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 and/or watch his films here.

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