A New Kind of Magic: Part III: Cinematic Symbiosis

Marco Lanzagorta
The 60-foot mechanical dragon in Die Nibelungen

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.

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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