How I Became A Trick Photographer
The 70mm Newsletter
by: Fred Waller
D. W. Griffith wanted a cyclone to destroy a distant Village, sweep
clean a country side leaving destruction in its make and at a cross road
destroy a particular Inn in a particular way.
So in 1924 I was asked by the head of the Long Island Studio of
Paramount, Famous, Lasky Corp., to hold up on the experimental work I
was doing on new photographic processes and make a cyclone and film it
and quick too.
Several attempts had been made to get the effect wanted and three or
four months had slipped by with no results. In a few weeks the picture
"That Royal Girl" was to be released and the cyclone had to be in it and
it had to look real. Alter seeing several failures Mr. Griffith was
getting particular and justly so.
There are always several methods of doing any illusion and for this one
a complex but sure way was used as at this point expense was not the
most important item, speed, flexibility and certainty came first.
The method was the combination of making a miniature country side, a
full size breakaway road house with outbuildings and a series of pastel
drawings of the clouds showing all the progressive stages from the
gathering storm to a close up of a cyclone funnel – photographing the
cloud drawings separately by stop motion and double printing them over
the miniature scenes and cutting them in with close up work done around
the full sized breakaway building.
This may sound intricate; each step is quite simple in itself.
In five weeks a complete cyclone running for 250 screen feet and done
entirely in miniature was ready. If you happened to see
"That Royal Girl" you saw only a small part of the cyclone film made by Mr. Griffith
[who] is notorious for making hundreds of thousands of feet of film and
using ten thousand at the most and this was no exception, but he wanted
a complete a cyclone to pick parts from and got it.
To make speed a number of parts had to be in work at the same time. A
complete plan of everything to be done was drawn to scale on a drawing
board 4 x 12 feet with my assistant and my head scenic artist. I worked
for 48 hours with only time for meals. On this plan even a miniature set
when it depicts a country side reaches some proportion, if the scale of
buildings is too small you cannot get good effects on breaking away and
it is hard to keep every thing in perfect proportion when some objects
have to be so minute, therefore in scale space the foreground
buildings, trees, roads, etc., were made in ½ inch scale the middle
distance is 3/8 inch scale and the distant village in 1/4 inch scale,
that means 1/4 inch representing one foot in the full sized building,
the connecting scenery, roads, etc. gradually stepped down in scale so
that no difference in size of buildings was visible, it only made the
small one look that much farther away.
With all this scheming to save space and expense; the set was 180 feet
(54,8m) long and a smooth gray sky backing 90 feet (27,4m) long and 40 feet
(12,2m) high had to
be constructed strong enough to withstand the fall weather we were
having at that time.
There were 80 buildings in all, hundreds of feet of picket fences,
hundred. of telegraph poles and a large assortment of weeds and shrubs
that were picked out especially because their growth represented trees
found in the district where the cyclone was supposed to occur .
Most of the houses were connected with hidden wires to pull them apart
properly - 6 air plane propellers with dust boxes in front of them were
used on this set and boxes of leaves and papers were carefully chopped
up so they would be in scale.
in 70mm reading:
in70mm.com's Cinerama page
Fred Waller's 1950 Diary
To bring this action down to the proper screen
speed, cameras cranking from ten to 16 times normal speed, were used and a months work
was torn to pieces and was either a success or a failure in about 75
seconds. A number of lightning flashes were made to light up different
facts of the sets and backing. This was done by (Missing words in Fred's notes) of very
fast flash powder which were set off in groups of 2 to 4 by a specially
designed contractor giving various pauses between groups and extremely close succession to the individual flashes in each group. In fact to the eye a group of
four seemed like only one,
but the slow motion camera stretched this out to make long (Missing
words in Fred's notes) flashes
on the screen.
There were 70 explosions in all.
While this work was in preparation (Missing words in Fred's notes) and two shifts of six artists each
were working continually on 14 x 17 pastel drawings. Four thousand were
made in all. Each drawing the cyclone clouds in their
progressive development and in their exact relative position and
prospective to (Missing words in Fred's notes) the set the amount the amount of precision
both drawings and set movement maybe realized when a building had to blow away
precisely at the same time the cloud struck it.
The 1600 feet made by four cameras on the miniature set was cut and
called out to get the best 250 feet. The 4000 drawings showing the
writhing convolutions the cyclone cone were photographed by stop
motion, that is one drawing to one frame of film and from the two
negatives a combination or double print was made, from this a duplicate
negative and then a print to show to Mr. Griffith.
On the morning of the first tryout of the picture, I walked or rather
stumbled into the projection room where Mr. Griffith, his cutting staff
and Miss Dempster were - and waited for the verdict. I had not had any sleep for 72 hour
and in the 8 days prior to that I had only been able to get 22 hours.
The quarter reel was run and Mr. Griffith said to Miss Dempster "We have
waited 40 years to have a real cyclone to destroy this
particular country side and here it has done it just in time to make our
So I became a Trick Photographer.
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