How Charlie Chaplin Used Groundbreaking Visual Effects to Shoot the Death-Defying Roller Skate Scene in Modern Times (1936)

When I think of roller skates, I first think of 1997’s Boo­gie Nights and De La Soul’s 1991 hit “A Roller Skat­ing Jam Named ‘Sat­ur­days.’” I date myself to a time not par­tic­u­lar­ly well known as a gold­en age of roller skat­ing (not the kinds in those ref­er­ences, in any case). The 90s were known as a gold­en age of visu­al effects, when Juras­sic Park, its sequels, and at the decade’s end, The Matrix, pre­viewed a brave new world of film­mak­ing to come.…

When I think of roller skates, I do not tend to think of Char­lie Chap­lin.…

But if you’ve watched Chaplin’s clas­sic 1936 Mod­ern Times recent­ly, you’ll have the film’s famous roller skat­ing scene fresh in your mind. You may or may not know that Chaplin’s seem­ing­ly death-defy­ing stunt on skates in that film was itself a pio­neer­ing inven­tion of visu­al effects, in a strik­ing­ly con­tem­po­rary work from Chap­lin that, like The Matrix, helped advance the mod­ern tech­nolo­gies it cri­tiqued (and end­ed up play­ing an impor­tant role in mod­ern phi­los­o­phy).

The scene in Mod­ern Times takes place in the toy depart­ment, on the fourth floor of a depart­ment store. Chaplin’s Tramp and Ellen (Paulette God­dard) strap on skates, he cruis­es around blind­fold­ed, and seems to back right to the edge of a sheer drop where the rail­ing has bro­ken. “The stunt looks so real that it’s impos­si­ble to fig­ure out where the effects are at first sight,” Nico­las Ayala writes at Screen­rant, “but the tech­nique is actu­al­ly sim­pler than it seems. In fact, there is no gap in the floor. It’s a prac­ti­cal effect con­sist­ing of a mat­te paint­ing placed right in front of the cam­era.”

Per­formed live on set (“with no stunt dou­bles,” Ayala notes), the scene doesn’t actu­al­ly show Chap­lin in any dan­ger. He per­forms “on a ful­ly-floored set” with a ledge to help him “dis­cern when to stop, since it was mea­sured to fit exact­ly with the pho­to­re­al­is­tic mat­te paint­ing that was placed on a sheet of glass just a cou­ple feet in front of the lens. This way, the paint­ing would appear to be the pre­cise size of the gap with­out inter­fer­ing with Chaplin’s per­for­mance.”

See the mat­te paint­ing out­lined in a still fur­ther up, cour­tesy of Ayala, see the stunt dia­grammed in the ani­ma­tion above from Petr Pechar, and learn more about the film­ing of Mod­ern Times, the Matrix of its day, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Char­lie Chap­lin Does Cocaine and Saves the Day in Mod­ern Times (1936)

Char­lie Chap­lin Gets Strapped into a Dystopi­an “Rube Gold­berg Machine,” a Fright­ful Com­men­tary on Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism

The Char­lie Chap­lin Archive Opens, Putting Online 30,000 Pho­tos & Doc­u­ments from the Life of the Icon­ic Film Star

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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