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Plastic RealitySpecial Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics$

Julie Turnock

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780231163538

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231163538.001.0001

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Optical Animation

Optical Animation

Special Effects Compositing Up to 1977

(p.21) 1 Optical Animation
Plastic Reality

Julie A. Turnock

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses studio-era special effects from the 1930s to the 1960s, and 1970s special effects. The studio era had mostly been concerned with maintaining the more naturalistic “classical” style. Most importantly, special effects in the studio era were achieved as simply, economically, and efficiently as possible. By the 1970s, special effects became conspicuous and a more visible form of special effects emerged. Filmmaking in the 1970s tends to be divided into two periods—the naturalistic “New Wave” period and the spectacular “blockbuster” era. However, filmmakers like Lucas, Coppola, and Spielberg suggest that they saw the turn toward intensified, visible special effects as enabling an alternative style of realism. The technological prominence of special effects in the 1970s eventually transformed almost all the areas of cinematic production.

Keywords:   studio-era special effects, 1970s special effects, New Wave period, blockbuster era, realism, cinematic production

Effects so special, you’ll miss ’em.

motto in the service brochure for linwood dunn’s film effects hollywood (c. 1965)1

You have to be able to breathe the air on the […] planet—to be able to smell it. That everything be credible and totally fantastic at the same time.

george lucas (1977)2

These opening quotes by Linwood Dunn, a master of studio-era special effects, and George Lucas, arguably the architect of 1970s special effects, can serve as mottos for two different historical approaches to special effects. In the studio era, especially by the 1960s, the (somewhat disingenuous) cliché of effects work had been that the best results were those that the audience would never notice. Broadly speaking, special effects from the 1930s to the 1960s had mostly been concerned with supporting the more naturalistic “classical” style. The studio’s aesthetic ideal was unobtrusiveness: all elements appeared in proper perspective in the frame and blended seamlessly with the live-action cinematography and mise-en-scène.3 Perhaps most importantly, they were achieved as simply, economically, and efficiently as possible. In naturalistic films such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and A Place in the Sun (1951) (all of which featured extensive composite work), studio-era special effects ideally valued a brand of photorealism that hewed closely to live-action photographic conventions, prioritized the aesthetic of the principal photography (the portion of filming that included the main actors performing the plot), and subordinated special effects to the background. Of course, it is worth stating that (p.22) these were ideals, and were not always achieved. The dates of the quotes also testify to how quickly the role of special effects changed between the mid-1960s and 1977. By the 1970s, the industry recognized the prevalence of a more visible and spectacular form of special effects. Indeed, the most apparent difference between 1970s special effects and the preceding studio era is that they became so conspicuous.

The acceleration of special effects production in the 1970s may seem at odds with prevailing filmmaking styles in an era usually touted more for gritty naturalism. In interviews, the variously termed “New Hollywood” or “American auteur” directors of the 1960s and early 1970s often expressed dissatisfaction with the artificial, set-bound look of large studio sound stages and frequently repeated the desire to strip away perceived Hollywood artifice.4 The “stripped-down” 1970s filmmaking aesthetic favors such techniques as lens flares, available light, handheld cameras, long takes, and rack focus; and “anti-glamour” actors (such as Bruce Dern, Warren Oates, Shelley Duvall). Easy Rider (1969), Cockfighter (1974), and Nashville (1975) typify these tendencies. For this reason, directors of this era constantly derided the studio’s rear-projection composite backgrounds, preferring the “authenticity” of shooting on location.5

These emblematic 1970s stylistic characteristics seem to exclude late 1970s fantasy extravaganzas like Star Wars and Close Encounters.6 Histories of 1970s filmmaking tend to divide the decade into two periods—the earlier, naturalistic “New Wave” period giving way to the later, spectacular “blockbuster” era.7 However, statements made by filmmakers like Lucas, Coppola, and Spielberg suggest they did not believe that they were contradicting or overturning their peers’ predilection for gritty photographic realism. Rather, they saw a turn toward intensified, visible special effects as enabling an alternative style of realism: a 1970s’ inflected photorealism that allowed filmmakers to build fantastic environments that would be, in Lucas’s words, “credible and totally fantastic at the same time.”8 Live-action filmmaking in the 1970s ushered in a new style and approach to realism, making previous forms associated with the studios seem outdated. Indeed, rather than turning their backs on the early 1970s naturalistic aesthetic, filmmakers used the same aesthetic that informs the style of photorealistic special effects practiced by “fantastic” filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg. Effects teams on Star Wars and others reproduced such 1970s cinematographic marks as lens flares, handheld cameras, and rack focus in the (p.23) special effects footage explicitly so as not to disappear into the background but rather to serve the same purpose as in live-action cinematography—that is, to call attention to the act of filming. Ironically, stripping away studio-based rear projection allowed for the return to another, arguably more invasive form of special effects artifice: so-called “optical effects.” As opposed to the on-set rear-projection composite method completed during principal photography (see Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief [1955] or Marnie [1964] for particularly obvious examples), optical effects were completed after principal photography in postproduction, usually using optical printing techniques. Filmmakers of the 1970s cherry-picked techniques from traditional optical special effects, animation, and experimental film in order to realize their ideal of a photorealistic, multilayered cinematic environment, most influentially in the flamboyantly fantastic world of Star Wars.

Indeed, the handmade integrity associated with experimental and traditional animation proved to be the key to realizing and unifying these varied 1970s aesthetics.9 In order to gain control over the frame, special effects artists, at the behest of ambitious directors, combined the technology and aesthetic of animation and experimental film with traditional optical techniques, resulting in what I am calling optical animation. By separating the photographic components from their original context, the practice of optical animation allowed filmmakers to treat live action as a designable animation element, and to recompose and recombine them in postproduction optical printing.

The technological prominence of special effects in the 1970s eventually transformed nearly all areas of cinematic production. It is important to place this change within a historical outline and to introduce special effects terminology that will be fleshed out in later chapters, in order to understand more precisely what changed in 1970s special effects. With this in mind, we must constantly consider the shifting historical frameworks for photorealism within the context of the cinema. We must reject the notion that past special effects are by definition “dated,” and that effects are always improving toward a perfected aesthetic. Instead, realism in general and photorealism in particular are the constantly renegotiated areas of concern for special effects aesthetics. It should also be evident that photoreal does not mean the same thing in The Lost World (1925), or Vertigo (1958), or Star Wars (1977). As photographic technologies change, and different sets (p.24) of choices become more or less valid, what accounts for the forms, goals, or values that make up an aesthetic of photorealism at a given time?

For filmmakers of the 1970s, the advantage of revisiting and repurposing techniques of an earlier generation meant a new way to obtain greater control of the composition of the frame, and therefore the illusion of an encompassing cinematic environment. By and large, they were not satisfied with the particular aesthetic associated with studio-era photorealism, mostly because it could not provide the materials to build the multi-planar, highly detailed impossible worlds or situations they imagined. In fact (well before the digital era), optical effects methods meant a move toward realizing the goal of the total control of all elements of the frame. Since at least the 1940s, total control of the frame had traditionally been associated with perfectionist auteurs (like Bazin’s description of Orson Welles’s and William Wyler’s deep-focus staging of the mise-en-scène).10 Traditional mise-en-scène arranges the various actors, props, scenery, and so on in front of the camera, shoots them, and edits them together. Filmmakers of the 1970s such as Kubrick, Lucas, and Spielberg in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind certainly had these classical-era precedents in mind. However, this kind of control adds a level of hands-on manipulation to the celluloid frame. Here, total control of the frame employs frame-by-frame control on the negative, as in animation. In other words, filmmakers of the 1970s worked toward a layered, composite mise-en-scène—or the composition of the celluloid frame (and, consequently, the world), assembled in postproduction, then projected on the screen. The composite mise-en-scène typically transforms each component (actor, prop, scenery) into separately filmed elements to be arranged and composed within the frame, frame by frame, in order to appear as if filmed together in live-action motion photography.

Most importantly, special effects photorealism in the 1970s concerns the manipulation of the filmmaking process to make objects or environments look real or credible in the movies, not “in real life.” In other words, a composite mise-en-scène usually requires that its separately generated elements fit together in a traditional, three-dimensional cinematic picture plane, as if filmed by one camera in a single shot, and not necessarily how the naked eye would witness it. On a practical level, in order to construct a photoreal composite mise-en-scène from scratch, the special effects elements must be filmed to be consistent with the aesthetic of the live-action elements (p.25) (actors, constructed sets, etc.), and vice versa. Special effects photorealism thus relies on a visual consistency across production levels to build up a composite mise-en-scène.

In the 1970s, as filmmakers sought a visual vocabulary for special effects–intensive filmmaking, notions of photorealism were far from stable. The professional rhetoric illustrates how practitioners were trying to characterize what they were doing as different from previous traditions. Practitioner rhetoric is therefore valuable in understanding aesthetic shifts within the industry. Matte painter Harrison Ellenshaw (Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back [1980]) sums up well the technician’s rhetoric on the justifications for photorealism:

All that matters is if the audience will believe it on the screen. The fact is that people who know nothing about how these things are done can still tell us whether the effect is good or bad. You don’t have to know what a 10k is to know whether you like or dislike a movie, and that’s something we tend to forget. We say, “What do they know?” But they know. They’ve used their eyes all their lives and they know when something doesn’t look exactly right. There isn’t a little sign that pops up in front of their faces and says, “matte line” or “jiggle” or “dupe.” It just says, “Oops!” It distracts them. It takes their minds off the story. … [And] that’s where your mind should be. Anything technical that jars you a little bit is going to distract you. So your effects have to flow and fit in neatly.11

It is exactly the commonsense appeal to “trust your eyes” that makes the claims so easy to accept. However, Ellenshaw’s words, though sincere, should be treated with caution. Ellenshaw and many others from the era appear to use words consistent with traditional forms of “perceptual realistic” special effects (especially, “eyes … know when something doesn’t look exactly right”). In fact, his statement can better be understood as promoting the newer photoreal aesthetic under development, as well as defining negatively the industry’s dissatisfaction with previous styles of photorealism. The new style will eliminate the noticeable matte lines of old, stabilize the composited image so it does not wobble, and improve image quality over duplication stages—precisely the aesthetic priorities of the Star Wars crew. Moreover, Ellenshaw also acknowledges how, at this point, special effects artists have to juggle an unprecedented number of elements to create a sense of photorealism.

(p.26) What were the problems and limitations associated with studio-era special effects? Most importantly, for the preceding generation of special effects artists, the photographic elements of filmmaking (that is, the elements generated photochemically rather than via animation techniques, especially the principal photography) had been understood as more or less fixed and minimally flexible. Previously, although different studios had different priorities, effects departments usually emphasized physical effects and downplayed optical compositing. When using “opticals” (as they were called), the number of elements to be composited was typically kept to a minimum.12 In fact, after 1940, time-consuming postproduction composites were increasingly avoided in favor of on-set composite methods, such as rear projection. In the 1970s, however, the return to postproduction optical printing methods altered the status of photographed elements and how they were arranged within the film frame by approaching each component as a separate element of composition. Ideally, the film frame could be infinitely mutable and designable, while maintaining the look of live-action photography.

Although there have been special effects of various kinds and complexities throughout cinema’s history, changes were afoot in the 1970s that transformed the role of special effects in film production more broadly overall. More strikingly, the willingness to spend additional time and money in postproduction and to stake the film on the success of the special effects is evidence of their increased importance. Through this shift in emphasis to postproduction, special effects became central to the much-remarked changes in cinema’s economics, aesthetics, and exhibition in the 1970s. As a consequence, 1970s Hollywood cinema converted more intensively and obviously to an industry based around the spectacle of big-budget special effects. Further, as evidence from fan publications suggests, a core faction of the audience began more explicitly to expect and even desire such manipulations of the photographic image.13 In today’s mainstream Hollywood, there is virtually no such thing as a film untouched by a significant amount of special effects work, which is not limited just to the Spiderman, Transformers, or Avatar franchises. For example, even nearly every film by Woody Allen (often perceived as the last analog holdout) since 2005’s Match Point has retained a sizable visual effects crew. How did the Hollywood film industry shift to a nearly fully “animatable,” all–special effects cinema? What particular aesthetic did these special effects exhibit? And what was seen, early on, as the benefit to all the extra trouble it took?

(p.27) Answering these questions certainly means understanding the technological aesthetic history that informs specific special effects techniques. However, just as importantly, we must understand why certain techniques were more favored at certain times and why particular forms were adopted. David Bordwell has convincingly portrayed Hollywood’s technological aesthetic paradigm as one akin to Ernst Gombrich’s “problem/solution” model in art history.14 In other words, in Bordwell’s formulation filmmakers and their teams have certain overarching goals in mind, or problems they want to solve. Working to find technical solutions to that aim results in certain aesthetic aftereffects. Within Bordwell’s larger project to describe a consistent “classical” Hollywood studio system, his argument is largely persuasive. Special effects teams in the studio era were typically charged with solving a particular problem, such as, how do we make a twister appear to Dorothy in Kansas? Or how can we decrease the amount of grain in the back projection so it will more perfectly match the foreground? In other words, the effects departments were just a subset of the many similarly goal-oriented technical departments, including costume design, set construction, and sound. Directors and producers understood that technicians would apply professional standards in order to (somewhat magically) match the secondary unit with the principal photography.15

The limit to Bordwell’s formula is that it tends to assume that the technicians’ ultimate goal is fairly consistent and unitary. It also suggests that the aesthetic is the somewhat chance result of solving the technological problem.16 Popular, professional, and academic discourse about special effects tends to be equally consistent in characterizing special effects’ transhistorical technological goal as greater and greater realism. If one takes the discourse at face value, one can easily assume that the central problem 1970s special effects were trying to solve could be characterized (especially by the industry itself) rather roughly as “fakiness,” while the solution could be characterized as “realism.” Indeed, as the Ellenshaw quote implies, discursive evidence in industry and technical journals does suggest special effects artists in the 1970s felt previous paradigms of special effects were insufficiently photoreal to keep the audience’s attention on the diegetic world presented to them, and the old studio technology would not be sufficient to do so.

However, visual evidence from many 1970s films suggests the aesthetics desired from special effects were far from streamlined and were often (p.28) wildly variable. Moreover, in the 1970s, evidence also shows that filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg desired certain looks and effects for the screen (that were explicitly different from previous standards of realism), for which certain historical technological problems had to be overcome. In other words, as often as not, the “problem” driving technicians was based on demands for a particular aesthetic as much as for a technical solution. To emphasize, the photorealist priority of 1970s special effects was developed as an aesthetic to carry a certain filmmaking approach favoring fantastic and credible world-building, not as a natural progressive offshoot of any particular technology.

Often citing the example of the “Star Gate” sequence in 2001, many filmmakers employing special effects of the 1970s and 1980s desired aesthetic qualities of stylization, graphic dynamism, immersion, or kineticism in order to accentuate the fantastic elements in their environments. Beyond the Star Wars jump to hyperspace or the climactic light show in Close Encounters, examples can be as diverse as the swirling effervescence of the transporter beams or Spock’s V’Ger walkabout in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), the Day-Glo style of Flash Gordon (1980), the postapocalyptic radiating landscapes of Damnation Alley (1977), the electrical force fields of the ghosts (and the weapons to contain them) in Ghostbusters (1984), or the color-distorted “wolf-vision” sequences of Wolfen (1981), just to name a few.

In order to realize different kinds of looks and styles, feature filmmakers looking further afield than mainstream studio filmmaking often turned to 1960s and 1970s experimental films—in particular, West Coast experimental animation and its greater attention to the materiality of the filmstrip and the manipulation of the film frame on the negative. Feature filmmakers could begin to apply the painstaking handwork and control associated with experimental film and animation to the realm of live-action photography. Abstract animations and experimental films, such as those of Jordan Belson or Pat O’Neill, provided an example of abstracted movement not based in recording figural human-based movement. Instead, these films were more interested in de-centering the frame and creating a sense of immersion and kinesis. Furthermore, principal photography could become another compositional element in the frame, with comparable mutability as material from the effects unit.17 In a broader sense, gaining more control over the image-making process would allow the New Hollywood filmmakers (p.29) greater flexibility to realize their “vision,” be it spaceships and aliens (Star Wars), more dynamic action set pieces (1941 [1979]), or even a sepia-toned color scheme (McCabe and Mrs. Miller [1971]). Like experimental filmmakers, approaching 1970s optical effects as a form of animation allowed feature filmmakers to think about ways to “unfix” the photographic material, which could mobilize the different elements and place them in more dynamic relations with each other.

In addition to the extensive aesthetic implications, this pursuit of a more flexible approach to photography had profound industrial consequences. The film industry began to move away from a model that focused on on-set live-action process technologies to one that stressed postproduction optical (and later digital) techniques.

Process Versus Opticals

The 1970s signaled a paradigmatic shift in special effects technology, ushering in an era of greater prominence for special effects that would only increase in later decades, as well as marking a distinctive change from the preceding generation of special effects technologies. A short history of the main Hollywood composite practices that preceded the 1970s clarifies precisely what altered in 1970s special effects practice. Because so much of the transformation occurred on the technical level, and because the aesthetics and technology are so closely intertwined, a lucid account of the field is required, with an eye to each technique’s broader significance. The history of special effects before 1977 is a complex area requiring its own book-length treatment, but will be treated in broad strokes here.

Most of the optical photographic techniques aggressively explored in the 1970s, including miniature photography (photographing small-scale models to look full-sized), stop-motion photography (animating a 3D object frame by frame), matte painting (compositing a small-scale painting on canvas or glass with live action or, usually, as a background), roto-scoping (projecting live-action footage on a rostrum onto paper or cels as the basis for hand-animated effects), and optical printing (pointing a camera into a projector and recopying multiple image composites frame by frame), had been in continual use in some form for decades.18 However, between about 1935 and the late 1960s, one of many rear-projection (p.30) processes had taken precedent in studio research and development for composite technologies. More precisely, 1970s special effects techniques broke away from the immediately preceding major special effects approach, known broadly as process photography (composites completed on set with principal photography, usually using rear projection). Instead, they worked to renew composite techniques associated with an earlier historical period—optical photographic effects (composites completed in postproduction usually with an optical printing machine), known as optical photography, or “opticals.”

A historically consistent definition for the terms optical and process can be elusive, as their use has changed historically and they are used inconsistently in industry and professional discourse.19 Although related of course through its historical connection to lenses and photographic equipment in general, the term opticals in the special effects industry means the cinematically specific use and manipulation of the many variables in moving-image capture and registration. Historically, it can mean any photographic (non-physical) effect that takes advantage of the manipulation of the camera’s optical system (lens, shutter speed, etc.). However, most often in the industry, the term is used very specifically in relation to visual effects techniques that make use of postproduction optical printing. More recently in practitioner discourse, the term opticals tends to be used to designate any pre-digital camera effect. The term process photography and how it is applied is also historically variable. Confusingly, early on in the 1930s and early 1940s, the terms opticals and process work were often used interchangeably to designate any special effects technique, especially a composite technique, that manipulated the optical system of the camera. Over that approximately ten-year period, process work could therefore also mean traveling mattes and various kinds of optical printing. However, the terms largely split apart in the 1940s with the industry’s decisive movement toward projection techniques, to differentiate between techniques that would require postproduction from those that would not.

In order to understand process and optical work in detail, it is necessary to take a step back. Since even the earliest cinema, compositing has been a primary concern of special effects work. In mainstream production, composite work usually means joining (at least) two separately filmed elements to give the impression that they are part of the same continuous, integrated space. Their use is driven primarily by considerations of novelty (presenting (p.31) faraway or nonexistent locales), cost (avoiding expensive location work), efficiency (avoiding environmental delays), and safety (avoiding injury, and therefore lawsuits and more cost). Before digital technology, three main approaches to composite work dominated: composites produced via the “in-camera” method, via opticals, and via process (projection) photography methods.20

Opticals appeared first to replace much riskier in-camera compositing. In-camera work was the earliest phase in composites, used by Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomón, J. Stuart Blackton, Gaston Velle, and other early-twentieth-century “trick” filmmakers. As a typical early cinema practice, in-camera compositing means filming some action with a part of the frame blacked or “matted” out, leaving unexposed film in the black areas. Then the camera is cranked back and the opposite (exposed) area is covered, so that another action can be filmed on the previously unexposed area. For example, in The Man with the Rubber Head (L’Homme à la Tête en Caoutchouc [1901]), Méliès makes his own “rubber head” seem to expand and explode by filming himself as a magician (next to a piece of black velvet, leaving an unexposed area). Keeping the camera perfectly still, he then rolls the film back, places himself on a dolly, and is pulled toward the camera, in careful relation to the velvet square and the timing of the first action, so that his head appears to expand. Similarly, Méliès plays all the instruments at the same time in The One Man Band (L’Homme Orchestre [1900]) by filming himself against black velvet and playing one instrument. He then rolls the unexposed film back and captures himself again on another instrument, and so on (fig. 1.1).21 In addition to trick effects, transition effects such as fades, dissolves, or wipes, and effects used for narrative emphasis such as irises, were also completed in-camera by the camera operator until the more widespread use of optical printers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. After the 1920s, in-camera techniques were occasionally used, then well into the 1960s and 1970s (in 2001, for example) as a way to achieve convincing composites without a loss of image quality, especially with troublesome color film.22 Needless to say, in-camera effects are risky and require a great deal of skill and nerve on the part of the camera operator (one mistake will ruin the master camera negative, necessitating expensive reshoots).

Around 1920, in order to minimize the financial risk of in-camera compositing while maintaining its benefits, the technique’s two main characteristics (on-set compositing and frame-by-frame control) were eventually (p.32)

Optical AnimationSpecial Effects Compositing Up to 1977

Figure 1.1 Georges Méliès, The One Man Band (L’Homme Orchestre) (1900).

divided into two mostly distinct special effects approaches: optical techniques and process photography. Though less risky, both had their own drawbacks, primarily with image quality. Hollywood studio cinematography has tended to favor the highest quality visual image possible, an image that is optimally crisp and finely grained. Historically, high image quality has been pursued through more sensitive film stocks, larger film formats (35mm, 70mm, VistaVision), and sharper, more finely ground lenses. In photochemical technology, directly recorded action in front of the camera is the developed filmstrip’s first generation. If the original filmstrip is duplicated and printed again, this is the image’s second generation. As with a photocopy, every film generation’s duplication and reprinting means visual information is lost, resulting in an increase in graininess and the thinning (or diminishing) of the desired aesthetic quality of the original first-generation image. The downside of both opticals and process work is that they use duplicated, pre-filmed material of at least second-generation quality to join with first-generation material. In other words, they both attempted to (p.33) cleanly composite material of differing grain and image characteristics. In an industry driven by professional standards of high image quality, improving on this major drawback drove much of the composite research and development for decades and would not find a largely stable aesthetic until digital technology eliminated this loss of quality over duplication generations in the 1990s.

Optical compositing techniques, developed in the 1920s and 1930s alongside the improvement of more sensitive duplication stock, were the first wave of postproduction composite technology. These were usually traveling mattes, which were used to combine two separately filmed elements when the foreground element (e.g., a person) changes shape or position from frame to frame—necessitating a new matte for each frame (for example, in The Lost World [1925], the miniature stop-motion dinosaur loose in the full-sized London set).23 Simply put, traveling mattes punch black spaces in the background so that the foreground action can be printed into it—again, frame by frame. As you can see in figure 1.2, in the basic procedure, the main action is filmed against a neutral background, initially black velvet. Then, the pre-filmed background needs undeveloped black spaces punched in it in order to print in the foreground element. Using special high-contrast intermediary stock, the foreground element is first reprinted, generating a so-called “female” white-on-black matte. Then the reverse “male” black-on-white is printed from the female, creating a black, undeveloped hole for the foreground to be printed into. These black and white mattes would be used to cut the holes in the pre-filmed background for the foreground elements to be printed in, again, frame by frame, depending on the number of elements to be composited. Many duplicating steps could be necessary for even the simplest color traveling matte composite.24

Although tested in the 1910s and 1920s, technical improvements in rear-screen process photography in the 1930s and 1940s allowed it to become the leading composite technology for the next several decades.25 Process photography is most commonly understood to be comprised of projection-based technologies: rear projection (a pre-filmed moving image projected behind principal photography), transparencies (still-projected backgrounds), front projection (a modified rear-projection process that projected from the front, making use of a beam-splitting mirror and a highly reflective screen), and sometimes specialized matte painting and (p.34)

Optical AnimationSpecial Effects Compositing Up to 1977

Figure 1.2 The principles of traveling mattes.

(Courtesy of Richard Rickett)

miniature work, such as miniature rear projection or when live action is projected onto the blank area of a matte painting. Process photography is most familiar in shots requiring dialogue sequences in moving vehicles, especially cars, as in To Catch a Thief (1955). “Looping” or dialogue replacement technology had been in use since the 1930s, but driving rigs (a moving car equipped with a motion-stabilized camera attachment) did (p.35)
Optical AnimationSpecial Effects Compositing Up to 1977

Figure 1.3 Rear-projection diagram.

(Courtesy of Richard Rickett)

not come into wide practice until the 1970s.26 Therefore, in the studio era, dialogue sequences could not efficiently be shot on location with existing sound production limitations. Nor did it seem practical or desirable to do so until the 1950s and into the 1960s. In the usual rear-projection shot, the driver and passenger say their lines while in a cutaway car set in the studio, as in figure 1.3, with a pre-filmed background passing behind them through the windows. Most generally, in process photography, the principal foreground action (with the main actors and the most important narrative moments) is filmed on a studio set. Effects artists pre-film the still or live-action backgrounds (called “plates”) on location (or chosen from a stock film library of backgrounds).27 The plates are projected on a reflective screen behind the actors and filmed simultaneously with the foreground action. Thus, process photography used projection techniques to register foreground and background at the same time on the same negative, on the set during principal photography.

Due to practical reasons, between the late 1930s and the early 1970s the research and development energies of most studio special effects work was directed toward inventing ways to continue to composite on set. This meant (p.36) improving ways to artificially extend the background through rear projection, while boosting the image quality of the pre-filmed background plates.28 In general, studios preferred process photography to optical photography for fairly straightforward reasons. Process photography (as the name implies) maintained the standard filming process—24 fps in real time—of principal photography. Therefore it avoided the need for expensive (and lengthy) post-production. The integrity of the composites could be checked though a view-finder on the set and confirmed within twenty-four hours in the dailies.29 Importantly, process composites also kept control of the image in traditional hands, those of the director and cinematographer.

Optical photographic effects, by contrast, required a different production timeline. The various elements (not necessarily just foreground and background, but all elements that would later end up in the frame) are designed, constructed, and filmed independently on separate negatives. They are usually then combined with optical printing, in postproduction, to create the effect they all came from the same principal photography unit. Optical effects had been in use since the teens, but had their first heyday from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s.30 The 1930s saw a great deal of experimentation with composite techniques, including Willis O’Brien’s miniature work in King Kong, or the many graphic wipes in Flying Down to Rio (both 1933), along with various patents for proprietary traveling matte technologies.31

Most importantly, traveling matte work required the specialized skills of a highly experienced optical printer operator, and they were not common. A well-known studio example of an expert optical operator is Linwood Dunn, special effects technician at RKO until the 1950s. For his work as optical printer operator on Citizen Kane (1941), he estimated that at least 50 percent of the shots contained some optical printing work, though very little is obvious.32 Another example is Universal and, later, Paramount optical printer expert John Fulton, whose work on the Invisible Man (1933) and The Ten Commandments (1956) is still held up as benchmarks for effects creativity and skill. However, not every studio or every film had a Dunn or a Fulton to complete difficult and complex effects sequences, and without their specific skills, most productions would not attempt them.33 In most cases, studios would outsource complex opticals to independent title, effects, and optical companies, as described in later chapters. By contrast, by 1940 rear projection only required a well-trained camera team.

(p.37) Equipment concerns also helped determine which technique would be favored. The convergence of technical specifications in film stocks, lighting, and camera-projector synchronization around 1930 allowed process photography to achieve an adequate consistency of image quality, to the studio’s satisfaction.34 Additionally, between 1938 and 1942, under the aegis of the Research Council of the Academy, studio process specialists pooled their patents in order to standardize the process with the manufacturers so that they could build consistent equipment.35 After that time, labor-intensive, postproduction traveling mattes seemed less worth the trouble and effort. Furthermore, before 1942, the optical printer had been a makeshift device, cobbled together from other photographic equipment and adapted for each individual use. Linwood Dunn and Cecil Love (both of RKO) developed the standardized Acme-Dunn optical printer for use by the U.S. Army.36 Ironically, just as optical printers became available “off the shelf” and had more skilled technicians trained to work it, the studios had definitively turned their efforts toward process photography. Due in large part to these personnel, technical, and economic factors, opticals had fallen out of favor as a special effects technique between 1940 and 1970 and were instead mostly used for titles and scene transitions. However, optical printing methods had qualities that trumped efficiency (for a while) in the 1970s, and optical techniques would later reemerge transformed.

Process Photography

In mainstream practice before the 1970s, both process and optical techniques had their benefits and drawbacks. After a period of competition in the 1920s and 1930s, process eventually won out (at least until the 1970s). In rear-projection process photography (or just “process,” as it was called by most of the studio departments), second unit and effects department cameramen went out to film the background plates ahead of principal photography. During filming, the background elements were projected onto a screen with a reflectively coated surface. Most special effects technicians from the 1930s to the 1960s strove to achieve the highest quality image in rephotographing the background plates in process photography and to minimize the discrepancy in graininess between the foreground and background elements, which would be especially noticeable projected in (p.38) theaters on the big screen.37 Using very high-intensity lights and building larger and larger projection screens on set helped the background image to register as live action and to visually match the foreground spaces.38 When carefully accomplished, black-and-white process photography often created a very convincing illusion of integrated space, such as, for example, Farciot Edouart’s work in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), when Sullivan’s car and the camper van trailing him get into a high-speed chase, or Ray Binger’s work for Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which an airplane crash lands into water, or even the rear-screen work much later in Hud (1963). As it was generally assumed that attention stays on the foreground action, and that viewers ignore the background, this emphasis on unobtrusiveness of technique is one reason that process photography thrived in the style of the classical era.

Technical adjustments of the image quality kept the studio workshops and people like Farciot Edouart (at Paramount, generally considered the industry leader in rear-projection technology) and Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie (at MGM) busy for decades.39

The main technical problem that put the status of process photography into crisis from the 1950s to the early 1970s was the emerging importance of color film. Unstable color emulsions meant that when color film was back-projected, it changed the values of the colors to an unacceptably marked degree (to contemporary standards of photorealism). Background images looked faded as grain increased. In fact, professional discourse suggests that studio workshops in the classical era were never able to reconcile the color foreground action with background plates to their satisfaction, in the way the best black-and-white process photography could often achieve almost seamlessly.40 Along with other color films such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), or Hitchcock’s 1950s films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958), or other less canonical films like Vincente Minnelli’s The Harvey Girls (1946), or Gidget (1959), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) can serve as a somewhat exaggerated but nevertheless typical example, in the scene where Mitch (Rock Hudson) and Marylee (Dorothy Malone) drive back home after a confrontation with another one of Marylee’s pickups in seedy bar. While Marylee confesses her love for Mitch, graphically black oil derricks, industrial buildings, shacks, and other (slightly too big) vehicles speed behind them. The foreground actors, sitting in a glossy, bright red sports car, are in very sharp focus, modeled (p.39) with rather hard shiny lighting effects in richly textured Technicolor, especially noticeable in Marylee’s eye-popping hot-pink dress. The focus in the background plates, by contrast, is noticeably smudgy-looking. The picture quality of the plates is not only grainy, but it is also markedly more coolly blue-toned than the foreground. Also, there is a subtle difference in the way the eye perceives the speed of the car and the speed of the background. The combined effect of the contrast of foreground and background, common in such scenes, is like a shallow stereoscopic effect. In other words, the foreground makes one flat plane and the background another flat plane, rather than providing the fully convincing illusion of a whole.

Importantly, the look of the rear-projection sequence cannot be attributed solely to Sirk’s intention because rear projection had particular technical specifications that could not be significantly altered for directorial manipulation.41 That is, the look of rear projection, first in black and white and then in color, is too consistently similar, creating much the same effect, across too many kinds of films (and across studios) to convincingly argue for directorial intentionality. In order to direct the actors and film dialogue scenes simultaneously in moving vehicles, all filmmakers, including Sirk, Hitchcock, and many other famously controlling auteurs, had to make do with the limitations of rear projection, since the much greater convenience and efficiency outweighed technicians’ aesthetic concerns. During the studio era, technicians did not give up their unceasing research and development to make color process shots more consistent with the foregrounds.42

While production, directors, and audiences appear to have been unbothered by the look of rear projection at the time, by the late 1960s and early 1970s the technique began to become an emblem of outdated studio filmmaking.43 What late 1960s and early 1970s filmmakers found problematic in color process photography had palpable consequences on American film production. American “New Hollywood” filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, and Bob Rafelson often cited the “authenticity” of location photography as superior to set-bound photography.44 The trend for location work (initiated, in fact, by the studios in the mid-1950s) helped mask the potential problem with process photography in much color filmmaking in the 1960s. Arguably, “more realistic” location shooting in the 1960s with its resultant visual aesthetic facilitated the transition of overall industry production to color.45 When the majority of production shifted to color, and blue screen and other traveling matte techniques came back in (p.40) the 1970s, process photography fell into disfavor among filmmakers and technicians, as it began to emblematize the artificiality of studio production.46 It is worth emphasizing, however, that from about 1935 to the late 1960s, process projection techniques constituted the dominant composite technology for Hollywood studio production.


A number of practical reasons accounted for process photography’s industry dominance, despite what many technicians considered its fairly serious drawbacks in creating a wholly convincing foreground and background composite. For efficiency’s sake, and likely as a vestige of theatrical practices, process photography maintains the traditional cinematic 24 fps live-action motion. Conversely, composite optical photography flouts “real time” photography and instead exploits the potential gaps in cinema’s frame-by-frame advancement.47 Most simply, in optical effects, each element is filmed separately and then joined up frame by frame by an optical printer in postproduction. The general concept behind optical printing is roughly the same as printing a composite still photograph. Several already developed negative images are projected onto a light-sensitive surface, and then the resulting composites are developed together. Figure 1.4 shows the most basic setup, with a projection camera that beams the element onto raw stock, frame by frame with a precision frame advance mechanism. The simplest version of optical printing is similar to in-camera matte printing, with two main areas of the frame (for example, a foreground crowd and a background landscape) printed separately, divided in two by an (ideally) invisible matte line, such as when characters in the foreground point at a castle on a hill in the background. In more complex optical effects, the technique is repeated several times (called “passes”) for the same individual frame on the negative, and then with minute changes for each individual frame (called “step printing”) to generate motion. More elaborate optical printer models are able to print several elements at a time.

One primary production drawback to optical printing before the 1970s was what was called the “locked-down” camera. The locked-down camera meant that if any optical composite technique was being used (for example, a traveling matte), the camera on set filming the live-action photography (p.41)

Optical AnimationSpecial Effects Compositing Up to 1977

Figure 1.4 A single-head optical printer: simple, single-head optical printers would be used for basic copying tasks and for adding basic fades and wipes.

(Courtesy of Richard Rickett)

and the optical camera in post must remain perfectly stationary, in order that the individually filmed elements would later fit together in printing (back projection allowed subtle camera movement).48 Therefore, no profilmic camera panning, tilting, or traveling was allowed during filming of optical composite elements. Effects artists like Linwood Dunn in Citizen Kane (1941) or Flying Down to Rio (1933); and John Fulton in The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) or Strategic Air Command (1955), could often achieve extremely dynamic locked-down optical sequences, usually through energetic editing techniques (by either faster edited sequences or cutting the locked-down footage together with a variety of many different kinds of shots), but the results were highly dependent on those individual creative special effects talents (as well as those in editorial). A related drawback to the locked-down effects sequences was noticeable in longer locked-down sequences, and principal photography would also have to limit elaborate camera movement in non-effects sequences. Otherwise, stilling the live-action footage abruptly for the locked-down footage would cause a too-noticeable contrast with the mobile camera.49

Not surprisingly, another main drawback of opticals was the extreme difficulty of maintaining quality and consistency over the course of optically printing a shot. In fact, every single optical printing pass over every frame is technically impossible to complete with perfect registration, due to the inevitable shrinkage of film during development and the difficulty (p.42) in precisely lining up every element. So in every frame during every pass, the optical printer technician has to judge how to print the frame with the best, albeit imperfect, result. What this means in practical terms is summed up by two words—matte lines. Matte lines, where a hard (usually black) line surrounds the joined area, are the bane of optical printer operators. And although a skillful and patient optical printer operator can achieve an invisible result, it is very difficult to do consistently, especially in a shot with multiple elements. By literally showing the seams between composite elements, matte lines are generally believed to be distracting to the audience, “pulling them out” of the fictional diegesis. Traditionally, optical printing technicians would compensate for this problem with various ways to smudge or soften the line, distract the eye, or else they would have to decide where they could get away with harder lines. Needless to say, technicians operating the optical printers displayed variable and inconsistent skills, as we can see (or not) throughout the history of special effects films.50

Understanding the paradigmatic differences between process and optical photography allows us to recognize why such highly touted special effects films of the 1960s and early 1970s, including Fantastic Voyage (1966), the disaster series films such as Airport (1970) or The Towering Inferno (1974), and even Jaws (1975), should be considered part of the previous historical generation of special effects. Unlike later postproduction-centered techniques, these films’ special effects and special effects photography stressed the goal of completing the maximum amount of effects work on set, during principal photography. This means as many special effects as possible completed in the same physical space and live-action photography on the same master negative, limiting what could be manipulated in postproduction. For Fantastic Voyage, this meant relying heavily on large sets and back projection; for The Towering Inferno performing elaborate stunt work; and for Jaws building large (and unreliable) mechanical effects, such as the shark itself. Of course, all of these films employed optical work to some degree or another, but minimally, and without the energy devoted to other areas of special effects production.51

In the 1960s and 1970s, special effects artists on 2001, Star Wars, and Close Encounters brought back an updated version of the postproduction optical printing methods that had fallen out of favor, by tweaking the various problems with image quality, efficiency, and camera movement. They also showed how they could modify and expand these traditional (p.43) techniques for new purposes, most markedly to build better-detailed artificial environments. What these films vitally illustrated was that bringing back optical printing techniques (while working to eliminate or minimize the associated problems) made the film frame more flexible and mutable, and in fact, more like animation. Again, incorporating animation techniques meant the filmmaker could better control the total film frame and not be limited by stubborn photographic material.

Animation and Special Effects

So it doesn’t matter if you do it one frame at a time, with one second exposure, with 24 frames per second or 100 frames per second, you have to slow time down in order to understand what’s happening. It’s all about slowing down. So if you’re talking about [traditional] animation, if you’re talking about stop motion it’s […] a completely different thing in my book. But if you’re talking about animation as a sequential series of images, then it’s all animation.

john dykstra, star wars special effects supervisor52

Following Lev Manovich, it has become something of a cliché to state that special effects cinema has revealed cinema to be “all animation.” However, this assertion has been more applicable to some historical periods over others. What does that mean in terms of technology and aesthetics? How have animation techniques impacted special effects techniques? When John Dykstra says the cinema is all animation, because “it’s all about slowing down,” he means breaking down the motion and stopping the film frame in order to manipulate it. He is making an assumption common among special effects artists about the potential control of the image, both within the individual celluloid frame and also successively frame by frame. Dykstra helped pioneer or reconfigure the use of several important technologies and techniques in the 1970s that more closely linked the worlds of animation and special effects, most notably the motion control camera (a programmable computer-controlled camera that could repeat the same movement over and over), and the multi-plane animation stand, which together allowed the “virtual camera” effect common in 1970s and 1980s cinema, as, for example, the ships flying through outer space environments in Star Wars and Blade Runner (1982). The distinction Dykstra draws between the broader cinema as “all animation” and specific animation techniques is instructive.

(p.44) On another occasion when Dykstra states, “[Special effects are] more akin to animation than anything else,” he is making an obvious observation within the industry.53 Within the special effects industry itself, the long-standing technological connections between animation and special effects are so well understood that remarking on them borders on the banal. However, outside the industry in the popular conception, the relationship between animation and special effects is largely acknowledged mainly as an aspect of digital effects.54 As a result, the extremely strong links in the broader history between optical special effects and animation have rarely been fully appreciated. The industry recognizes that special effects animation is meant to fuse with live-action footage, such as the computer-generated Yoda or Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, while “regular” animation of the Toy Story sort need not consider live action or photography at all as a model (though it often does). In special effects then and now, much of the basic technology (multi-plane animation stands, rotoscoping, digital imaging) and working methods (optical printing, frame-by-frame manipulation) began in both traditional and experimental animation. Although this animation legacy was present during the classical era as well, traditional and experimental animation in the 1960s and 1970s took on an especially important role in special effects—not least for those who started in the industry in the 1970s, many of whom also trained in 2D and 3D animation.

How exactly are animation and special effects related? The first connection is, most obviously, in the ways the medium generates cinematic motion. Single cels of 2D animation have always been photographed frame by frame in order to be animated on the same 24 fps (or at least, 16 fps) basis as live-action cinema. Early animators such as Émile Cohl and Winsor McCay quickly understood they could exploit animation’s primary difference from live-action photography: stopping the image frame by frame took advantage of the image’s potential for greater plasticity (see, for example, Cohl’s constantly metamorphosing lines and shapes). The same is true for (equally early) 3D object animation, also know as stop-motion animation. Stop motion or stop frame, used by Georges Méliès, J. Stuart Blackton, Segundo de Chomón, Edwin S. Porter, and others within cinema’s first decade, also takes advantage of frame-by-frame substitution to artificially generate motion. For example, stop motion allowed inanimate objects to appear to move without human agency, such as in Blackton’s famous (p.45) example of invisible hands cutting food on a dinner table in The Haunted Hotel (1907), or simple substitutions as with the dummy that is thrown from the top of the train in The Great Train Robbery (1903). What Dykstra and other effects artists in the 1970s realized is that they could apply technological and aesthetic models derived from both 2D and 3D animation techniques to live-action filmmaking in order to make animation look more like live action, and also make live action as flexible as animation. And they could do it on a more elaborate scale than had been attempted previously. In order to build up their cinematic world layer by layer, shot by shot, 1970s special effects merged and blurred live-action photography, optical photography, and animation.

As well as being linked conceptually, special effects and animation have shared and cannibalized each other’s technology and processes. The vertically mounted camera stand used by Émile Cohl to photograph his drawings was eventually elaborated to layer moving characters on a more or less static background, thereby streamlining (and reducing the cost of) 2D animation.55 Around 1934, while developing the feature-length Snow White, Walt Disney wanted to simulate the photographic camera’s so-called “parallax” (or illusion of depth) effect and therefore have more flexibility in compositing the frame with camera-like perspective of the picture plane.56 The Disney team further elaborated the animation stand to be able to layer four or more individually designed, lit, and moving planes of action, known as multi-plane animation (fig. 1.5).57 The multi-plane animation stand worked by painting different planes of action (representing different distances from the “camera”) in glass panes and then layering them vertically, one on top of the other. An animation camera is positioned at the top, so that the transparent layers meld the different planes of action into the illusion of a single perspectival space. In addition to being able to layer background elements as needed, the camera could also appear to move into the background space by either physically moving the camera “down” toward the floor or changing focus, removing glass panes as needed. In 3D animation, Willis O’Brien also developed a horizontal multi-plane model system (where physical 3D puppet elements were layered with painted, back-projected, and composited images, and photographed frame by frame) when developing stop-motion and composite technology for King Kong a few years earlier.58 In the 1970s, the animation stand often became the basis for suggesting photographic depth of field though compositing (p.46)

Optical AnimationSpecial Effects Compositing Up to 1977

Figure 1.5 A multiplane animation stand.

(Courtesy of Richard Rickett)

separately generated layers of painted artwork. Optical special effects artists, most notably Douglas Trumbull, use this technique to create “virtual” camera views through imaginary spaces, such as the opening pull into futuristic Los Angeles at the beginning of Blade Runner or Spock’s travel through V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

An even earlier example of the combination of animation and optical photography was rotoscoping (fig. 1.6).59 Rotoscoping was patented by Max Fleischer in 1917 as an early kind of motion capture, in order to afford more natural and dynamic motion to characters such as Koko the Clown.60 However, rotoscoping’s benefit to special effects is that it also allowed the technician to cut an element out of one context, out of the picture plane of one strip of film, and transpose it into a different setting on another strip of film. In the basic traditional technique, live-action images are projected onto a flat surface (often a sheet of glass), then traced frame by frame onto paper as character templates. Famously, in the Fleischers’ Gulliver’s Travels (1939), the live-action actor playing Gulliver is transformed into an animated character by rotoscoping him into an animated setting. A later iteration of the technique also allowed Gene Kelly to dance with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945). (p.47)

Optical AnimationSpecial Effects Compositing Up to 1977

Figure 1.6 Rotoscoping diagram.

(Courtesy of Richard Rickett)

Although primarily associated with animation, live-action special effects have also long made use of rotoscoping. Before the 1970s, special effects rotoscoping was a labor-intensive subset of traveling mattes, where instead of generating mattes automatically with high-contrast film, technicians generate hand-drawn traveling mattes, frame by frame, by blacking out elements by hand. Hand-drawn traveling mattes allowed combining two separate moving images. For example, painstaking hand-matted rotoscoping was used prominently in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), in order to join separately filmed footage of flying and diving birds with ducking and (p.48) running children, or to create the famous “bird’s-eye” view of Bodega Bay. Besides being another prominent technique in special effects, rotoscoping was also used to add hand-drawn 2D animated elements such as lightning (e.g., the force fields in Forbidden Planet [1956]), lasers, gun blasts, and shadows (where an effects element had been added to live-action photography, as in Close Encounters).61 For example, rotoscope animation overlays accomplished the glowing light saber effects in Star Wars.62

Experimental Film, Animation, and Special Effects

It should not be surprising that special effects would borrow techniques from mainstream animation. However, in the 1970s, special effects artists learned a great deal from a specific kind of animation: West Coast experimental animation. While a varied movement, West Coast experimental filmmaking is related to, but not the same as, what P. Adams Sitney has called the structuralist movement in experimental cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, in which filmmakers avoid or obscure “figural” photographic images, reorienting the visual priority toward effects of the cinematic apparatus, such as calling attention to the film frame as such, the flicker of the projector, or the space of the screening room, perhaps most prominently represented by artists such as Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka.63 While also concerned with the material bases of filmmaking, West Coast abstract filmmakers of the same time period, including John and James Whitney, Jordan Belson, Pat O’Neill, and many others, had different priorities—namely, they were on the whole more concerned with generating imagery that encouraged various kinds of impact upon the body and mind. Often inspired by eastern-inflected spirituality (especially yoga and tantra) and fueled by drug-induced visions, these filmmakers sought to create abstract shapes and patterns that simulated states of meditation or hypnosis. One example would include James Whitney’s Lapis (1966) and its emphasis on sensory engagement with mandala spirals, pulsating lights, and hypnotic rhythms. On the other hand, Pat O’Neill’s Saugus Series (c. 1974) favors cuing the intellect through the senses, with its color-altered landscapes, layered abstracted human forms, and animation, all of which flow smoothly from space to space (though often with a jarring soundtrack), coexisting with a fascination with plasticity, juxtaposition, and multiplicities.

(p.49) As the radiant colors, pulsating lights, and rhythmic movement of 1970s special effects attest, 1970s feature filmmakers were not solely concerned about developing special effects within an updated aesthetic of photorealism. They also often layered animation elements on the composite mise-en-scène that instead favored stylization, immersion, or kineticism. This tendency followed the historically specific 1970s trend for graphic dynamics. This is a film-specific approach to composition of the mise-en-scène popularized by Slavko Vorkapich, an experimental filmmaker most well known in his work as a “montagist” for such studio films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Vorkapich’s influential notion of graphic dynamism circulated in the 1960s and 1970s among film and design students, thanks in part to his busy lecture schedule. Vorkapich was somewhat vague in defining the term, insisting that “the most cinematic moments on screen cannot be conveyed verbally” and relied on examples from his own work as well as the famous “diving sequence” from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) or examples from Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960).64 Moreover, he credited Sergei Eisenstein’s “Methods of Montage” as the source of much of his ideas. Generally speaking, for Vorkapich, creating graphic dynamics includes the purposeful manipulation of movement, what he calls “visual beat on the cut” (constant visual variety and careful pacing), the visual tug of tension, and the elements organized by those appropriate to the thematic mood in the sequence.65 Most importantly, graphic dynamics not only enriched the visual plane but, Vorkapich believed (again following Eisenstein), that it also aroused the intellectual faculties through sensory stimulation.

For many feature filmmakers, most explicitly Kubrick, Trumbull, and Lucas, more visual energy meant a stronger impact and penetration of the various ideas they wanted to express. Vorkapich’s theory of visual storytelling through the aesthetic of graphic dynamics helped add visceral impact that highlighted and energized the live-action and photorealistic effects. Graphic dynamics could be approached in a highly abstract way, or be used more subtly. In feature filmmaking, the extreme, abstracted end of this aesthetic appears in the nonfigurative “Star Gate” sequence in 2001 or in the end sequences of Star Trek: The Motion Picture or The Black Hole (both 1979). A more narratively motivated or understated approach might be animation added as a layer on top of live-action effects imagery, as in the luminous neon lights of Star Wars and Close Encounters. In either case, incorporating (p.50) graphic dynamism provided an important motivation for many feature filmmakers to gain greater design control over the frame. Deploying the concepts of graphic dynamism certainly motivated the look of many of the special effects aesthetics in 1970s feature filmmaking—for example, Star Wars’ light sabers and laser blasts closely resemble the vectorized lines and dots in Jordan Belson’s Allures (1961).66 However, even more significantly, mainstream feature filmmakers implemented this design approach through the specific working models provided by experimental animation.

An important affinity between West Coast experimental filmmaking and the Hollywood effects industry in the 1960s and 1970s was the testing of film’s limits through the hands-on materiality of the filmstrip. Through this attention to the celluloid itself, West Coast experimental filmmakers also played a major role in helping special effects artists rethink many aspects of special effects work, including the technology, aesthetic, and overall “effect” in the finished film. Experimental filmmakers’ association with handcrafted filmmaking not only provided expanded, alternative examples for controlling the film frame but also lent the luster of hands-on integrity to 1970s special effects work.

Historically, studio-era Hollywood famously incorporated many (mostly European) experimental filmmakers’ and technicians’ “expressive” techniques, which were turned to more conventional uses in both live action and animation. Famous examples included Vorkapich’s montage sequences but also Eugen Schufftan’s expressionistic effects work (used first in Europe by filmmakers like Abel Gance in Napoléon in 1927 and later in the United States, as in one of Renè Clair’s American films, It Happened Tomorrow [1944]); Oskar Fischinger’s kaleidoscopic abstract animation (used by Disney in Fantasia [1940]), and John Whitney’s collaboration with Saul Bass for Vertigo’s gyroscopic title sequence, just to name a few.67 As is well known, the traditional Hollywood studios worked on a guild system, but with strong labor unions, to regulate employment on film sets. Studio special effects departments operated in a similar fashion, with an apprenticeship system that trained workers in long-standing studio approaches. Not surprisingly, this system tended to encourage only conservative novelties in the imaging system of traditional, naturalistic special effects.

In the 1970s, after the loosening of the studio system and the weakened power of the unions, the borders between professionals in the film industry and artist-filmmakers became more porous. Abstract experimental film on (p.51) the West Coast in the 1960s and early 1970s often had very close associations with the Hollywood film industry in general, and especially with the special effects industry, not least because the experimental filmmakers and special effects artists were often the same people. Many artist-filmmakers worked in Hollywood at various levels to pay the bills, or occasionally as favors to friends in the business. Special effects artists who did not receive an art school education (such as Douglas Trumbull) nonetheless borrowed or adapted techniques and aesthetics developed in experimental film. The 1970s special effects industry in particular recruited heavily out of Southern California art programs such as those in the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), California State University–Long Beach, and the University of California, Irvine. In fact, many workers on the optical printing line crew of Star Wars were CalArts students and recent graduates, most with an impressive roster of experimental film work.68 The translation of experimental filmmaking techniques into special effects can largely be attributed to several major trends in West Coast experimental filmmaking—technologically, the creative possibilities explored in optical printing and contact printing techniques, in addition to broader cultural trends in alternative film venues and events, such as light shows and “happenings.”

West Coast Experimental Abstract Animation

When arguing for experimental film’s relation to Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, it is important to stress that the primary relationship was with the West Coast experimental filmmakers such as Pat O’Neill, Jordan Belson, and John and James Whitney, over filmmakers that tend to be associated with the East Coast, such as Hollis Frampton and Jonas Mekas. Consequently, the two most widely read critics on experimental film of the era, East Coast–oriented P. Adams Sitney and Malcolm Le Grice, do not always provide the most appropriate critical framework for a study aiming to link special effects and experimental film. For example, though the spaceships in Close Encounters may have little to do with Frampton, they bear an important relationship to the work of Whitney and O’Neill, both of whom owned independent optical businesses and worked with Hollywood productions.

We might characterize the approach of East Coast abstraction as promoting a broadly more rational intellectual interpretation, while the West (p.52) Coast version affords a kind of surrealist stepping-off point to a more diffuse sensual experience. A good way to illustrate this is through two different approaches to Los Angeles–based Pat O’Neill’s work. The first approach takes up P. Adams Sitney’s rather traditional political modernist approach, while the other, no less political, understands O’Neill in a way that aligns him to West Coast filmmakers of the Expanded Cinema movement. Writing on Pat O’Neill’s Saugus Series (c. 1974), a multipart work that alternates completely abstracted animation sequences with distorted figurative live-action photography (which Sitney means to apply to O’Neill’s composite work in general), Sitney claims that

By stressing the synthetic power of the optical printer, the filmmaker has undercut the option of seducing us into the landscape he has invented. […] [T]hey are problematic metonymies … O’Neill, […], seems to be telling us that a symbolic and psychologically personalized landscape loses its significance in a place like Los Angeles which is so overwhelmed by fragmented representations and gerrybuilt perspectives.69

Note the words “undercut” and “fragmented,” which cue a characteristic political modernist interpretation in which the aesthetics are delineated in support of a rationalist interpretation. Sitney’s stress on the “synthetic power of the optical printer” to create landscapes of “problematic metonymies” is certainly a brilliant reading, one that O’Neill does not dispute.70 For Sitney the power of the optical printer is that it allows a similar effect to photomontage, providing industrial critique through material fragmentation and juxtaposition. But in order to absorb O’Neill into the East Coast critical paradigm, he ignores important components of the work that link O’Neill’s films with other West Coast artists, forcing them into his rather narrow critical theory approach.71

Instead of understanding O’Neill’s films primarily as modernist critiques of Los Angeles (that is, Hollywood), other emphases forge a different context for optical printing’s relation to special effects. As already mentioned, O’Neill worked for decades in the mainstream film industry as an optical freelancer. In addition to the original Star Wars trilogy, he also worked for Melvin Van Peebles, more or less at cost, on the striking opticals for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). And rather than emphasizing fragmentation and disjuncture, O’Neill’s films frequently display more seductively (p.53) smooth and hypnotically flowing passages than Sitney describes. By both blending into one another and remaining in relief, the simultaneously smooth and jagged “fused” images show a more complex control of the synthetic power of the optical printer than Sitney allows.72 Indeed, the aspects of O’Neill’s films that align them to West Coast filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s are those that emphasize sensual engagement and are less amenable to a political modernist interpretation.

West Coast critic Gene Youngblood’s description of O’Neill’s 7362 (1965–66), a more radically abstracted film than the Saugus Series that Sitney discussed, suggests a more appropriate approach for experimental cinema’s relation to special effects in the 1970s. 7362 (which is the number of the high-contrast film stock) features layered images of oil derricks and nude female bodies, printed and reprinted with the abstracting high-contrast stock, color-filtered and composited via contact printing, and smoothly fused to generate a kind of morphing effect. Youngblood provides a helpful model for the West Coast’s own critical reception of West Coast abstract filmmaking:

At first we aren’t certain whether these shapes are human or not, but the nonrhythmic motions and asymmetrical lines soon betray the presence of life within a lifeless universe. Human and machine interact with serial beauty, one form passing into another with delicate precision in a heavenly spectrum of pastel colors.73

For Youngblood, in pointed opposition to Sitney’s modernist reading, the experience of an O’Neill film is not primarily cerebral and critical, but sensual and experiential. In 7362, manipulation of the filmstrip fully transforms the photographic material into a component of abstract animation. What is essential about O’Neill within Youngblood’s polemic is the “rhythmic seriality” of color and shape transformations, which facilitates a humanistic communion with “heavenly” forces. I want to emphasize that I do not believe Youngblood is more “correct” than Sitney in his assessment of O’Neill. Rather, his rhetoric helps shift the discussion away from East Coast–inflected structuralism and formalism, and instead emphasizes the aspects of 1960s and 1970s experimental filmmaking that make use of the materiality of composite techniques in order to stress more experiential and sensual effects. It is exactly this dimension that mainstream feature filmmaking would find so attractive and expressive.

(p.54) Youngblood includes O’Neill in his influential book Expanded Cinema (1970), a manifesto for West Coast approaches to experimental cinema. Bringing together Marshall McLuhan’s and Buckminster Fuller’s media theories, popular “eastern” spirituality, and the West Coast avant-garde, Youngblood’s utopian vision for the cinema is an invaluable resource for pulling together the various strands of thought around technology, science, spirituality, psychology, aesthetics, and the media that informed so much of 1960s and 1970s filmmaking across many registers.74 For Youngblood, the cinema is not just a space of possible new experiences and resulting mental expansion: cinema is the site in contemporary society. In language familiar to Romanticism, Aestheticism, Dada, and many other less figurative art movements in the modern era, Youngblood calls for an art that is performance-based and nonobjective. It is an art that plays directly on the body and on the mind in a “pre-reflective” way. Expressly refuting the “East Coast” Greenbergian model derived for Abstract Expressionism (by art critic Clement Greenberg), Youngblood believed art should not be based in the materialism of paint, canvas, and clay. Rather, Expanded Cinema is a mixed-media, immaterial, impermanent performance. Film and music are part of the performance, but the art “happens” when it converges on the body of the beholder within a crowd likewise engaged. This performance creates a collective experience for those in attendance, but also stands in for a universalized, cosmic merging. Specifically, in the late 1960s and 1970s, this often meant film projected in live music venues, with the audience frequently ingesting hallucinogenic drugs, as for Belson’s Vortex concerts in the San Francisco planetarium, Single Wing Turquoise Bird’s happenings in Los Angeles, the traveling Rainbow Jam’s light shows in the West, and later taken up by “prog rock” bands such as Pink Floyd and Yes.

While other contemporary art theories (such as Sitney’s and Le Grice’s) treat the drug-induced, Eastern-influenced yogic project of these film events as important to the artist but somehow secondary to the art, for Youngblood the mental expansion of and physical impact on the beholder is the point.75 The art/performance is specifically designed to promote the mind’s expansion as instigated through the senses. Sitney’s “laying bare” of the technology requires a critique, or even a demonization, of that technology. To Youngblood, on the other hand, technologized media are not opposed to nature. Rather, it is nature. Further, we should utilize the technology for an intensified intermedial experience of Expanded Cinema to (p.55) merge consciousnesses, from Freud and Jung’s oceanic (collective) consciousness, to expanded, cosmic consciousness, which unites us with our fellow humans and also with all of the earth and the cosmos.

However we may judge its impassioned goals, Expanded Cinema (both the book itself and the popularization of its ideas) had a powerful impact on the aesthetics of special effects in the 1970s. Experimental film’s influence, especially in the form of abstract animation, spread into the industry through art world trends, traveling programs of experimental film, and courses in art and film schools. In addition, these ideas were often taught by the artists themselves.76 The experiential emphasis of West Coast experimental film is certainly one reason it made such an easy transition to the sensation-seeking Hollywood film industry. Youngblood’s take on O’Neill is closely aligned with what special effects production later took from O’Neill and his fellow artist-filmmakers. As is clear with examples from 2001, Close Encounters, and Star Wars, Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema is a key text for how these images and themes made their way into many of the science fiction films of the 1960s and early 1970s, even if they entered such films in a significantly modified, more “motivated” form, or what I call the expanded blockbuster.

Expanded Special Effects?

Youngblood’s notion of Expanded Cinema and youth-oriented music events provide an important cultural context for the aesthetics of special effects in the 1970s. Additionally, experimental film by West Coast artist filmmakers and in art programs offered an important technological model that influenced the way that optical printing was used in feature filmmaking. As Sitney claims, O’Neill and others certainly strongly exploited the “synthetic power of the optical printer,” as well as other technologies that facilitated abstracted composite imagery. Up to the 1960s and 1970s, optical printing techniques and the optical printer had been more firmly associated with Hollywood special effects and industrial optical work than with experimental filmmaking.77 In most traditional 2D animation, photographing the animation cels is the final process in the animation pipeline. That is, once all the drawings have been completed and arranged, they are photographed frame by frame, thereby becoming animated and ready for projection. In many cases of 1960s and 1970s experimental animation, the artist made (p.56) use of the single-frame photogram as a starting point for further manipulation and design by reprinting. Conversely, many used contact and optical printing to manipulate live-action photography into abstraction. Though quite different from one another in many ways, West Coast artists such as O’Neill, John and James Whitney, Jordan Belson, Adam Beckett, and others experimented with optical printing as a compositional device to more precisely control the design of their patterns and effects.

Practically speaking, how did experimental cinema get into the film industry? Many of the filmmakers mentioned above taught at West Coast film schools (O’Neill, for example, taught at CalArts). By the mid- to late-1960s, major film schools like the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) taught a grab bag of “alternative” filmmaking practices to supplement their more pragmatic, industry-driven subjects. In the late 1960s, USC, whose cinema teaching program had strong connections to the mainstream industry,78 offered two popular classes: Lester Novros’s “Filmic Expression” (described in the catalog as “Creative aspects of film production; analysis of audio and visual forces that make the film an expressive means of communication”), and Herb Kosower’s course on animation (“Application to entertainment, education, industrial, and the experimental film; introduction to action analysis, storyboard design, and kinestatic techniques”).79 These more experimental courses were offered along with those taught by such stalwart studio directors as Norman Taurog and King Vidor (1969’s artist in residence). As oral histories of USC’s program suggest, students (which in the late 1960s and early 1970s included, for example, Lucas and John Carpenter) were encouraged not to think of Hollywood and experimentation as being mutually exclusive.80 Furthermore, communicating expressively was not taught as a purely narrative enterprise. As already mentioned, CalArts, which in its early years as an agricultural school received a considerable financial boost from Disney, provides another strong example of students trained both as experimental filmmakers and with more mainstream skills (such as roto-scoping and optical printing) applicable to special effects work.81

Experimental methods as practiced by O’Neill, Belson, and others were concerned with investigating the creative combination of animation and photography techniques in order to precisely control and compose moving shapes and patterns on the picture plane. The composition of elements within the frame moved in a rhythmic fashion (often to specific music or (p.57) other sounds), in order to create a sustained kinetic effect on the viewer. Images often “strobed” on the screen, by inserting clear or colored frames. The composition, printing, editing, and other assorted handwork meant that these filmmakers had a (literal) hand in all aspects of filmic aesthetics, including the supposedly less flexible live-action photography.

The fact that these trends in experimental filmmaking existed does not mean that feature filmmakers would necessarily adopt them. What purpose could these techniques serve in mainstream feature filmmaking? Learning from their West Coast colleagues’ example, mainstream filmmakers of the era took as a model experimental abstract film’s total control of the composition of the frame, based more in the synthetic motion of animation techniques than in photographic staging. The example of experimental animation often provided the creative framework for rethinking how photography and animation might be combined in creative ways for use in special effects, often by artists with professional and artistic experience on both sides. Experimental filmmaking not only helped filmmakers rethink the role of diegetic space in feature filmmaking, but actually provided a working technological model for teams employed by popular filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott for organizing and mobilizing the elaborately designed composite mise-en-scène required by their science fiction films.

As the influence of experimental animation and avant-garde movements demonstrates, the most prominent special effects artists in the 1970s were not simply honing the traditional tools of special effects in search of more perfect photorealism. In special effects for feature films, what did attention to something else beyond photorealism mean to accomplish? Certainly, expressive manipulation of the photographic negative allowed special effects to add a mysterious or otherwise flamboyant element to traditional optical effects work (such as in Star Wars’ light sabers or Close Encounters’ UFOs). But as palpably material experimental films by Belson and O’Neill demonstrate, collapsing the distinction between animation and photography also helps avoid politically suspect illusionism.82 In the science fiction, fantasy, and horror films so popular in that era, filmmakers learned that if they exploited the space between realism and stylization—as in films like Close Encounters, Apocalypse Now (1979), Altered States (1980) and even Eraserhead (1977)—then optical manipulation could help such films seem simultaneously more real while at the same time more fantastic. Composing the photographic material with graphic dynamics in mind, as well as (p.58) layering animation on top of the photographic image, draws attention to, not away from, the effects artists’ manipulation, both stressing its handmade qualities and also avoiding the taint of “invisible” manipulation. On a more commercial level, feature filmmaking, always looking to broaden its audience appeal to younger markets and supply new cinematic experiences in established theater spaces, borrowed associations of communality from Expanded Cinema. By making feature films with selected elements of Expanded Cinema in mind, 1970s filmmakers broadened the classical narratives of genre formulas into more up-to-date, mind-blowing realms.

Optical Animation—Reprise

Again, the term optical animation describes what is unique about this late 1970s era of special effects. Optical animation takes an animation approach to traditionally less flexible optical special effects, and further treats live action as an element to be composed, assembled, and animated. While a look of live-action 1970s cinematography is largely maintained, the special effect is produced by intensive frame-by-frame manipulation, in order to achieve total control of the resulting composite mise-en-scène. Optical animation indicates optical special effects’ historical basis in 1970s Hollywood photographic optical technology and aesthetics, while flaunting the increased creativity, flexibility, and plasticity of the composited image. Optical animation of the 1970s therefore thoroughly exploits the possibilities in both parts of the phrase “optical” and “animation.”

The emphasis on what is special or unusual about 1970s special effects should not suggest that the decade stands completely apart from other eras. Hard historical lines cannot and should not be drawn between 1970s techniques and earlier or later periods. Rather, the shifts should be seen as a gradual change of emphasis rather than an absolute change in kind. However, the specific characteristics of 1970s special effects can shed light on both earlier and later periods. By fusing opticals and animation, the techniques used in Star Wars and Close Encounters form a bridge between more traditional optical special effects camera work and the historically important shift in special effects toward a more fully animated (nonphotographic) computer-generated object. More specifically, if special effects have always had a strong relationship to animation, already in the mid-seventies (p.59) (inspired by 2001), the materially photographic and elastically animated became more thoroughly hybridized in special effects production.

Somewhat parenthetically, it is important to focus not only on optical animation as it manifests on the level of composition and construction of the image within the frame on the negative. What is often characterized as live-action movement also makes use of optical animation, through the animated movement of the computerized motion-control camera. We have seen how a major drawback to optical composite techniques had been the “locked-down” immobile camera, which limited camera movement in both special effects and live-action shots. In the 1970s, the special effects artists prioritized developing an “animating camera device” (as they called it) that would solve this problem. Technologically, this meant producing a sense of animation through the possible dual movement of the camera and the models combined with the frame-by-frame manipulation of optical (step) printing, or what would become known as motion control (fig. 1.7).83 In motion control, a camera on a track is attached to a computer that records

Optical AnimationSpecial Effects Compositing Up to 1977

Figure 1.7 A motion-control rig setup.

(Courtesy of Richard Rickett)

(p.60) the exact motion of the camera movement so it can be recalled and repeated when recording the separate photographic elements. This procedure enables the separate elements to fit cleanly together when assembled on the optical printer. The dual movement of camera and the effects object being filmed (such as a model spaceship) allowed the high-energy kinetic movement so remarkable in films like Star Wars.

In optical animation, it was not good enough that the photographic elements fit together just so frame by frame. The image also had to move. Motion control was initially developed so that small-scale models would retain the motion blur that the camera records in live action, as an aid to attaining a photoreal effect of the spaceship zooming through space. However, effects artists found more applications for the technique. They realized that the motion-control rig allows the image to maintain camera movements consistent with live-action photography, while at the same time that motion becomes a “detachable” element of composition. Animating the camera (using computer-controlled motion control) and the image (frame-by-frame manipulation) facilitated a kind of cinematic motion that moved like live action and looked like integral continuous space, but was built up by a number of different shots filmed with the same computer-controlled movement, piece by piece in postproduction.

Finally, with so much technical experimentation taking place, why keep so much faith with the photochemical optical processes, especially if optical animation could theoretically take any aesthetic form? Development of computer graphics was well under way by the late 1970s, and evidence suggests it is not a given that special effects techniques based in photo-chemical processes or the look of photography should have been used for films such as Star Wars and Close Encounters.84 Instead, a certain amount of choice was involved. Should the industry have been willing to invest the money and time (or should there have been someone sufficiently powerful enough to force it), computer graphics might have appeared much earlier as a workable special effects model.85 The idea for computer-generated imagery (CGI) was already in the air, though not yet successfully (that is, efficiently and profitably) in entertainment applications.86

Certainly, photochemical processes and a photographic look were maintained in large part because the industry technicians were trained in photography, and therefore were most comfortable with it, and knew best how to manipulate it for various project-specific aesthetic purposes. (p.61) Using an optical animation approach allowed the optical work to be flexible and detachable, but still based in the aesthetic of photography and, more specifically, the 1970s brand of vérité-style cinematography (which will be discussed more thoroughly later). This dual character gave the filmmakers what they saw as the best of both worlds. This approach allowed a tighter knit between principal photography and postproduction material, resulting in the desired (by major players such as Lucas, Spielberg, and Trumbull) more integral-looking fantastic cinematic diegesis.87 That is, the special effects object could maintain both the materially photographic base and look favored by auteurist filmmakers who wanted to ground their more fantastic subject matter in the 1970s naturalistic photoreal aesthetic, while at the same time becoming freer to picture a more plastic reality.

The insistence on recognizing 1970s special effects technology’s photographic base is not another way of privileging or asserting a notion of photochemically inscribed indexicality over later CGI. Rather, understanding what comprises optical technology helps show where the optical ends and the digital begins, and further, how it is not often possible to draw such a strict line between them. Historically speaking, it is important that the aesthetic of the 1970s special effects object was emphatically a photographic element, and that its photochemical foundation was significant in its aesthetic construction. The aesthetic as well as technical importance of the photographic base of special effects in the mid-1970s tends to be either ignored or taken for granted, especially since that is what seems to link it most strongly to earlier special effects production practices. However, 1970s optical animation both manipulates and mimics photographic materiality as an aesthetic (and a specifically 1970s filmmaking aesthetic) and not just as its default technology. Although later digital special effects technology would not so strongly privilege the materially photographic (made with photochemical processes), it largely maintains the simulated photographic aesthetic (the look of photography) of 1970s photorealism as a building block of contemporary special effects aesthetics.88

When suddenly, with some effort, you can build any world you can imagine, what kind of world do you build? Filmmakers’ ambivalent choice of whether to emphasize photographic aesthetics or animation aesthetics was a dilemma played out in almost every film of the period (and continues today), both behind the scenes in the production, as well as thematically in the film. The most influential films of the era, Star Wars and (p.62) Close Encounters, used an optical animation approach to blur the lines between principal photography and postproduction, so the final product could more strangely and wonderfully negotiate between photography and animation, and therefore vacillate between the familiar and the novel, the real and the fantastic. The technological aesthetics of optical animation bring together a composite of the techniques and approaches that comprise the primary concerns of the filmmakers of the 1970s special effects–driven films. Later chapters will provide a thorough account of the aesthetics of Star Wars, Close Encounters, and other “optically animated” films of the era, as well as a discussion of the implications of the kinds of cinematic worlds they chose to display, and those films’ impact on later cinema.


(1.) Found in the Stanley Kubrick Archive in University of the Arts archives and Special Collections at the London College of Communication at Elephant and Castle, conducted October 2007.

(2.) Lucas, quoted in Claire Clouzot, “The Morning of the Magician: George Lucas and Star Wars” (1977), in Kline (1999:58).

(3.) One of the reasons this kind of effects work has largely been ignored by scholars and effects enthusiasts is that such effects typically met their goal. For example, the files in the Linwood Dunn Collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Pickford Center archive, Hollywood, document shot after shot of clouds composited into a background, presumably for composition. Also, although the most thorough account of matte paintings, Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron’s The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting (2002) focuses most prominently on the more fantastic and elaborate examples, such as the Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz (1939), much more common and unobtrusive matte paintings were designed never to be scrutinized, such as those that completed the upper stories of a building or the ceiling areas of ballrooms or mansions, covering the lighting equipment.

(4.) See note 4 in the introduction.

(5.) This viewpoint is evident in trade press rhetoric, in Daily Variety articles such as Joseph McBride, “Hollywood Rediscovers an Old B.O. Star: Special Effects,” Daily Variety (Oct. 29, 1974).

(6.) The extremely popular early 1970s trend of disaster films should not be forgotten, such as Airport (1970), Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), and many others. Aspects of these films will be discussed in the next chapter. (p.280)

(7.) This tier of value is a particular problem in Cook (2000).

(9.) Lev Manovich (2001) most influentially calls for greater prominence to be given to animation in cinema’s image construction. I agree broadly with his contention. However, Manovich sees greater animation of the film image as primarily a mark of the digital. I argue that greater animatability of the cinematic image was already a priority well before digital imaging.

(10.) To complicate matters in the case of Welles, it is now well known that many deep-focus shots in Citizen Kane (1941) were completed by Linwood Dunn with an optical printer. For example, in the shot where Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) tries to commit suicide, at least one of the three planes of action (the glass with the spoon in the extreme foreground) is optically printed. See Dunn in Dunn and Turner (1983).

(11.) Harrison Ellenshaw, “Creating Matte Paintings for EMPIRE,” American Cinematographer (June 1980): 608. See many examples of this contemporary attitude toward photorealism in both American Cinematographer and the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (hereafter, JSMPTE; note that “and Television” was added to the society’s name in 1950).

(12.) Especially before industrial standardization of the optical printer in the 1940s (and frequently beyond), the often jerry-rigged optical printer’s frame advance systems calibration could not be consistently relied on to account for perfect lineup over numerous passes and required refined printing skills that very few operators possessed.

(13.) See, for example, the special effects fan publications such as Cinefex, Cinefantastique, Photon, and others, as well as Michele Pierson’s (2002) discourse analysis of special effects fan publications.

(14.) Bordwell (2006:16). See also Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson (1985), Balio (1993), and Bordwell (1997) for more examples of this approach.

(15.) How they were to achieve their various effects was often portrayed as a kind of magic, even by directors meant to be supervising them. See two articles by Cecil B. DeMille, “A Director Looks at ‘Process Shots,’” in American Cinematographer (1936) and “Motion Picture Directing,” in JSMPE (later, JSMPTE) (1928), where DeMille recounts that effects supervisor Farciot Edouart, in order to add a cloud effect to The Plainsman (1936), used his “big Optical Printer” but “wouldn’t tell me just how he did it.”

(16.) In terms of sound technology aesthetics in the transition to talkies, James Lastra (2000) has convincingly described how early sound technicians tested and debated the various aesthetics of sound technology with as much professional diligence as solving purely technological problems with sound. In other words, the aesthetic goal (multi-directional sound) often preceded the technical step, and the technological “results” (where to place microphones) of problems introducing sound were manifold.

(17.) This tendency to de-emphasize the primacy of the principal photography becomes more evident in the 1980s and beyond, with the renewed development of blue-screen work. Blue screen radically fragments principal photography by “reducing” actors shot (p.281) in front of a blue screen to just another element to be composited in postproduction, often along with many other separately produced photographed and animated elements.

(18.) More research is needed to determine each studio’s effects department’s emphasis on particular techniques, which appears not to be consistent across the studio era. For example, MGM effects department head Arnold Gillespie’s unpublished memoir (“Big Ones Out of Little Ones”) at the Margaret Herrick Library describes the MGM hierarchy as favoring physical and mechanical effects and rear-projection composites, while severely downplaying, even disparaging, optical composites. MGM and Paramount were at the forefront of rear-projection research and development. RKO and Universal, however, the home of very talented optical printer operators (Linwood Dunn and John Fulton, later at Paramount), entrusted their optical department with more responsibility, including for films such as King Kong and The Invisible Man (both 1933).

(19.) In academe, the term opticals cannot be considered a synonym for optics. It is misleading (as to the particular technology at work) that optical effects more or less correspond with “optics” as theorized by Jonathan Crary (1990) or with Jean Louis Baudry’s apparatus theory (Mast, Cohen, and Braudy 1992).

A related misconception many bring to the technology of special effects work is that a working knowledge of a 35mm still camera is sufficient to understand optical effects. Certainly, polemic regimes of vision described in apparatus theory as inherent to the technology can be applied to optical effects. Of course, knowledge of 35mm still technology is a useful starting point. However, the extent of manipulation of every variable of optical technology (lighting, lenses, frame rate, etc.) to achieve a desired result is much more elaborate than in 35mm still photography, as well as the kind of inscription assumed in theories of optics.

(20.) A forthcoming dissertation from Paul Malcolm (UCLA) very usefully divides special effects into three distinct historical eras, as determined by technology: in-camera, optical, and digital.

(21.) It is worth noting that early trick films were effected by a variable frame rate, from 16 frames per second (fps), depending on the consistency of the camera operator’s hand-cranking. Mechanized advance systems replaced hand-cranking in the late 1910s. The frame rate was standardizing at 24 fps by the sound era.

(22.) A sequence in The Sting (1973), for example, re-creating Chicago’s elevated trains, is often cited as a particularly audacious use of in-camera matting techniques. Albert Whitlock, along with Director of Photography (DP) Robert Surtees, had principal photography film the lower part of the frame, matting black the area above where the train would appear. The film was then cranked back, the image meticulously lined up, and the separately captured train footage was filmed on the same negative. This was done in-camera because, with color film, in-camera techniques were still the best way to get a first-generation look in the final negative. Bill Taylor, ASC, and Syd Dutton (cofounders of Illusion Arts, an independent effects company), personal interviews by author, Van Nuys, CA, July 25, 2006.

(23.) The history of traveling matte technology is complex, especially in the 1920s. For an easy to understand version, see Rickitt (2000:312). (p.282)

(24.) To be more specific, the printing steps are: (A) Shoot an actor against a blue background; (B) If it is a color composite, transfer the color to a black-and-white color separation positive. This is repeated two more times with the appropriate filters for the three-color separation process; (C) A high-contrast duplication of the black-and-white negative is generated, producing a negative image of the actor against a clear field; (D) Female and (E) male traveling mattes are generated from C, on high-contrast duplication stock. Now, the printing begins; (F) The male matte is combined with the background, making a black hole for the actor, and (G) vice versa; (H) F and G images are printed together to make the final composite. See Fielding (1968:207–209).

(25.) George Turner, “The Evolution of Special Visual Effects,” in Dunn and Turner (1983:46). The terms “rear” and “back” projection can be used interchangeably. Three technical elements were needed to bring rear projection to the fore: more sensitive film stock, brighter projection lights, and bigger screens.

(26.) More research needs to be done on this topic, but for a rare studio example of a shot from a moving car without image stabilization, see William A Seiter’s Chance at Heaven (1933), when Joel McCrea drives toward debutante Marion Dixon, flagging him down on the roadside.

(27.) They are likely called “plates” because early matte paintings were completed on clear plate glass and placed between the camera and the profilmic action.

(30.) Another on-set composite technology that had significant effect on the development of process work in Hollywood special effects in the 1920s and 1930s was the “Schufftan process,” a complex mirror and optics-based technique named for former Ufa cinematographer (and Fritz Lang and Max Ophuls collaborator) Eugen Schufftan, which allowed a kind of “set extension” without postproduction compositing. Therefore the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal or any other static object could be reflected into the same illusory “profilmic” space as the actors, and the camera registered the separate elements at the same time. Unlike projection technologies, the Schufftan process could not be used with moving-image footage. For more on Schufftan and Ufa special effects, see Katharina Loew (2011).

(31.) The priority given the introduction of sound technology did slow developments in special effects for a time, but not for long. Both JSMPTE and American Cinematographer published a flurry of articles between 1926 and 1933 lauding the Dunning Process, the Dieterich Process, and others. . See Frank Williams, “Trick Photography” (1928); Carroll Dunning, “Some Problems …” (1929) and “Dunning Process” (1931); C. Dodge Dunning, “Compositite Photography” (1929); and William Stull, “The Baker Process” (1932) and “The Dietrich Process …” (1933).

(32.) The percentage of optical shots in Citizen Kane changes depending on the source, in some cases going up to 90 percent. I decided to cite a conservative estimate. As was the studio’s practice, the head of the department was granted on-screen credit. Therefore, on RKO projects throughout the 1930s, as is true with King Kong, photographic effects department head Vernon Walker is credited, although Dunn or (p.283) others may have completed the bulk of the optical work: Dunn’s “In Memorium” notice from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) is vague (“He soon headed his own optical effects department and eventually became head of the photographic effects department … [which] lasted until RKO ceased operations 28 years later [in 1957]” (in the “Linwood Dunn” clip file of the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library). What likely happened is that when Walker died in 1948, Dunn took over the photographic effects department and likely received his first on-screen credit for Mighty Joe Young in 1949.

(33.) Arnold Gillespie, MGM’s Special Effects Department Head from 1925 to 1965, certainly had little respect for his own small optical department, which he characterizes with thinly veiled disdain: “Optical’s stumper is mainly due to the fact that tolerances involved are extremely minute. Unless superior craftsmanship, with know-how is tightly welded to a conscientious refusal to do less than the best, these unmet tolerances can and do scream out discordant notes.” Arnold Gillespie, “Big Ones Out of Little Ones” (unpublished manuscript; copyright 1968), Part I, pp. 11–12, in the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, Special Collections. Beverley Hills, CA.

(35.) Ibid., 108–109.

(36.) Dunn and Love developed the optical printer for a wartime military standardization project. See George Turner, “Cinemasters: Linwood Dunn, ASC” (1985:34–42).

(38.) Edouart (1983:108).

(39.) Edouart (1983) and Lightman (1964).

(41.) This despite claims, such as that of Dominique Païni (2000), that Hitchcock, Sirk, and others were using the dislocating effects of rear projection for deliberate, expressive purposes, notably to achieve a sense of heightened subjectivity. First, it is unclear whether 1950s audiences would have perceived rear projection as anti-naturalistic, which needs more research. But we must then be prepared to assume that Gidget director Paul Wendkos was also using nearly identical rear-projection techniques in the surfing scenes for expressive purposes.

(42.) I have yet to see any producer note or critical review before 1960 that criticizes the rear-projection work in a film. However, I have found cinematographers in the mid- to late 1950s touting films shot on location with “no interiors” and no process shots, such as Barnett Guffey’s (ASC) work on They Came to Cordura (1959), noted in Arthur Gavin, “‘Not an Interior in the Picture’” (1959:166–).

(44.) See the rhetoric justifying the “more real” vérité-style location shooting in films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer (1969), and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969). See Andrew Laszlo, “The Far (p.284) Out Photography of …” (1967:402–); Michael Ritchie, “Directing ‘Downhill Racer’” (1969:1055–); and Herb Lightman, “The Filming of ‘Medium Cool’” (1970:23).

(45.) Of course, the transition to color is usually attributed to the competition from television. I am not claiming that the transition to color was effected solely due to back-projection issues, only that it is another factor in consideration. The topic of the transition to color film is a complex one. For more, see Gorham Kindem, “Hollywood’s Conversion to Color,” in Kindem (1982:136–45).

(46.) There were a few attempts to revive it, in “improved” form, such as with front projection in the late 1960s. Kubrick’s use of front projection in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001 caused quite a stir in technical circles. However, this trend was somewhat short-lived, since by the 1970s the attention had shifted again to optical work, due in large part to Kubrick’s revivification of optical techniques in the outer space sequences of 2001. See Lightman (1968:442).

(47.) See Bill Nichols’ essay on the perception of motion in de Lauretis and Heath (1980).

(48.) As demonstrated by Linwood Dunn in his traveling lecture series, most “camera movement” in optical shots was in fact completed in postproduction on the optical printer, not by the on-set camera, most notably perhaps in the famous tracking shot “through” the skylight to Susan Alexander Kane in the bar in Citizen Kane. Dunn also demonstrated this technique in his lectures with shots from Nocturne (1946) starring George Raft and Flight for Freedom (1943) with Herbert Marshall, which feature extreme long shots that seem to track to medium shots of human figures, in fact joined by invisible dissolves. There were rare exceptions to the “locked-down camera” rule before the 1970s (see Rickitt 2000), but they are very few.

(49.) As Syd Dutton, matte artist on the film claimed, Earthquake (1974) was a film in which the camera movement was strictly limited by the lack of camera movement in the effects shots. Syd Dutton, personal interview.

(50.) Although process and optical techniques are distinct approaches to special effects work, usually employing different specialists, it is important to stress that they cannot always be strictly opposed. There is, of course, miniature rear projection, where the moving image is projected onto a matte painting. Also, Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation technique is an example of a hybrid style (which had its origins in Willis O’Brien’s techniques in filming King Kong) and can be seen in the famous skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). For a more detailed explanation, see Rickitt (2000).

(51.) American Cinematographer’s coverage of The Towering Inferno, for example, devotes the majority of its pages to the acting unit and the stunt unit, with only a short article on its miniature and optical effects. Charles Loring, “The Towering Inferno …” (1975). See also Mik Cribben, “On Location with Jaws” (1975).

(52.) John Dykstra, ASC (and founder of Apogee, Inc., an independent effects house), personal interview by author, Los Angeles, CA, July 26, 2006.

(53.) Dykstra understood he was speaking to a nonspecialist general audience (see Kline 1999:53).

(54.) Most influentially, again, by Manovich (2001). (p.285)

(55.) For more on the development of the animation industry and, specifically, multi-plane animation, see Crafton (1993).

(56.) It should be noted here when I’m talking about “Disney” I mean the company more than the man. As Nicholas Sammond points out (2005:28), technology developed by others or a team of others was credited to Disney the man as symbol of the organization.

(57.) Rickitt (2000:139). Lotte Reinger also used multi-plane animation to different effect at least as early as The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926.

(58.) Rickitt (2000:154). Reportedly, the Fleischers also developed a horizontal multi-plane model system around the same time, but the question of influence is still in question. For a discussion of the systems’ similarities and differences, see animation historian Harvey Deneroff’s blog (http://deneroff.com/blog/2008/03/04/willis-obrien-iwerks-multiplane-camera-and-fleischers-stereoptical-process).

(59.) Rotoscoping has gained recent notice not only as an early technical model for digital motion capture technology but also as a digital animation technique. Known as interpolated rotoscope, and used most prominently in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), interpolated rotoscope takes scanned live-action footage and essentially “draws over it” digitally, usually resulting in a kind of stylized animation.

(60.) Crafton (1993:158). Or, one can just as easily say, motion capture is a later form of rotoscope.

(61.) Rickitt (2000:54, 141–42). In the early 2000s, rotoscope in digital special effects was typically used to designate digital “cleanup,” such as removing wires in stunts or other unwanted objects in the mise-en-scène.

(62.) Paul Mandell, “Adam Beckett: …” (1978:19). In the interview, Beckett points out that the light sabers were outsourced from ILM to Van Der Veer Photo Effects.

(65.) Ibid., 182–83.

(66.) While I would like to be able to describe Belson’s techniques in detail, he kept his precise working method a guarded secret, even up to his death in 2011. What is known is that Belson resisted the word abstract in describing his films. Since he insisted he filmed actual material objects, he believed the word did not apply. See Malcolm Le Grice (1977:82) and Gene Youngblood (1970:157).

(67.) Abstract animation has a long history in mainstream cinema. Just as special effects production in Hollywood has long had technical and aesthetic links to animation, it has also long been linked with experimental and avant-garde practices. See the exhibition catalog Visual Music (Brougher et al., 2005) for a brief discussion of this history. Conversely, Esther Leslie’s book, Hollywood Flatlands (2002), discusses animation’s attraction to European intellectuals.

(68.) New York’s Museum of Modern Art devoted a series to CalArts graduates, “Tomorrowland: Cal Arts in Moving Pictures” (May 25–August 13, 2006), and screened many films by artist-filmmakers who also worked in technical areas of the movie industry, especially special effects. For example, CalArts alumni who worked on Star Wars (p.286) include Adam Beckett, animation and rotoscope designer; Larry Cuba, computer automation and graphic displays; David Berry, optical printer operator; Robert Blalack, composite optical photography; Chris Casady, animator; Loring Doyle, optical lineup; and Donna Tracy, optical camera assistant. Berry, Casady, and Doyle all went on to work at ILM. Tracy eventually worked at Digital Domain.

(69.) See Sitney (1979:431). Sitney quotes himself in an identical passage in “Saugus Series” (1986–87:160).

(70.) Pat O’Neill, personal interview by author, Pasadena, CA, July 19, 2007.

(71.) Malcolm Le Grice has a more technical/formalist approach to O’Neill, but one has the sense he is not sure what to make of O’Neill’s films, deeming them interested in exploring “the graphic,” but stopping short of more fully explicating the implications that approach might have. Le Grice (1977:114).

(72.) West Coast experimental filmmakers’ closely intertwined association with the film industry has not helped their critical reception with more high modernist film critics. Not only were West Coast filmmakers considered compromised by “selling out” to the industry, according to Le Grice they were also too heavily influenced by “apolitical,” “unintellectual” concerns with “mind expansion, psychedelia, and McLuhan’s global village concept of televisual communication,” instead of “more rigorously formalist and politicized” New York and European filmmakers. In fact, he judges Belson and Scott Bartlett with Marxist moralism:

The popularization of passive quietist philosophies or religions, whose patterns have been established in stable, caste or feudally structured societies, is ominous when it occurs in the context of the aggressive technology of a Western capitalist state like America.

(Le Grice 1977:121)

David E. James has made more favorable arguments for the West Coast avant-garde and questioned the Hollywood/Los Angeles avant-garde split. For example, see James (1999) and in Willis (1994).

(73.) Youngblood (1970:100). See also David E. James’s (2005) and Moritz’s (2004) work on West Coast abstract filmmakers.

(74.) For Youngblood, the New Hollywood auteurist or political films such as The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider had it all wrong: by remaining invested in narrative and only tweaking the conventions of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, they were just reinforcing a mental reliance on those old forms. 2001 is the closest a Hollywood film had come to expanded cinema, but was hampered by what Youngblood saw as its “anti-technology” thematics. Youngblood (1970:59 and 151–).

(75.) Jordan Belson, Robert Breer, James Whitney, and many other West Coast filmmakers constantly refer to popular spirituality conceptions of yogic and tantric mental states as important for both producing and experiencing their films. See Youngblood (1970) for more examples of this tendency.

(76.) Usually disseminated through traveling film festivals, including the Genesis Film Productions package and Pyramid Films, “where they’d circulate these film packages that [had] all these kinds of films in them. They’d have fifteen films and they’d go to (p.287) different colleges, and travel around to different theaters, and they were very popular.” Richard Winn Taylor (Abel and Associates employee, computer animation pioneer), personal interview by author, Marina del Rey, July 18, 2007.

(77.) Because “off the shelf” optical printing equipment was expensive and hard to come by, many filmmakers found they had to cobble together optical printing equipment to realize their designs. For example, James and John Whitney Sr. first had to purpose-build an optical printer from a World War II surplus model, until they took out a loan to buy a Cine Special (Brick [1972:41]). Pat O’Neill also tells of having to purpose-build optical printing equipment from government surplus (John G. Hanhardt, “A Conversation with Pat O’Neill,” in Lazar [2004:197–98]).

(78.) Although 1970s auteurist lore claims that unions barred MFA film students in the 1960s and 1970s from the Hollywood industry, USC historically hired industry professionals to teach practical aspects of the film industry. Also, students (including George Lucas) often won internships on studio film sets. These connections did not necessarily lead to jobs in the industry, but the studio system was not as closed to film students as is often claimed by Lucas and others. See Biskind (1998:37).

(79.) Course descriptions and faculty lists are taken from the USC Cinema Department, School History Course listings, 1960–1969 catalog. Additional information about USC’s film school curriculum appears on the Laserdisc compiled by John Howe and Dick Farber: USC Film School: The First 50 Years. Both sources are cataloged at the USC Cinema Library. Special thanks to USC Cinema Librarian Ned Comstock for help with information on the history of the USC film school.

(81.) In an interview with special effects artist Robert Blalack (Star Wars, Wolfen), he was asked what brought him to CalArts to begin with. He responded that he had enrolled after seeing an ad for the school designed like a “Soviet Rebel art poster,” which claimed that CalArts “would not be an ‘art school,’ … [but instead] would be a fervent cross pollination of the separated schools of each art,” converging in the center of the “‘Wheel,’ a place called ‘critical studies.’”Though commending the school’s idealism, Blalack claimed that conflict with Disney’s trustees meant the idealism only lasted about three months, and he left soon after. See Levine (1998).

(82.) In the 1970s, special effects became very visible and spectacular indeed. Yuri Tsivian’s phrase, the “medium sensitive viewer,” from his book Early Cinema and Its Cultural Reception (1994) seems apt to the reception of 1970s special effects–heavy cinema. Robert Spadoni also uses Tsivian’s phrase to discuss sound in early sound-era horror films (Spadoni 2003:6).

(83.) Although initially only the camera moved, not the model.

(84.) When developing Close Encounters, Spielberg looked into computer animation, but deemed it too expensive (Lightman 1978:58). Likewise, computer animators from the firm III (Information International, Inc, who would later work on Tron) produced an animated sequence on spec of X-wing fighters in 1979 to show to George Lucas, but he did not hire III for The Empire Strikes Back as they had hoped. See Siggraph video documentary, The Story of Computer Graphics (1999); and Edlund, “Jedi Journal” (1983:12). (p.288)

(85.) As an example of someone powerful enough to force through technological changes in industry practice, I point to the future George Lucas, who used control of his own “content” to force theater owners to upgrade sound systems to his THX in the 1990s, and tried to do the same, with more limited success, with digital projection in the early 2000s.

(86.) The financial failure of Tron (1982) certainly slowed down the investment in CGI technologies for the early part of the 1980s.

(87.) It also meant that cinematographers (for example, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, the DP for Close Encounters) and art directors were charged with making live-action photography a bit more stylized and less stripped down and naturalistically “gritty” than in the late 1960s.

(88.) See Turnock (2012). From another angle, Garrett Stewart takes up the loss of photographic basis as a theme in his reading of Blade Runner: “Body Snatching: Science Fiction’s Photographic Trace,” in Kuhn (1999).