In 'Downsizing,' A New Addition To The Large History Of Tiny People In Film Alexander Payne's new film is about a couple who are made tiny as part of a solution to overpopulation. It's the latest in a long line of movies that revel in the cinematic joy of people shrinking.

In 'Downsizing,' A New Addition To The Large History Of Tiny People In Film

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A financially strapped couple is taking steps to make a big change.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Please state your full legal names.

MARTIN: Actually, it's a very small change.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Following the procedure, your bodies will be approximately 0.0364 percent of their current mass and volume.

MARTIN: The premise of the new movie "Downsizing," starring Matt Damon, which opens this weekend, is people choosing to be made physically very small. It's the latest of a long and, well, odd cinematic tradition of characters shrinking on the big screen. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It goes back to at least 1901 with a silent movie called "The Dwarf And The Giant." There are classic shrinking movies like "Fantastic Voyage" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." In "Downsizing," scientists shrink people to save the environment.


SOREN PILMARK: (As Andreas Jacobsen) The cause of all the catastrophes we have seen today is overpopulation. We're proud to unveil the only practical remedy to humanity's greatest problem.

ULABY: Tiny people have tiny carbon footprints. But shrinking is being marketed to the middle class as a way to live large. When you're only 5 inches tall, you can move to a grand mansion the size of a dollhouse in a special tiny planned community where your savings stretch much further than in the big world.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) In Leisureland, your $52,000 translates to $12.5 million to live on for life.

ULABY: The irony is intentional, says "Downsizing" director Alexander Payne.

ALEXANDER PAYNE: People are getting small in order to consume more.

ULABY: Something about the experience of being small is magnified by real life now, he says. Just open a newspaper.

PAYNE: The enormity of hideousness we're reading certainly makes me feel quite small and powerless.

ULABY: The notion of getting small to save the planet is nothing news, says film historian Julie Turnock. She points to a horror movie from 1936 called "The Devil-Doll" where scientists try to fight world hunger by making people shrink.

JULIE TURNOCK: The technology in that movie is developed for the same reason - to save resources.


HENRY B WALTHALL: (As Marcel) Think of it, Lavond, every living creature reduced to one-sixth its size, one-sixth its physical need. Food for six times all of us.

ULABY: Things don't turn out well in "The Devil-Doll," which came out during the Great Depression. Turns out a lot of movies about shrinking people reflect economic anxieties.


GRANT WILLIAMS: (As Scott Carey) We owed a great deal of money, and I had no job.

ULABY: Like "The Incredible Shrinking Man" from 1957.


WILLIAMS: (As Scott Carey) Every day it was worse; every day a little smaller.

ULABY: "The Incredible Shrinking Man" speaks to all kinds of Cold War concerns from radioactive exposure to shifts in gender roles. The hero, says Julie Turnock, is literally shrinking in stature.

TURNOCK: The person at the top is now at the bottom. And the patriarch of the house is now being chased by the house cat.


ULABY: Which became a shrinking people movie cliche.

JAKE MORRISON: There's normally somebody who gets attacked by a cat.

ULABY: Jake Morrison watched a ton of shrinking movies before working on the superhero film "Ant-Man." He was its special effects supervisor. The live-action movie from two years ago features a suit that makes the hero insect-sized. Morrison used something called a macro lens to create a hyperrealistic world where a mote of dust is giant and a bathtub drain perilous. You can tell the story of Hollywood special effects, says Morrison, partly through the story of shrinking movies.

MORRISON: Every single shrinking film is essentially the best use of the technology that was available at the time.

ULABY: Like one of his favorites, a live-action Disney film about a leprechaun from 1959.


JIMMY O'DEA: (As King Brian) Will you wish your wish now?

ALBERT SHARPE: (As Darby O'Gill) I will indeed.

MORRISON: "Darby O'Gill And The Little People" did some amazing work with forced perspective where they poured so much light on the set so everything was in focus.

ULABY: Forced perspective is essentially the same trick people use when they take pictures, say, of the Eiffel Tower that looks pinched between their thumbs and forefingers. In this case, one actor was filmed from a distance so he looked like an elf.


O'DEA: (As King Brian) Well, Darby O'Gill, 'tis pleased and delighted I am to see you again.

MORRISON: Way ahead of its time and always pushing the bounds.

PAYNE: That's a brilliant film. That's brilliantly done.

ULABY: Director Alexander Payne says "Darby O'Gill And The Little People" pioneered techniques still employed 50 years later. The "Lord Of The Rings" movies used forced perspective to film its dwarves and hobbits.


MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins) I'm surrounded by dwarves.

ULABY: People have always been attracted to stories where characters get littler (ph). Think "Alice In Wonderland" and "Gulliver's Travels." There's a pleasure to the idea of being invisible and being able to creep into tiny little spaces. Right now, the metaphor is more obvious than ever, says Alexander Payne, for people feeling diminished by the world and the scale of its challenges.

PAYNE: The purpose of a what-if science fiction social satire premise like the one we have in "Downsizing" is to give us perspective on the real world and to let us see in an entertaining way - to help us look at these problems and give us some distance from them.

ULABY: And to remind us that even small things have significance. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


TROUBLE FUNK: (Singing) What you going to do? Let's get small. Do you want to get down? Let's get small. Now, what you going to do? Let's get small. Do you want to get up, y'all? Let's get small. Now, what you going to do? Let's get small. We have to take your height, yeah. Let's get small. Now, what you going to do? Let's get small. Say what? Let's get small. Because (unintelligible) when you're on the floor.

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