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Special Effects: Norman Dawn creates earliest techniques

Click image to enlarge. Norman Dawn. Card 5, June 1907.
Click image to enlarge. Norman Dawn. Card 5, June 1907.

Special effects in film are most often associated with monsters and space aliens, explosions and gunfire. While such features certainly fit into that category, more often than not special effects are used to make something look real and normal that would otherwise be too difficult or expensive to photograph. Fair weather, for example, can be unpredictable; exotic or imaginary locations may be inaccessible or may not exist at all. But both can be realized through the use of matte paintings, glass shots, or other special effects techniques.

Many of the techniques were devised in cinema’s earliest years by Norman O. Dawn (1886–1975) and subsequently refined and improved by succeeding special effects artists. Recently, digital technologies have enabled new ways to create the “trick shot.”

Dawn was a relatively obscure yet historically significant early special effects cinematographer, inventor, artist, and motion picture director, writer, and producer. He worked with many important film pioneers including Mack Sennett, Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg, and Erich von Stroheim. The Dawn collection consists of 164 display cards that illustrate over 230 of the 861 special effects Dawn created in more than 80 movies.

Constructed personally from his own field notebooks and methodical records, the cards contain original oil, watercolor, pencil, and ink sketches used to sell the effects to skeptical film executives and directors; production and personal photographs; detailed camera records; film clips and frame enlargements; movie reviews, advertisements, and other trade press clippings; explanatory texts and recent sketches to illustrate his methods; and pages from an unpublished autobiography.

Each display card documents one of his special effects, most often a refinement or improvement of a matte shot process. This card illustrates a very early special effect Dawn created with Edwin S. Porter, one of the top directors in Thomas Edison’s motion picture company. Dawn’s notes about Porter, Mrs. Edison, and his sketch of Edison’s Bronx studio are also of interest.

This is just one item from the “Special Effects” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Film editing: How the script supervisor tracks and controls the editing process

Click image to enlarge. Continuity supervisor’s copy of The Prize, 1963.
Click image to enlarge. Continuity supervisor’s copy of The Prize, 1963.

Film editing is the selection, arrangement, and combination of shots into sequences, sequences into scenes, and scenes into the final film. Editing is where a motion picture takes its final shape.

The editor controls and often enhances the emotional and narrative aspects of a motion picture. Through the selection of “takes” or alternate versions of the same shot, the placement of “cuts,” and the layering of images, sound, and music, the editor manipulates time and space, controls the pacing and rhythm of the story, shapes the actor’s performances, guides the viewer’s attention, and creates an emotional connection with the viewer. Indeed, the editor can, in some cases, effectively rewrite and redirect a motion picture.

The continuity supervisor, known as the “script clerk” in early industry parlance, records information about such details as which costumes are worn and whether or not a collar was turned up. The continuity supervisor also records the “takes” that were filmed, whether they were long or medium shots or close-ups, and any associated action—information that is especially valuable to the editor.

Shots or “takes” are recorded as vertical lines through the text of the script. The shot number is noted at each end of that line. A wavy part of the line indicates action or dialogue that takes place off screen, and notes are often written near the shot number.

In this script for The Prize (1963), we see that shot 106A is a close-up of Inger Lisa (Elke Sommer) and 106B is a close-up of Craig (Paul Newman). This part of the scene consists mostly of intercutting between these two close-ups. The cuts are numbered before each character’s lines of dialogue. Shots 106F and 106J near the bottom were panning shots of the characters’ feet. These shots were not used. Shot 106D, however, a pan from right to left following Craig into a two shot with Inger Lisa, was the shot the editor selected.

This is just one item from the “Film editing” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Music: Composing the score for "Duel in the Sun"

Photograph of Dimitri Tiomkin conducting orchestra for Duel in the Sun, 1946
Photograph of Dimitri Tiomkin conducting orchestra for Duel in the Sun, 1946
Music has been an integral part of motion pictures since the earliest days of filmmaking. While full orchestral scores were written especially for select major productions such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924), most early films were shown accompanied by a pianist or organist who had compiled the score from a small sheet music library that was organized by mood. The pianist synchronized the music to the film by using a “cue sheet,” a list of the film’s action and title cards in the order in which they appear. Whether for an exciting chase sequence or a tender love scene, for suspense or nostalgia, joy or sorrow, the use of music to create an emotional connection with the audience has always been an important part of the filmmaking process.

In this photo, Dimitri Tiomkin conducts the orchestra during a scoring session of Duel in the Sun (1946), as the film plays in the background so the conductor can watch and time the music appropriately. Although the standard industry practice at the time was to wait for the final edit of a film before scoring and recording, producer David O. Selznick insisted that the composer begin work while the film was still being shot.

This is just one item from the “Music” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Production Design: Alfred Junge's Oscar-winning design for "Black Narcissus"

Arguably Britain’s greatest production designer, Alfred Junge was born in Germany and spent his teenage years working as an apprentice to a painter. At eighteen he was “kissed by the Muse” and began working in theater, painting sets, designing costumes, and operating special effects. In the late 1920s he began working with British International Pictures and later Gaumont British where he gained a reputation not only for his brilliant designs but also for his organizational skills in running a large staff of art directors and craftsmen.

Junge’s best known film work is on Black Narcissus (1947), the story of emotional tensions among a group of Anglican nuns who try to establish a convent in the remote reaches of the Himalayas. Director Michael Powell gave Junge unusual freedom in terms of color, composition, and technique, and Junge received the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for the film in 1947. Audiences are still surprised to learn that the film was not shot on location in the Himalayas but on sound stages in England.

The scene painting shown here of Mother Dorothea’s office not only sets up the color and composition of the scene, it also provides important cues for set construction, set decoration, lighting, and cinematography.

This is just one item from the “Production Design” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Hair and Makeup: Test photos from "Gone With The Wind"

Makeup reference photo of Vivienne Leigh
Makeup reference photo of Vivienne Leigh

Like costumes, hairstyles and makeup can reveal nuance and place characters in an emotional, geographical, or historical context. Certain hairstyles, for example, are instantly associated with certain periods, such as the bob cut in the 1920s or the ducktail haircut of the 1950s. Film makeup must look natural and appropriate when magnified on the big screen. It must also be durable enough to survive multiple takes and reproducible in case retakes are needed at a later time.

This makeup reference photo of actress Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind, for example, suggests not only character Scarlett’s O’Hara’s emotional state, but her current economic situation—her face is dirty from working in the dusty fields. Real tears would evaporate, and tear tracks would be different every time Leigh cried, so painting these tear stains on her face with makeup proved to be much more effective and reliable. View a full slideshow of photos of various actors from Gone With The Wind.

As the production of Gone With The Wind fell behind schedule, as many as three scenes were shot simultaneously. In order to maintain “continuity” (the seamless appearance of characters and settings across different shots), it was normal procedure to shoot makeup reference photos of every significant character.

This is just one item from the “Hair and Makeup” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Producer: Balancing censorship issues

Click on image to enlarge. “A Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures” by the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, Inc., June 13, 1934.
Click on image to enlarge. “A Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures” by the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, Inc., June 13, 1934.
The process of making movies involves thousands of decisions. Each decision is a turning point with rewards and consequences. Every detail matters to the success or failure—artistically and financially—of the final product. While filmmaking is fundamentally a collaborative effort, one person often dominates that process: the producer.

This document, “A Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures” by the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, Inc., is an example of one issue that producers have had to deal with throughout cinema history: censorship.

Since the earliest days of commercial filmmaking, producers have had to manage the tension between what they think the public wants (which often involves sex and violence) and what they think the public will accept. In the late 1920s, the motion picture industry began self-censoring content in an effort to thwart intervention by the government. Over the years, that effort has evolved into the film rating system in use today.

This is just one item from the “Producer” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

View a video preview of "Making Movies" exhibition

In anticipation of the opening of its exhibition Making Movies, the Harry Ransom Center kicks off the promotional campaign “Script to Screen,” featuring online content that highlights the creative work that takes place behind the scenes in filmmaking.

Today, you can view a video preview of the exhibition, which opens February 9.

Featuring items from the Ransom Center’s extensive film collections, the exhibition reveals the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process and focuses on how the artists involved—from writers to directors, actors to cinematographers—transform the written word into moving image.

Highlights include original scripts, storyboards, production photos, and call sheets, in addition to screenplays from The Third Man, North by Northwest, and Shakespeare in Love and costumes from Gone With The Wind, An Affair to Remember, and Taxi Driver.

During “Script To Screen,” the Ransom Center will share unique content related to the exhibition every day through its social media channels on this blog, Twitter, and Facebook. Each day, the Ransom Center will highlight an item from a different section of the exhibition, which is organized by filmmaking jobs (director, producer, cinematographer, and more) and by iconic film scenes with materials that show how those scenes were created.

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Video highlights Ransom Center’s film collections

The Ransom Center will launch the “Script To Screen” promotional campaign next week in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition Making Movies, which opens February 9. Starting Monday, the Ransom Center will feature online content that highlights the creative work that takes place behind the scenes in filmmaking.

Featuring items from the Ransom Center’s extensive film collections, Making Movies reveals the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process and focuses on how the artists involved—from writers to directors, actors to cinematographers—transform the written word into moving image.

This video gives an overview of the Ransom Center’s film collections and highlights many items that will be included in the exhibition.