Cary Guffey's performances were so good that they only ever had to do one or two takes of each shot he was in. He became known as One-Take Cary on the set, and Steven Spielberg had a t-shirt printed up for him with the phrase written on it.
During the dinner scene just before Roy piles on the mashed potatoes, you can hear the little girl say, "There's a dead fly in my potatoes." This was unscripted and almost caused the rest of the cast to laugh. The scene was kept as-is.
The situation on U.S. Navy Flight 19, from which the airplanes that appear in the Mexican desert came from, disappeared off Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in December 1945. No trace has ever been found of "the Lost Flight 19" which left the Naval Air Station near there in 1945.
Paul Schrader wrote the original script. When Steven Spielberg changed a great deal of it, Schrader decided to remove his credit. Since the film couldn't be left with no credit for writing, Spielberg claimed it for himself.
François Truffaut's English was not strong. In order to get through some of his scenes, he stuck pieces of paper with his lines on them on various objects where he could read from them but the camera would not pick them up. In one case, as he arguing stands face to face with an Army officer (who has his back to the camera), he is in fact reading his lines off a card pinned to the man's chest. (He had shown the same trick being used with an actress who was having trouble with her lines in his own Day for Night (1973) (Day for Night), in which he played the director of the movie-within-the-movie.)
Real air traffic controllers were used in the opening sequence. The synthesizer technician/performer was the actual engineer sent by ARP Instruments to install the synthesizer equipment (ARP 2500) on the set. Steven Spielberg watched his expert playing of the equipment and immediately cast him for the role. The name of the ARP engineer is Philip Dodds and he is actually mentioned in the credits.
CE3K was partly inspired by an experience from Steven Spielberg's childhood, when without advance warning, his parents rushed the children into their car one night, drove to an area where many others were gathered, and watched a spectacular meteor shower.
In the scene where Ronnie cuts out a newspaper article about the UFO sightings, the night after Roy's first glimpse of the UFOs, an article on Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) appears on either side of the UFO article.
J. Allen Hynek was a famous ufologist and too the creator of the diverse kinds of contact with extra-terrestrial life, explained in the book "The UFO Experience: A Scientific Study" (1972). First kind: sighting of an one or more UFOs. Second kind: observation of physical evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation. Third kind: contact with one or more extra-terrestrials.
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond overexposed the scenes with the extraterrestrials deliberately so they would appear fuzzy and diffuse. When producer Julia Phillips saw the footage, she thought he'd made a mistake and ordered the film re-processed so that the aliens came out with a normal contrast, and their rubber heads and suits were obviously fake. She then told Zsigmond he'd botched up the filming and it looked awful. The upset Zsigmond told the lab to reprocess the film the way he originally said and everything looked fine in dailies the next day.
The John Williams score was created before the film was edited. Steven Spielberg edited the film to match the music, a reverse of what is usually done in the film scoring process. Both Spielberg and Williams felt that it ultimately gave the film a lyrical feel.
Tuba player Jim Self is the "musical voice" of the mother-ship in the climactic scene when the big ship comes down on Devils Tower. Steven Spielberg and John Williams chose the tuba as the voice of the mother-ship because the difficulty of playing the instrument added a human characteristic to the aliens.
Bob Balaban had not spoken French since high school. When Spielberg, over the phone, asked if he did spoke French, he answered in bad French that he did not speak much, half hoping that someone in the room, overhearing the call, could at least know enough French to hear that he was no good at it. No one did. Balaban auditioned in French. The actor attended Berlitz classes and spent hours talking to Truffaut in preparation for his role. In 1980 the two filmed additional footage for the revised Special Edition of "Encounters."
The hand signals used by the aliens are actually used by classroom teachers to teach the solfege scale. They were invented by the Reverend John Curwen, an English Congregationalist minister, and then adapted by composer Zoltán Kodály.
According to Julia Phillips in her autobiography "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again", she and the studio did not want to meet Richard Dreyfuss' price of $500,000 plus gross points to play Roy Neary and offered the script to Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, and Gene Hackman. Pacino wasn't interested, and Nicholson thought that any actor would be overwhelmed by the special effects. Hackman turned down the role because he was in a troubled marriage and could not spend 16 weeks outside of Los Angeles on location-shooting. The studio suggested James Caan, but his agent wanted $1 million plus 10% of the gross. Phillips went back to Dreyfuss and cut his deal back a bit, and he became immortalized on film as Roy Neary.
In the scene where Barry (Cary Guffey) says, "Toys!" as he looks out the window and spots the UFOs, Steven Spielberg actually pulled out a toy car behind the camera to cause Barry's unexpected one-take reaction.
The humans communicate with the aliens by making music with their computers. Writer-director Steven Spielberg's mother was a musician and his father was a computer scientist. Spielberg himself had not thought of this until it was pointed out by James Lipton in an interview on Inside the Actors Studio (1994).
Steven Spielberg was originally aiming for a Summer 1978 release date for CE3K, but Columbia Pictures - on the verge of bankruptcy - spurred him to finish it for late 1977. This meant that Spielberg felt rushed, and had left important elements out of the film. Because of the large success of CE3K on its first theatrical run, Columbia was happy to give Spielberg another $2 million to film the interior of the alien spaceship for "The Special Edition". In retrospect, Spielberg now acknowledges that doing all of this addition was unnecessary.
It is possible to see an upside down R2-D2 (from Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977), etc) in part of the large spacecraft that flies over Devils Tower. The SFX people needed more detail, and so supposedly there are many more such items, such as a shark from Jaws (1975) (also directed by Steven Spielberg), etc. R2-D2 is visible as Jillian first sees the mothership up close from her hiding place in the rocks.
Richard Dreyfuss had become quite interested in the ideas behind "CE3K" when he had heard Steven Spielberg talking about them on the set of Jaws (1975). When Dreyfus heard that casting for "CE3K" was underway, he began a concerted effort to persuade the director to take him on.
The mothership is now located at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, south of the Dulles Airport, in Chantilly, VA. Visible on it are a miniature R2-D2, a mailbox, a cemetery, and models of the airplanes that were abducted by the ship.
The darkening sky and the shape of the clouds forming in the scene before Jilian's son gets abducted by the aliens resembles that of the "Angel of Death" in The Ten Commandments (1956) that comes into the sky before the slaying of all the firstborn of Egypt begins. Also, Roy and his family are watching this movie on TV before he is called to work after the power failure.
Steven Spielberg knew only vaguely what the mothership would look like when he was filming the live action scenes. Basically he decided it would be big and hulk-like, and very dark. While filming in India months later he drove past a giant oil refinery every day and was inspired by the many lights and pipes and outcroppings on the rig to change the look of the spaceship. He now decided it would be brightly lit, which is how it appears in the final film, even though the footage of it casting a dark shadow over the crowd had already been shot.
All of the stars in the background of the night shots, as well as many distant trees, hills, roads, etc. were special effects and not real. This is true even in non-special effect shots, such as when Neary's truck is just driving along country roads.
The UFO landing site built for the movie was 27 m high, 137 m long, and 76 m wide, making it the largest indoor film set ever constructed. The structure included 6.4 km of scaffolding, 1570 square metres of fibreglass, and 2740 square metres of nylon canopy.
One early concept for interpreting the aliens included an orangutan on roller skates. The idea did not work, because the orangutan became very frightened the second its roller skates touched the ground, and it kept grabbing onto the arms of its caretaker.
Stuntman Craig R. Baxley was injured during the sequence where the police cars are chasing the UFOs on a mountain road. This stunt called for him to skid around a turn, go through a fence and over an embankment, but Baxley was traveling too fast, and he overshot the area where he was supposed to land. His car landed too hard and, even though he was wearing a helmet, he received head injuries. He was hospitalized for several days.
The federal agent-types on stage with Lacombe during the auditorium scene where he teaches the hand signals were real federal agents. Similarly some of the extras who played scientists in the end sequence were real scientists. However, one of the "agents" was actually the principal of Foley High School in Foley AL, a town near Mobile AL, and was an actor in local theatres.
Despite the title "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", Barry and the other abductees were actually involved in a case of "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind", which means being abducted by extraterrestrial beings. However, among other problems, the phrase "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind" had not been invented yet, and was unnecessary for Steven Spielberg's use.
The film originally ended with the version of When You Wish Upon a Star used in the film Pinocchio (1940), but it tested negatively in previews and was cut. That is why Roy Neary was trying to convince his family to see that film together just before the blackout. The song remains incorporated in the John Williams score, though. A toy can also be heard playing the song's melody right before Roy rips off the top off his sculpture.
A model miniature was used for some of the shots in the climactic scene. At least part of the illumination coming out of the ship was created by a set of Christmas lights strung up on the back of a metal plate, behind little tiny alien figures, creating the silhouetted look we see. This was composited into a shot with real-life actors.
Steven Spielberg was eager to show François Truffaut the giant landing site set, hoping to impress the other director. Truffaut didn't seem to be impressed at all. Spielberg and his crewmates later realized that Truffaut was used to directing movies in small, intimate settings, and Truffaut simply could not grasp the scale of the landing site. When he went into the set of the hotel room where Jillian watches the Devils Tower newscast, Truffaut stood in the middle of the room, raised his arms up, and said, "Now, THIS is a set!"
The nine foot diameter model of the mothership that was used in the final sequences was kept locked up in Steven Spielberg's garage to help prevent pictures of it from appearing in the media before the release of the film.
This is essentially an adult rethink of "Firelight", a movie that Steven Spielberg made as an adolescent. He even gave Douglas Trumbull and Vilmos Zsigmond notes that he'd made at that time, for their work on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".
While making Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg was sure he was in the midst of the most difficult production he would ever have to tackle. He would come to find Close Encounters to be "twice as bad, and twice as expensive, as well."
Steven Spielberg and Joe Alves at first thought they would build the landing site in Monument Valley but realized that would present great difficulties in controlling climate and lighting conditions. They settled on an abandoned hangar near Mobile, Alabama where they thought they'd have greater control over the enormous $700,000 set. Bigger than a football field and six times the size of the largest Hollywood sound stage, the hangar harbored its own climate, trapping humidity that sometimes caused clouds and precipitation during filming. Dozens of very large lights were needed, and the 200 extras involved necessitated careful choreography of movement. All of this meant frequent delays and rising costs. The scenes filmed on this set accounted for only about a fifth of the film's running time but took up easily half of the shooting schedule. Spielberg stated, "That set became our shark on this picture."
To get the spaceships' attention prior to their arrival at Devils Tower, the five notes the scientists play are G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. When they arrive at the tower and are attempting communication, the notes they play are B flat, C, A flat, (octave lower) A flat, E flat.
In the beginning of the film in the Sonoran Desert, from inside one of the World War II airplanes, they pull out a calendar that looks vintage from 1945. Across the grid of the days of a full month on the calendar is plainly seen a light blue logo from the defunct Security National Bank (which did not exist in 1945, either). In the fall of 1972, Security National Bank issued a 1973 calendar that corresponded exactly, month by month, day by day, to the 1945 calendar for fun. Thus, this unique idea was a promotional give away to the bank's customers. The props crew for CE3K probably could not locate an authentic 1945 calendar, so instead they utilized the fake vintage calendar, which was not hard to find in 1976.
In a new technique, the special effects were produced in 70mm. A live action shot which would later have a special effect added, would also be shot in 70mm. The rest of the film was shot in 35mm. When the 70mm special effects shot was overlaid on the 70mm live action, the overall graininess was the same as normal, non-effect 35mm film, thus matching the rest of the film, even after the completed film was blown up to 70mm prints. This was to avoid the effect Steven Spielberg had noticed in previous effects-laden films, where the viewer instinctively knew when a special effect was coming up, because of the change in the grain of the shot.
Steven Spielberg and other producers wanted Walter Cronkite as newsreader for the broadcast that Neary ignores in the living room sculpture scene. However, CBS would not allow Cronkite to take the role, so producers settled on ABC's Howard K. Smith. Unfortunately, the news cutaway scene to Wyoming reporter was filmed before this decision; as a result, the reporter says Order your steak well-done, Walter. In addition, during the interrogation of Neary by Lacombe, Neary shouts "You think I investigate every Walter Cronkite story there is?"
Melinda Dillon was cast largely at the suggestion of director Hal Ashby. He had heard that Steven Spielberg was having difficulty casting the part of Jillian, and Ashby had just completed his movie Bound for Glory (1976) with her in the cast - and liked her work. So Ashby sent Spielberg a couple of film reels containing her acting. Upon seeing those, Speilberg hired Dillon immediately.
Beyond having to manage the myriad of complex technical and artistic details involved, Steven Spielberg would find he also had to spend a lot of time and energy battling the studio for more and more money, a task he wasn't prepared for and didn't like. At one point later in production, the studio refused to shell out several thousand dollars for the effect of the Devil's Tower control room glass shattering and Spielberg used his own money for it.
Vilmos Zsigmond, the director of photography on The Sugarland Express (1974), returned to work with Spielberg after passing up the job of shooting Jaws (1975). He found the director more commanding and less eager to discuss options than previously, but Zsigmond was enthusiastic to be on the picture. "[Close Encounters] had the smell of a great movie. We fell into sandtraps not because anybody made mistakes but because we were making things that had never been done before." Zsigmond found himself blamed for many of those "sandtraps" by producer Julia Phillips and the studio, who almost fired him over his insistence that he needed at least one day to pre-light the enormous set. Nevertheless, Zsigmond refused to give in to pressure to use less lighting, and he was supported in this by Spielberg and especially Trumbull, who knew what it would take to match the scenes to the special effects. After the first two months of shooting in Mobile, when studio executives and financial backers began to show up on set, Phillips insisted on firing him. Several other cinematographers were called as potential replacements--John Alonzo, László Kovács, Ernest Laszlo--but most of them were friends of Zsigmond and agreed that if he couldn't handle the job, no one could.
According to Melinda Dillon, because it was done without rehearsal, the scene in the kitchen with all the objects flying around was truly scary, and her alarmed reactions were often quite real and spontaneous as she tried to protect herself and Cary Guffey.
In an interview for the "making-of" featurette on the DVD release, a grown Cary Guffey said it was embarrassing for him to shoot the scene of him exiting the mother ship because he had to wear ballet slippers to keep from falling on the ramp.
The filming was done under utmost secrecy to keep the element of surprise until it finally became ready for release and also to prevent anyone ripping off the idea and making some quick knockoff of it. Security at the Mobile hangar was so tight that even Steven Spielberg was denied entrance one day when he forgot his ID card.
Gillian's phone number, seen when she tries to dial for help when the aliens come for Barry, is 311-555-2368. This number frequently appeared on phones in Bell Telephone print ads around the late 1960s. Area code 311 is not an Area Code in North America, and it never will be. 311 is used in recent times as a non-emergency number for municipal services.
Neary gives his date of birth as December 4, 1944. This is also the date of birth of Richard Dreyfuss' older brother Lorin Dreyfuss -- and, by coincidence, a year and a day before the disappearance of Flight 19, on which the lost planes in the movie are based.
The huge success of the film made a popular icon of its signature logo, a black-and-white image of a highway receding towards a glowing horizon at night. In 1978, an enterprising group of students from the College of Architecture at Ball State University in Muncie, IN, manufactured and sold a small production run of black T-shirts emulating the logo and typeface of the original, but reading "MUNCIE INDIANA: A Gross Encounter of the Worst Kind." Sales were going well until stories about the shirts appeared in local media, prompting complaints from Columbia Pictures, which was offended about the logo, and the Muncie City Council, which was offended about the slogan.
The organization that Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) leads is called the "Mayflower Project". Its flag is a white one with a black triangle on it, and it can be seen in the secret reunion scene (where Lacombe explains the manual signals for the musical notes) between the American and France flags.
When the aliens visit Jillian's home, there's a shot of the screws in the floor vent unscrewing. This is shown in an extreme close-up. The unscrewing effect is very similar to what we see in the movie version of The War of the Worlds (1953).
During the very beginning of the "space show" at the end of the film, the various dots (ships) during their tricks in the sky, form the "Big Dipper." This takes place just before Roy and Gillian laugh as they watch the objects in the sky.
Famed ufologist J. Allen Hynek - who coined the phrase "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - actually has a cameo in this movie. He can be seen as the gray-haired man with glasses, a pointed beard, and a pipe walking out to see the returnees in the final sequence.
Because the complicated and extensive visual effects were stretching the limits of what had been done before, Steven Spielberg also discovered a difficult new challenge in having to shoot scenes without an exact idea of how they would look when Douglas Trumbull completed them and added them to the film in post-production, months after principal photography was finished. On Jaws, the effects were difficult, but they were mechanical and physical, right there before him every day. The unknown of working around optical effects to be added later meant a more tense on-set atmosphere. Trumbull said, "I'll never be able to thank him enough for having the confidence and the patience to see it through time and not panic. There was enormous pressure on the production all the time from the studio to keep moving on."
The actors had to spend a lot of time acting to objects and things that weren't there and being told by Steven Spielberg what they were looking at and how to react. "For weeks we were just sitting on a rock, shifting positions, pretending to look at the landing site and the sky," Melinda Dillon said. "It was a great acting exercise." François Truffaut, however, found it very difficult, finally giving himself over to be nothing more than another object in the "grand cartoon strip" of 2,000 storyboard sketches Spielberg had shown him. When Richard Dreyfuss saw the final picture, he was upset with several moments of his performance, believing he would have reacted quite differently if he had seen the actual effects.
A digital system called the Electronic Motion Control System was employed to record and program camera movements so they could be duplicated in post-production when putting live-action photography together with the matching miniature effects.
Although Steven Spielberg continued to support Vilmos Zsigmond, creating what the cinematographer called "a very rewarding" experience, Zsigmond was not asked to shoot additional sequences and shots that were needed after the company left Alabama. He believed this was largely the work of Julia Phillips and the studio. Although Zsigmond shot about 90 percent of the picture, additional material (the India sequence, the discovery of the lost Air Force squadron, etc.) was shot by others, primarily William A. Fraker, as well as Douglas Slocombe, John Alonzo, and László Kovács, all of whom received on-screen credit as additional directors of photography, a vindictive move by Phillips, by her own admission.
Douglas Trumbull achieved the dramatic cloud effects by filling a tank half full of salt water with lighter fresh water on top, then injecting paint into the top layer. The paint billowed through the fresh water but flattened out at the top of the heavier salt water, creating the effect we see on screen.
The large, long-armed alien character who came to be known as Puck was a puppet created by marionette maker Bob Baker with an upper torso and head and articulating features for close-ups by Carlo Rambaldi, who had created the ape's face in the remake of King Kong (1976). Eight people operated the mechanisms to control the puppet, and Steven Spielberg was so pleased with it, according to Rambaldi, he often played with it. The face worked particularly well in the moment when the creature exchanges beaming smiles with Lacombe. François Truffaut became so enchanted with it, he would go over to greet it every morning on the set.
After a while, François Truffaut found the long shoot tiring and he was frustrated over not being able to get on with his own directing work. He also got a good dose of Hollywood reality, noting to Teri Garr that for the $250,000 it cost to do a single helicopter shot, he could make an entire movie. Still, the experience gave him good insight into what it takes to act in film. All in all, Truffaut respected Steven Spielberg for his outward calm, patience and good humour and found that despite his own relative lack of experience in front of the camera (having acted only twice in his own movies), "several times during the shooting [Spielberg] made me...come out of myself. Thanks to that, I discovered a real pleasure as an actor." Truffaut also added, "In the face of overwhelming hardships and innumerable complications that would, I suspect, have discouraged most directors, Steven Spielberg's perseverance and fortitude were simply amazing."
During a fierce summer storm, the side of the hangar blew off. Luckily no one was hurt, but the accident caused further delays while it was repaired. Richard Dreyfuss later said, "Part of the shoot was a nightmare. It went from fun to frightening."
While no part of the film was actually shot in Muncie, Indiana, a production team did visit for local details and props, such as the pull-down map of Muncie that Roy consults in his truck. They also visited the bookstore of Ball State University for university memorabilia, such as a fraternity "BSU" paddle visible on Roy's wall, and the red-and-white "BallU" (or U-Ball) T-shirt worn by Roy in the shaving-cream scene.
Marvel Comics published an adaptation of the movie as part of their Super Special series. However, artists were given very little visual references to work with, and were unable to obtain likeness rights for the movie's cast members.
Steven Spielberg was intimidated by the prospect of asking one of his cinematic heroes, François Truffaut, to play the part of Lacombe. Truffaut liked Spielberg's work and agreed but told him, "I am not an actor; I can only play myself." Spielberg replied that was exactly what he wanted, and Truffaut signed on for $75,000.
One of the reasons behind new cost increases was Steven Spielberg's decision to release the film in 70mm using a process that allowed for a wider magnetic sound track to let him create greater audio impact as well as visual.
The production began shooting on December 29, 1975, at an air traffic control centre in Palmdale, California, so that Columbia, juggling its very shaky resources, could qualify for a tax shelter. That shoot wrapped after two days and filming would not resume again until the following May.
Douglas Trumbull and Steven Spielberg went through several conceptions of what the UFOs would look like. One abandoned idea was to have them resemble structures and logos familiar on Earth, such as those for McDonalds and Chevron, to suggest the aliens were using human symbols to make their crafts appear less threatening.
The scene where Jillian grabs Roy's hand while he is hanging onto the side of the mountain right before they see the landing site resembles that of Cary Grant's hanging on Mount Rushmore before he is helped up in the film North by Northwest (1959). Also, Mount Rushmore is only about 90 miles away from the Devil's Tower.
The first time the original theatrical version of the film was made available on home video was a Criterion Edition Laserdisc, released in 1991. Before that, the only version available was "The Special Edition".
It was one of the first home videos released with NCI Closed Captioning in 1981 by Columbia. When you have your TV set to display closed captions, a closed captioning copyright Captions Copyright 1981 Columbia Pictures Corporation is displayed at the end of the movie. That is present in all versions of the movie including the 1998 re-edit.
The reporter who is seen doing the report at the Devil's Tower (on TV in Roy Neary's living room) is named John Lindsay, a real reporter who had been the anchor at WLWI (now WTHR) in Indianapolis, Indiana, for a few years just before the filming of "CE3K". Roy's house was supposedly in Muncie, Indiana, which is within the viewing area of WTHR.
When the three detainees are running through the camp toward the Tower, the music is reminiscent of the fire engine scenes in Fahrenheit 451 (1966), which was directed by François Truffaut (Mr. Lacombe).
A Disco version of some of the film's score, notably the Do Re Me Fa So communication tones was recorded, and was included as a bonus 45 LP included with the 2 record soundtrack album. The song was given extensive radio airplay, and despite not being officially released as a single, charted on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart peaking at Number 13. The song would be later incorporated as a track on later releases of the soundtrack album.
When the project was first pitched to Columbia in 1973, Steven Spielberg said it would cost $2.7 million to make. Due to delays caused by script development problems, he went on to make Jaws (1975), a huge success that gave him more status and bargaining power with the studio. At that point, exhausted and frazzled from the difficult location work on the shark movie, Spielberg decided he wanted to make Close Encounters entirely in the studio, and the budget was set at $4.1 million. As time went on and production ideas and plans grew more elaborate, it became clear more money would be needed, a prospect not looked on favourably by the financially strapped studio. Douglas Trumbull was surprised by the original low budget because he had estimated early on that his effects alone would cost about $3 million. The final figure for effects was fairly close to that.
Preproduction began with a year's worth of conceptual planning between Steven Spielberg and illustrator George Jensen, who created thousands of sketches from the visual ideas he and Spielberg exchanged. The two plotted details of seven major sequences, including the 30-minute finale.
Special effects were a part of more than 200 different shots in the movie, and some of them contained as many as 18 separate visual elements, including dozens of matte paintings and animated sequences. With no knowledge of such techniques, Steven Spielberg depended heavily on Douglas Trumbull. "If Trumbull hadn't accepted the job," Spielberg said in a 1978 article, "I'd still be on the Columbia back lot trying to get a cloud to materialize from thin air."
Production designer Joe Alves drove 2,700 miles through the West to find a suitable mountain site for the mother ship landing. He finally suggested Devil's Tower in Wyoming, which closely resembled prominent features of Monument Valley, where John Ford shot movies like The Searchers (1956). Devil's Tower was preferable because it was less familiar to movie audiences and a more solitary and abrupt intrusion on the landscape. These features made the sheer, jagged-edge rock rising nearly 1,300 feet from the surrounding terrain eerie and imposing.
Steven Spielberg's original conception of the mother ship was an enormous black object that blotted out the sky and emitted light from the bottom, but that evolved into the brightly lit and less threatening image we know today. One of the influences on the final design was a huge oil refinery that Spielberg saw while filming the India sequence (the first overseas location shoot in his career), covered with pipes, tubes, walkways, and thousands of small lights. The bottom of the ship took form after he drove up into the hills of Los Angeles and looked upside down at the great expanse of city lights.
Post-production was completed by June 1977, too late for the film to be released as a 'summer blockbuster' which might have been just as well, as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) opened that summer.
Near the end of the film, when the crowd facing the huge docked UFO seems to be waiting to see what will happen next, the late honored French pianist and teacher, Odette Gartenlaub, uncredited, stands up from an organ on which she had been playing the 5-note musical "motif" among a number of other organists. She appears near Francois Truffaut, but is not acknowledged and quickly disappears. She was an expert at music theory, which includes the hand signals used to communicate the motif.
In a conversation with Bob Balaban, Truffaut, talking of his directorial career, said he had to choose his projects carefully, since he felt he only had about thirty more years in which to make films. Tragically he lived only another eight years after filming CE3K.
While Roy Neary is talking with his wife, Ronnie, by telephone, the TV set in their living room shows an episode of the soap opera Days of Our Lives (1965), just before the ABC News report about the train accident (when Roy discovers the meaning and location of the Devil's Tower National Monument).
In the helicopter at Devil's Tower, only the three people (Roy, Jillian, and Larry) who escape the helicopter are wearing gas masks without hoses. The remaining captured individuals have gas masks with hoses.
At one time there were three editions of the film. There was the original edition, then the director's edition and for TV they put both of these editions together so that it could be shown over two nights. All three editions together could be bought either on VHS or DVD.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Barry is shown to be surprised by the extraterrestrials. Director Steven Spielberg had two crew members hide in boxes off camera, one in a clown suit and one in a gorilla suit. One popped out, then the other as the cameras rolled, catching young Cary Guffey's bewildered reaction. Spielberg then whispered to the gorilla to remove his mask, eliciting a smile from Guffey.
François Truffaut was continually trying to improve his English during production, and he was self-conscious of his heavy French accent. When he delivered the line "They belong here more than we" (after he learns the Army plans to dust the mountain with nerve gas), several crew members thought that he had said "Zey belong here, Mozambique." Several T-shirts were printed with this quote as a joke. When he heard about this, Truffaut supposedly burst out laughing. Steven Spielberg mentioned on a laserdisc documentary for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) that Truffaut later used a variation of the line in a congratulatory telegram after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The telegram to Spielberg read, "You belong here more than me."
Dr. J. Allen Hynek (who created the CE3K and other UFO report classification schemes) makes a cameo appearance near the end of the film during the return of abductees just after one of the infamous Flight 19's pilots was announced as having returned. Hynek is smoking a pipe. This was the second time that Speilberg used an author as a cameo appearance in a movie. Peter Benchley had a cameo in Jaws (1975).
The final alien with whom Mr. Lacombe communicates by sign language was initially a child in a rubber costume. However, when doing the hand gestures, the folding rubber simply looked fake, so the scene had to be re-shot with an animatronic puppet.
Many techniques were attempted to portray the aliens, who were played by little kids in rubber suits. One involved shooting them at normal speed while they moved through a sea of mimes dressed as technicians. The mimes would make slow motion movements so that when the film was sped up, the mimes looked normal and the aliens would appear to run about with super-human quickness. Flailing their arms and long hands about, they would somewhat resemble bugs. Inventive as it was, the human movements did not look convincing, so the idea was abandoned. Another idea was to suspend the aliens on wires and have them fly, since the mothership was supposedly in a lower gravity field (this line remains in the final cut of the movie as the ship lands: Watch for dizziness and low gravity.) and Neary was even supposed to float up as he walked into the ship at the end. This idea was eventually cut too, as this meant there would be a huge number of wires that could not be concealed by lighting, so wires were only used on the very thin insectoid alien.
The final sequence as well as almost every scene that takes place at night was filmed at a giant airplane hangar (not a dirigible hangar as is often stated) in Mobile, Alabama. The heat was unbearable, although it did not actually rain in the hangar as is often erroneously reported - the crew was only told that such a condition was possible because of the great humidity. There was a constant effort to get every arc light available to the location to film the reflections of the UFOs. Many lights in retirement from the Technicolor era were brought out of mothballs for the spaceship sequences.
As the returned abductees emerge from the belly of the "Mothership", their names are read out over a PA system. One of the names is Ken Swenson, who in reality was one of the model-makers working on this film.
When the mothership opens, strings of white cubes were supposed to come out of it, quickly flying through the area like little sensors probing the surroundings. A test was done and some footage shot with the effect, but the special effects crew thought their techniques weren't advanced enough, so the idea was scrapped.