The Art of Creating Special Effects in Silent Movies: Ingenuity Before the Age of CGI

If anyone tries to claim that modern day movies have too many special effects remind them of this. Films have always used special effects to trick the audience, and we’re just using new variations of tools from a century ago. In fact, right from the beginning, creators like Georges Méliès were pushing the boundaries of celluloid and 24 frames per second like the showmen and magicians they were.

By the time we get to the silent comedians as seen in our above video, technology had advanced along with the pure physical comedy of the stars. Yes, they were amazing and nimble athletes, but they weren’t stupid. Camera trickery helped them look superhuman.




The first example shows Harold Lloyd’s iconic stunt from 1923's Safety Last!, where he hung over the streets of Los Angeles from a clock face. Only he wasn’t really. Using forced perspective, a constructed building edifice, and a safe mattress a few feet below shows how Lloyd faced no danger at all. Editing, too, creates so much of the effect, as we have seen how high the clock is compared to the ground in previous shots. The angle on the streets below and in the distance really sell the scene compared to just shooting sky.

In fact, this forced perspective is still used in modern films: Peter Jackson used it a lot in The Lord of the Rings to give the impression that Gandalf was twice as tall as Hobbit Frodo simply by constructing the sets smaller.

And when backgrounds are basic like sand dunes, even the low budget filmmaker can achieve some amazing effects with no money, just a bunch of cool miniatures:

Then again, Jackie Chan one-upped Lloyd for real in his 1983 film Project A, when he dangles from a three-story clock hand only to crash through two canopies onto the ground below. It’s a stunt so nice, they show you it twice!

The other favorite trick of the silent films was matte painting. As long as the camera doesn’t move, a piece of glass with a photo-realistic painting on it can seamlessly fit into the action.

In Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times, that allows the comedian to skate very close to a three floor drop without even being in danger. (Technically, the camera *does* move in this shot, but it’s a short pan which wouldn’t affect the illusion.)

This old-school method has gone away, though up through the ‘80s great matte painting artists were working on films like the Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now a digital matte artist works in three dimensions, not two, with endless finesse and tweaking at their disposal, like in Game of Thrones:

The matte is the basis, really, of all modern digital effects. Wherever there is a green screen, you’re seeing the evolution of the matte. You probably have an app on your phone that does something similar, and can magically transport you to where you really want to be...just like film.

Related Content:

A Supercut of Buster Keaton’s Most Amazing Stunts–and Keaton’s 5 Rules of Comic Storytelling

Some of Buster Keaton’s Great, Death-Defying Stunts Captured in Animated Gifs

Captivating GIFs Reveal the Magical Special Effects in Classic Silent Films

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.


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