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How Silent Movies Created Their Special Effects Without Modern Computers

Mark Andrew

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Thanks to modern computers, movies these days now have more eye-popping effects than we ever enjoyed, say, 20 years ago. CGI (short for ‘computer-generated imagery’) has brought appealing visuals on our favorite movies, regardless of the genre.

Those gigantic robots and flying superheroes? Heck, even those realistic animals interacting with humans? They’re all created using computers.

Actually, the technology has even progressed to the point that even digital recreations of deceased actors look almost completely flawless now. Just think Peter Cushing ‘reprising’ his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the recent Star Wars: Rogue One movie, despite having passed away back in 1994.

Of course, things weren’t always this way.

Back in the earliest years of filmmaking, people had to rely heavily on practical effects and camera trickery to astonish their viewers.

How did that exactly work during the Silent Film era? Well, thanks to Reddit user Auir2blaze, we do not have to wonder anymore!

In an album posted on Imgur, the Redditor gave us an idea of how brilliant and creative some filmmakers were back in the days when resources were extremely limited.

#1. Safety Last! (1923)

Green screen wasn’t a trend yet back then and so for this scene where Harold Lloyd was hanging off a clock, they had to utilize perspective tricks. They created a set according to Lloyd’s height on a rooftop of a building. As the actor climbed higher, they had to move the set to taller buildings.

Now that’s a lot of work for a single scene!

#2. The Black Pirate (1926)

Numerous films have since ripped off this shot but yes, this one is the original. Engineer Robert Fairbank, brother of actor Douglas Fairbank, came up with the concept of how to do this trick. Both the camera and the sail were strategically-placed to achieve the desired effect.

Also, Fairbank’s knife was connected to a pulley and a counterweight while airplane propellers were utilized to make the sails billow.

#3. Ella Cinders (1926)

For this effect, actress Colleen Moore had to stay still so that two halves of her face could be filmed separately. A black-painted glass piece was placed in front of the camera and then moved to the other side afterwards.

We can only imagine audiences were totally freaked out when they saw this the first time!

#4. Modern Times (1936)

Of course, no discussion about silent films would be complete without mentioning Charlie Chaplin.

This particular shot of him roller-skating in a department store is another terrific example of classic filmmaking trickery. This scene was created using glass matte painting since part of the background was painted on glass and then placed in front of the camera.

Can’t get enough of these awesome old school movie GIFs? Go head over to SilentMovieGIFs on Reddit and Twitter for more!

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