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Recalling The Cinematic Gold of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Some thought the title character of the movie was charming. Others felt the extraterrestrial was a bit frightening. But in the end, the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial stole viewers’ hearts and became cinematic history. 

Released on June 11, 1982, E.T. went on to surpass Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time, a record it held until Jurassic Park became a megahit in 1993. At the 55th annual Academy Awards, E.T. received nine nominations and won four, along with two Golden Globe awards. But the accolades didn’t end there:  Following the movie’s United Nations screening in 1982, director Steven Spielberg received a UN Peace Medal, and in 1994, E.T. was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

An undeniable success, Spielberg’s movie was heralded at the time by renowned film critic Roger Ebert as, “…not simply a good movie. It is one of those movies that brush away our cautions and win our hearts.”

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The Thinking Behind The Movie

Spielberg was no stranger to success:  Two of his previous films, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, brought audiences to the cinema in droves and brought Spielberg a reputation for excellence in filmmaking. The Columbia motion picture studio asked Spielberg to create a sequel to Close Encounters, but Spielberg balked and instead considered making a movie that focused on an alien who didn’t return to the mothership at the film’s end. He was certain of one thing:  At that time, he didn’t want to create a dark film where people or families were terrorized by an alien – that would be front and center in a film he would later produce, Poltergeist.

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Creating The E.T. Character…

From the get-go, Spielberg wanted the movie’s central character to be an alien that would elicit sympathy from the audience. The E.T. character was initially inspired by a painting by Carlo Rambaldi that featured a form with a long neck, stumpy legs, an oblong head, and very large eyes. Rambaldi’s works were based on photographs of elderly people living during the Great Depression, as well as photos of Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, and Albert Einstein.

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…And Bringing It To Life

Spielberg was determined to create a film that was as realistic as possible, and that would serve as a vehicle for bringing an animatronic puppet to life as a lovable alien.  To ensure that E.T.’s eyes would soulfully engage with the audience, producer           Kathleen Kennedy studied real and glass eyes at the Jules Stein Eye Institute, and then hired staff members from the institute to help create E.T.’s eyes. 

Once the design of E.T. was complete, efforts began to bring the animatronic puppet to life and enable it to function in a multitude of settings within the film. Some of the movie sets were built on stilts, which allowed the puppet to be bolted down while puppeteers in another room managed their overall movements. 

E.T.’s hand movements were created by a mime wearing sleeve-length gloves designed to mimic the look of E.T.’s skin. Additionally, three actors, dressed in special E.T. suits, were hired to perform scenes where the character appeared to walk about. 

Producing E.T.’s voice proved equally complex, requiring a combination of 18 different voices. contributors. Sound designer Ben Burtt hired Pat Welsh for much of the voiceover work and mixed her raspy voice with the breathing sounds of various animals. Worthy of note:  E.T.’s unforgettable ‘burp’ was provided by a USC professor.

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Casting The Roles

The movie’s central character, E. T., was supported by several other characters who would be part of his journey on earth. Drew Barrymore was the first actor cast; it was clear she had charmed Spielberg during their first meeting. At her audition, she allegedly boasted that she was a drummer in the punk band the Purple People Eaters; her impressive imagination helped her land the role of Gertie. Henry Thomas also aced an unconventional audition, during which Spielberg directed him to improvise a scene where an agent is trying to take away his best friend, who happens to be an alien. Thomas began crying while pleading with the ‘agent’, played by casting director Mike Fenton, to not take his friend away from him.

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Make The Unreal More Realistic

It’s become one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history: A young boy and his alien friend flying across a billowing, luminous full moon. To set the scene, the crew filmed a low moon, then later added the Elliott and E.T. characters using special effects. 

Spielberg also cast doctors from the USC Medical Center in the roles of the medical personnel who ultimately try to save E.T.’s life. He believed it was the best way to make the technical medical dialogue used during the scene seem both effortless and realistic.

Because Spielberg believed it was important for the movie’s young actors to create convincing emotional performances, he shot the film in rough chronological order. He also requested that the special effects designers test E.T.’s movements before production began in order to ensure that E.T. presented as a living, feeling alien. Without a doubt, his commitment to realism worked well:  Drew Barrymore’s heartfelt crying when E.T. ‘dies’ was, in fact, real as she truly believed that her friend had died.