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Masters Of Illusion and the golden age of special effects

Special Effects King Kong

Man’s imagination has always tread in the realm of the fantastic – for what is imagination if it is limited to the observable world?

Some of the oldest literature, from the Gilgamesh Epic to Scheherazade’s accounts of Sinbad, conjures worlds beyond the senses. Before the advent of the film era, these worlds were described exclusively in prose, with each reader bringing something of their own imagination to the story. But film allows the camera to guide our imaginations, letting us share in the filmmaker’s vision. So, close on the heels of the invention of narrative filmmaking came special effects.

Some special effects were relatively easy to create, even at the beginning. Rain could be created on a sunny day with the application of a hose, snow by deploying Ivory flakes, fog with smoke, explosions and fire with, well, explosions and fire. Though the first film to win an Oscar® for special effects was 1939’s The Rains Came, the practice of the art began much earlier, in an Edison short called Mary Queen of Scots (1895), in which the monarch’s head seems to be decapitated as the audience watched in horror. But no one was hurt in the making of that film – the camera was simply stopped and the actress replaced by a mannequin. Not long after, ghosts were created using simple double exposures, and though these techniques wouldn’t fool our eyes today they were quite impressive to a less jaded public.

Special Effects King Kong

King Kong

The Harryhausen Technique

Though effects were in use from film’s first days on, special effects cinematography is generally regarded as having been founded by Georges Melies, a French filmmaker from the turn of the century who, in addition to incorporating some of Houdini’s tricks of illusion, used methods like stop-motion photography, animation, miniatures, double exposures, matting, and dissolves. Willis O’Brien made great strides in stop-motion photography and the manipulation of models in The Lost World (1925) and, later, “King Kong” (1933). He also trained the ultimate master of the technique, Ray Harryhausen.

Frankenstein, Special Effects

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein.

The dead shall walk

Astonishing feats of illusion were also accomplished with special effects make-up. The dead came back to life and man turned into monster with alarming regularity in Hollywood. Bevies of beasts were created for our entertainment. Actors like Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi were sheathed in rubber and mortician’s wax, creating the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein, to name just a few, and all were brought to us courtesy of special effects make-up.

One of the most important camera techniques the early effects masters developed was matte photography, in which a portion of the negative is blocked from exposure. The film is then rewound, the blocked portion of the lens uncovered while the portion that was uncovered in the first take is blocked, and then the film exposed a second time with a different subject in view. This is why, for example, in early films set on trains, actors sit across from each other while the landscape passes in a window that they never move in front of. Later, traveling mattes were developed that allowed the overlaid figure to move through the frame. Traveling mattes were used to great effect in James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933).

Kubrick the master

Color film brought about many advances in special effects, as film could be treated to ignore certain colors and images could be separated by a prism and deflected onto separate film negatives. The entire field was invigorated by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for which Douglas Trumbull created many effects that are still in use today. George’s Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) brought effects to yet another new level, and the company Lucas spawned, Industrial Light and Magic, has been a leader in the field ever since.

Special Effects

Keir Dullea in Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey

Today, there is almost nothing a writer can imagine that cannot be put on film by applying technology, time, and money. Computer graphics and precise camera control have created the sinking of the Titanic, the meeting of John F. Kennedy with Forrest Gump, and the alien assault in Independence Day. In some cases, effects themselves have been the reason to see movies as storytelling has taken a back seat to razzle-dazzle, but when a balance is achieved and the effects work to enhance the story rather than becoming it, movies are capable of bringing us far beyond the observable world and into the galleries of our imaginations.

Research from:
“The Complete Film Dictionary, 2nd ed.,” by Ira Konigsberg, Penguin Reference, New York, 1997.
“Men, Makeup, and Monsters: Hollywood’s Masters of Illusions and FX,” by Anthony Timpone, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1996.
“Empire Building: The Remarkable Real Life Story of Star Wars,” by Gary Jenkins, Carol Publishing Group, New Jersey, 1999.