Behind the Scenes: Special Effects Used In Silent Films

Behind the Scenes: Special Effects Used In Silent Films

Visual and special effects have a long history; they've been around since the dawn of filmmaking. Here are some great examples from silent films where the techniques used behind the scenes are still relevant today.

There are two terms used today for executing complex visual scenes: special effects (SFX) and visual effects (VFX). Special effects, also called practical effects, are all done in camera. Visual effects are those that require extra manipulation of the footage to get to the final result (CGI, masking, etc.). However, before 1970 the term SFX was used for both cases. Here are special effects from old silent films made completely in-camera:

Safety Last!

Carefully planning and executing the perspective of the set sells the effect in this scene. Indeed, it was shot on a high building, but not as you may think.

Clip from Safety Last!

Safety Last!

BTS from Safety Last!

Behind the scenes

The Black Pirate

With a little help from smart engineers, this is all in camera.

Clip from The Black Pirate

The Black Pirate

BTS from The Black Pirate

The Black Pirate

Modern Times

Impressive matte painting on glass is the secret behind this shot. It has been precisely placed in front of the panning camera. Not of less importance is the performance of Charlie Chaplin.

Clip from Modern Times

Modern Times

BTS from Modern Times

Behind the scenes

Sherlock Jr.

A very common way of making visual effects is double exposure. This technique requires blocking part of the image seen by the camera with a black object. This way the blocked part of the film is not exposed. Then the film is wound back and the scene is re-shot uncovering the blocked part.

Clip from Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr.

BTS from Sherlock Jr.

Behind the scenes

Ben-Hur

Look at their makeup. It disappears after the hand passes above them. This is achieved by placing a filter in front of the camera at the right time, so it removes certain color casts. Of course shooting in black and white helps because the color of the makeup becomes a shade of light gray. It's the same as if you put a blue filter on a tungsten bulb; the result is neutralizing the orange cast and creating а daylight color from the bulb.

Clip from Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur

BTS fom Ben-Hur

Behind the scenes

Little Lord Fauntleroy

One more example of double exposure to achieve cloning of a character several times in a scene. In order to achieve this, the matte cover had to be a very precise silhouette of the actress.

Clip from Little Lord Fauntleroy

Little Lord Fauntleroy

BTS from Little Lord Fauntleroy

Behind the scenes

Ella Cinders

Double exposure again. Left side and right side of the camera frame have been covered partially. It's critical that neither the actress, nor the book move.

Clip from Ella Cinders

Ella Cinders

BTS from Ella Cinders

Behind the scenes

 

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11 Comments

Amber Goetz's picture

Seems like even though there was a lot of work put into these shots, that is was a lot of fun to be a film maker back then!

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yeah. Those guys were very creative having so many limitations.

Thomas Jergel's picture

Even today, if you impose limits on yourself you too can create things like this without relying on recent technology.

Spy Black's picture

People today are almost jaded when looking at SFX. If you think about it tho, many of these effects can still be creatively used to day, and it's a relatively more simple and straightforward process today as well.

Rob Mynard's picture

The matte painting on glass was used quite well in the first series of Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy as well (not to mention the way the BBC did all the "computer" graphics on their 80's ipads)
https://youtu.be/lbWAwynNf-0

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

in Modern Times they seem to use that on the big monitors in the factory as well.

Phuket Photographer's picture

thanks for sharing!

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

You're welcome

Eve Harlowe's picture

So clever!!! Great article! Technology has advanced exponentially, yet the basic principles remain the same. You can't reinvent the wheel.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yep, exactly. And yet lots of cinematographers prefer shooting on film because the advanced technology strill struggles to provide with the look "the ancient technology" gives.

Technology :)

Eve Harlowe's picture

That's very true! There's nothing like the look of film, be it still or moving.