Among Astaire's catalogue of gems is a little 1936 show made by RKO titled SWING TIME in which he starred with his frequent on screen partner Ginger Rogers. The centrepiece of SWING TIME is the classic and beloved 'Bojangles of Harlem' sequence where Fred performs on stage with three huge shadows of himself, with occasionally each shadow taking on some individual personality quirks of it's own. The sequence at first would appear to be just an ingeniously lit and photographed dance number with a semi translucent backing and three dancers off camera supplying the requisite shadows.... however, this is not the case at all.
A complicated series of multiple exposures, moving split screens and blue backing matting were involved
My interests are primarily matte art, though SWING TIME had none (that I could detect) I have a passion for old time opticals and compositing technology, hence the inclusion of this Astaire show with NO apologies.
Enter one Vernon L.Walker - long time head of camera effects at RKO and one of the pioneers in the field of photographic effects cinematography going back to the silent era.Walker had already contributed much to the setting up of the RKO effects lab with KING KONG, SHE and many more. Under Walker's supervision, in- house optical effects maestro Linwood G.Dunn coordinated, photographed and composited the aforementioned 'Bonjangles' number - a number that was somewhat more involved than first appearences might suggest. Pictured at left is Walker, who passed away in 1948, and below is Dunn with his Acme-Dunn optical printer - the workhorse of the optical jigsaw side of the film industry for several decades with many modified variations therein being in use up to the advent of the digital era.
From an interview with Dunn by David Everitt for the excellent book Film Tricks - Special Effects in the Movies the optical wizard described RKO as being "a tight knit corporate family that placed great importance on cooperation between departments". Everitt writes that although the Shadow Dance was such a team effort, effects chief Walker gave all the credit to Dunn for the classy execution of the sequence since it was Dunn who put together all of the elements in the optical printer.
As Dunn explained to author Everitt "The first images filmed were the shadows. Astaire danced in front of a blank screen while a sun arc lamp cast his sillouette. "Once one of the shadows had been photographed and isolated, Astaires' foreground dancing could be filmed to coincide with the shadows steps. To do this, Astaire was positioned in front of a blank screen once more with the processed footage of the dancer's shadow projected off screen while the camera rolled so that Astaire could keep an eye on the shadow's movements and time his new dance steps accordingly. Now the effects crew had one shot of Astaire and another shot of his shadow -the two figures dancing complementary parts of the same routine. Dunn's printer handled the rest. The shadow was printed three times to make a sillouette dance line of three dancers, and over this image was printed the foreground footage of Astaire by means of a travelling matte". Author Everitt continues "The different elements were precisely coordinated to create a complex interaction between the dancer and the shadows to his rear".
|As much a tribute to Astaire as to Dunn, with the coordination of elements both practical physical action from Fred and the acute timing required by Dunn in the printing stage with the results being truly wonderful and spectacular.|
To the modern MTV generation this would hardly seem the least bit impressive, nor of interest I'm sure - but for a 1936 film it's a really impressive and for the most part invisible optical puzzle which only on repeated close examination could I detect fleeting frames of translucency through Fred's head on certain turns - possibly through blue spill or density matting issues. Moving split screens were a Dunn specialty, with much use of the method two years later in Howard Hawk's BRINGING UP BABY to put the leopard in the same moving camera shots as Cary Grant, and also of course utilised in Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE to invisible effect.