Monday, 28 June 2010

Murnaus' SUNRISE - silent storytelling with sophisticated optical effects.

I'm not especially au fait with silent cinema, aside from the great silent comedies of Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel &; Hardy so I came into F.W Murnaus' 1927 love tragedy "SUNRISE" somewhat blind yet was stunned by the visionary photographic effects and trick shots that the film displays.

Aside from the standard matte paintings and miniatures, of which there are several, the picture has some incredible optical transitions and kaleidoscope styled visuals to tell the story.  What impressed me most was an amazing one take sequence where George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor stroll out of church and across a busy street totally immersed in one another with fast moving traffic wizzing around them, with the single take continuing for over a minute and gradually dissolving from the hectic urban chaos into a beautiful orchard like setting of utter serenity.  Now to modern audiences weened on this awful in your face mind battering CGI, this 1927 sequence will surely not be of interest.  When one takes into consideration the fact that the entire uninterrupted set piece is a complicated optical effect, and a beautifully orchestrated and assembled one at that, even the CGI freaks may sit up and take notice.  I'll elaborate on this sequence below.

The effects work was by an uncredited Frank Williams - a genuine pioneer in special photographic effects and optical cinematography and the inventor of a moving matting system for motion pictures.  I would not be at all surprised to learn that soon to be master effects man John P.Fulton also may have worked on this film as he was Williams apprentice at this time in Williams effects house.  A very young assistant cameraman by the name of Lenwood Ballard Abbott - better known later as L.B Abbott was also on the camera crew.
I must say that the remastered dvd (on the Accent label in region 4) is flawless and is a stunning sight for a 1927 film with barely a scratch or splice to be seen and only those exposure fluctuations predominant in silent cinema being the only adverse factor.
The opening montage and the train station  is a complete trick shot, with  the shot being fabricated entirely in the effects department.  The train is a miniature and all of the superstructure of the station either matte art or miniature with the live action extras added flawlessly via the Schufftan shot technique.
Part of the elaborate montage of cross fades and optical transitions that open the story - and very well done they are too, with as many as five individual elements in a single shot from what I could observe.

Probably a glass shot or a hanging miniature of the fun fair entrance.  Like all aspects of the film there is a heavy German expressionist influence running throughout due to many of the key creators European backgrounds such as Murnau and cinematographer Karl Struss.

A superb blu ray grab of the famous Schufftan shot described above.

The dream sequence with expansive miniature cityscape complete with moving cars AND a travelling camera to simulate a vehiclular point of view doubled exposed onto footage of Gaynor and O'Brien in the grass.  Focus must have been an enormous issue in shooting such a scene, and I gather the models were of significant large scale too.

The above frames from a particularly hypnotic brass band segement with lots of movement and multiple exposures presumably done all in camera with rewind and multiple takes.  Fabulous bit of film this.

Two of the matte shots seen in "SUNRISE" with moving clouds above and perfect registration of city painting below, possibly suggesting a foreground glass painting done on set.

The centrepiece of "SUNRISE" - the amazing romantic stroll through heavy traffic and imperceptibly into a tranquil glade all in one long and uninterupted shot, with some traffic passing in front and some matted behind the actors.   This appears to be a superb example of the Williams Travelling Matte method as Frank Williams was in charge of special photographic effects (uncredited) for this picture.  Still frame grabs don't easily convey the brilliance of this trick shot here, though I'm sure that those who have seen it will agree that it is a superlative example of early optical effects compositing.  Williams invented (as far as I'm aware) the travelling matte and patented same in 1918 as The Williams Process.  Initially and for some 15 years it consisted to a large extent of the black backing method where an complementary opaque moving mattes were able to be pulled from footage through high contrast printing of properly lit actors performing in front of 'black'.  Williams also had a variation whereby white backings could be used and much later he invented the blue backing system.  Williams process was heavily utilised in "THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME" in all of the waterfall sequences,"THE LOST WORLD",  "KING KONG" and "SON OF KONG" among others.  Master effects man John P.Fulton trained in photographic effects under Frank Williams and would utilise this black backing method extensively in 'THE INVISIBLE MAN" and I suspect "FRANKENSTEIN"  for the windmill sequence.  For the above sequence the couple were filmed out of doors in natural light with a grip carrying a large black card in front of couple as they walked - thus allowing a matte to later be 'pulled' from the footage and astonishingly to allow absolute credibility in the lighting, shadows and fluidity of movement that could never be achieved on a treadmill in the soundstage nor by process projection.  Utter brilliance!
Optical effects pioneer Frank Williams seen here with a family member.
The closing frame of the sequence where after a cutaway from the optical comp to some honking car horns we resume with the shot - or at least a real time street scene with actors in traffic to allow a camera move and subsequent follow on plot development.  The match is invisible and the shots in no way stand out as process.

I'm trying to recall, but from reading up on this years ago I think the city was all forced perspective on a backlot.  There were a number of slight forced perspective interior sets in the film and oddly constructed doorways and such for dramatic effect rather than visual effect. The lower frame may be a partial matte with walls and 'God rays' painted in.
A really impressive storm sequence with excellent animation overlays of lightning and terrific full scale tank effects.  If there was process projection it was damned good and utterly perfect match up.
Final scene and what I'm fairly sure would be a painted sky and moon.


  1. Peter, you can see some footage effects for "Sunsire" at:


  2. Nice to see something about Frank Williams. He's sort of a forgotten man. Fulton called him a "true genius." Earliest travelling matte I've seen so far is in a Griffith movie, I think "The New York Hat," around 1911. Remember they did this work without high-contrast or negative duplicating film and it's much more amazing.

  3. I'm constantly awed by the pioneering work of Williams and would love to be able to see more of it. For anyone interested, I've just added a nice Blu-Ray grab of the wonderful train station schufftan shot to the above blog. It's not a Williams shot but I thought I'd mention it anyway.


  4. Thanks great info