No CGI Please: Special Effects Before Computers

Image credit: 

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?

More from mental_floss...

March 16, 2010 - 4:25am
webby
submit to reddit