Sunday, January 11, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors

Many of the films from 1909 used trick cinematography, such as the matte shot in D.W. Griffith's Those Awful Hats or the stop-camera and double exposure techniques that create Puck's magic effects in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

These early filmmakers pushed the limits of their technology in innovative directions, but they were movie makers dabbling in magic; their primitive special effects were fun, but sometimes gimmicky and distracting. In contrast, Georges Méliès was a magician first, and his techniques are executed with the polish and timing of an experienced stage performer, as demonstrated in his film The Devilish Tenant.

The Devilish Tenant

Another significant special effects film was Princess Nicotine. What's unique about this film is it's use of old-fashioned stage magic in addition to the imaginative film tricks. The fairy on the desktop is not super-imposed using a matte shot or double exposure; there's an actual mirror on the desk with an actor playing the fairy at some distance on the other side of the camera to create the illusion that she's small.

Princess Nicotine

If you want to watch more films that feature trick cinematography from 1909:

Those Awful Hats - the "Please silence your cell phones" equivalent 100 years ago.
A Midsummer Night's Dream - an early adaptation of the Shakespeare play.
Airship Destroyer - A remarkably prescient speculation on how the new airships may be used in war.

These films have survived and can be viewed and/or downloaded on YouTube, Google Video or The Internet Archive.

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