During the early days of silent films, movie producers solved the problem of location shooting by a simple device. A motor driven carrousel with a panoramic painting of a rugged outdoor setting was installed in the studio. Place an actor mounted on a horse in front of the rotating wheel and the illusion recorded on film was that he was moving across the terrain. A later improvement was to combine moving figures with backgrounds filmed at distant locations. They were called traveling mattes. In those early years before the advent of sound, the process was known as trick photography.
Today this is called special effects--using, among other things, miniatures and the most sophisticated electronic hardware to create visual illusions so real that they turn fantasy into on-screen reality.
Many examples of film industry artistry went on display this week at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park. The exhibit, "Special Effects: The Science of Movie and Television Magic," is composed of artifacts on loan from major studios and artists. The museum's large exhibition hall contains numerous miniatures, masks, models and drawings used in the production of such films as "Star Wars," "Blade Runner," "Masters of the Universe," "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" and other memorable films. The displays are broken down into the following areas: Why Do Movies Move?, Animation, Matte Paintings, Miniatures and Models, and Projection and Optical Effects.
Creators' Work Featured
The showing features the work of five of Hollywood's leading special effects creators: John Dykstra, special effects supervisor for "Star Wars," for which he received an Oscar; Richard Edlund, the effects specialist for "Return of the Jedi"; Syd Mead, scenic designer for "2010" and "Blade Runner"; Rick Baker, who created the makeup effects for "Greystoke" and Michael Westmore, who created the makeup for "2010," "Mask" and "Raging Bull."
Dykstra specializes in visual effects photography, and has led the way in devising revolutionary ways of using computers to control the precise movements of models and the cameras that photograph them. He developed the Dykstraflex camera that gave the rapid action battle scenes in "Star Wars" such an illusion of compelling realism.
One of Dykstra's most challenging projects was the 1982 film "Firefox," which Clint Eastwood starred in and directed. The story involved the theft of a Soviet fighter plane that could fly faster than Mach 5 and was undetectable by radar. The United States wants this ultimate weapon and veteran pilot Eastwood is sent to Moscow to steal it from the Soviets. After the usual harrowing series of adventures, Eastwood purloins the plane, and zoom--he's airborne, only to be pursued by a Soviet pilot in a similar plane who has orders to destroy the other aircraft so the Americans won't learn its design secrets.
Eastwood only has sufficient fuel to make it halfway across the Arctic. He must rendezvous with an American submarine somewhere in this barren, frigid region. Here special effects takes over and the excitement escalates. The conning tower of the sub suddenly pops through the ice. You'll see the little model in a glass case at the museum, together with a radio-controlled helicopter that was also used in the filming. Eastwood is still dogged by the pursuing Soviet pilot, and the chase scenes are as realistic as the gun camera footage U.S. Navy pilots used to take when they were pursuing Japanese aircraft during World War II.
Like Sitting in Cockpit
For the viewer of "Firefox," the effect is like sitting in the cockpit beside the pilot and moving with the velocity of a bullet. Eastwood darts through snow-covered canyons that in reality were constructed in reduced scale on a studio lot, the camera moving electronically alongside on a track. More realism was added by background plates, which had been photographed by a Lear jet flying at a low altitude over the frozen wilderness of Greenland.
Richard Edlund is another specialist in special effects photography. He was director of photography for the "Star Wars" project, winning an Academy Award for his work on that film. He went on to win three more Oscars for "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), and "Return of the Jedi." A number of his miniatures are on view. Perhaps one of the most unusual special-effects sequences ever filmed was in the "Return of the Jedi," when Edlund and his team devised a chase scene involving a number of airborne motor bikes racing through a redwood forest. Some would go out of control, exploding against the trees. The bikes were photographed against a blue screen, full-size with human drivers, and also as miniatures. A cinematographer walked through the forest shooting about one frame a second with a special camera. By superimposing the bikes, they appeared to be flying at speeds of more than 100 m.p.h. It was magic.
Additionally, you will see the work of Rick Baker, a leader in the field of makeup techniques. On display are artifacts from "Greystoke" (1984), in which he transformed actors into a family of apes. There is also a werewolf head from "An American Werewolf in London" (1981).
Syd Mead is a leading conceptual designer of futuristic environments. Shown are examples of his work from "Blade Runner" (1981). Included are paintings, drawings, a film clip and a miniature vehicle.
Youngsters will be fascinated with this exhibit, and there are many other interesting displays throughout the museum, which are activated by pulling levers or pressing buttons.
The special effects exhibit runs through Jan. 3. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Information: (213) 744-7400.