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Motion Pictures - Trick Work

( Originally Published 1924 )



ALTHOUGH the highly complex multiple exposure effects used in the large studios are hardly suitable for the amateur, there is a considerable amount of trick work which can be easily done by the average amateur and which will be a source of amusement to all your spectators.

The first thing to do is to construct some kind of a shadow box. This should set about three inches in front of the front surface of the lens, and be large enough that the sides do not encroach upon the frame. Thus it can be used as a lens shade when not using any filters or masks. A good way to construct such a shadow box is to obtain a small wooden box with a sliding cover. One which will take a two and a quarter by three and a quarter plate will do very nicely. Cut a circle in the bottom which will just slip over the lens barrel or the existing sun-shade, and which fits firmly enough to maintain the box in its position without any movement. In case you want a little better construction, have a metal barrel turned which will fit over the lens barrel and then have holes drilled around one edge and screw this barrel into the wood of the box. With such a fitted shadow box, it may be removed and replaced with some assurance that the registration will be maintained.

The reason that ultra fine registration is not necessary is that, as the masks lie in front of the lens some two to three inches, the edges of the masked opening are diffused.

Next make your masks, using glass plates for this purpose. These must be made in pairs in such a manner that when a pair of masks are held to the light, one superimposed on the other, all light will be obliterated. Thus, if an opening is left in the upper left hand corner of a mask, the corresponding mask would have only the upper left hand corner darkened. Like-wise, the double exposure masks should have the right and left halves respectively darkened. Masks for triple exposure are the same except that each mask has one portion light and both other portions are dark in the corresponding masks. For example, it being desired to expose three vertical panels on a frame. Mask number one has the left third open and two thirds dark. Mask number two has the center open and both sides dark, while mask number three has the right third open and the other two thirds dark. By following the same principle, a mask may be made to introduce a double exposure in any portion of the frame. For temporary masks, such as will be used but once, ordinary opaque, such as is used for retouching purposes, may be used, or if the mask is to be handled a great deal, the blocking out may be done by applying ordinary adhesive tape, cut to shape.

When the shadow box and masks are ready for use, some simple tricks may be tried. One which is an in-variable laugh producer, was introduced by my first cine-chief, Sam Landers. In using this trick, if you can obtain a very fat man, the effect is greatly heightened.

Set one leaf of your double exposure mask in the shadow box and focus on some scene where a very slender pole or young tree will be exactly bisected by the edge of the double exposure mask. A clothes prop is very good, but it must be exactly vertical, or a pair of vertical masks must be made whose edges slant at an angle corresponding to the leaning of the pole. Also the. pole must be fixed so that it will not waver when touched. A small telegraph pole can be used, but it spoils much of the effect.

When the camera is set, have the fat man run into the open side of the film, run behind the pole and stop. Then have him peer around the pole just as though he were looking around a corner. This will, of course, appear absurd, but carry it through, nevertheless. Then have him walk very slowly from behind the pole and into the open side of the frame again, swaggering, and walk off the set in the same direction from which he came originally. Now cap the lens and reverse the cam-era until the film is in the same position it occupied at the start of the picture. A good way to check this is to open the camera and notch the film just above and below the gate, or if the lens is readily removable it is even better to remove the lens and mark the emulsion exposed with a pencil. Then when the film is rewound, open the lens plate and see that the same frame is in the aperture. Now insert the other side of the mask, of course, first removing the first mask, this will leave the second side of the frame open, and run the film through the camera, being sure that diaphragm opening and light are the same as at first. Merely expose the film on the empty set. Now remove the film and finish it. In the projector the following is the effect:

The empty set appears with a pole standing in the center. A fat man runs in, looking behind him as though pursued. He runs behind the pole, but instead of passing into the opposite side of the frame he disappears! It is just as though he lost enough substance to hide behind the pole. Now his head is thrust from behind the pole, he looks around and slowly walks into view again. It is, indeed, laughable to see a fat man materialize from the cramped space behind a two inch pole! He then swaggers off the screen. It is impossible to convey the effect produced by mere words, but if you produce such a film successfully, it will be a strange audience, indeed, which will not indulge in a hearty laugh at the sight of this strange procedure, especially if the actor is well known to the spectators.

The flying angel is another simple trick. Expose a strip of film on some trees, obtaining considerable foliage, or if some special location is desired, anything will do as long as it is rather dark and lacks foreground. Detail does not matter, in fact, a wealth of detail in the background helps the effect. Now take the camera indoors, and turn it upon the tripod head so that the tilt instead of moving the camera in a vertical arc, moves it in a lateral arc. Crank the tilt until the camera sets at an extreme angle, and focus upon a female subject clad in light, filmy drapery. Have a fan set so that it will blow the drapery back against and behind the body. Observe the finder and see that the subject's face is toward the bottom of the frame or as all images are inverted, toward the top of the aperture. The subject should be placed before a large doorway, which is of such size that no portion of the frame appears in the picture, and a dead black drapery should be hung behind her, with no wrinkles. Now expose the same strip of film which already has the image of the background upon it. When finished the film will show a transparent, but easily recognizable figure, floating in midair, in an oblique position, with draperies fluttering in the air above her. The effect will cause a great deal of comment.

We are all familiar with the scenes in which a ghost figure gradually appears upon the screen, and then disappears without walking off the screen. To obtain this effect both trained actors and fading are essential. By a trained actor I do not mean, necessarily, that a professional be employed, but one who has had sufficient training to follow direction implicitly.

Expose on your set in the usual manner until the time for the appearance arrives. At this point direct all actors on the screen to freeze, that is remain absolutely immobile, in some position which will appear to be natural, then fade out, noting the exact reading of the film meter at the beginning of the fade. As soon as the fade is complete, rewind to the beginning of the fade, and direct the "ghost" to take his place and to remain immobile. During all of this time all other actors must absolutely retain the "freeze." Then start cranking and fade in immediately. The fade out and fade in must be exactly superimposed or the effect will be spoiled. When the fade in is two-thirds complete, direct all actors to resume action, which is then carried through normally until time for the disappearance. Then have all actors except the ghost freeze. The ghost should take up some action during the fade out to relieve the deadness of the rest of the scene. Fade out, have the ghost leave the set, reverse to the beginning of the fade out, and fade in on the set and continue the action. The reason for the freezing is this : The film is faded out on the set at first, and the image of all actors grows progressively fainter. Then on the fade in, these same images grow stronger in direct proportion, and if any actor moved, it would cause a blurred image, for the two images of this actor would not exactly register. For this reason, most of such scenes are made with only one or a very few, well trained actors on the set. The two fades so exactly compensate each other that no effect is noticeable except for the ghost, whose image gradually fades in and later fades out.

Visions are made in a different manner. Let us suppose that a smoker is to see a vision in the smoke. First arrange some effect for the production of dense smoke. A proper choice of tobacco will do this if pipe or cigar is used. The cigarette does not produce enough smoke. Have the set free of draughts. Then note the approximate proportions of the smoke cloud. When the exposure is to be made, make a temporary mask to mask out this cloud and take care that the cloud of smoke is approximately the size and shape of the original. Make the exposure with this mask in place. A wide variation in the smoke cloud is permissible as long as it was approximately correct at first. When the exposure is complete, rewind the film, make the corresponding mask and make an exposure on your vision and develop the film.

It will be noted that the first exposure may be a close-up of the smoker and the vision may embrace a wide landscape. There is no fixed relation between the relative areas embraced, in distinction to the ghost, where the visionary figure fades in, takes substance and acts in correlation with the other actors.

The vision proper should always fade in, but it may either fade out as in reverie, or it may disappear if the dreamer is startled. In fading in, the process is the same as in fading in the ghost, that is by fading out, reversing, inserting mask and fading in, noting film meter at both ends of the fade. Then on the vision, this is exposed by fading in on the film exactly corresponding to the fade in on the mask. If the vision fades out, the fade is operated with the mask in place, camera reversed, mask removed, and the fade in ex-posed on top of the fade out. And in the vision exposure, it is also faded out to correspond with the fade out on the mask. It will be noted that the entire exposure of the mask exactly corresponds to the exposure of the blocking out mask.

If the vision is to disappear with a jump, when this point is reached merely stop the camera, note reading of the film meter and remove the mask. Then resume direct action. In exposing the vision, be sure to stop short when the film meter shows this point or you will have a transparent "ghost" vision with the background showing through. In this method, when the film is projected, the vision will suddenly disappear from the screen with no fading.

This work requires the utmost delicacy of operation and a film meter which shows individual frames exposed. If you have no such device, you can follow the method used by cinematographers when some circumstance or other prevents fine workmanship. Fade in on the mask and fade out in the usual manner. When making the vision exposure, do not fade in until the meter shows from one to three feet past the first fade, and fade out a corresponding time before the beginning of the fade out on the mask. Projected this will show a blank white space fading in on the screen, but before it is clear in, a picture fades in on this space. When fading out, the picture fades leaving the white space which itself begins to fade before the picture is entirely gone. This effect is easy, even with a hand operated diaphragm fade, and is infinitely superior to a poorly made exact register fade. In fact, many producers who employ cinematographers entirely competent to perform an exact register fade, insist upon the second method as being more artistic.

If multiple visions are used, such as the scenes of boyhood passing successively before the eyes of a man, the mask is faded in at the beginning of the first vision and out at the end of the last vision. The individual visions are then successively faded in and out in the white space made by the mask.

There are times when the true ghost effect is to be desired. In this effect, the figure fades in, but instead of taking substance as described in the ghost effect described above, the figure remains transparent throughout the entire action, and no "freezing" is required. This effect probably requires more care with settings, but far less camera work than any other, The scene is photographed in its entirety, the only care being to note the reading of the meter when the ghost is desired to appear, and again when the time comes for him to disappear. When the scene is exposed, the lens capped and the film rewound until the meter indicates the position of entry. The ghost is now posed against dead black drapery and the exposure made, fading in and out at the beginning and end, respectively, of the scene. The figure should be made to appear in some part of the scene which is comparatively dark. This is merely for the sake of the contrast obtained. For the same reason the figure should be light. When this film is projected the figure will fade in and move about the screen, but at all times the furniture and portions of the set behind him, can be seen through him.

If you do not care to try fades, you may use this effect anyway. Follow the directions as given above. The only difference is that when the film is rewound to the desired point, pose your ghost and start cranking, stopping when it is desired to have him leave the set. In this effect, the ghost will suddenly appear and when his action is complete he will suddenly vanish.

This effect may be obtained even by those who have no reverse on their cameras. In this case when the first scene is exposed the camera or magazine, ac-cording to the make of camera, is taken into the dark room and the film rewound by hand. The film is then run through the camera behind a capped shutter until the meter indicates the desired footage and the second exposure is made. This is possible in this case because there are no fades to match in the two separate exposures, and if the ghost appears or disappears a second or two before or after the calculated time, the film is not injured.

The following is a good effect for comedies. Start a chase, such as was common in the old time comedy. Let the crowd of pursuers almost catch up with the pursued. Then the pursued turns upon the pursuers and they hesitate. As they hesitate the pursued disappears only to reappear after a moment, in the distance. This is accomplished in this manner. When the pursued stops and turns upon the pursuers, stop the camera short, remove the pursued from the screen and resume cranking while the crowd stares about in puzzlement. Then stop and have the pursued take his place in the set at some distance from the camera and start running away from the crowd. Start the camera, have the crowd see him and take up the chase.

Another trick which depends upon manipulation off screen without any camera manipulation, is the effect of dishes or furniture moving without any visible force being applied to them. If the background is some-what variegated and rather dark, very fine wire or thread may be attached to various articles and by this means they may be moved without the thread or wire appearing on the screen. Using different variations of this trick will enable the amateur cinematographer to obtain various startling effects without the necessity of trying any involved and complex camera manipulation.

One trick which is very effective appears like this:

A man sits in an easy chair dreaming, and as he dreams a girl materializes upon the chair-arm and while there engages in appropriate action. This trick requires the utmost care in making, but if carefully done, the effect will repay you for all your trouble.

Expose the original scene by straight photography, but see that the background behind the chairarm is absolutely black, and with no visible detail. At the end of the scene, do not move the camera nor the chair. The actor may leave if he wishes. Now insert a ground glass in the aperture and very carefully mark the exact outline of the chair arm. Use a very finely pointed pencil for this purpose, and leave the glass in the aperture. Now take the camera to some place where the subject can be posed against black drapery. Next, using a mask in the shadow box, block out all of the frame except that which will receive the image of the subject. Now the most important step is to be done. While observing the chair-arm outline on the ground glass, direct an assistant who will mark on the floor a faint line which exactly corresponds with the chair-arm outline. Now fade-in on your subject and make the exposure, being sure that the subject remains walking within the outline marked on the floor. The floor should be covered with black to match the background. The comparative sizes should be such that the miniature subject appears to be about eight inches tall. When removing the camera to make the second exposure, it must be set far away enough from the subject that this size is obtained. This will make the lens include many extraneous objects, and for this reason, a mask must be used which will block out all of the film except the tiny area in use, but be sure that enough space is included to embrace all necessary action.

I have, in these instructions, emphasized freezing, solid black backgrounds and so forth. You will not notice these things in many professional pictures, but you must remember that an inexhaustible fund of cash, the most expert technical workmanship supplemented by the combined experience of a generation of professional cinematographers enable them to split seconds in timing, and by the utmost delicacy in technique, the obvious actions necessary are either rendered unnecessary or inconspicuous.

I have seen Japanese embroideries which rival a fine painting in delicacy of execution, works of art which I could never hope to duplicate. In like manner, do not despair because you have to incorporate certain crudities in your films. As a beginner you cannot hope to rival the technique of the master cinematographer. Too, you must remember that he has for his assistance, a corps of competent artists. I do not mean photographic artists, but finished draughts-men, sculptors, and so forth. The artists make miniatures and backgrounds with the utmost fidelity. The sculptor models figures, pots, architectural detail, constructs miniature sets and so forth. A given set can be duplicated with the utmost fidelity. Backgrounds can be matched, with any desired discrepancy in size de-sired. In short, every assistance which a wide variety of technical skill and unlimited money can secure, is ready for the assistance of the cinematographer.

Make your films. Do your trick stuff. If it is crude compared with professional work, remember that the artist, if he is sincere, is the first to appreciate the shortcomings in his work. Your films will very probably be fully appreciated by your audiences. To them a crudely made vision will appear wonderful and the cinematographer will receive much sincere praise.

As you proceed with your work, variations and refinements will occur to you, and with progessive work, you will gradually attain a finished technique which may, if you so desire, eventually secure you a position behind the crank in a large studio.



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