sheet to diversify a theater's attention getter for wild posting.

Special event on Hungarian Filmmakers in Hollywood included Close Encounters

The second promotion piece was a UFO sighting report, in the form of a strikingly graphic gatefold brochure. Again, Columbia's ad campaign was combined with UFO fact. But primarily, it was a self-addressed mailer on which anyone who thought he'd seen a UFO — and fifteen million Americans already had — could describe the experience to the Center for UFO Studies. The sighting report provided a dramatic adjunct to the promotion effort. But it had to be distributed away from the theater. Paperback retailers, planetariums, libraries, schools and community centers were again ideal outlets. So were astronomy, sci-fi and UFO clubs —whether privately organized or linked to schools or colleges. Another approach was to give the report to groups whose members seemed most likely to have a UFO experience — private airplane pilots, members of law enforcement agencies, power repairmen (like the character Richard Dreyfuss portrays in the picture,) truckers, and other night workers whose jobs take them out into the open. Theaters were urged to distribute sighting reports to the press, with your other publicity material, to make the key point . . . that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is based on a mystery as vast as the universe itself.

In 1977 a CE3K Skywatchers Club was started
Radio advertising campaigns

Radio was a powerful and imaginative part of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind campaign. But only if it was effectively used. The promotions were to be limited to intelligent, articulate on-air personalities...preferably those with some knowledge of UFO phenomena or a lively, open-minded interest in the subject. They were not be handled jokingly or directed at the "lunatic fringe". If there was any risk of that happening, theaters were urged to pass on a promotion, no matter how attractive it appeared. There were bound to be other radio personalities who shared the conviction that "we are not alone..."

The following were radio spots issued by Columbia Pictures. They were sent on 45rpm records, and also in script form for theater managers to give to their favorite DJ's to dramatize:

• Who or what is out there? Most scientists agree with Dr. J. Allen Hynek that to assume we are the only life in the universe is "unthinkable". They believe that there are literally billions of planets, in other solar systems, with the capacity to support life. Does that life resemble human or animal life on Earth? Are there civilizations in space whose science surpasses ours? Have they bridged the vast light year gap to observe or visit us? Does that explain UFO phenomena? Or will the answer, when it comes, prove even more traumatic?

Close Encounters of the Third Kind comes to the screen in the midst of one of the most heated controversies of our time. Expert opinion ranges from the firm conviction that, at this moment, we are being watched by extraterrestrial forces..Watch in amazement Close Encounters of the Third Kind. now showing at a theater near you.

Cracked Magazine poster

• Do you believe that you have had a close encounter? If you do... you're in good company. More than fifteen million Americans have filed UFO sighting reports, including President Carter, Governor Gilligan of Ohio and astronauts James McDivitt and Gordon Cooper. We invite all listeners to hone in their own intriguing, baffling, dramatic UFO experiences. Those that merit further inquiry will be submitted to the Center for UFO Studies, headed by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, for investigation and you will receive free passes to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (To accomplish this, the radio station would reprint the UFO Sighting Report for those listeners who genuinely suspected they may have had a "close encounter". By using a telephone delay system, the host would screen out the hoax and crank calls which would detract from the provocative premise of the promotion. All callers whose stories were aired would receive some reward related to the movie...a Close Encounters of the Third Kind iron-on patch...a L.P. record album... a subscription to the UFO Reporter... copies of both Steven Spielberg's novelized screenplay and "The Hynek UFO Report."

Close Encounters made dozens of magazine covers when released

• If you could ask one question of an extraterrestrial visitor, what would you ask? This is a radio switch on the Scholastic contest. The contest would be preceded bv an intriguing description of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then listeners should be challenged to ask one — and only one — question of an alien visitor. Answers would be phoned in or mailed in on the station's option. Again, iron-on patches...T-shirts...posters...and paperbacks or movie passes made excellent prizes. And since the contest would result in one first place winner, he (or she) should receive a reward worth vying for, like a powerful pair of binoculars or a super 8mm camera outfit, in keeping with the Close Encounters of the Third Kind theme. Alternate versions of the contests was created by varying the questions. For example... "An extraterrestrial visitor can take ten items back to his own planet to describe life on Earth. What ten items would you choose?" "Where on Earth would you want an alien visitor to land... and why?" "What is the most important thing about life on Earth you'd want a UFO'er to know?" These contests had the same objective...challenging listeners to use their own imaginations...luring them toward the challenging premise of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Original lobby card set.

• The sound of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Throughout the film, five haunting musical notes are heard. Invariably, they signal some startling new surprise. Theaters were urged to use those five notes as the basis for an intriguing radio contest, scattered through the broadcast day. The idea is that whenever they were heard...between records...during a just about any time...listeners would rush to the phone to associate them with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The first ten people to reach the station received Close Encounters of the Third Kind merchandise like T-shirts, paperbacks, posters, iron-on patches, etc. It was an ideal contest for a tie-in with major retail outlets which is featuring Close Encounters of the Third Kind merchandise. And from the station's standpoint, it was an effective way to keep audiences tuned to their station alone.

Special Edition reissue lobby card set, notice that since the film had already been released, more detailed images of the final sequence were included here and not on the original lobby cards. (above)

Filming formats, Premiere and Theatrical engagements

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was filmed in 35mm with Panavision cameras and lenses with color by Metrocolor in Culver City, CA with a budget of just under $20 million. Negative format was 35mm Eastman 100T 5247 and the 65mm blow-ups were on Eastman 100T 5254. Many of the special effects were shot in Super Panavision 70. The 70mm prints had an aspect ratio of 2.20:1, 35mm 2.35:1. 6-track stereo accompanied the 70mm engagements while 4 track stereo for 35mm.

The film had a special showing on November 7, 1977 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. Attending was John Belushi, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Burnadette Peters, and of course the cast and some of the crew and a slew of Broadway stars along with more Hollywood royalty. The official New York premiere occurred November 15, 1977. The film had a Royal performance on March 13, 1978 at the Odeon in Leicester Square in the U.K.. Close Encounters of the Third Kind grossed $300 million dollars. If Jaws had not already cemented Spielberg's name in the fine Directors of Hollywood league, certainly Close Encounters of the Third Kind did just that, and basically gave him freedom to pick and choose the films he wanted to make from that period on.

When Close Encounters premiered at the Ziegfeld, they added bolted speakers with 3/4" plywood front baffles (later a THX technique), 8 Cerwin-Vega Baby Earthquake subwoofers and 21 Bose 901 surrounds powered by 3500 watts (a lot for the time) and achieving a clean 110db sound level. The film played at the Ziegfeld for 23 weeks. The Special Edition later played for 4 weeks.

Poster from 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival

"It deserves an historic place in movie entertainment."
Jack Kroll, Newsweek

"Spielberg has taken the standard science fiction plot, stood it on its head and shaken some sense into it."
David Castell, Films Illustrated

Steven Spielberg's giant, spectacular "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which opened at the Ziegfeld Theater yesterday, is the best – and most elaborate – 1950's science fiction movie ever made, a work that borrows its narrative shape and its concerns from those earlier films, but enhances them with what looks like the latest developments in movie and space technology. If, indeed, we are not alone, it would be fun to believe that the creatures who may one day visit us are of the order the Mr. Spielberg has conceived – with, I should add, a certain amount of courage and an entirely straight face.
Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"God is up there in a crystal-chandelier spaceship and He likes us."
Pauline Kael

"A stunning confection of innocent charm, infectious optimism, suburban autobiography and cathedral-like beauty, Close Encounters ranks among the most personal blockbusters ever released by a Hollywood studio. And one of the finest."
Ian Freer, Empire

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is a daring film concept which in its special and technical effects has been superbly realized. Steven Spielberg's film climaxes in final 35 minutes with an almost ethereal confrontation with life forms from another world; the first 100 minutes, however, are somewhat redundant in exposition and irritating in tone. Yet much advance public interest gives the Columbia Pictures release a strong commercial potential.
A.D. Murphey, Variety Magazine.

"A celebration not only of children's dreams but also of the movies that help find those dreams."
Frank Rich, Time magazine

"The final 30 minutes are shot through with trademark Spielberg visual mystery and splendour that makes his brand of cinema perpetually exciting.
Almar Hafildason, BBC

These were the tickets for the press screening

And the few negative reviews that were very rare:

"This might be the most expensive gibberish ever put on screen."
Rex Reed

"The dumbest story ever told."
Molly Haskell, New York magazine

(clockwise)Spielberg at 1978 Royal Performance, Leicester Square Premiere, Cinerama Dome (Los Angeles) showing showed no shortage of patrons!


Close Encounters received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Director (Spielberg). It won a special achievement award for Frank E. Warner for sound effects editing, and an Oscar for Best Cinematography. But the awards didn't end there. Spielberg took home the Saturn Award for Best Director, Best Writing, and John Williams for Best Musical score. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Production Design/Art Direction, a Grammy for best original score and a citation fron the National Board of Review. In 2007 the film was added to the prestigious National Film Registry.

The Extended Cut

When Close Encounters was released, Spielberg told Columbia that he had been working on a sequel but did not give details of the story or characters. Columbia was extremely interested in financing this sequel and gave the go-ahead for a sequel and Spielberg stated that he was writing one in early 1978 and would begin shooting that summer.

Poster for the special edition

It wasn't until 1979 that Spielberg wrote a story for the sequel entitled 'Night Skies' which he turned over to writer-director John Sayles. He actually paid Nasa $500 to reserve space in the cargo bay of a space flight because he wanted to film the moon and the earth from space. But that project never came to fruition , so Spielberg suggested restructuring of the original into a special edition of the film and the studio agreed and Steven Spielberg released a special edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that would cut seven scenes from the original 135 minute cut. Six additional scenes were added to the special edition, which was actually three minutes shorter than the original but would show Richard Drefuss's character entering the mothership. The Blu-ray contains both of these versions in addition to a third.

UPDATE: 70mm engagements

World Premiere held on November 15, 1977 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York

Released 16 November 1977
New York (Manhattan): [Walter Reade] Ziegfeld

Released 18 November 1977
Los Angeles (Hollywood): [Pacific] Cinerama Dome

Released 14 December 1977


Costa Mesa: [Mann] South Coast Plaza, Los Angeles (Hollywood): [SRO] Paramount (cont. from Cinerama Dome), Lakewood: [Pacific] Lakewood Center, Orange: [Syufy] Cinedome, Pasadena: [SRO] Hastings, San Diego: [Mann] Cinema 21, San Francisco: [UA] Coronet, Santa Clara: [UA] Cinema 150


Denver: [Cooper Highland] Cooper


Honolulu: [Consolidated] Waikiki 3


Belleville: [BAC] Cinema, Calumet City: [Plitt] River Oaks, Chicago: [Plitt] Esquire, Evergreen Park: [M&R] Evergreen, Skokie: [M&R] Old Orchard


Louisville: [Redstone] Showcase


Boston: [Sack] Cinema 57


Livonia: [Nicholas George] Mai Kai, Southfield: [Nicholas George] Americana, Southgate: [Nicholas George] Southgate,


Paramus: [RKO-Stanley Warner] Triplex Paramus


Pittsford: [Loews] Pittsford Triplex


Toledo: [Redstone] Showcase


Gresham: [Moyer] Rose Moyer, Portland: [Luxury] Eastgate


Philadelphia: [Sameric] Sameric


Fort Worth: [ABC] Ridglea, Houston: [ABC] Alabama, Houston: [Loews] Town and Country Village


Salt Lake City: [Plitt] Regency


West Allis: [Marcus] Southtown

Released 21 December 1977


Monterey: [Kindair] Cinema 70, Palm Springs: [Metropolitan] Camelot, Santa Barbara: [Metropolitan] Granada


AUSTRALIA (Released 16 March 1978)

Sydney: Hoyts

DENMARK (Released 3 March 1978)

Copenhagen: 3 Falke Bio

MEXICO (Released 30 June 1978)

Mexico City: Hollywood Cinerama

SWEDEN (Released 3 March 1978)

Stockholm: Astoria

UNITED KINGDOM (Released 13 March 1978)

London: Odeon Leicester Square

All of the engagements included in this document were presented in 70mm. The majority of the prints were in six-track Dolby Stereo. Selected engagements were in non-Dolby-encoded six-track stereo, and others were six-track Dolby Stereo prints booked into theatres that had non-Dolby-brand, Dolby-compatible equipment. These presentation variations were not always clearly accounted for on theatre marquees and in the original newspaper advertisement materials.

The Rolling Roadshow

Founded in 1997 in Austin, Texas by Tim and Karrie League, The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema hosts 35mm screenings of movies in famous places all over the world with their traveling portable projection system and a blow-up-screen. Past events had included Fistful of dollars in Cortijo el Sotillo, Spain, A Christmas Story in Cleveland, OH, The Lost Boys in Santa Cruz, CA, It Came From Outer Space 3D in Roswell, NM, The Goonies in Astoria, OR, The Warriors in Coney Island, NY, Clerks in Red Bank, NJ, Jaws at Martha's Vineyard, MA, Field of Dreams at the Field of Dreams, IA, The Shining at the Stanley Hotel, CO, Poseidon Adventure on the Queen Mary, CA, Escape from Alcatraz on Alcatraz, CA.

Original poster for the Rolling Roadshow created by artist J. Ryan

They did a special showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind at Devil's Tower, Wyoming. These had turned into very popular events with hundreds gathering for the showing, some traveling around the world to attend seeing these films on their actual locations. Many called it the ultimate thrill to see the movie at the actual location of the final incredible half-hour of the film.

Photo taken at the Rolling Roadshow for Close Encounters of the Third Kind at Devil's Tower, Wyoming

One of Spielberg's most popular films, Close Encounters is among his first "golden days" group of pictures which some consider their favorites of the director. The film's message and summary will live on for years to come, the fact that, "We are not alone."

To discuss this and other Silver Screen columns, join us in The Silver Screen forum thread Here

All materials in this and other Silver Screen columns are copyright their respective studios, and the collection of Robert Siegel. This edition all artwork, publicity and production photos/drawings original copyright Sony/Columbia Pictures. Special thanks to member Michael Coate for 70mm playdates.

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