Dr Plonk

Why a silent comedy? (Why not?)

Dr Plonk (the film) was invented in December 2005, when writer/director Rolf de Heer opened a refrigerator at his office that contained 20,000 feet of old bits of unexposed film stock. It was truly a lightglobe moment, as he visualised what these scraps might look like if run through a camera...likely just as bad as one of the old silent films and hey presto, there's an idea for a film and here's already half the stock for it instead of having to throw it away.

What, however, makes anyone think that a contemporary audience will go for an old-style black and white silent comedy? Give it contemporary relevance, of course (well that was recently proved wrong!). But it still needs to be grounded in the past, which means shooting it all in contemporary times is not so interesting. Two time spans are required...last century and this century. And there's really only one way to travel between centuries, and that's with a time machine.

That being established, thoughts turn to how. Well to get the same feel as an old film, it'll have to be shot like an old film, with a very small crew, sort of make it up as you go, no lighting, using a handcranked camera and in black and white. All very useful, because most of that costs less than it costs to make films in the conventional manner, and if this thing is to be financed, it had better sit at a pretty low budget.

A long, long shoot will be needed, to discover how to do this in the first place and to have plenty of time to rehearse and invent on set, because all the tricks, stunts and special effects have to be done within the frame, rather than fudging it by cutting or in post-production.

The smaller the crew, the longer a shoot can be afforded. Better have someone to crank the camera and take light readings; and a stunt co-ordinator even though they didn't have them in the old days but there are now issues of work place safety and actors are no longer also stunt performers, as they were back then; and with a time machine going back and forth we'd better have a special effects coordinator, for all those puffs of smoke and the like; and someone for wardrobe and props and the like; and we'll probably need someone who's generally handy, can turn their mind and hands to fixing and carrying and creating things when needed; plus, of course, a director, can't really do without one of those. And that's really it, a core on-set crew of six, and we'll pick up any additional help required as needed. And won't that be a lovely way to make a film? And it was.

The Silent Performers

Dr Plonk (the character) was invented to fulfil the need of having a character who had the capacity to create a time machine back in 1907, so a famous scientist and inventor was only logical. At about this time, producer Rolf de Heer began to think about how to finance the film, and that he'd need actors who might get financiers excited, or at least intrigued. Maybe the thing to do would be to populate the film with people who had a lot of physical skills, like that busker, Mr Spin, who plays Rundle Mall in Adelaide and juggles and balances and can really draw a crowd. So Mr Spin alias Nigel Martin alias Nigel Lunghi was tracked down and talked to and cast, and the character of Dr Plonk really started to be formed around him. And indeed financiers were intrigued by the idea of casting a street performer.

Then one of the financiers suggested actor Paul Blackwell, which was not a hard thing to take on board because Paul is so right for a film like this, great comedy skills and a great inventor of business (he'd worked with de Heer 10 years previously). Hence the character of Paulus, Plonk's deaf and mute sidekick, was created, to take full advantage of the range of Paul's skills. And Paul the person just happened to have a little dog called Reg, who was obsessed with balls; Tiberius was created.

Dr Plonk needed a wife of course, and what better wife than Magda Szubanski, who was cast for her comic skills and suitability for the role, but whose casting just happened to make all the financiers terribly happy.

All well and good having a cast of talent, but the problem still remains as to how to have them act in a style that is both true to the past yet believable to a contemporary audience. Pure luck or stroke of genius? The character of Paulus can't hear. How do you attract his attention? Kick him in the bum. How do you speak to him? Eloquent gesture. End of problem.

The Art of the Hand-Cranked Camera

It's a lunatic concept, really, trying to use 100-year-old technology to make a modern day feature film. It doesn't work any more.

A ninety-year-old Universal camera was bought. It was loaded with contemporary film to be tested. The film fits, but how do you focus it? Ah, there's this little window here, behind the gate. You should be able to see an image on the back of the film.

But you can't. Film stocks of today aren't like film stocks of the past, you can't see images through them, there's too much emulsion now. Sell the camera.

Slowly all ideas of precisely duplicating the past are consigned to the rubbish bin. A more modern camera is adapted to take a handcranking mechanism. Old lenses are sourced, but they're only half as old as they should be. The real old ones don't fit. Still, there's something that'll work. Now to crank it.

How fast is eighteen frames a second? Or sixteen? Or seventeen? In the old days they used to sing or hum little ditties to keep time, but who knows what ditties they sang anymore? And what if you're like Dr Plonk's cranker Judd, who can't sing and crank at the same time? Enter new technology: a digital tachometer to work out speed; then a digital metronome attached to the camera and fitted right next to the cranker's ear. Simply dial in the required speed, listen to the tick and crank.

And film stock...black and white stock, and its processing, is simply too expensive for the budget, and besides, there's already the 20,000 feet of old colour stock, some of it ten years out of date. A search is on for more old stock, and anything will do: leftovers from other films; donations from other people's fridges; stock resold cheaply because it's been out in the sun and not used. Doesn't matter if it doesn't match, stock never used to match in the old days either.

Add a tripod and a hefty head to minimise camera movement due to hand-cranking, and that's practically the equipment needed to shoot the film.

The Sound Recordist in Silent Film

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What Does a Time Machine Look Like?

A time machine can look like anything at all, really, there being no convincing precedent for such an instrument. And Dr Plonk being a comedy, and set initially in 1907, and being a silent comedy at that, where all sorts of silliness is allowed, the three main architects of the look and function of the time machine (the director, the designer and constructor Dennis Presello) decided to have some fun with it.

A rough look was arrived at by the exchange of drawings and ideas. Dennis then went about building, and whilst building, adding (depending on what he could find as materials at the dump). By the time he'd finished it took three people to operate the machine at full function, just about everything being manual rather than motorised.

And so it was with the Plonkmobile. At first design and initial construction phase it was not meant to be self-propelling, but the temptation to have it so proved too much. "Why didn't you tell me so before?" said Dennis to the damn director, "I would have designed it differently!"

But Dennis was up to the task, and with various chains and sprockets, and a starter motor and car battery, the Plonkmobile became indeed mobile.

Meanwhile designer Beverley was grappling with the laboratory set, as well as costumes in two different centuries. Red and green might be colours that we see as opposites, but in black and white they're virtually the same. Many digital stills printed in B&W later, she found her colour combinations and began work on the set (with a little help from the local dump). When the first test footage of the lab was screened, it looked like... well, it looked like a 1907 B&W movie.


A leisurely 12 week winter shoot was embarked upon...leisurely because of its length, but also because for the exteriors there was no artificial lighting, and winter shooting hours are consequently quite short.

It was quite a peculiar way to shoot. Some scenes required a crew of only two (camera and director) and cast of one (Dr Plonk), since the actors largely did their own makeup and wardrobe. At these times it was simply a matter of putting the camera down in the right spot, working out a bit of the action and cranking.

There was a sort of schedule, but this was fairly fluid depending on the mood and inclination of the director. One example is scene 171, which, in the script, reads just four words..."The police chase Plonk.". The entire six person crew plus three cast turned up to shoot it on its scheduled day, but most were sent away as the director said "I don't feel like shooting this today". Cast, director and stunt co-ordinator stayed behind and spent the day working out what these four words meant, or what they could mean.

In the end they meant a lot, ten days of shooting in fact, and taking up almost an eighth of the film, with a chase sequence involving trolleys, ladders, scaffolds, barrels, cars, rafters and high wire tricks... just like in the old days.

Only in the studio set, reduced from six weeks to four due to the profligacy of the chase sequence, were shooting days anything like normal. There was a lighting rig of five hundred compact fluorescent tubes to replicate daylight (hey presto, flick a switch and we're lit) so time could be spent rehearsing, working out routines and getting the comic timing right, without any regard to technical limitations (sound, lighting) so often present on a conventional set.

Although it was all approached seriously, actors and crew had fun on the shoot, a far cry from the usual stresses of making a film.