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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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6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars
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Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards' near-90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. BEST ACTOR // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (female writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), and Beery won for The Champ, which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. BEST ACTRESS // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars Richard E. Grant (Girls, Withnail & I) as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. BEST SOUND EDITING // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened only three years ago, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg said to the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens’ maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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