Special Effects in Movies

How did they do that? Why did they do that? Weren’t things better in the days before computers did everything?

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

About twenty-five minutes into Kubrick’s 2001, during the gravity-free shuttle ride, there’s a great special effect: a loose pen, floating through the air.

Apparently it took them a long time to get this shot right: any kind of messing about with bits of wire just wouldn’t have looked realistic. The effect was finally achieved by sticking the pen to a large sheet of glass, and slowly rotating the glass in front of the camera.

When you’re watching the movie, if you look carefully, you can see the very slight resistance when the airline hostess picks the pen ‘out of the air’, and it detaches from the glass.

Airline hostess picks a pen out of the air in 2001.

Dracula (1931)

Watching Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula for the first time can be an odd experience. Apart from seeing Bela Lugosi laying the groundwork for eighty years of imitations, there are some real double-take moments, like hearing those classic lines spoken without irony (“Listen to them… Children of the night… What music they make.”), and seeing Dwight Frye as Renfield laying the groundwork for Andy Serkis’s Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, well, and the vampire bee…

The vampire bee appears near the beginning, when we first see the Count’s castle and the Weird Sisters are waking up. After a couple of shots of the women beginning to emerge from their coffins, there’s a brief shot of what appears to be a bee (or maybe a wasp?) crawling out of its own, teeny-tiny coffin.

A report from a fantasy convention in 2000 does mention the bee, and suggests that it might be intended to be a giant bee in a regular-sized coffin. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t look that way. It’s almost cute.

Lacking any definitive explanation of the bee, why its there, and whether it’s a giant bee or a tiny coffin, it’s probably best not to even get started on the armadillos that appear a moment later…

Armadillos in Dracula
Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941)

There’s a scene near the end of Citizen Kane where Kane and his wife through a lavish picnic on the beach in Florida. It’s an unsettling, eerie scene, rendered all the more so by the unusual appearance of their surroundings: it’s more swamp than beach, and those creatures flying across the background don’t quite look like birds…

That’s because they aren’t. This scene reuses a back projection originally created for King Kong (or possibly the sequel, Son of Kong), and the birds are in fact pterodactyls. There are two in the top centre of the frame above, although admittedly they’re easier to make out when they’re in motion. Watch out for them next time you see the movie.

One version of this story has it that RKO warned Welles about the presence of the creatures, and asked him to remove them, but that he decided to keep them in anyway.

The Man in the White Suit

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

When Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) invents a seemingly indestructible fibre in Ealing’s satire The Man in the White Suit, he soon finds himself on the run from capitalists and workers alike. Finding himself locked in the attic of one of the factory owner’s houses, he makes his escape by lowering himself to the ground on a single strand of his special fibre.

You might think that this was done by rotating the set 90 degrees, Batman style, but you’d be wrong: this stunt was done for real, with Alec Guinness lowered down the side of the building on a length of piano wire.

He was none to sure about this, pointing out that out that the wire, normally strong, would break easily if it had a kink in it, quoting his naval training, and requesting something a bit tougher for what would be a considerable descent. His protests were ignored, the wire attached to his belt, and they began lowering him down the side of the building…

… the wire did break, although not until almost the end of the shot, and one of Britain’s finest actors plummeted the last four feet to the ground.

“No one apologised,” he remembers in his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise. “They rarely do in films.”

The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

When French spy Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin) is stabbed in the back in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, he uses the last of his energy to seek out American tourist Dr. Ben McKenna (Jimmy Stewart). McKenna doesn’t recognise him immediately because he’s disguised as a native Moroccan, complete with a blacked up face. It’s only when Bernard’s make-up comes off on McKenna’s fingers that his identity is revealed…

…so the story has it, anyway. The actual process of filming the scene was a tad more complicated. In order for the shot to be visually effective, the make-up had to come off in clean stripes to reveal Bernard’s white face, but the make-up department couldn’t find a dark make-up that would do this: vague, icky smears weren’t much use.

Eventually, they solved the problem by reversing it. Instead of having McKenna’s fingers wipe Bernard’s make-up off, they covered his fingers in a white substance that streaks onto the other man’s face, over the top of the dark make-up.

Apparently this creative solution to the problem was actor Daniel Gélin’s idea, and when you watch the film, it’s hard to tell that make-up is being added to his character’s face, rather than taken away.