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No CGI Please: Special Effects Before Computers

At this year's Academy Awards, Avatar—unsurprisingly—won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. While the effects were truly stunning, there's something to be said for older special effects and the time and dedication put in to make imaginative masterpieces without the help of a computer. How did people come up with the cornerstones of modern film effects when the medium itself was brand new? Here are some of the most interesting special effects created before there were special effects.

It Starts With Beheadings

The first special effect came 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 Mary was replaced with a dummy before filming started again.

Clark's effect may seem minor, but it was not only the birth of film 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.

Straight to the Moon

One of the earliest "special effects" flicks was 1902's Le Voyage Dans La Lune.

As the Avatar of its time, the film left viewers marveling at the stunning fantasy worlds depicted onscreen. The effects were largely creations of George Melies, who directed hundreds of short films before working on this masterpiece. Melies brought together the effects used in these other films into one work of art, including double exposure, split screens and dissolves and fades.

Drawing Me In

If you've ever wondered about the birth of animation, you may want to see The Enchanted Drawing. 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 the other items out of the picture and the picture's expression changes as they interact together. As you can see, the film inspired the future of animation.

The best known of these really early animations, though, was Gertie the Dinosaur, a film that featured newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay interacting with an animated brontosaurus. This was the first example of a person appearing to enter an animation and interact with the cartoon, but it is often mistaken for the first animation ever. Even so, it was one of the first highly successful animations because audiences were so enamored with the personality of the massive beast.

Making Super Models

You probably already know that, even today, filmmakers use miniatures paired with forced-perspective photography to create realistic large-scale actions that are expensive, if not impossible, to do for real. You may not know that this effect dates all the way back to 1900. The 22-second film by director R.W. Booth and producer Robert W. Paul called "A Railway Collision" is agreed to be one of the earliest examples of this practice, but it's possible that earlier films, lost through the decades, may have also featured the effect.

One of the most famous early examples of model use was 1925's The Lost World. This ground-breaking film featured actors interacting with giant monsters. Willis O'Brien, who was later involved with King Kong, 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 (more on how they did that later).

The best-known examples of these effects came in the original Clash of the Titans. Only time will tell, of course, how modern computer animation stacks up against this historical film.

Screening the Blue Screen

You've probably heard of blue screening, the technology that lets your local weather person predict the future with a cool interactive map behind them. But how the heck did they do these types of things before you could tell a machine to put video A everywhere that blue appears in video B?

Of course, the process was much more complex 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.

The first film to use a blue screen behind the actors (which made it easier to print only them on the film) was The Thief of Bagdad (1940). 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.

The effect first became digitized for The Empire Strikes Back. Nowadays, a green background is more commonly used. Why? Because blue is a more common clothing color.

The Background of Backgrounds

As you may have guessed, it was a lot harder to put people in front of imaginary background locations before computer animation was created. Instead, painted backgrounds were often used to portray most settings. Giant glass panels were originally placed behind the actors during filming. The first time this was done was in the 1907 film Missions of California, which used a massive matte painting of crumbling missions.

You likely have a better recollection of the glass matte paintings used in The Wizard of Oz though, which allowed Dorothy to travel to a massive city made of emerald.

For situations where a background needed to move—for example, when a dust cloud or wind needed to be incorporated—directors would often use a background projection instead. This required playing footage of the background on a screen behind the actors, then filming both at the same time, in the same frame.

The 1927 film Metropolis managed to create elaborate sets by projecting the top of a massive-looking building (often just a model) onto a mirror located in the top portion of the camera frame. The camera would then shoot the actors performing in front of a wall, which appeared to have the tops of the impressive sets seen in the projection. As you can see in the trailer, they also used a lot of models to create the urban cityscapes pictured.

Animated About Animatronics

One of the biggest complaints about CGI technology is that it still looks inferior to well done animatronics. These tricky effects actually were first used over 100 years ago, when Richard Murphy created a mechanical eagle for D.W. Griffith's Rescued From An Eagle's Nest in 1908. While the bird was not the best animitronic device, it set the stage for Jaws and other famous animatronic monsters.

Looks a Lot Like...

When it comes to special effects, my personal favorites are some of the most simple—the use of one thing to portray another. For example, the tornado seen in The Wizard of Oz was actually just a twisted silk stocking being hit by the wind from a fan. When close-ups were needed, they instead used a burlap bag that emitted a massive cloud of dust.

I've heard that the original Star Trek used a lot of clever tricks to create space sets, like pouring oatmeal over a lightbulb to create a sun. I couldn't find much information on this while researching this article, so maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. Has anyone else heard something similar? And what are your favorite old school effects?

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Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
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Scarface is Returning to Theaters for Its 35th Anniversary
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures

Pop culture history was forever altered on December 9, 1983, when Scarface arrived in movie theaters across America. A loose remake of Howard Hawks's classic 1932 gangster film, Brian De Palma's F-bomb-laden story of a Cuban immigrant who becomes the king of Miami's drug scene by murdering anyone in his path is still being endlessly dissected, and quoted, today. To celebrate the film's place in cinema history, the Tribeca Film Festival is teaming up with Screenvision Media and Universal Pictures to bring the film back into theaters next month.

Just last month, Scarface screened at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival as part of a 35th anniversary celebration. The film's main cast and crew—including De Palma and stars Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer—were on hand to discuss the making of the film and why it has endured as a contemporary classic. (Yes, that's the same conversation that left the panel momentarily speechless when moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer how much she weighed during filming.) That post-screening Q&A will be part of the upcoming screenings.

"Scarface is a timeless film that has influenced pop culture in so many ways over the last 35 years. We're thrilled to partner with Universal Pictures and Tribeca Film Festival to bring it back to the big screen in celebration of its anniversary," Darryl Schaffer, executive vice president of operations and exhibitor relations at Screenvision Media, said in a press statement. "The Tribeca Film Festival talk was an important commemoration of the film. We're excited to extend it to the big screen and provide fans a behind-the-scenes insight into what production was like in the 1980s."

Scarface will screen at select theaters nationwide on June 10, June 11, and June 13, 2018. Visit Scarface35.com to find out if Tony Montana and his little friend will be coming back to a cinema near you.

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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
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11 Magical Facts About Willow
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Five years after the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and four years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), George Lucas gave audiences the story for another film about an unlikely hero on an epic journey, but this time he had three Magic Acorns and a taller friend instead of a whip and gun to help him along. Willow (1988) was directed by Ron Howard and starred former Ewok and future Leprechaun, Warwick Davis.

Over the past few decades, Willow—which was released 30 years ago today—has become a cult classic that's been passed down from generation to generation. Before you sit down to explore that world again (or for the first time), here are 11 things you might not have know about Willow.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR WARWICK DAVIS.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Warwick Davis revealed that George Lucas first mentioned the idea for the film to Davis’s mother during the filming of one of the Ewok TV specials in 1983, in which he was reprising his role as Wicket. Lucas had been developing the idea for more than a decade at that point, but working with Davis on Return of the Jedi helped him realize the vision. “George just simply said that he had this idea, and he was writing this story, with me in mind,” Davis said. “He didn't say at that time that it was going to be called Willow. He said, 'It's not for quite yet; it's for a few years ahead, when Warwick is a bit older.'" The role was Davis’s first time not wearing a mask or costume on screen.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED MUNCHKINS.

Five years after he mentioned the idea, Lucas was ready to make his film with Ron Howard directing and a then-17-year-old Davis as the lead. The original title was presumably inspired by the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the subsequent Victor Fleming film.

3. IT WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING A COPY OF STAR WARS.

Having thought of the two worlds simultaneously, Lucas may have cribbed some of his own work and other well-known stories a little too much for Willow, and some critics noticed. “Without anything like [Star Wars’s] eager, enthusiastic tone, and indeed with an understandable weariness, Willow recapitulates images from Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Mad Max, Peter Pan, Star Wars itself, The Hobbit saga, Japanese monster films of the 1950s, the Bible, and a million fairy tales," wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times. "One tiny figure combines the best attributes of Tinkerbell, the Good Witch Glinda, and the White Rock Girl.”

Later in her review, Maslin continued to point out the similarities between the two films: “When the sorcerer tells Willow to follow his heart, he becomes the Obi-Wan Kenobi of a film that also has its Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0 and Princess Leia stand-ins. Much energy has gone into the creation of their names, some of which (General Kael) have recognizable sources and others (Burglekutt, Cherlindrea, Airk) have only tongue-twisting in mind. Not even the names have anything like Star Wars-level staying power.”

4. IT WAS THE LARGEST CASTING CALL FOR LITTLE PEOPLE IN MOVIE HISTORY.

Lucas has previously cast several little people for roles in Return of the Jedi, and there were more than 100 actors hired to portray Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. But, according to Davis, the casting call for Willow was the largest ever at the time with between 225 and 240 actors hired for the film.

5. THE DEATH DOGS WERE REAL DOGS IN COSTUME.

The big bad in the film, Bavmorda, has demon dogs that terrorize Willow’s village. The dogs are more boar-like than canine, but they were portrayed by Rottweilers. The prop team outfitted the dogs with rubber masks and used animatronic heads for close-up scenes.

6. IT WAS THE FIRST USE OF MORPHING IN A FILM.

While trying to use magic to turn an animal back into a human, Willow fails several times before eventually getting it right, but he does succeed in turning the animal into another animal, which is shown in stages. To achieve this, the visual effects teamed used a technique known as "morphing."

The film’s visual effects supervisor, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, explained the technique to The Telegraph:

The way things had been up till that time, if a character had to change at some way from a dog into a person or something like that it could be done with a series of mechanical props. You would have to cut away to a person watching it, and then cut back to another prop which is pushing the ears out, for example, so it didn't look fake ... we shot five different pieces of film, of a goat, an ostrich, a tiger, a tortoise, and a woman and had one actually change into the shape of the other one without having to cut away. The technique is much more realistic because the cuts are done for dramatic reasons, rather than to stop it from looking bad.”

7. THE STORY WAS CONTINUED IN SEVERAL NOVELS.

Willow has yet to receive a sequel, but fans of the story can return to the world in a trilogy of books that author Chris Claremont wrote in collaboration with Lucas between 1995 and 2000. According to the Amazon synopsis of Shadow Moon, the first book picks up 13 years after the events of the film, and baby Elora Danan’s friendless upbringing has turned her into a “spoiled brat who seemingly takes joy in making miserable the lives around her. The fate of the Great Realms rests in her hands, and she couldn't care less. Only a stranger can lead her to her destiny.”

8. THERE IS A MISSING SCENE CONCERNING THE MAGIC ACORNS.

Hardcore fans of the film have noticed that there is a continuity error that involves the Magic Acorns Willow was given by the High Aldwin. During an interview with The Empire Podcast, Davis explained that in a scene near the end of the film, he throws a second acorn and is inexplicably out after having only used two of the three Magic Acorns he had been given earlier in the film. Included in the Blu-ray release is the cut scene, in which Willow uses an acorn (his second) in a boat during a storm and accidentally turns the boat to stone. Davis says that his hair is wet in the next scene that did make it into the original version of the film, but the acorn is never referenced.

9. JOHN CUSACK AUDITIONED FOR THE PART OF MADMARTIGAN.

Val Kilmer in 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Val Kilmer famously played the role of the reluctant hero two years after played Iceman in Top Gun (1986), but he was not the only big name to audition for the role. Davis revealed in a commentary track that he once read with John Cusack, who in 1987 had already starred in Sixteen Candles (1984), Stand by Me (1986), and Hot Pursuit (1987).

10. THERE IS A NOD TO SISKEL AND EBERT.

During a battle scene later in the film, Willow and his compatriots have to fight a two-headed beast outside of the castle. The name of the stop motion beast is the Eborsisk, which is a combination of the names of famed film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

11. THE BABY NEVER ACTED AGAIN.

A scene from 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As is the case with most shows and films, the role of the baby Elora was played by twins, in this case Kate and Ruth Greenfield. The IMDb pages for both actresses only has the one credit. In 2007, Davis shared a picture of him posing with a woman named Laura Hopkirk, who said that she played the baby for the scenes shot in New Zealand, but she is not credited online.

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