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How I Became A Trick Photographer

Read more at
in70mm.com
The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Fred Waller Date: 09.01.2010
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 the 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.
 
More in 70mm reading:

in70mm.com's Cinerama page
 Fred Waller's 1950 Diary

Internet link:

 
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 necessary in 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 first night.

So I became a Trick Photographer.
 
 
   
 
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Updated 22-12-16