Film Tricks: Special Effects In The Movies by Harold Schechter and David Everitt (book review)

July 14, 2022 | By | Reply More

I like surprises when I buy older books. This one, from 1980, ‘Film Tricks: Special Effects In The Movies’ by Harold Schechter and David Everitt passes the flick test with loads of pre-production photographs and even showing the plans for the effects from the earliest films to the release date of 1980 and only in 10 chapters. Oddly, the opening pages are devoted to showing colour photographs of effects before getting to the indicia so you almost think have I missed anything. Nope. They have the same at the back, capitalising on putting colour in an economical way than in the centre of the book. Each of the ten chapters is in three column text so they really packed a lot in. The other photos are in black and white but that is probably down to budget. About the only thing missing is a bibliography although books are quoted throughout so be prepared to note or earmark if you want to check on any they use can still be bought.

Those of you who are familiar with film special effects will know much of the history but there are a few surprises. Special effects were primarily developed by Georges Méliès, a stage magician seeing possibilities in the film medium. What is significant is special effects people later thought that they were cheaper to do than using the real thing. When you compare to today and CGI effects costs, you do have to wonder if the real thing would be cheaper. Something else I hadn’t realised was the term ‘matt’ was from the French word for ‘black’ which shows how much I took the terms for granted. If you ever wondered what an optical printer looks like, this book shows both the photo and diagram. I suspect digital makes things even easier today but you have to admire the ingenuity of the time.

Physical effects take a lot of planning and reading Buster Keaton’s account how they achieved a house front falling on him in ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) with two inches in all directions missing him took a lot of precise work plus a few nails behind his feet to ensure he was on the right mark.

Chapter 6 centres on SF, from the 1950s to the 1980s, so there is a dose of what was then modern films and how they are done. Probably the most surprising photo was seeing the man inside Robby the Robot in ‘Forbidden Planet’ wearing black so his face couldn’t be seen through the vocal panel. Yes, we know about it but a photo works better. There is so much wealth of information here and that is bearing in mind later books that I’ve also so read which says a lot about this volume. Oddly, Derek Meddings only gets a brief mention for one film and it wasn’t ‘Batman’, which goes against his influence on other effects artists.

Don’t think this book is just about all the good film tricks. Chapter 7, dealing with fantasy films, points out where the likes of ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ (1924), they can go wrong, although to be fair, we don’t really see the budget or speed or how much experimentation was done in the process. Most films are made with the expectation of getting them right rather than go wrong and certainly the quality on screen wasn’t as good as what we have today. Of course, we get a thorough look at ‘King Kong’ and the animated work of Willis O’Brien’ and later Ray Harryhausen. There’s also some emphasis on matt painter Albert Whitlock and the secret of his paintings in that they didn’t need to be fantastically detailed to work and he learnt well from that early lesson. A lot of it is down to the expectation of the eye.

Oddly, they end on schlock special effect films rather than anything at the top end of the market when the book was published, although seeing Godzilla sitting down on the set between takes for one of its Japanese films just goes to show how flexible the soot was.

Considering this book is some 32 years old now, it surprisingly holds up well. There’s a lot of detailed explanations about the effects used in a lot of films and if that doesn’t warm your hearts, then the various photos, none of which are small, certainly makes up the balance.

GF Willmetts

July 2020

(pub: Harlin Quist, 1980. 230 page illustrated indexed large softcover. Price: I pulled my copy for a bargain £ 3.50 (UK). ISBN: 0-8252-2599-X)

Category: Movie books

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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