Special Effects in Vintage Movies Part 1: Stop Trick

I recently saw Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book, being a huge fan of the original animated movie. Although considered a live-action movie, Jon Favreau's version is actually largely an 'animated' movie as well - none of the shooting locations were in a real jungle. All filming was done in downtown LA! Computers created practically everything except Neel Sethi who plays the child Mowgli. 

Above: Filming The Jungle Book in a Hollywood Studio Set 

I enjoyed the movie, along with the recent Marvel hits that used extensive use of CGI.

Sometimes, though, I want to get away from that heavy injection of computer visuals. That's why I also watch old movies, considering the creativity and ingenuity it took to make special effects when computers themselves were a thing of the imagination. 

The first ever cinematic special effect, created by Alfred Clark, was known as the Stop Trick or Substitution Splice. The earliest known use of the effect is in Clark's 1895 film The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

The trick is simple. We know that movies are made up of many still images (frames) that are shown quickly. Older movies used 18 still images per second, and in between one of these images you could alter, add, take away or completely change something in the scene. All you had to do was stop your camera, make the change you wanted, and start the camera again. 

In order to execute and behead Mary, the camera was stopped and the woman playing Mary quickly stepped off set while a dummy with Mary's costume was put in her place. When the camera rolled again the axe went down on the dummy instead. This happened while all the other actors in the scene had to freeze where they stood.

To a 19th century and early 20th century audience, the moment seemed real, because they saw it as one continuous scene without any stopping or starting.  

* If you can stomach an execution scene, you can watch it here - though it definitely seems fake to our 21st century minds! Did you notice when the camera was stopped? 

The Stop Trick was the most popular cinematic special effect used in early fantasy and science fiction movies. The most popular of these films was Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip To The Moon) by Georges Méliès which used this effect (and many others) heavily. Using this trick, the director created the illusion of real magic, such as transforming the astronomer's telescopes into stools.

More on this movie, and other early uses of special effects, next time! 

- Joel Strauss 

 


 

 

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