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Masters Of Illusion and the golden age of special effects

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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.

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Features

Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Features

Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Features

Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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