Wizards of Visual Effects: The Golden Age [Part 2]

PART 1:  INTRODUCTION  |  L.B. Abbott  |  Russell A. Cully  |  W. Percy Day  |  Linwood Dunn

Farciot Edouart  |  John P. Fulton  |  Gordon Jennings  |  H.F. Koenekamp

PART 2:  Emil Kosa, Jr.  |  Lee LeBlanc  |  Paul K. Lerpae  |  Ned Mann  |  Fred Sersen

Vernon L. Walker  |  Albert Whitlock  |  GLOSSARY


Page 1: From First Cameraman to Director of PhotographY | The Motion
Picture Cameraman | What Is a Director of Photography?
Page 2: Film vs. Digital | ALEXA | Digital Intermediate | D-Cinema
Page 3: Oliver Stapleton: 'So You Wanna Work in Movies?'
Page 4: A History of Aerial Cinematography [Part 1 & 2]
Page 5: Wizards of Visual Effects: The Golden Age [Part 1 & 2]


EMIL KOSA, Jr.

 

 

Born: 28 November 1903, Paris, France, as Emil Jean Kosa Jr., son of craftsman and painter Emil Jean Kosa, Sr. [1876-1955].

Died: 4 November 1968, Los Angeles, Calif., USA.

 

Moved to the USA with his family in 1907. As a teenager, he returned to Europe to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. In the late 1920s, he settled in Los Angeles and studied and taught at the Otis and Chouinard Art Institutes. In 1933, he began a thirty-five year career as a matte painter with 20th Century Pictures. He was responsible for the painting of the 20th Century Pictures 'searchlight' logo [see photo below - left]. When 20th Century Pictures merged with Fox Film Corporation in 1935, the logo was used by the new company, 20th Century-Fox.

 

 

His most famous matte painting is probably the ruined Statue of Liberty at the finale of 'Planet of the Apes' [1967; ph: Leon Shamroy] [see photo above - right].

In 1963, he won an 'Oscar' for Visual Effects for 'Cleopatra' [1960-63; ph: Leon Shamroy & (uncred) Jack Hildyard].

He continually remained active as a watercolor painter, helping create the 'California Style', devoted to watercolor paintings of regional subjects. While maintaining a studio-home in Los Angeles, Kosa Jr. decorated churches, theaters, and private homes. He was also very active in the Laguna Beach art community as a teacher. He was an elected member of the National Academy of Design and the California and American Watercolor Societies. During his career his work won many awards nationally. His oeuvre includes portraits, seascapes, landscapes, and florals in oil and watercolor.

 

LEE LeBLANC

 

 

Born: 5 October 1913, Powers, Michigan, USA, as George Lee LeBlanc.

Died: 21 July 1988, Iron River, Michigan, USA.

 

In 1931, after graduating from high school in Iron River, Michigan, LeBlanc went to Los Angeles and spent a year studying art at the Jack Wiggins Trade School. He headed for New York hoping to find work as a commercial artist, but decided that New York wasn't for him. He went to Philadelphia where he tended bar for three years to pay for more art lessons. During that time he attended the La France Art Institute. Then, back to New York again where he landed a job as a staff illustrator for the 'New York Journal'. In his off hours he attended the Art Students League. In 1937 LeBlanc returned to Los Angeles where he found employment with Western Lithography as a commercial artist. Six months later he joined Walt Disney's staff at a salary of $10.00 per week. An offer of higher pay took him to producer Leon Schlesinger [the cartoon series 'Looney Tunes' and 'Merrie Melodies']. Through friends, he was able to get into the Special Effects Department at 20th Century-Fox. His first job was building miniatures; later he became a matte painter. After Ray Kellogg took over the Matte Painting Department, LeBlanc went hunting for another job and landed the position of head of Matte Painting at MGM in 1955, replacing Warren Newcombe. He remained head of the department for six years in spite of the constant pressures of tight budgets, impossible schedules, and television competition.

 

"Ben-Hur"

 

Left his job at MGM in 1962 and headed back to Iron River, Michigan.

In 1972 he began designing stamps for wildlife and fishing licenses and won the federal duck stamp competition in 1973.

He was a member of Ducks Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation, The Audubon Society, National Geographic Society, the Ornithologist's Union, and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

 

PAUL K. LERPAE

 

 

Born: 7 April 1900, Mexico City, Mexico, as Paul Karl Lerpae.

Died: 5 October 1989, Palm Springs, Calif., USA.

 

Started his career as a lab technician at Standard Film Laboratories, MGM and Paramount. He also worked as a c.asst, becoming adept in the intricacies of several types of cameras. This combination of lab and camera techniques made him a dominant figure in the field of optical printing effects [at Paramount]. The 1931 version of 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' [ph: Karl Struss] contained some of Lerpae's most dramatic effects. Lerpae also did intricate work on all of Cecil B. DeMille's pictures made after 1932. He retired in 1971.

 

NED MANN

 

"Things to Come" [1935]

 

Born: 17 January 1893, Redkey, Indiana, USA, as Ned Herbert Mann.

Died: 1 July 1967, La Jolla, Calif., USA.

 

Ned Mann was one of the top optical effects designers and technicians in movies. He had a very important influence on the British special effects field by training men like Tom Howard and Wally Veevers.

Mann worked as a professional roller skater and car racer in his teens and early twenties. He entered the film industry as an actor in 1920, but within a couple of years had moved into technical and special effects work.

During the 1920s and 1930s he worked as a technical director on such top-flight movies of the era as 'Don Q Son of Zorro' [1925; ph: Henry Sharp], 'The Beloved Rogue' [1926; ph: Joe August], 'Two Arabian Knights' [1927; ph: Tony Gaudio & Joe August], 'Noah's Ark' [1928; ph: Barney McGill & Hal Mohr; as co-technician], 'Dirigible' [1930; ph: Joseph Walker; co-technical effects], and 'Deluge' [1932; ph: Norbert Brodine; miniatures]. For 'Deluge', Mann and his crew build a hundreds of square feet model of lower Manhattan with breakaway buildings shaken to pieces and then washed away by thousands of gallons of water from dump tanks. The scene was filmed in one take with 8 high-speed cameras turning at up to 240 fps.

In the mid-1930s, he took a job with Alexander Korda's London Film Productions at the Denham Studios, Buckinghamshire, UK. The Korda studio became home to one of the best special effects units in the movie business over the ensuing six years. His work during this period included the special effects on such films as 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' [1934; ph: Harold Rosson], 'The Ghost Goes West' [1935; ph: Harold Rosson], and '[H.G. Wells'] Things to Come' [1935; ph: Georges Périnal]. 'Less effective was Ned Mann's use of puppets moved along conveyor belts in miniature sets to simulate the crowds rushing towards the space gun.' [Karol Kulik in 'Alexander Korda - The Man Who Could Work Miracles', 1975.] [See clip below.]

 

 

During his time at Denham, he was involved with the early stages of the development of the blue-screen traveling matte process, which would become a staple of optical special effects work in the movies, though it was Lawrence Butler who oversaw the perfecting of the process [which debuted in 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1939-40)].

Returned to Britain after WWII in order to help Korda establish Shepperton Studios' special effects department, but he didn't stay for long.

 

 

His last film was Vittorio De Sica's 'Miracolo a Milano' [1950; ph: G.R. Aldo], the denouement of which is an optical effects tour de force [see clip above].

 

FRED SERSEN

 

 

Born: 24 February 1890, Vaseli, Czechoslovakia, as Ferdinand Motodei Sersen.

Died: 11 December 1962, Los Angeles, Calif., USA.

 

Came to the United States at the age of 17. Studied art at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, the Portland Art Academy, and the San Francisco Institute of Art.

While he received a number of awards for his fine art watercolors, he is best known for his work in the motion picture industry. He started as a scenic artist - most of the large watercolors he produced for films were photo realistic works which, when photographed and incorporated into the action sequences, appeared to be actual scenes - at Fox Film Corporation [later 20th Century-Fox], and eventually became head of their special effects department from the 1930s to the 1950s.

His first [co-]credited film was 'A Connecticut Yankee' [1930-31; ph: Ernest Palmer]. For 'The Rains Came' [1939; ph: Arthur Miller & (uncred) Bert Glennon] he directed the special effects for the earthquake and flood sequence. [See clip below.] The 'Oscar' he received, together with E.H. Hansen [for sound], was the first in the new category 'Special Effects'.

 

 

Sersen was a member of the California Water Color Society.

Awards: He was nominated for six 'Oscars' and [co-]won two 'Oscars' for Special Effects, in 1939 for 'The Rains Came' and in 1943 for 'Crash Dive' [ph: Leon Shamroy].

 

VERNON L. WALKER

 

 

Born: 2 May 1894, Detroit, Michigan, USA, as Vernon LaFollette Walker.

Died: 1 March 1948, Balboa Island, Los Angeles, Calif., USA.

 

His family moved to Hollywood in 1920. He began his career as an asst to effects ph Fred Jackman in the camera effects department at First National Pictures in Burbank, California. After First National merged with Warner Bros. in 1928, he moved to RKO Radio Pictures, where he succeeded Lloyd Knechtel as head of the photographic effects department, remaining with the studio until his death.

His expertise was directly responsible for the exceptional quality of the effects work for the always cash-strapped studio. One of his first films was 'King Kong' [1931-33] where he had to contend with the rigors of the new rear screen projection technology. He was singled out by American Cinematographer Magazine in 1941 for his work on the parachute drop seq in Hitchcock's 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith' [1940; ph: Harry Stradling]: 'His work here is excellent, for although you know it must be a process shot, you are never forcefully reminded of the fact.'

 

Voice of Orson Welles: 'The special effects were by Vernon L. Walker'

 

ALBERT J. WHITLOCK

 

 

Born: 15 September 1915, London, UK.

Died: 26 October 1999, Santa Barbara, Calif., USA.

 

Whitlock was one of the most skilled matte artists in the history of motion pictures, with his work seen in more than 500 films and television shows. For over a quarter of a century, from the early 1960s to the mid 1980s, he was the acknowledged master of matte painting, and his mastery of the discipline was unparalleled in the industry. He was able to seamlessly integrate his paintings with live-action photography, creating scenes that would have been impossible to construct in three-dimensional reality and saving producers and studios millions of dollars in costly set construction.

 

Whitlock entered the film industry in London in 1929 at Gaumont-British Studios. His artistic talent led to a promotion into a job where he would paint signs and scenery. At Gaumont-British, he began a life-long association with dir Alfred Hitchcock, assisting in the miniature effects for 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' [1934; ph: Curt Courant] and doing all of the signs for 'The 39 Steps' [1935; ph: Bernard Knowles]. During WWII he started doing matte work.

 

Admiring his work done at Walt Disney's British studio in the early 1950s, Disney convinced him to re-locate to America in 1954, where he worked at the studio's matte department headed by Peter Ellenshaw. At Disney he successfully mastered his impressionistic approach to matte painting. He remained with the studio for seven years.

In 1961, he moved to Universal where he served as head of the matte department. 'In simple terms, a matte shot is a need for an image that doesn't exist. It doesn't exist because either it's too expensive to go shoot it, or it's too expensive to manufacture by other means. What you do in effect is block out an area of a scene into which you put a painting [on glass or plastic]. Now, my claim to fame is that I do that on the original negative instead of copying the film in order to do it, and I have all sorts of moving clouds and things that give it more life.' [Whitlock in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 1974.]

 

Because Whitlock always worked with the original negative of the live action, it was neither developed nor printed after being shot. It was brought back to the studio and kept in a refrigerator because it would not be completed until the painting was also exposed onto it. When the original scene was shot, it was common practice to set up a B-camera to cover a duplicate of the action so that the editor would have something to work with while the painting was being shot to complete the scene.

 

Whitlock's crowning achievement was the creation of over 70 individual matte paintings for 'Earthquake' [1974; ph: Philip Lathrop], for which he received a 'Special Achievement Academy Award' in 1974. [Miniature & Special Process ph: Clifford Stine; Matte ph: Ross Hoffmann; Miniatures: Glen Robinson; Mechanical Effects: Frank Brendel, Johnny Borgese & Jack McMaster.] [See clip & photos below.]

 

[1] - matte painting [A. Whitlock] + foreground action composite [clip 02.16]

 

[2] - miniature [clip 03.39]

 

[3] - miniature [filmed outdoors] [clip 03.53]

 

[4] - miniature [filmed outdoors] + [right] stage set [split screen] [clip 04.10]

 

[5] - glass painting [A. Whitlock] + fire and smoke elements [clip 04.33]

[6] - matte painting [A. Whitlock] + smoke elements

[clip 04.44]

He won the same award again in 1975 for 'The Hindenburg' [1974; ph: Robert Surtees; with Glen Robinson], in which he re-created the great airship and its final voyage.

Universal closed the matte department in 1983. Whitlock retired, but continued working on occasional productions for a few more years. His work as a painter was cut short when he developed Parkinson's Disease.

 

GLOSSARY

 

> Blue-Screen Photography [also green-screen]: a method of producing a traveling matte. A foreground subject, or element, is shot against an illuminated blue- or green-screen. Mattes are extracted from this original negative through optical [or digital] processes, allowing the subject, or element, to be isolated for compositing with a previously photographed background plate. Often characters are filmed with a blue-screen in order to place them in a different scene, or on a miniature set.

 

> Composite: to combine two or more individual images onto one piece of film by photographic means. Early compositing was accomplished in the camera by masking part of the scene when filming, rewinding the film and removing the matte and shooting again to expose the previously masked portion. The photographic technology of the optical printer revolutionized visual effects in the 1920s. [Since the 1990s, digital compositing is commonplace, in which multiple film images are scanned into the computer, combined digitally, and output to a single piece of film.]

 

> Front Projection: achieved with a projector facing a two-way mirror which is positioned at a 45-degree angle in front of a special reflective screen. The camera faces the screen directly behind the mirror which, being two-way, allows it to record the image on the screen. Actors standing in front of the screen cast shadows onto it, but their bodies mask exactly the area of their shadows. The system was introduced during the 1960s and produced images more stronger and sharper than in rear projection.

 

> Glass Shot: an in-camera technique that combines scenic elements painted on a large sheet of glass with live-action studio or location photography. Early uses included the finishing out of architectural details on back-lot sets or locations.

 

> Hanging Miniature: an in-camera special effect. A forced-perspective miniature is suspended in front of the camera. When viewed through the lens, it appears to be part of a structure in the scene. In the chariot race scene in 'Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ' [1923-25], only the lower part of the coliseum was built. The upper tiers, including thousands of tiny 'spectators' mounted on rods to allow them to stand, was a hanging miniature.

 

> Matte [aka mask]: early filmmakers created in-camera composites by covering part of the lens with a mask while filming, or placing a sheet of glass with a blacked-out area between the camera and the scene, to prevent a portion of the film from being exposed. The cameraman would then rewind the film, and shoot again with the mask removed and the previously exposed area covered, thus combining two images in one shot. Later there were several matte systems that required an optical printer in order to manipulate the separate films. A stationary matte marks off a static defined area; a traveling matte follows the silhouette of a moving character or object and changes shape from frame to frame.

 

> Matte Painting: a painting of elaborate background scenery that can be composited with live action or miniatures. They were originally painted on glass. The stationary matte did away with the need for mounting sheets of glass on the set or on location. Areas of the frame were first masked off with black card placed in front of the lens. After the take, a few feet of test shot were reserved and the rest of the footage was stored away for future use. The test film was projected onto a glass easel in the painter's studio, and the missing sections were painted onto the glass pane. Once the matte painting was finished, the exposed film was reloaded into the camera, the parts already exposed were masked off with black cardboard, and the painting double exposed onto the live footage. The economic advantages of the stationary matte to the film industry were enormous. 'Full matte paintings' are often used for establishing shots. [By the mid-1980s, advancements in computer graphics programs allowed matte painters to work in the digital realm. The first digital matte shot was created by painter Christopher Evans in 1985 for 'Young Sherlock Holmes [and the Pyramid of Fear]/Pyramid of Fear' [1984; ph: Stephen Goldblatt] for a scene with a completely computer generated character: a knight coming out of a stained-glass window. Evans first painted the window and the wall of the church in acrylics, then scanned the painting for further digital manipulation. The computer animation blended perfectly with the digital matte, something a traditional matte painting could not have accomplished.]

 

> Mechanical Effects [also called practical or physical effects]: special effects created on-set in front of the camera which may not require additional photographic manipulation. Includes pyrotechnics, make-up effects, flying with wires.

 

> Mirror Shot: 1] a semitransparent mirror placed at a 45-degree angle in front of the camera will superimpose any object, action, or setting at the side of the camera over the main scene; 2] a nontransparent silvered mirror placed in part of the camera's field of view can add to the scene by reflecting a photograph, miniature set, or art work actually outside the field of view; 3] the 'Schüfftan-Verfahren/Schüfftan Process' - refined and popularized by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan while working on 'Metropolis' [1925; ph: Karl Freund & Günther Rittau] - permitted the creation of a composite image by the use of a large mirror at a 45-degree angle in front of the camera lens. First: a plate of glass was placed at a 45-degree angle between the camera and the miniature, drawing, or photograph of a setting. Second: through the camera's viewfinder an outline of the area into which the actors would later be inserted was traced onto the glass. Third: this outline was transferred onto a mirror and all the reflective surface that fell outside the outline was removed, leaving transparent glass. Four: when the mirror was placed in the same position as the original plate of glass, the reflective part blocked a portion of the miniature, drawing, or photograph behind it and also reflected the stage behind the camera. The actors were placed several meters away from the mirror so that when they were reflected in the mirror, they would appear at the right size. [Almost completely replaced by the traveling matte and blue-screen effects.]

 

> Montages [aka American montage]: from the 1930s to the 1950s, montage seq often combined numerous short shots with special optical effects [fades, dissolves, split screens, jump cuts, double and triple exposures, etc.]. A 'montage' condenses time and space, conveys a great deal of information in a short period, and may also suggest a hallucinatory state of mind, a dream, or a character's remembrance of past events. They were usually assembled by someone other than the director or the editor of the movie. A famous 'montagist' was Slavko Vorkapich [1894-1976].

 

> Multiple Exposure: the photographing of two images onto the same piece of film.

 

> Optical Printer: device consisting of a projector and camera with lenses facing each other; in the process called compositing, two or more pieces of film with elements of a scene are placed in the projector and photographed together onto a new piece of film in the camera. There are continuous and step printers. With the optical printer it is possible to make transitional effects [fade, dissolve, wipe, etc.], a split screen effect, change the size and position of the image, modify the frame sequence, change the frame size during action [zoom], superimpose images [e.g. rain, fog, clouds and titles], manipulate the quality, and adding motion.

 

> Process Photography: 1] rear-projection photography in which foreground action is shot before an image projected onto the rear of a translucent screen; 2] any photography using a process camera [a camera with the highest quality of registration and precision possible and used in special effects matte shots, bipack and optical printing].

 

> Rear Projection: a previously filmed background scene [background 'plates'] is projected behind actors on a screen in a studio, to create the illusion that they are on location. The background 'plates' are stationary or traveling motion picture scenes projected from behind onto a translucent screen.

 

> Stop-Motion Animation: technique in which a miniature puppet is moved incrementally through a range of motions and photographed one frame at a time with each movement. When the filmed scene is run at the conventional film speed of 24 fps, the illusion that the creature is moving is created [e.g. Willis O'Brien's 'King Kong' and the films by Ray Harryhausen]. Time-lapse cinematography is stop-motion, but with a lengthy duration between each frame [or shot], to show some process of development.

 

> Substitution Shot: trick shot in which the camera is stopped and the actors freeze while an object or actor is exchanged for another.

 

> Transparency: a still image printed on a transparent medium such as glass or celluloid and projected as a background in a process shot.

 

> Visual Effects [also called optical or photographic effects]: special effects achieved with the aid of photographic technology, occurring after the principal photography, or main shooting, of a film. Includes miniatures, optical effects, matte paintings, stop-motion animation, and computer-generated images [CGI].


These pages: Using quotes from John Brosnan's 'Movie Magic - The Story of Special Effects in the Cinema' [1974], David Hutchison's 'Film Magic - The Art and Science of Special Effects' [1987], Gail Morgan Hickman's 'The Films of George Pal' [1977], and the websites Wikipedia, TCM, walterpercyday.org, nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com & homepage.mac.com/cirquefilm/vfxhistory/index.html.