The early silent comedians were daredevils and masters of physical comedy, but they weren’t *that* crazy. In a series of gifs that show the secrets of silent filmmaking, the trickery behind some of silent cinema’s most impressive shots are revealed. The person behind these brief animations is a poster from Reddit called Auir2blaze.
Harold Lloyd did indeed hang from a clock face on the side of a building in his classic Safety Last! (watch the scene up top), but as the gif shows, a mattress was only a few feet below, safely out of shot. The angle of the camera, the editing that had gone before, and the actual city scene unfolding in the background all created the illusion that Lloyd was dangling many stories above Los Angeles.
Similarly, Charlie Chaplin rolling backwards on skates to the edge of a dangerous drop is magical…in that the magic lies in the excellent realistic matte painting work that replaced a floor with vertiginous open air.
As Auir2blaze explains, “The craziest thing about silent movie effects is that everything basically had to be done in camera. If you were filming multiple elements to create a complex shot that contained multiple elements and you messed up one part, the whole piece of film would be ruined.”
Which in turn makes these effects even more impressive. Not every special effect shot was a stunt. In another example, Auir2blaze shows how Mary Pickford (view on this page) was able to kiss her double on the cheek: They shot the actress sitting still, and projected the footage onto a screen cut out in the shape of the actress, which Pickford then kissed. One might say, “crude but effective” until you think about the delicacy needed to make the screen, and the brains behind these effects.
Many of these effects relied on large depth of field, which meant that sets and actors would have to be lit very brightly. In the world of film, camera lights can get very hot, and old movie sets must have been like ovens. (For more discussion and film tech geekery, the original Reddit page has many good threads.)
It shows that filmmaking has always been a magician’s art form, and that sometimes a practical effect can be worth 100 times a computer’s output.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.