Captivating GIFs Reveal the Magical Special Effects in Classic Silent Films

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.

via Twist­ed­Sifter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

101 Free Silent Films: The Great Clas­sics

The Pow­er of Silent Movies, with The Artist Direc­tor Michel Haz­anavi­cius

Three Great Films Star­ring Char­lie Chap­lin, the True Icon of Silent Com­e­dy

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 and/or watch his films here.

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