Special Effect Artists by Rolf Giesen (book review).

One book that I always felt would be a handy reference tool would be a who’s who of special effects artists. Finally, we have such a book, aptly called ‘Special Effects Artists’, written by Rolf Giesen with a lot of research from people within the community in getting extra information. He only goes up as far as ‘Jurassic Park’, citing that things have changed somewhat since the dawn of CGI. As such, this makes for a finite volume with extra sections describing the types of effects and a limited filmography giving details of some of the significant films. I should point out that his people credits extend up to 2008 when this book was originally released so you will get some indication of CGI films. On top of this, there is a selection of black and white photographs of some of these people at work and even some of the models, all on show in the German museum, Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin. We’ve seen photos from there before so this is a valuable resource.


If you did a page flick, you will no doubt realise that there are a lot of films listed and although I found it easy to gloss over them, I did find my eyes drawn to those I recognised. There is also a lot of information here as well. Although I can see a lot of people using this book as a reference than read it all like I’m doing, doing the latter will at least once will put everything into perspective. Occasionally, it does feel like Giesen is printing some of his notes but there is so much information covering so many people, I suspect that is a combination of limited space and available information, especially as not all people’s birth and death years aren’t listed. You just don’t know if you’ll need more or less words.

I’ll pick out some things I learnt but bear in mind I’m only touching the surface.

A lot of the models in many of the 1950s-1960s films were made by American-Chinese sculptor Wah Ming Chang, who was also responsible for making Leonard Nimoy’s original Vulcan ears. Marcel Delgado made the original King Kong models and indeed for many other films and TV series. George Lofgren worked on making the fur used on the latter Mighty Joe Young having a better fur covered skin which was less prone to show finger marks. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that many of these special effects guys created the equipment that became commonplace in the industry. Although Bud Westmore as department head took credit for the Universal monsters, this was actually the work of Jack Kevan. I should point out that Westmore doesn’t get an entry in the book which speaks for itself. I think I might have mentioned this elsewhere but John Knoll, apart from being a visual effects supervisor, also created the graphics software program Photoshop that many of you use.

One of the interesting things that comes out of the assorted credits is how so many films had matt painting backgrounds used in them. Some anecdotes are hilarious. Criticised for wasting film, mostly because the camera took so long to warm up, with filming special effects, Theodor H. Lydecker had a word with the editors and had the excess strimmed away to stop the moaning suits.

I should point out that the significant players got larger entries and this is one of the rare occasions where I learnt a lot more about Georges Méliès. It was nice to see Dennis Muren being acknowledged as the father of CGI effects. Haruo Nakajima was in the Japanese Godzilla suit with Fumio Nakadai supervising his tail movements, although you would have to link the entries together, fortunately on the same page, to realise that.

It was interesting to discover that Karl Ludwig Ruppel had discovered particular filters to remove matt lines but the knowledge was never passed around or we would have seen it used in TV. Don Sahlin made all the original Muppets. Eugen Schűfftan created the mirror/camera technique for compositing real-life and matt paintings by giving depth. I kept reading reference about it until his entry where the device is shown which explains why it was omitted from the glossary, even so, I think a reference there to page 143 should have been given. I never knew that director Don Siegel was originally an inserts director.

The filmography focuses on significant special effects films and although some cast members might be mentioned in the synopsis, the credits are all about who did the special effects and more specifically, their speciality. Take, for example, ‘King Kong’ (1933). Always attributed to Willis O’Brien but he didn’t work alone so you would see everyone from the matt painters to the model-builders. There’s always odd facts like the big wall from the native village in ‘King Kong’ was burnt as part of the set in ‘Gone With The Wind’. Occasionally details are fleeting but I suspect that is more to do with availability of information or seeing the film.

There is so much information in this book that if you’re into the development and history of special effects films, you’ll positively swoon. You’ll also end up checking out non-genre films to see how invisible their work truly is. With our genre, we expect to see the incredible but normal reality it is supposed to be invisible and you just accept it’s there. If anything, that’s when you least expect it. Be amazed.

GF Willmetts

June 2014

(pub: McFarland. 256 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £20.50 (UK), $25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-78649-551-1)

check out websites: www.mcfarlandpub.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com

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