Friday, 9 July 2010

Time is of the essence; reflections on the special visual effects of H.G Wells' THE TIME MACHINE

Sensational ad art by the great Reynold Brown sold the idea splendidly
Certainly one of my favourite fantasy or science fiction films and time has not dulled the entertainment value of this wonderful 1960 picture.  Time has, however, not been kind to some of the special visual effects of "THE TIME MACHINE" - they run the gamut from sublime to, with a hint of sadness in my voice, embarressing, and now we'll take a look back at them.

This George Pal directed film was the big Oscar winner in the special effects category in 1960 and was a popular film and remains so today with it's engaging cast lead by charismatic Australian leading man Rod Taylor who is ideally cast here.  The production is good and appears to be a 'just below medium' budgeted picture.  Much use is made of the then still magnificent MGM backlot and standing sets.  Even though the film was released by Metro the effects work was entirely farmed out to the small specialty effects house Project Unlimited run by Gene Warren snr, Tim Barr and Wah Chang.  Project Unlimited has a place in the hearts of all fantasy film buffs with their imaginative and often sensational effects work in films such as "THE POWER", "THE 7 FACES OF DR LAO", "THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM" and television shows such as "THE OUTER LIMITS".  The effects house even provided uncredited prosthetic corpses at various scales for Stanley Kubricks' "SPARTACUS".  Little known are the other effects Project Unlimited supplied in more mainstream films such as the Universal comedy "THAT FUNNY FEELING" where they built and crashed a pair of locomotives head on and supplied the brief but dazzling post credit sequence with a major pile up on the LA freeway - all furnished via stop motion animated models by Jim Danforth and Pete Kleinow.

Variety was Project Unlimiteds' mandate, though sadly some of the technical finesse wasn't always evident, none more so than in "THE TIME MACHINE".   The film is almost wall to wall photographic effects - from wonderful examples of time lapse photography and stop frame animation through to extensive application of generally effective blue screen work and a number of matte paintings which in run the range from marvellous to mediocre.
The film really falls down in the miniature work - of which there is several major set pieces - an apocalyptic volcanic eruption which envelopes London and a number of other moments which I will discuss shortly.

Matte artist on "THE TIME MACHINE" was Bill Brace - a former newspaper man who became Project Unlimiteds' in house art director and designer of special effects.   Brace painted on several Project Unlimited shows such as "JACK THE GIANT KILLER" (with Albert Whitlock), painted the titles for "ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT", "7 FACES OF DR LAO" and "WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM" (now there's a film crying out for dvd restoration).  Brace executed quite a number of mattes for this film and they are for the most part fantastic, not to mention iconic.  Sadly the mattework trips up very badly with the truly abominable matte photography which results in almost every matte shot displaying horrendous, inexcusably huge black matte lines.  Some would argue that the age of the film can forgive such technical errors, though I refuse to accept that as it was only 1960 and the composite process had long been perfected.  Just look at almost any matte heavy picture from the preceeding 40 years of cinema and one would be hard pressed to find many with such glaringly atrocious marry ups of the painted glass to a live action set.  Some might point the finger at negative shrinkage, though I think this was only ever a problem with the multiple dupe blue screen processes of the era - which oddly in this film look pretty good!

Optical effects house Howard A.Anderson Co. was contracted to carry out all of the many blue screen composites and presumably also did the painted matte comps too, though as very long established practitioners in this field, the Anderson family I'm sure wouldn't have let the lousy static matte comps through.
If the static mattes were shot and composited at Project Unlimited I can only assume that 'flights of fantasy' were their bread and butter with such day to day sub specialty as 'matte shots' outside of their area of expertise.  Even team member Jim Danforth felt a degree of unhappiness with the quality of the optical composites furnished by sub-contractor optical houses.

I hope this minor criticism doesn't diminish the wonderful entertainment value of what is still a terrific film, and one that overall does stand the test of time.

Special Photographic Effects  Gene Warren, Wah Ming Chang and Tim Barr
Matte Artist  and Art Effects Bill Brace
Stop Motion Animation  Dave Pal, Tom Holland and Don Sahlin
Visual Effects Assistant  Jim Danforth
Optical Effects Cameraman - Phil Kellison
Assistant Cameraman-Stop Motion  Ralph Rodine
Optical Effects  Howard A. Anderson,jr

Russell Garcia's rousing score contributed much to the adventure as anything else.

The first of many Bill Brace matte paintings to grace the film - and probably the least noticeable composite.

Herbert gives the machine a spin... much stop motion, time lapse and glass painting with overlays.
War hits London!  a beautifully rendered Bill Brace painting complimented by excellent animation and effects.

Post WWI London - times have changed.  Same set used for three different painted time periods.

Same street, now in 1966 - the end of the world is nigh!  Matte lines are astonishingly obvious and makes me wonder why on earth the preferred soft blend method wasn't employed as an invisible join?

For reasons never explained a volcanic eruption(!) wrecks London -  a very poorly photographed large miniature set that makes me cringe.  Depth of field is so narrow, the lens too long and they shot it under incandescant light rather than in daylight - always a bad choice back in the days where 'daylight' could never be accurately simulated on a set no matter how hard they tried.  The top images look to me like out takes from the earlier Pal film "WAR OF THE WORLDS"
Model sets for the devastation.

Typically poor miniature cinematography with depth of field issues.

The miniature set for the lava flow.

A peek behind the scenes of the miniatures for the volcanic event - the models are surprisingly big, certainly large enough one would think to allow a reasonable depth of field in the camerawork - but no, they look so patently phony that even as a kid when I first saw this in the 60's I could see through it as a poor cousin to "THUNDERBIRDS".

Some of the effective blue screen travelling matte composites which I really like.

Wells' with not a hair out of place travels at full speed into the future.  More effective blue screen work with Bill Brace painted scenery matted in.

Rocks pulled away with wires simulate breakdown of lava encased Wells - travelling matte against Bill Brace artwork.

Time advances - hundred odd thousand years hence with city going up and landscape changing.  Matte painting with presumably either cell animated overlays or multiple exposures.

Wells approaches the Morlock Temple. Backlot set with matted on miniature of sphinx head.

Really nice Bill Brace full painting of Eloi temple supplemented with foreground miniature of trees etc to give depth.

The best and most iconic visual effects image in the film - the Eloi temple as painted by Bill Brace with backlot staircase set and Wells matted in.  A wonderful shot and a beautiful painting.

A look at two of the best matte paintings from "THE TIME MACHINE" in a private collection, plus the limited backlot set pre-matte shot comp.

The interior of the Eloi temple - almost all paint...another iconic image and beautifully painted.  Shame about the awful matte lines.

Views of the Morlock sphinx - probably both miniatures matted atop MGM set. I understand that fledgling visual effects man Jim Danforth worked on these shots as matte painter.

A shot that was contentious to the New Zealand film censor back in the day and omitted from local prints (along with Morlock in flames) - the stop motion decomposition of a Morlock animated by Tom Holland.
Upper frames are more examples of poor quality miniature photography, which again is surprising given that the set was apparently quite large.  Shooting in daylight would have helped immeasurably here.

Some of the faces behind "THE TIME MACHINE" - top left is long time MGM make up artist William Tuttle with a Morlock mask visible; top right - The Oscar for special visual effects goes to... Tim Barr, Wah Chang, George Pal & Gene Warren. For reasons unclear Chang was ommitted from the Oscar win even though he recieved screen credit and was a key technician and only Warren and Barr were rewarded;  Lower left is effects man  animator Wah Chang;  lower right Project Unlimited with Chang and Warren at work.


  1. I was Bill Brace's student in college. He was truly incredible, and inspired me to become a professional artist. He would tell me stories about his days in Hollywood. The artwork he had around was either pieces he was working on or class oriented. I never saw the items he did for Universal. Thanks to whoever was insane enough to put this site together.

    1. Utterly loved this film as a kid..
      Loved the atmosphere, the dome matte painting, the design of the Sphinx miniature, the stop-motion time travel effects but the miniature photography doesn't get any worse.. But none the less it won the Effects Oscar I believe..

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  3. I am impressed to see the 1966 set from behind the scenes, it is a shame about the poor quality in which it was presented, it is also a shame they didn't keep the cameras going to the point where the Oatmeal was dripping over the edge!, I never got over the Volcanic business either, I mean for starters there aren't any Volcanoes in England!, I think it was a last ditch effort to rub out the old mankind and in with the new!, but I think there should have been more obstacles for the Lava to move around, they could have fitted another car on it which would have been perfect. but all in all the scene is still quite fascinating to see! even if it is cheap! A big thankyou to whoever made this! and thankyou for the rare images!


  4. You mention that the miniatures were large. Would you know how large the Sphinx head model was? Thanks.

  5. Their is a magic of the analog painted matte shot that just does not translate in this modern world now 27 years into the digital revolution of "hollywood's 2nd golden age. This visual trip down memory lane I enjoyed immensely! -Much Love-

  6. Their is a magic to the old analog matte shots that just don't translate in the modern ere now 27 years into the digital revolution of Hollywood's 2nd golden age. -Much Love to Everyone-

  7. I have a childhood obsession with this film. Espeially the design of the Sphinx.

  8. One of my childhood favorites. Some amazing work: some awful work. Probably, as a start-up, Project Unlimited was working with some home-made and really inferior equipment. No doubt as they gained revenue they made improvements. I read somewhere that the effects were actually done on an abominably low budget.