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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Visual effects before CGI

The Ten Commandments, 1956, Cecil B. DeMille
If you are a lover of classic cinema such as I, you've probably wondered at one time or another how Hollywood filmmakers managed to create some of the astounding visual effects way back before computers generated imagery (CGI). As a child, one of the earliest movies I can remember was Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments. His immortal scene of the parting of the Red Sea (above) was so realistic I often wondered it God himself didn't have a hand in it. The truth is, DeMille filmed two large "dump tanks" being flooded with water, then ran the film in reverse. The two frothing walls of water were created by water dumped constantly into catch basins. The churning water images were then flipped sideways to make the walls of water. A gelatin substance was also added to the water in the tanks to give it more of a seawater consistency. Incidentally, the catch basis still exists today on the Paramount lot. It can still when the need arises to film floods on a biblical scale. Otherwise it's an extension of a parking lot.

How it all began--The Enchanted Drawing--Stuart Blackton

It all started with beheadings in an 1895 Edison Film when Alfred Clark recreated the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. He had all the actors hold completely still, with the exception of the actress playing Mary, while he paused the camera. Then he replaced her with a dummy before filming started again and the dummy lost its head. Clark's effect may seem minor, but it was not only the birth of motion picture special effects, but also stop-motion videos and animations. It's been said that some audience members thought a woman had actually sacrificed her life for the picture. A few years, later in 1902, a Frenchman shot for the moon with an entire movie titled Straight to the Moon based upon Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. The visual effects were...let's call them fantastic...with the emphasis on fantasy. Melies brought together the effects from films he'd made earlier into one work of art, including double exposure, split screens, dissolves, and fades. As for animation, you may want to see The Enchanted Drawing (above). In the film, the cartoonist for the New York Evening World, Stuart Blackton, draws a cartoon character and then adds things like a top hat, a bottle of wine and an empty glass. He then pulls those items out of the picture, causing the picture's expression to change as art and artist interact together. It's safe to say, the film inspired the entire future of animation.

The Lost World, 1925, special effects by Willis O'Brien

One of the most famous early examples of model usage was 1925's The Lost World (above). This ground-breaking film featured actors interacting with giant monsters. Willis O'Brien, who was later involved with King Kong (below), used small puppets that were filmed one frame at a time on mini-sets. The actors were then added by putting two negatives together on split screens. If that sounds complicated, it was, especially in the beginning. When The Lost World portrayed humans running away from stop-motion animated monsters, they actually had to film things with an optical printer. This required blacking out all but the actors on the top film, then blocking out where the actors would appear on the stop-motion film and printing them onto a third roll of film. This all became a lot simpler with the advent of "blue screening." The first film to use a blue screen behind the actors (which made it easier to print only them on the film) came in 1940 with The Thief of Bagdad. Using this method, the film would be developed with a number of color filters to ensure that the blue background would disappear, while the actors and intended background would show up. Now days, a green background is more commonly used in that blue is a more likely color for clothing.

King Kong, 1939, stop-motion photography artist Willis O'Brien
Kong, the giant gorilla, was actually not so "giant." He was a mere 18 inches, a poseable model, covered with rabbit hair. The scene with actress Fay Wray at the top of the Empire State Building was filmed one frame at a time using stop-motion photography by visual effects artist Willis O'Brien and his crew. The producers filmed Kong and Fay Wray, separately. They then projected the two films together to create the effect of Fay Wray in the grip of Kong.
The skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, 1963, Ray Harryhausen.
Stop-action photography was also the key in making the four-minute skeleton fight (above), which was orchestrated by visual effects genius Ray Harryhausen. It took almost five months to shoot via stop-motion animation. Harryhausen also rear-projected footage of the actual actors (who, when filming, were basically battling air behind the animation) and then combined the shots to make a realistically scary skeleton-Argonaut battle.

Fantastic Voyage, 1966
By 1966, the art and science of visual effects had come a long way (above). The science-fiction classic, Fantastic Voyage (Raquel Welch never looked so good) won that year's Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. The story revolves around miniaturized human beings voyaging into the bloodstream of a human body (if you buy that premise, you might be interested in a bridge or two). It was created using a full-size high-tech navy submarine that was supposedly shrunk to microbial dimensions on film. The interior of the body was created by using large, highly-detailed sets of various body parts (i.e., the brain, the heart). Actors were suspended on wires to journey through the body. Only Fantastic Voyage's fantastic visual effects could make such a fantastic plot believable.

The spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, Stanley Kubrick
The visual effects of Stanley Kubrick's futuristic masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey included a 30-ton rotating "Ferris wheel" set (above) built by a British aircraft company. Kubrick laid out $750,000 in creating the apparent use of centrifugal force to mimic the effects of zero gravity. The set rotated at a speed of three miles per hour. The actors would stand at the bottom and walk in place, while the set rotated around them. Chairs, desks, and control panels were all firmly bolted to the inside surface.

The UFO landing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, Steven Spielberg.
And finally, we come to the unchallenged master of visual effects, Steven Spielberg. His 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind used a 400 lb. fiber-glass model that was four feet high and five feet wide to create the famous landing scene. (It probably would have been cheaper to build the real thing then turn it into a theme park ride afterwards.) The UFO model was wired and lighted by fiber optics, incandescent bulbs, and neon tubes. Not only that, but they all had to be coordinated to the musical tones used by the aliens to communicate. I guess that was better than hubcaps dangling from nylon fishing lines as seen in the 1959 classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space (below).
Plan 9 from Outer Space, 1959.
The attack of the hubcaps. You
can hardly see the fishing lines.

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