How Those Amusing Freak Moving Pictures Are Made

From August 21, 1910

HOW THOSE AMUSING FREAK MOVING PICTURES ARE MADE

HOW THOSE AMUSING FREAK MOVING PICTURES ARE MADE: Ingenious Devices Make It Easy for a Man Apparently to Walk on the Ceiling, Climb Up the Side of a House and Work Other Impossibilities. (PDF)

By 1910, jaded audiences were already tired of the primitive special effects in movies. They demanded more!

Tricks popular a few years ago are being abandoned. Sophisticated audiences demand that the ideas be worked out in a logical way. This forced the manufacturers to drop the obvious or merely ingenious… The result has been that the tricks of the moving picture man have progressed to a point of mechanical complexity that is amazing to the layman, and have developed ideas worthy of a skilled dramatist or novelist.

The article goes on to reveal several secrets of 1910 movie effects:

A French magician named Malies originated the so-called magical pictures, in which persons and objects appeared and disappeared in an instant. Of course, these were merely placed in or removed from the scene while the shutter of the camera was closed between the photographs.

Of course that refers to George Melies, whose “magical pictures” are worth looking up on YouTube. Here’s one example from 1898 showing how objects can appear and disappear as described above (for best effect, mute the music):

The article gives another example:

In the picture of the “Great Train Robbery,” for example, a dummy was substituted and thrown from a moving train in place of the living fireman who had been knocked on the head with a piece of coal.

I believe this must be the scene they refer to:

I can’t say I blame audiences for demanding more.

Amazingly, many of the tricks used back then are still used today. For example, the article describes a movie where a man crawls like a fly on the ceiling…

…head down, laughing and talking to an assistant who passes bits of paper to him from the floor beneath. On another picture a man, clinging to the ceiling as though glued there, goes through a series of antics and finally hangs suspended by his hands and his head.

The secret of these illusions is as simple as that of a conundrum — when you know it. The men walking head downward on the ceiling are actually performing on a floor. The walls and furniture in the room are suspended upside down, after being fastened to a framework of wooden strips.

A more sophisticated version of this same technique was used in this summer’s Inception. In a scene where two characters appear to be fighting on the walls and ceiling of a hotel hallway, the effect is in fact achieved by rotating the set along with the camera so that they end up fighting on an upside down set. You can read more about Inception‘s rotating set in this article at mtv.com.

While not mentioned in the article, I also recommend you watch Melies’ 1902 film A Trip To The Moon (Le voyage dans la lune), which is often considered the first sci-fi film.

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Written by David

August 20th, 2010 at 10:15 am

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