How pre-pixel f/x pros pulled magic tricks in pix

Before the era of computer-generated special effects, filmmakers seeking to amaze an audience with spectacular manufactured images were forced to rely as much on ingenuity as technology, sometimes achieving the most startling effects through the simplest of means.

One such effect was the creation of the monster from Thomas Edison’s 1910 production of “Frankenstein,” the first film adaptation of the venerable horror tale. Audiences saw the monster appear to spontaneously generate out of smoke and ash. This effect was accomplished by building a paper dummy of the monster (who was played by actor Charles Ogle) over a skeleton, which was then set on fire. The film was printed backward, giving the eerie illusion of the monster forming itself on the skeleton.

Sea spectacular

Reversed photography also was responsible for the spectacle of the Red Sea parting in Cecil B. DeMille’s first film version of “The Ten Commandments,” released in 1923. The watery walls of the sea actually were large cubes of gelatin over which liquid was poured until the cubes melted into a runny mass. When the film was reversed, the “water” appeared to separate and then rise up in pillars.

Today the seamless morphing of one image into another is a common practice, thanks to digital technology. But 60 years before the computer-effects revolution, director Rouben Mamoulian created a startling morph effect on the face of Fredric March for the 1931 adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” What’s more, it was done on the set in one continuous shot, without editing tricks of any kind.

To achieve the effect of Jekyll’s first transformation into Hyde, Mamoulian had makeup artist Wally Westmore paint lines, wrinkles and shadows on March’s face in bright red. The top of the scene was filmed through a red filter, which rendered the Hyde makeup invisible, but as the scene progressed, the red filter was replaced by a series of graduating colors, ending in green.

As each new color passed before the camera lens, more of the makeup was revealed, with the full effect becoming visible to the camera under the green filter.

March also was the subject of an ingenious on-set illusion in the 1934 fantasy “Death Takes a Holiday.” For scenes in which Death (played by March) appears as a black-robed phantom, director Mitchell Leisen wanted to make the figure transparent. But he also wanted March on the set with the other actors, which would have been impossible using double exposures. Leisen’s solution was to render March transparent in the camera.

To do this, Leisen filmed March through a slightly silvered mirror. The parts of the set the actor would be standing in front of were duplicated in black velvet and placed in front of the mirror. When lit correctly, the reflections of the velvet set pieces appeared superimposed over the top of March, making him “transparent,” while the other actors in the scene remained solid. For another scene in the film, the red/green filter technique was used to transform March’s face into a skull.

For the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz,” special-effects artists employed a myriad of techniques, some sophisticated, some deceptively simple. One of the latter involved Dorothy Gale’s Kansas farmhouse tumbling out of the sky and making a perfect landing on top of the camera.

Going in reverse

Knowing that a real falling object could not be controlled enough to land precisely on its mark, special-effects wizard Arnold Gillespie decided to reverse the action and start with a miniature house held in front of the lens of a camera, which was mounted in the rafters of the soundstage and pointed straight down at the stage floor. While the camera was running, the miniature house was let go, which sent it crashing down to the floor, over which a backdrop of a cloudy sky had been spread. The film was then printed backward and cut just before the moment of impact, providing the realistic look of a house free-falling out of the clouds.

Hitchcock’s usual tricks

Director Alfred Hitchcock’s love of visual tricks is legendary, though one of his personal favorites also was one of his least known: the plane crash into water seen from the pilot’s point of view in the 1940 thriller “Foreign Correspondent.” Shot in one continuous take, the camera records the plummet through the window of the cockpit, which explodes upon impact with the ocean, instantly flooding the fuselage.

Hitchcock pulled off the trick by having Hollywood stunt flier Paul Mantz dive his plane, which had a special camera mounted on its nose, straight down toward the ocean, only to pull up at the last minute. The director then took the film of the dive and rear-projected it behind the cockpit set on a special 12- by 8-foot screen made out of rice paper. At the moment of apparent impact with the ocean, Hitchcock released two dump tanks containing more than 5,000 gallons of water, which burst through the rice paper and onto the set with such force that the ripping of the projection screen could not be seen.

A water effect created for the 1957 science fantasy “The Incredible Shrinking Man” proved to be just as challenging, though in a different way. For a scene in which the 1-inch-tall hero dodges drops of water, director Jack Arnold was having a hard time making the water look huge, but still like individual drops. In desperation, Arnold tried filling a condom with water and dropping it from a height, which ultimately provided him with the right shape and impact splatter of an enormous drop of water. To simulate large-scale water raining down on the picture’s star, Grant Williams, Arnold bought 15,000 condoms (a budget item he had to explain to the front office), had them filled with water and dropped them on the soundstage floor.

Condoms have long had another use in special effects, as the “blood” sacs that are fastened over the top of squibs, the small exploding charges that are placed under an actor’s costume to simulate gunshots. But in the early days of Hollywood, similar effects were handled in an undeniably simpler, if considerably more dangerous method. For the 1936 film “Charge of the Light Brigade,” director Michael Curtiz staged a thrilling action scene that could have cost the life of veteran stuntman and actor Tom Steele.

“I had to be at a window and keep prisoners in this room, and all of a sudden they started shooting at me and I had to duck,” Steele recalled in an interview shortly before his death (from natural causes) in 1990. “The special-effects man kept saying to me, ‘Be sure on the cue to duck and get all the way onto the floor,’ but the director’s talking to me about my dialogue, and I was more interested in that. But I did hit the floor and the bullets came through, smashing everything. It turns out he was using live ammunition!”

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