Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Visual Effects

An Impossible Balancing Feat (1902)

Coming five years before “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats,” this short by Georges Méliès pioneers, and in some ways outdoes, that movie’s central effect, despite limitations set by the primitive technology. As always, Méliès manages to bring a sense of fun and flair to a simple performance.

A proscenium-style set depicts a stage dressed with Greek statuary and a small stone tower. The door of the tower opens up and Méliès appears inside, sitting on a chair. He comes forward on the stage, bows, and gestures, causing the set to disappear. He removes his outer clothing with a flourish, now he is wearing an all-white costume. He moves to center stage, and three “twins” come out from him, one standing to his right, two to his left. The original sits back down in the chair and the first twin ascends the wall, seeming to balance on top of his head. Eventually, he turns over and is doing a headstand on the head of the original, who extends his arms and the two other twins balance on his hands, eventually doing headstands as well. Suddenly the twins disappear and Méliès is holding two flags (they go by really fast, but I think one is French and one American). They disappear and Méliès snaps his fingers and has his original suit back on. He bows for the audience and marches comically off the stage.

This movie is a fairly typical “magic show” style of trick film, such as we’ve seen many times now from Méliès. However, it combines rather more effects than one would expect in an earlier film. We have the twinning (which of course he did much more extensively in “The One-Man Band”), we have several appearances and disappearances, and we have the “balancing trick,” which uses the same effect as we saw in “The Human Fly.” In combining all of this, we have a rather more impressive array of special effects than Segundo de Chomón gave us later in “Kiriki.” However, de Chomón seems to have spent more time on perfecting the illusion than Méliès did. Objects frequently overlap in this film, and as the twins appear, both they and he original become semi-transparent, allowing us to see through them to the background, which is somewhat shaky. Presumably audiences were less picky in 1902, and just happy to see anything that looked like an impossible trick, but by 1907, they would have picked up on such sloppiness.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Best Visual Effects 1917

Entertainment often means trickery. Even on stage, various “effects” are used to simulate real-world or fantastic conditions that would be dangerous if reproduced in a theater space: cannon fire, for example, or the ghostly ship in the “The Flying Dutchman”. I’ve even read about spectacles in which building fires were simulated and fought on a large stage to celebrate the bravery of firemen.  Early filmmakers learned that the camera allows for much more convincing and spectacular effects than are safe to perform with a live audience attending, and that it also has the potential for more impressive “magical” trickery. Thus, the category of visual effects in film has become a part of how we judge them. This award considers the best of those effects each year.

In 1917, many films were using simple effects as a matter of course, but the movies I’ve nominated each showed some more innovative, or more elaborate application of them. In “Fear,” a man is haunted by his visions of a “Buddha Priest” he’s wronged. Conrad Veidt is made to appear transparent, and impervious to bullets, in this early example of a horror movie. “The Dying Swan” has a similar ghostly effect, in which the female lead is threatened by disembodied hands that reach out to strangle her, and re-appear in the scene in which she is really strangled. “The Little American” is an ambitious action film, that re-creates the sinking of the Lusitania and also shows the war-ravaged streets of a French town in the First World War. The main effects seen in the “Judex” episode, “The Fantastic Dog Pack,” are changes in tinting of the film to simulate lighting changes, and the hard work of the animal trainers in getting the eponymous “pack” to do its work. We also get underground caverns and chase scenes, handled well.

The nominees for best visual effects of 1917 are:

  1. Fear
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. The Little American
  4. The Fantastic Dog Pack

And the winner is…”The Little American!”

There’s a tradition in Hollywood of giving the special effects award to a movie that was spectacular, but not a critical success, and I guess I’m following that tradition here. “The Little American” was big with audiences in its day, but is not especially fondly remembered now. It’s a pretty transparent propaganda piece that relies heavily on stereotypes and emotionalism. But, it does have some pretty extravagant effects. We see the sinking of the boat from inside of a ballroom that appears to turn on its side and fill with water. It genuinely appears as though the actors could have been in danger of drowning. The devastated countryside is also effective, even if the plot at the end becomes so heavy-handed as to be almost impossible to take seriously.

Best Visual Effects 1916

Movies are often seen as the most “realistic” of art forms, since photography captures light as it is, rather than allowing the artist to create the image from their mind, as in painting or sculpture. But, we all know that movies have always tricked our eyes with special effects, to make the unreal or even impossible appear to happen before our very eyes. By 1916, filmmakers had moved beyond the early style of “trick films” whose limited plots centered entirely around effects, to complex storylines with effects woven in to enhance the fantasy or escape that was now at the center of attention.

The first filmed version of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” involved building a mockup of the Nautilus, and even more impressively the development of new techniques for filming underwater. Director Louis Feuillade shows what he had learned in his apprenticeship under Alice Guy with recovery of body thrown from a moving train in “The Spectre” (an episode of the serialLes Vampires”) and also gives us his patented triple-split-screen to represent a phone conversation and the space between the speakers. The movie “The Devil’s Needle” enters into the realm of fantasy in showing the hallucinations of a heroin addict. In the serial “Homunculus,” visual effects are used to illustrate the creation of an artificial man, and some of the powers he exhibits. “The Mysterious Shadow,” the first official episode of the “Judex” serial, shows the secret base of the hero of that story, and also the disinterment and revival of a corpse.

The nominees for best visual effects of 1916 are:

  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  2. The Spectre (Les Vampires)
  3. The Devil’s Needle
  4. Homunculus
  5. The Mysterious Shadow (Judex)

And the winner is…“20,000 Leagues under the Sea!”

20000 Leagues Under the Sea1

This was a pretty easy one. Out of the movies I saw last year, nothing matched this science fiction tale in terms of visual effects. Certainly, the other movies had their moments, but none of them really offered anything new: split screen, double images, fade outs, trick props, lighting effects had all been done before. But, googly-eyed octopuses aside, Universal really took out all the stops for this production. Judging by its record at the box office, this early adventure movie paid off as well. According to Moving Picture World, it played at one picture palace for over eight weeks, something that nearly never happened in the high turnover of early film.

Princess Nicotine (1909)

This fascinating short from Vitagraph shows a very innovative approach to trick photography and allows more direct interaction between actors than double exposure would have. Director J. Stuart Blackton brings a fantasy to life that has elements of Guy and Méliès, while also displaying a distinctly American style.

Nicotine PrincessA man is in a room, preparing to smoke his pipe. Suddenly, he drowses off and falls asleep. While he is asleep two tiny figures appear among his smoking accoutrements – one a small child and the other, a grown woman, both in fairy costumes. They appear to be only a few inches tall. There is an edit, and we see them at closer range, moving among the oversized implements. The woman gets into the cigar box, and the child hides in the pipe, putting tobacco over herself in the process. The man wakes up and starts smoking his pipe, but he notices something strange. He shakes it out and the child tumbles out happily (apparently unconcerned that she was almost burnt up!). She and the woman dance on the table for a bit, and the man smokes and tries to trap them in the cigar box. When he looks inside, all he finds is a flower, but when he removes it, the child is there smoking a cigarette. Then, he gets up and leaves. Now, there is an animated sequence which shows the matches arranging themselves and then a cigar rolls itself out of leaves and tobacco. The man walks into what looks like a different room and finds the cigar, lighting it and also breaking a bottle that holds one of the fairies. He begins smoking and blows the smoke at the fairy, which seems to annoy her. She builds a bonfire out of the remaining matches, and he extinguishes it with a spritzer bottle. He then uses the spritzer to spray the fairy off of the table.

Nicotine Princess1As the DVD notes observe, there is a wealth of material here for a dedicated Freudian – even if “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I alluded to the special effects, which were managed by shooting the women in a mirror at a distance that made it appear that they were small and on the table, rather than using double exposure and having to shoot everything twice. Keeping that technique in mind, this is a very interesting performance. I think the “different room” continuity confusion was a result of the trickiness of these effects: on a second viewing I noticed that most of the background was replaced with a black curtain starting just before the animated sequence. Possibly they were having difficulty getting the effects to show up against the original backdrop. For the insert shots, we see the fairies interacting with large props (a barrel-sized pipe bowl, and matchsticks the size of their legs, etc). I’ve seen claims that the first time this was done was for the movie “Dr. Cyclops” (1940), but here’s an earlier example and there may be more.  The editing structure is relatively sophisticated, not just stringing together scenes, but allowing us to change our perspective on the action as it develops. The movie owes something to the French, in terms of its effects and overall tone, but there’s something quite unique in the subject matter and the ambiguous attitude towards smoking and tiny women.

Alternate Title: Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Tony Gaudio

Starring: Paul Panzer, Gladys Hulette

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Disappearing Act (1898)

This short by Alice Guy has much in common with “At the Hypnotist’s,” which appears to have been shot on the same set, possibly using the same actors. But, it can also be seen as a remake of “The Vanishing Lady” by Georges Méliès, released two years before.

Disappearing ActA lady and a man enter a well appointed room and walk around a couch to bow to the audience. The lady is dressed in typical demure 19th Century French middle-class clothing and the man has long hair and a long black coat on. The man gestures and the lady lies on the couch. He approaches her with a sheet and waves it. Suddenly, she is turned into a ridiculously phony-looking monkey. The monkey hops about a little, but is soon coaxed back onto the couch and the magician again gestures. Now monkey and couch are gone, replaced by a large crate. He gestures to make the crate disappear, then makes the woman, standing, appear at his side. He waves again to banish her and bows once more, seeming to depart the stage. Suddenly, he and the lady stand side by side, bowing repeatedly.

This is another “trick film,” done reasonably well but without either the artful backdrops or the technical wizardry of Méliès. The one truly original aspect is the monkey (substituting for the more horrific element of a skeleton), and I must comment that it is represented by possibly the worst monkey costume I have ever seen. The movie is light and enjoyable, but undeniably unoriginal. I would assume that it was shot back-to-back with “At the Hypnotist’s,” although the camera remains too far from the actors to allow for facial recognition.

Alternate Title: Scéne d’escamotage

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possiblly Alice Guy

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music)

Best Visual Effects 1915

Whereas cinematography refers to the straight use of the camera to create an image, many images are created through the use of other devices, or by using a camera in ways not necessarily intended by its originators. The story goes that Georges Méliès “invented” visual effects by accident. He was on the street, filming traffic as it passed when the film jammed. He continued shooting after clearing the jam. When he played back the footage, a bus had turned into a hearse, and a man into a woman, because of the elapsed time between the shots. Whether this is exactly true or not, filmmakers have been using cameras ever since to distort time and reality.

By 1915, visual effects had become part and parcel of many films, and were used to display either supernatural, psychological, or spectacular events. In “Regeneration,” filmmaker Raoul Walsh gave us a tremendous ferry fire, tinted with color to emphasize the drama. Similarly, John H. Collins, working at the under-rated Edison Studios, re-created the Triangle Shirtwaist fire as a plot element in his “Children of Eve.” Wladislaw Starevich made the entire First World War into an allegory with animals fighting through stop-motion animation in “Lily of Belgium.” In “Hypocrites,” director Lois Weber showed the “Naked Truth” as a transparent nude woman. Finally, the Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer creates a Gothic psychological drama through the effects in “After Death.”

The nominees for Best Visual Effects (includes animation) of 1915 are…

  1. Regeneration
  2. Lily of Belgium
  3. Hypocrites
  4. Children of Eve
  5. After Death

And the winner is…”Lily of Belgium!”

Lily1While it’s a pretty predictable propaganda movie, this war of beetles against frogs and pine cones holds up today as a technical achievement of early classical silent cinema. The bad guy beetles are especially individualized and interesting, with beer steins, cars, and cannon designed for their use. And, as strange as it is to see pine cones are warriors, they make fascinating characters as well. Starevich once again established his supremacy at visual effects in 1915.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

Execution of Mary

Alternate Title: The Execution of Mary Stuart

The debate rages boringly on about which movie is the “first narrative film.” I don’t really think knowing which is “first” is all that important (though I’d submit “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” as a good candidate for having a beginning, a middle, and an end); what’s interesting is the way that early filmmakers seem to have constantly edged towards telling stories, even when their technology was frankly inadequate to the task. This movie probably has a good claim on being the first to recreate a historical event, and also is certainly one of the first “trick films,” which uses an edit to achieve a special effect (sorry, Méliès fans, this came before he even had a camera). What we see is a group of people surrounding a chopping block, with one dressed as Mary, who kneels and puts her head on the block as the executioner raises his axe. Then, a quick edit and he lowers the axe to chop off a doll’s head, holding the head up high for all to see. Again, interest in the kinetoscope was already waning in 1895, so the thrilling and gory subject matter may have been an effort to drum up business.

Director: Alfred Clark

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 28 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Best Visual Effects 1914

Almost as soon as motion picture cameras were being used, their operators discovered ways to use them to “trick the eye” into thinking it was seeing things otherwise impossible. Objects and people were made tiny or gigantic, or to appear and disappear by magic, or to float or fly. By 1914, the simple “trick films” of Georges Méliès would be old hat, yet filmmakers continued incorporating his techniques into their films and expanding on them, especially when the subject matter was given to fantasy, or included dream sequences.

The films nominated for Century Awards this year are, for the most part, examples of this subtle inclusion of special effects into a broader narrative. “Silent Witnesses” includes a novel use of the divided screen, to demonstrate two ends of a telephone conversation. “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” includes a number of magical sequences, including the original animation of the title character, people turned into statues, and a scene in which a table sets itself for the Magician. The movie “Cabiria” relies on mostly more prosaic storytelling, but does include scenes demonstrating the unearthly strength of Maciste, and the sacrifices to Mammon. The “Squaw Man” is an even more scrupulously realistic picture, but it does reproduce a fire at sea and the resulting sinking of a vessel. Finally, although the setup to “Gertie the Dinosaur” is shown in live-action, the rest of the film demonstrates Winsor McCay’s skill as an animator, the newest art of camera trickery, in which still drawings are given movement.

The nominees for best visual effects for 1914 are:

  1. Gertie the Dinosaur (Winsor McCay)
  2. Patchwork Girl of Oz (Will H. White)
  3. Cabiria (Eugenio Bava)
  4. The Squaw Man
  5. Silent Witnesses

And the winner is… “Gertie the Dinosaur!”


As opposed to the moving but unmotivated characters of 1912’s “Little Nemo” film, Gertie is imbued with both movement and personality, and unlike the simplistic drawings for “How a Mosquito Operates,” she is fully-fleshed and detailed. As a movie, the film only works when presented with McCay’s live narration, however the effect of the moving dinosaur is an undeniable advance in film technique. No doubt in future years animation will have its own category in the Century Awards, and this will be due largely to the pioneering work of Winsor McCay.