A New Kind of Magic

Part III: Cinematic Symbiosis

by Marco Lanzagorta

22 March 2006

In the final installment of his three-part look at the evolution of special effects in movie macabre, our horror historian looks at Fritz Lang, Lon Chaney, and a certain oversized ape's place in the dynamic of dread.
The 60-foot mechanical dragon in Die Nibelungen 

See Part I of this series, “The Power of Prestidigitation”, and Part II “The Modern Prometheus”.

By the early 1920s, horror cinema had already undergone a striking evolution with respect to its reliance on movie magic. While George Melies’ early short films were a mere excuse to portray his sophisticated tricks, F.W. Murnau, Paul Wegener, and D.W. Griffith had shown how special effects could be used to support and enhance a complex narrative, creating fear, claustrophobia, and terror in the audience. And even more dramatic developments were still to come before the end of the decade.

Indeed, in spite of the interesting visual tricks created for the films of Murnau and Wegener, it was Fritz Lang who truly revolutionized the use of large-scale special effects. One could rightfully argue that Lang was the James Cameron (or George Lucas) of the silent era, and his influence is still felt while watching the visual extravaganzas that characterize the modern fantasy film. Most of Lang’s movies relied heavily on both mechanical and optical effects, and he directed the two most technologically complex films of the silent period: Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1926).

Die Nibelungen, a fantasy based on the German legend of Sigfried, was filmed entirely on enormous studio sets, and required the construction of a humongous 60-foot mechanical dragon operated by four men. This dragon was so intricate and complex that it made its American counterpart, the reptilian beast featured in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924), look awkward and phony.

For Die Nibelungen, Lang also used the latest techniques in dissolves and multiple exposures. But most important, he used realistic miniatures combined with live-action scenes through two revolutionary processes: the traveling matte and the Shuftan process. A traveling matte creates an opaque area on a piece of film where the image of a moving object is to be optically printed (static mattes were originally created by Melies). The Shuftan process (named for its creator, Eugene Shuftan) uses mirrors to reflect images of models, miniatures, or paintings onto a set, so that they can be filmed simultaneously with the live action. The Shuftan process is often called an “in-camera trick”, as it does not require further optical manipulation of the negative.

For Metropolis, Lang spent nearly two years in production, at a cost of a then outrageous budget surpassing one million marks, and used most of the techniques that he had helped develop during the making of Die Nibelungen. One of the most challenging and multifaceted films ever made, Metropolis features a wide variety of special effects techniques, including miniature models, glass shots (placing a piece of transparent glass with a painted background or scenery, and clear areas for live action filming, in front of a stationary camera), animation, rear projection (where actors are placed in front of a screen onto which images are being shown), and full scale mechanical effects.

Metropolis is a futuristic tale about an oppressive society that creates a robot to control the masses, and critics and academics have exhaustively discussed its social, cultural, and political subtexts. It is reported that nearly half of the film’s budget was used to recreate the city, using a combination of models and life-sized sets. Most of these sets where constructed using forced perspective, a fairly new technique at the time, which makes objects appear larger than they really are. Lang also utilized the aforementioned camera tricks to reflect the emotion of the film’s players. For instance, when a character is trying to decide between two choices, a series of multiple exposures show different background images to symbolize and give meaning to his options.

While Germany was making huge leaps in the development of optical tricks, Hollywood made equally important strides, but in a different area of effects: makeup. While the use of powder, paint, and other types of makeup to enhance facial features followed a long established theatrical tradition, its use to create monsters was quite new. Wegener had already pioneered the use of sophisticated makeup and body suits to play the titular character in his Golem films. But it was Lon Chaney who became the most important creative force in the development of makeup effects during the early days of cinema.

Chaney’s most important achievements can be found in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923), inspired by the Victor Hugo classic, and The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925), based on Gaston Leroux’s famous novel. For both movies, Chaney devised highly sophisticated, and even physically painful, makeup appliances. Playing Quasimodo, for instance, Chaney had to wear a heavy rubber hump strapped to an intricate leather harness that forced him into a crunched position. The total weight of this device was around 70 pounds, making Chaney’s portrayal a significant feat, considering that he had to do sophisticated acrobatics in the role. And to accomplish the cadaver-like face of the Phantom, Chaney inserted small wires beneath his lower eyelids, and inside his mouth and nostrils.

Unfortunately, Chaney was very secretive about the specific techniques he used, and to date, many of his methods remain unknown. Even so, he influenced younger generations of makeup artists and invigorated their interest for this type of effect. One of the new artists to emerge in the wake of Chaney’s work was Jack Pierce, who would become famous for his now iconic work on Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935), The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932) and The Wolf Man (George Weggner, 1941).

The development of special makeup effects was crucial in the history of horror films, as monsters with truly bizarre and uncanny physicality were able to become sympathetic characters. The dramatic characterization of Quasimodo, the Phantom, and Frankenstein, was possible not only to the film technology that crated them, but also to the talented actors beneath the makeup.

Interestingly, a tangent approach of creating sympathetic monsters without the need for actors, was also being developed during the ‘20s with the refinement of what is called stop motion animation. With this technique, a model or puppet is photographed one frame at the time, with the animator moving the model a tiny amount after each exposure. When the film is shown at its usual 24 frames per second, the model appears to be moving.

While Melies often used stop motion animation in his films, most notably in his version of Cinderella (1899) to transform a pumpkin into a coach, it is believed that the first movie to showcase this technique was the short The Humpty Dumpty Circus, made by the Vitagraph American Company in 1897.

However, it was Willis O’Brien who perfected the stop motion technique during the early ‘20s. By 1925, he combined this method with static and traveling mattes to give life to the dinosaurs that populated the prehistoric world seen in The Lost World (Harry Hoyt, 1925). Still, his masterwork would be the title creature in King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933), which would become one of the most influential horror films ever made.

Clearly, the many special effects techniques developed between 1895 and the late ‘20s were crucial for the evolution of the horror film. It is perhaps ironic that, while Melies films were important for the purpose of developing the basic methods of trick cinematography, the real breakthrough came when these early special effects lost their “wow” factor. This allowed filmmakers to use the effects to support the drama of the narrative, rather than to have them at the center of the film.

Dawley and Murnau used special effects sparingly to highlight the creepy aspects of their films. And even the two most important proponents for the use of effects in the era, Wegener and Lang, utilized trick cinematography to support the politically conscious stories they wanted to present on the screen.

On the other hand, as the special effects techniques evolved and improved over the years, they allowed filmmakers to bring to life monsters and landscapes that would have been impossible before. Thus, with less perfect effects, perhaps Metropolis would not have been able to portray the dazzling industrial city of the future, and maybe the Phantom and Quasimodo would not have been so sympathetic in spite of their monstrosity. Even if the political, social and cultural subtexts of these films had remained intact, their impact would have been severely diminished.

Thus, since the early years of the horror film, special effects have been an integral part of their visual structure. While the very first films with horror imagery were made as an excuse to showcase the novelty, their structure evolved in the following years. Therefore, one can argue that, from the early ‘10s until the late ‘20s, special effects and horror films enjoyed a very productive symbiosis.

Today, after more than a century of joint evolution, horror cinema and visual effects have become inseparable. One can hardly think about one without referring to the other. And quite unfortunately, for each filmmaker like David Cronenberg and George Romero, who understands how special effects can be used to intensify a horror narrative, there are many who consider the horror genre as a mere showcase of extravagant movie magic.

Over the course of these columns, I have discussed the origins of special effects cinematography, and how this new kind of magic served as the genesis of the horror film. It is perhaps ironic that as films evolved, what was originally conceived as a magic trick became part of the cinematic reality. Paradoxically, we know aliens, ghosts, vampires, zombies and giant monsters are fictitious, but we demand realism when watching a horror film. Thus, special effects are no longer magic, but part of filmmaking’s standard practices.

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