Back to the Future features a hefty share of iconic scenes throughout the three-film franchise. There’s Marty McFly playing the guitar, George McFly punching Biff, Marty on a skateboard (in two different time periods), and of course the DeLorean taking off toward the clock tower.
Lightning had to strike at just the right moment, but when it came to this trilogy, it needed to strike three times. The creative team behind Back to the Future had to reuse the lightning shot in all the films.
The ‘Back to the Future’ lightning strike almost didn’t happen
Save the clock tower has special significance in Back to the Future for more than one reason. The town courthouse that housed it was the center of Doc and Marty McFly’s plan as the power point for time travel. But so was the lightning strike.
That bolt of electricity was so integral to the film’s plot, that filmmakers invested lots of effort into crafting it. However, it was not their original choice. According to the book, We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy by Caseen Gaines, the movie’s first script didn’t have a DeLorean with a flux capacitor, nor did it have lightning.
Instead, Marty and Doc drove a time-travel contraption around in the bed of a pickup truck and used a nuclear test site to kick off an energy surge. Writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis changed their minds and switched to a car. Once they outfitted the DeLorean as a time machine, editors and visual effects specialists had to make the lightning bolt work.
Lightning bolt scene was expertly constructed
As fans know, Marty depended on the lightning to hit at precisely 10:04 p.m. for him to return home as he floored it at 88 mph. To make that scene happen, an animation team designed multiple versions of it before Zemeckis approved a final one. Gaines wrote that “the sequence was meticulously storyboarded ahead of time, because of the effects that would be added in postproduction.”
They filmed it and spliced it together, and it turned into the film’s most memorable shot. Per Gaines, the lightning “is the only piece of footage that appears in all three installments of the trilogy.” And it wasn’t easy.
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd had challenges while filming original lightning run
Behind the scenes, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd encountered a few issues for the famous sequence. For Fox, a wind machine made it hard for him to yell to Lloyd’s Doc about the incoming terrorists. He couldn’t hear over himself.
And with Lloyd, his fear of heights put him at odds with Zemeckis. He didn’t realize he’d have to stand on the clock tower’s ledge and requested to kneel. The answer was no, and they attached a harness to him that connected to a crane. If he fell, he’d have some security.
The entire lightning scene took weeks for them to edit together, but it worked. Lightning struck at the right time in Hill Valley three times for the price of one.
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