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Classic Film FX (how'd they do that?)

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I watched the Wizard of Oz last night and it always makes me start thinking about how much effort must have gone into some of the special effects in that movie. I got to thinking about other great classic films with a strong FX presence as well.


Now, in no way do I consider myself and expert on anything having to do with either filmmaking or modern technology. I even joked with someone on here recently about being a self-proclaimed "technophobe" :-) But I am really amazed at how much technology in general has changed over the last few years. (or even within my own lifetime) And with regard to moviemaking, it has come a long, long way within the last 100 years or so. While it is true some of these old films are a bit hokey (as in: you can almost see the "string'" dangling from the flying saucer--or maybe the guy in the monkey suit just looks like some slob who needs a shave) but think about films like "From the Earth To the Moon", one of the earliest FX driven movies. That was high tech back in the day, I am sure. And what about films like San Francisco with that huge earthquake scene? Or The Hurricane... think of all that wind and water. There was a lot that went in to making those films that made them seem very realistic, even by today's standards. And a personal favorite, The Ten Commandments, has always impressed me as a terrific piece of movie "art". (All those swirling clouds and the Red Sea parting right in front of Charlton Heston. Too cool.) And who could forget the burning of Atlanta in GWTW?


But the cream of the crop for classic movie FX to me, has got to be the cyclone in the Wizard of Oz. What a great piece of work! VERY realistic...and done without all the computer generated images or "green screen" technology that exists today. I think it is one of the most realistic movie twisters I have ever seen. (And living in the midwest, with the way our weather goes sometimes, I can say for sure it looks very realistic) :-) I heard a long time ago how this was done, but to be sure, I Googled some statistics, and one of the things I came up with is the

following )


The effect was achieved through the construction of a thirty-five-foot muslin stocking affixed to a gantry crane traveling the length of the stage. The tornado-shaped cone was rotated by a speed-controlled motor. The dust and thick clouds were created using Fuller's earth, and dangerous chemicals such as carbon and sulfur with of course, little or no proper ventilation. The ferocious sounding winds were produced through the use of compressed air and wind machines.


I am not good at posting links on here (another technophobe moment for me) but you can read the whole article at the following: *www.noplacelikeoz.com/Page4.htm* There are also some really great explanations regarding how many of the other effects were achieved in this film. (I don't know about how accurate this site is, but what I found regarding the twister matches up pretty closely to what I remember hearing in the past.)


What are some of your favorite classic movie FX moments? You know...the days before Jurrasic Park brought the dinosaurs back to life...or the days before Star Wars took over the "empire" of Space and turned intergalactic war into an art form. I don't mean to cheapen the value of the technology we have nowdays. I think modern day special effects are first rate. But there is something a bit more impressive (at least to me) about how hard Harryhausen must have had to work to get all those skeletons to stand up and fight way back when.


I looked around a little on the boards, and only found one really old thread about "Which was better--old fx or new"... But that's not what I am really wanting to discuss here. I even debated with myself as to where the best spot to post this would be. I eventually settled here because I really want to hear more from folks about the filmmakers and the process as much as I do the films. I know computers have moved filmmaking into a completely different era nowdays. But even if you enjoy all the cool new stuff out there, (as I do) the good old days are still entertaining to watch as well. What are some of your thoughts about the way things USED to be?? Got any favorites movies or scenes? Got any cool classic fx filmmaking stories to share? Inquiring minds want to know! :-)

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Hi Ro! If you can get a hold of the Special Collector's Edition dvd of The Birds, you will

see in the documentaries about the making of the film all the extraordinary ingenuity that

went into making this classic. I am still impressed by the "aerial", bird's-eye shot over

Bodega Bay just before they swoop down. Just amazing. These people were brilliant!


As for CGI, I am still not a convert and think it's totally overused. There is nothing "real"

feeling about it, In many sequences, I sense I've been taken out of a world built by living

human beings and into one generated by machines. If it's all I had been exposed to since

I first started watching movies, I probably would not notice this.


I even prefer hand drawn animation to computer, 'Pixar' stuff. I am that much of a

traditionalist. :)

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I am still impressed by the "aerial", bird's-eye shot over Bodega Bay just before they swoop down.


Hi Miss G--I stayed up WAY too late the other night and caught part of the documentary they showed on Hitchcock--very interesting! He was truly an innovative filmmaker--especially with regard to this subject.


As far as the hand-drawn vs Pixar animation, I have to confess I like both--but probably prefer the old tried and true--there is something very beautiful in movies like Bambie or Snow White that kids today don't really get to appreciate in the newer films. Since I am probably the world's best artist only when it comes to drawing stick people, I am just bowled over by the talent and effort that must have gone into those early films. Even the things that are supposed to be "hideous" (such as the old witch in snow white) are a thing of beauty. And the scenery in those film--the attention to detail is almost breathtaking.



PS--Cinemaven "...how they do that?" With ingenuity, brainpower and creativity--my point exactly! :-)

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I agree. Miniatures give filmmakers the chance to tell their story anywhere (and in any point in time) without having to actually "be there". I think this sort of technique is one that has stood the test of time too, because despite all the computer technology we have, a lot of films still rely heavily on miniatures for certain locations and buildings, etc. I can't begin to imagine all the man hours that most go into some of those sets. I remember watching something on TV several years ago on the use of miniatures in the making of the film Independence Day (not necessarily a "classic film" but I guess it goes to show what I was getting at about this method still being used today) I was very impressed at all the artwork and the attention to detail. (Especially since they only built it so they could blow it up!!) :-)


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For a truly amazing example of a breathtaking use of miniatures, check out the 1933 film DELUGE sometime, in which most of the civilized world is destroyed by a flood, including some spectacular shots of the destruction of New York City, which turned up as stock footage in numerous films for years afterward.

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Thanks Nightwalker, for the post. I checked out *Deluge* on TCM's info site and it sounds very "futuristic" for a movie made way back in the 30's. Films about world wide devastation and its resulting mayhem are a dime a dozen now days, but back then this would have been a lot more "original" of a concept for a movie. I'd be interested in watching this to see how the story plays out as much as for the big "miniature" flood scene you mentioned. According to what I read, it is not scheduled on TCM at present, but maybe I will come across it sometime. Will keep my eyes open.

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I agree...The Invisible Man and King Kong are classics that never go out of style no matter how often they get remade or retold.I have never been fortunate enough to see Metropolis. But I hope someday I will. Just the clips I have seen of it are abolutely amazing considering the time it was made.


We have an old VHS copy of Mighty Joe Young. Our kids have always preferred the original over the remake. (So do mom and dad) I always thought that sort of animation would require someone with absolute concentration and patience. But I guess it just depends on how you look at it. I found an interview with Ray Harryhausen when I Googled him--just out of curiosity.He seemed to thrive on his work. I can't say I am a HUGE fan or anything, but I do admire his skill and the way he developed his abilities over the years. And when I was a kid...the 7th Voyage of Sinbad was just the coolest! :-)


This is an excerpt from the interview I found from Animation World Magazine called "A Chat With Ray Harryhausen" :


The Business Of Animating

Ray talked about a trip he had made a few years ago, when he'd visited Will Vinton's studios in Portland, Oregon, and also met with two paleontologists who had originally been inspired by his dinosaur films. He talked about joining them for a dig and the amount of patience needed for that type of work, which led us to talking about the commonly held view that animators need an unusual amount of patience.


Ray: A lot of people thought my work was very tedious, and it can be if you look at it from that point of view, but I never looked upon it as tedious.


Ruth: People come into the studio and the first thing they always say is, "Oh, you must be so patient," and I think, there are so many jobs in this world where you're working on a tiny part of a whole, animation is just one of them, and what they really mean is, "I couldn't be bothered to do it myself."


Ray: They don't know the joy of seeing the film come back and what you had in your mind is on film.


Ruth: The only thing I find tedious is something with no character, like making a plane fly around in the air, but otherwise it would never occur to me that it was.


Ray: No, that's the same for me. I did find parts tedious, when I had to do things because they had to bridge something. I was very limited in what I could do with flying saucers, because they're just a metal disc. I had to try and put character in as if they were intelligently guided. Did you ever see that, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers? We destroyed Washington DC...


In fact, Ray saw the live-action shoot as more demanding of patience:

Ray: That's why I never became a director. I never had patience with people. My characters always did exactly what I told them to do...


If you want to read more go to:




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Speaking of miniatures, they did some ingenious stuff in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur to make the set where they filmed the chariot race scene. They explained how they did it in one of the episodes of the *Hollywood* miniseries and it was really neat. They built most of the set but also used something called a hanging miniature for the upper levels of the stadium they were racing in to make it look complete. Basically it uses forced perspective to make the miniature which is suspended in front of the camera line up perfectly with parts of the actual set in the background. In the miniature, they had little figures that were supposed to be the people in the seats and they had them on wooden dowels that they could move up and down to make them look more like people moving around. When you see the movie, it looks perfectly seamless and far more real than CGI b/c it is something that is tangible and actually there.


Here are some pics. The top parts of the stadium are the miniatures but you can't tell it can you? ;)





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Wow! Great pics! Thanks for the story too. I have seen this film, and I do remember the whole thing being extremely well done and very impressive (though I actually prefer the later version...I think it's because I saw it first) :-) However, I do recall the chariot race in the silent seemed every bit as intense, and thrilling, and suspenseful as the later film. And knowing now how it was done, I hope I'll get the chance to watch it again soon so I can get an even better appreciation for it. Thanks again! :-)

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Well I hope you are right! I bought a Ben Hur DVD about a month ago but have not found the time to watch it yet....I haven't looked that closely at but don't recall anything about the silent version being in there--I'm going to go pull that out and take a look---I will keep my finger's crossed that I bought the right one! :-)

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I believer the silent version of Ben-Hur was included on the latest dvd release of the Charlton Heston version so if you like both films you may want to pick that up.>>




It is indeed! Now you can watch both versions and compare the chariot races! I like both versions but lean towards the silent version the most.

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Well...I'm out of luck. I went to see what it says on the cover of the DVD box...it's not the one with the extra film...and my husband has already opened this one so I can't take it back---I think he watched it when I took our daughter to a party a few days ago...so tough break for me. :-(

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I stayed up way too late last night and watched the TCM presentation of the silent film Wings. I'd never seen it before but it was on my list of "Movies I want to watch some day"so I was really glad to finally get a chance to see it. What a great story! I could go on and on all day about what I thought about the story itself and the individual characters (maybe I will post all that somewhere else). But I was bowled over by the way it was filmed as well. I did some searching this morning and could not find much in the way of specific information on how some of the effects were actually shot, but I did find out that not only was Wings the first movie ever to win the academy award for best picture, but it also won a special award for "effects engineering".


And there were some really well done effects in this film--(especially if you consider the time--1927)There were guys crashing in planes, people getting shot (and blood gushing out of them)cars getting blown up, soldiers getting run over by tanks, buildings being bombed and caving in, spectacular aerial fight scenes--(Oh! the fight scenes!) and there were even silly little bubbles floating around during a "drunk" scene. Everything (except maybe the bubbles) was a very realistic looking portrayal of war and how it is carried out.I especially liked the scene with the huge German "Gotha" plane --not only was this plane much larger for real, but it was filmed in such a way that it really made it seem liked it was just this HUGE flying dragon...more or less the way it was described in the story as well.


The only thing I thought could have been better done was "Jack's" makeup. When he comes home from the war..he's a "man" now and not a "boy" and they went a little insane with the gray hair.(he was only gone a few years...not a few decades) But anyway, that's about the ONLY negative thing I can think to say about the visual aspects of this film.


Maybe some of you more "expert" post-ers have some interesting facts or trivia you have learned about the making of this spectacular movie that you would like to share. And if you are one of those who hasn't seen this film...think about adding it to YOUR list of "movies you want to see someday". I highly recommend it.

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  • 6 months later...

Wow.... just blowing the dust off this old thread here... yesterday was such a red letter day on TCM for special effects "junkies" (Ha) I thought I would just post a little "admiration" for all the DISASTERS and the mayhem...


But before I get to all the destruction and devastation... First I want to mention.... THE GOLDRUSH (which also aired yesterday) Now in all honesty.. I MISSED this film yesterday (I didn't even get it taped because of the early hour and my own poor planning) but I got to watch it back a few months ago, and just want to salute all the technical skill that must have gone into the numerous "physical" parts of this film... ESPECIALLY the tipping house (inside and out) OH my golly.. that is my favorite "comic" portion of the film... but also I am writing in praise of all that SNOW. Some of those winter scenes looked very real given the time frame this was filmed... one of my other favorite "comedy" parts was when he is hiring himself out to shovel snow and the way he end up removing it from in front of one door only to pile it up in front of another. Charlie Chaplin is just a master... such a brief little nod to him here... but I really enjoy this film.


Ok... Now on to the DISASTERS...


I very much enjoyed getting to watch San Francisco yesterday. This is a film I have seen a couple of times before and have always appreciated for its amazing scenes from the historic 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. But more on that in a moment, as I want to discuss a couple of other films first...


First, I want to give a nod to two early Oscar winners in the category of Special Effects... Now (to my limited understanding of such things as I am NO expert on the matter) I believe the category of special effects was created in 1939 and was to be given for both sound and visual effects all under one heading... "special effects". And both of the following films won in that category ( And then later on the category was split in two for visual and sound) Though I am CERTAINLY no expert, both of the following films were winners in visuals AND sound as far as I am concerned:


*Green Dolphin Street (1947)*


I did not see this entire film... but by chance, I caught just the right moments (for an FX junkie anyway) of Green Dolphin Street... I missed the beginning altogether, but the big earthquake, landslide, falling trees, geysers, and tidal wave/ flood were FASCINATING. (and very frightening too) since I did not have any idea who these characters were or even where they were (New Zealand, I later found out) and what might happen to the storyline depending on the outcome of the events... and in a completely separate part of the storyline, I also got to see Donna Reed climb hand over fist up this huge rocky tunnel in order to escape the rising tide... VERY dramatic and suspenseful. Someday I hope to go back and watch this film from beginning to end and get a better feel for how all these events play into the story as a whole.


*The Rains Came (1939)*


I was very happy to get to tape and also watched The Rains Came yesterday... It was a very unusual film for a lot of reasons... both in story line and in characters... but also on the grand scale it was filmed regarding the multiple disasters of the huge earthquake, the monsoon-like rains, the giant flood, and the fires. From what I have read, this is the first film to ever win the academy award in the category of "special effects". I enjoyed it very much and the quake and flood scenes were VERY intense and extremely well put together. Also well done were the scenes later on as the waters kept rising due to the rain. It was very believable watching the little canoe get swamped and seeing poor George Brent have to swim for it. And the scenes like the one where the elephants are used to carry the orphan children to safety were just such a nice extra as well. This film was a very pleasant surprise for me on a lot of levels and I am glad to have gotten a chance to watch.


Now.. back to *San Francisco (1936)* ...




I must confess, this film is my sentimental favorite among the these three "disaster" tales... Maybe because I am most familiar with it having seen it at least a couple of times before. I have had longer to think about and appreciate all the work that went into it. This film was made before the creation of that Special Effects award.... but would CLEARLY have been equally as deserving given the scale and the task involved in telling such a tale...


There is just so much to appreciate about the work that went into this film...You have all the scenes w/ the movement of the quake (and aftershocks) plus there is falling brick and glass and stone EVERYWHERE you look... people running in the streets and mayhem happening all over. Then there is the whole aspect of watermains breaking and fires breaking out and all the numerous side effects of such a cataclysmic event happening all at once. VERY well done for it's time and extremely realistic looking.


I did a little googling (and if I were a better researcher I am sure I could have come up w/ more) but all I really was able to find about the whole process of how this was all done was just a few bits and pieces, but one name that kept popping up was Slavko Vorkapich who is (again, from my limited understanding of such things) apparently a pioneer in the use of montage sequences in filming and was instrumental if the filming of the earthquake montage sequence in this film as well.


Here is a youtube of the big shake up from the film San Francisco.... even by today's standards... still VERY impressive:






Now again...I do not have any sort of film background and all this has been written more or less from a "this is what I saw...this is how I felt about it" perspective, so please understand that I KNOW there is a lot I could have said better as I am NO expert on this sort of thing. But I know SOME of you out there ARE experts... So if any of you have any sort of comments regarding how these films were made or your thoughts on the way they were all put together, I hope you will chime in. (or if you are just like me and really enjoyed these films and want to comment, I hope you will feel free) :-)


Thanks for letting me share my thoughts with you, folks. And if anyone missed these "FX/disaster junkie treats" I hope you will get a chance to check them out sometime. I am sure the stories themselves make these films entertaining enough to watch... but the special effects really make them exceptional films to enjoy even more.


Message was edited by: rohanaka (because aside from my technophobic tendencies... I am also often a very poor typist. I am sure if I keep looking I will find a few more typos... so please don't read TOO closely) ha. :-)

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I was corrected by someone else yesterday, because I had been a bit in the dark about when exactly the Academy started giving out Oscars for Special Effects, so I had done a little bit of "research" into this and everything that you say here sounds about right. The category simply didn't exist before 1939. This is why "San Francisco" and "King Kong" were never nominated - they couldn't have been, because the category had not yet been created.


To the best of my recollection I had not heard of Slavko Vorkapich before, but I would like to learn more about him and his contribution to the special effects technology.


The only special effect technician of the Golden Age of Hollywood that I've known about for a long time is Willis O'Brien, who created the stop-motion effects for "King Kong".


There is more about him here:



His work was instrumental in the industry, and he would inspire later filmmakers like Ray Harryhausen and special-effects wizards like Phil Tippet.


From the info I just dug up, O'Brien was apparently the first person to receive an Oscar for work involving stop-motion animation, but not for "King Kong" - for the sequel "Son of Kong" in 1950.

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Back in the late 1970s I lived in the San Fernando Valley, North of Hollywood, and I subscribed to the local Valley newspaper (something like ?The Valley Times?). It had a large movie section. One time it carried an article by a guy who had interviewed someone who worked on ?San Francisco?, and the article said that film had about 5 different directors. One main director, W.S. Van Dyke, and a few others who directed different types of segments, such as the opera segments, the earthquake segments, and the scenes of the camping in what was supposed to look like Golden Gate Park.


The article said that D.W. Griffith was asked to direct the big epic camping scenes. They didn?t take up much time in the film, but they were on a grand scale and looked just like some of Griffith?s work. Also, Griffith played the role of the orchestra conductor during the opera sequences.


A director who did specific segments in a film was often called a ?second unit director?. Griffith was one of these. Also there was Joseph M. Newman, and Will Sheldon. Plus there were the men who worked on the special effects segments, such as James Basevi, Russell A. Cully, Max Fabian, Arnold Gillespie, Loyal Griggs, and Slavko Vorkapich.




I lived in San Francisco for several years, and a lot of us would go to see this film in a theater every earthquake anniversary.


The historical accuracy of the buildings, the scenes, and even some of the plot themes was quite amazing. The reason the film was constructed around the opera was because Caruso was in town and sang at the opera the night before the earthquake. The opera was very big in S.F. at that time. He was shaken out of his bed in the early morning hours and fled to Oakland on a ferry boat, swearing never to return.


Many of the wide scenes of the fire were based on models and panorama photos of the real city and buildings, right down to the Call Building and the Temple Emanuel.




The scenes of City Hall crumbling were amazing because the model crumbled just like the real City Hall had crumbled:



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What originally amazed me the most about the S.F. film was the splitting of the street and the broken water pipe that the split revealed. That was a fantastic scene. I first saw it on TV around 1956, at about the age of 14.


Of course a scene like this has to be done with all the props and buildings being constructed on a wood frame base, with the street level being about, maybe 10 feet above the wood frame, The water pipe had to be installed and filled with water under the right pressure. Then while filming, two different halves of the wood frame had to be moved apart so it would look like the earth splitting open, which actually did happen in several places during that earthquake.


Much of the downtown area did burn down because there was no water to fight the fire, and the military came in from the Presideo Army Camp, about 5 miles away, and took charge of the explosions and the military guards. Some looters were shot on sight, if they were seen breaking widows of stores.


Much of the downtown area today is built over about a 6 foot layer of earthquake debris. I used to dig in that area with a bottle club I was in, and I have a few boxes of earthquake debris and relics in my garage.

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Thanks for dropping by!


Slavko Vorkapic was a Serbian film maker who came to the US in the early 1920s and vagabonded around the country before landing in Hollywood during the silent era.


He began is his work in the studio system with such films as *Viva Villa* in the early 1930s at MGM.

His montage style became known as the Vorkapic because of the way used the montage to compress time and his use of motion cuts to advance the montage along.


"According to Wikipedia, a one-minute montage that he did for *Manhattan Cocktail* is all that remains of that lost film. Vorkapich used kinetic editing, lapse dissolves, tracking shots, creative graphics and optical effects for his own stunning montage sequences for such features as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, Maytime, Crime without Passion, Manhattan Melodrama, Firefly, and Manhattan Cocktail. He created, shot, and edited these kinesthetic montages for features at MGM, RKO, and Paramount, popularizing the usage of the term "Vorkapich" in the Hollywood screenplays of the time.


His protege, Art Clokey, learned kinescope animation techniques under him and went on to create the Gumby animated series."


His reputation as an editor and especially a montage editor preceded him when he was appointed Dean of the Film School at my old alma mater, USC.

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hope you dnot mind me for saying so, but i couldnt help but find that caruso anectdot just a bit funny. but when it though about it it was just sad because he could have offered to go back to SF for a benefit perfrmance or something liek that with whcih to help the survivors of the quake. they must have had benefits back then just like we do now, i guess.


but the scenes in 'san francisco' really set a very high standard to follow, and maybe they helped to whet the public appetite for the sight of famous landmarks being destroyde in movies. how else to explain the things they did in 'independence day' and all the otehr ones where famous places in teh US are destroyed?


oh, and also the one about the monster tha came from beneath the sea. though i dont think he was as destructive as the quake.

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