Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The art of invisibility according to Fulton and Horsley

I've always been intrigued with the wonderful transformations and invisibility effects produced by John P.Fulton and his assistant David Stanley Horsley during their combined and respective independent era's at Universal.  Anyone familiar with my blog will know how I feel about Fulton's expertise in the competitive arena of special photographic effects.  I'm of the opinion that Fulton, despite his abrasive personal quirks was a genius in the field, and one who's tireless quest to reach his own 'holy grail' in special effects work was regrettably cut short by his untimely death at only 63.  I've already written extensively about John and his many great effects moments, which for the uninitiated, may be found here.  

As regular readers will know, this is primarily, though not exclusively a matte painting tribute blog.  Though in saying that I will say that I love all old time special effects methods - miniatures, optical effects and both stop motion and effects cell animation .  Naturally the films covered here are heavy in optical work as well as wire gags and there are even a few matte paintings as well. Today's blog is really an encapsulation of some of the choice moments from the five INVISIBLE MAN films as well as Horsley's later ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Pretty much the same effects crew worked on all of these films, with John Fulton certainly in charge of all of the five official films in the series.  Fulton's long time assistant David Stanley Horsley also worked on almost all of these films as far as I know, coming on board with John around 1934, Horsley also supervised the effects on the  1951 ABBOTT AND COSTELLO film as he had assumed headship of Universal's effects unit by then, in fact since the mid forties.  Optical effects cameraman Roswell A.Hoffman was certainly involved intimately on all of these films, and as I've written previously, was tied in with that studio's visual effects up until 1974 with EARTHQUAKE being his retirement project. Rotoscope effects artist Millie Winebrenner was also a key player in the Universal photo effects unit and worked on all of these films extensively as head rotoscoper, with several roto girls under her.  Winebrenner too had a huge career at Universal and worked well into the late seventies in Al Whitlock's matte department.  The first film in the series had Jerome Ash and Bill Heckler working with Fulton on the effects shots, as well as Fulton's mentor, optical effects pioneer Frank Williams processing the optical process shots at his own specialty effects laboratory. Matte painting duties in the first film were carried out by Russell Lawsen and Jack Cosgrove, with Lawsen working as sole painter for subsequent films.  Miniatures were the domain of Charlie Cleon Baker - another veteran Universal employee with Donald Jahraus who would soon become MGM's number one models expert and Oscar winner. John Joseph Mescall photographed the miniature scenes.  Special mechanical gags and rigs were handled by Al Johnson and Bob Laszlo.
Two matte painted scenes from the first INVISIBLE MAN picture by Russell Lawson and Jack Cosgrove.

There is a wonderful article penned by Fulton himself in the June 1934 issue of American Cinematographer, which thankfully was reprinted by George Turner for the essential ASC Treasury of Visual Effects book in 1983.  Fulton was often keen to give interviews and speak about his effects work even though, paradoxically, he was never especially proud of his many achievements.  I'll use a few of Fulton's quotes in the following tribute as well as some very useful technical details of the processes involved provided to me by former Universal effects cameraman Bill Taylor who, in addition to being a first rate effects cameraman has a great insight into the working methods at Universal studios over the years.

Three of these films covered today were nominated for Oscars in the best visual effects category- THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940); THE INVISIBLE AGENT (1942) and THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1941) so it's a shame that at least one of these films couldn't have grabbed that little gold statuette.

 James Whale's 1933 interpretation of what was regarded by many as un-filmable.  The special photographic effects work alone took some four months of post production.
One of the best gags, and one much imitated and later refined by Fulton for later films was the routine of a set of clothes performing  as though an invisible person were wearing them in several scenes with other actors .Basically, aside from initial wire work gags the one main technique chiefly employed by Fulton for the first film was the Frank Williams black backing multiple printing technique.   For these Fulton would shoot the normal action with the other actors first with the movements and so forth carefully timed and worked out in advance.  Fulton would develop the negative and then prepare the set for the trick work.  Said Fulton "we used a completely black set, walled and floored with black velvet to be as non reflective as possible.  Our actor was garbed from head to foot in black velvet tights, with black gloves and a black headpiece rather like a diver's helmet.  Over this he wore whatever clothes might be required.  This gave us the picture of the unsupported clothes moving around on a dead black field.  From this negative we made a print and a dupe negative, which we intensified to serve as mattes for optical printing.  Then with an ordinary printer we proceeded to make our composite:  first we printed from the positive of the background and normal action, using the intensified negative matte to mask off the area where our invisible man's clothing was to move.  Then we printed again, using the positive matte to shield the area already printed and thus printing in the moving clothes from our 'trick' negative. This printing operation made our duplicate, compositive negative to be used in printing the final master prints of the picture."

Said Fulton on being handed the script in 1933..."it bristled with difficult special process scenes, and I wondered if, even with our modern process techniques we could possibly make all the amazing scenes called for".

Many effective wire gags were employed throughout to move objects and furniture, with some of the later films in the series utilising very complex wire rigs for certain very impressive set pieces.  With Fulton's training under optical effects pioneer Frank Williams there was no better technician suited to the task at hand.  Williams optical lab handled much of the trick work for the film.

Miniatures technician Charlie Baker had a very long association with both Universal and Fulton, and according to Fulton's daughter, was one of the few industry people to actually like John.  A sad indictment.  This shot of the railway is one of Baker's flawless miniature sets built in conjunction with Donald Jahraus who would go on to a fruitful career at MGMThe miniatures were photographed by John J.Mescall.

According to Fulton directing the actor in the invisibility role was problematic. Claude Rains played the lead, but whether he performed all of the tiresome trick work I'm uncertain, though in a memoir I seem to recall Claude's vivid recollections of the sheer joy and wonder of it all as he'd visit the set on his time off and watch in awe as Fulton did his stuff.  The above scene appears to be one of Fulton's 'live' invisibility trick shots which he really indulged in considerably for later INVISIBLE films.  Bill Taylor explained it to me like this:..."The Fulton stuff that really impressed me early on in the latter INVISIBLE MAN/WOMAN films were where only a part of the body must be 'invisible', so there was a removable section of the actual set which allowed the actor actually playing the scene to be on that same set with the other actors.  The 'effects' actor would perform in front of the partial black screen just for that area of the body as required.  With this technique everybody is really there at the same time, so eyelines, line timings and so on are all perfect, and the rotoscope and matte artifacts are limited to just the single invisible area, so there's a far smaller are to work with and to perfect"
In the American Cinematographer interview Fulton stated ..."the two principle difficulties, photographically speaking, were matching up the lighting on the visible parts of any shot with the general lighting used by DOP Arthur Edeson for the normal parts of the picture, and eliminating the various little imperfections such as eyeholes etc which were naturally picked up by the camera.  The latter was done by retouching the film, frame by frame with a brush and opaque dye.  We photographed thousands of feet of film in the many takes of different scenes, and approximately 4000 feet of film recieved individual hand work treatment in some degree, making approximately 64'000 frames which were individually retouched in this manner"

A film that in no way matched the original in my opinion, though it had it's moments and featured many outstanding photographic effects and a bobby-dazzler of a transformation at the end.
A Russ Lawsen matte painting of the prison.

Certainly the visual effects highlight in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS.  A sensational, and subtle optical by John Fulton and Ross Hoffman whereby our man is revealed by way of a puff of cigar smoke. Paul Verhoeven would simulate such moments in his entertaining HOLLOW MAN in 2000, yet the new age effects aren't all that noticeably improved over these old Fulton shots.

An example of the black hood against a black portion of set immediately behind the actor, as outlined by Bill Taylor above.  This method, though still evident in some sequences such as this one, saved alot of time for the rotoscope department in matting and chiefly allowed the entire scene to be shot as one with all present at the same time.

A memorable set piece where our man steals clothes from a scarecrow.  I can imagine the difficulties in choreographing such a sequence where such care would be required in preventing the 'invisible' limbs etc from passing in front of the suit during photography.   The sequence stands up extrememly well even all these years on.

Now this sequence is tremendous - and I can for once speak with authority as my recent and somewhat lengthy  former career was in a particular branch of medicine affiliated day to day with such anatomical insights.

The multi stage lap dissolve technique was beatifully handled here.   Absolutely jaw dropping.
Effects wise possibly the weakest entry in the series with more than usual quota of flawed superimpositions and quite poor matte paintings of German airfields (see my Russ Lawsen blog for more), although the Charlie Baker miniatures are pretty good.  Still, an entertaining vehicle which takes a novel approach to the invisibility gag.

A new twist on becoming visible was to have our fellow apply cold cream to his skin - or part therein.  Very effective, with the hollowed out eyes being particularly memorable, and no doubt quite eerie back in 1944.

A nifty little trick this, whereby the invisible man, Jon Hall carries Illona Massey to a waiting German airplane for a hasty escape.  Very impressive optical work here where Massey just bounces across the frame, and is lifted into the doorway.
"..splish splash I was takin' a bath..."

Two fun, though seriously flawed optical sequences where Fulton's process seems very rushed, with much bleed through of the tub scene and the black under-hood clearly visible in the face cream scene.

Pure comedy this time, but not without it's own charm - and some great effects shots.
It must have been huge fun sitting around the table at Universal dreaming up new ways to exploit Fulton's optical printer, and this sequence is a gas.  The lady of the title getting dressed, with audiences of the day no doubt dumbstruck with the sight of stockings being pulled onto invisible legs - great stuff!

A close up of the stocking filler scene shows bleed through in the shadow areas of the limbs.

Possibly a Lawsen matte shot or maybe a Baker miniature with real sky?

Hilarious and technically very smooth sequence from THE INVISIBLE WOMAN - in fact I'd go so far as to say brilliantly accomplished by Fulton, Horsley and Hoffman in my book.

A running gag in all of the pictures was the smoking or drinking effects shots.  These smoking shots work well but most of the drinking shots (shot using the black clad hooded actor against a small partial black backing) tend to give the game away each time as the fluid in the glass always leaves a 'wet spot' on the black hood which shows up in all the final comps.

For my money, an utterly forgettable final film in the series, with even the effects pretty lacklustre.

Either a Charlie Baker miniature set or a Russell Lawsen matte painting - maybe a comp of both?

Yep, we're back in cold cream territory.

A punch up between the visible and the invisible looked pretty effective and was no doubt a problematic shoot.
One of Abbott and Costello's best films - with lots of great David Horsley visual effects.

Great shot where our boy is slowly revealed in the steam.

More than just a simple dissolve hold out - the false teeth are still laughing at Costello!!

An old trick revitalised with great comic timing .  If ever there was the perfect fall guy for these gags it had to be the one and only Lou Costello.

A simple optical gag that gets just the right amount of laughs from our fall guy, Lou.

That old Fulton lap dissolve gag from the second movie is again perfectly executed by David Horsley for this show.

I do like the 'squashed' face of the nurse as invisible Lou Costello plant's one on her!

Never was there a more bizarre special effect for the Universal photo effects department I guarantee you, than the requirement for Lou Costello to become visible but with his legs on backwards - with his crazy new look running off down the hallway in astonishment.  One hell of a trick shot I'm sure, possibly a split screened reassembly of Costello, but just how this was made to 'run' away I don't know.  I'm guessing he was shot on a treadmill in front of a blue screen, with a camera pullback on the effects stage, though how Horsley match moved the two halves of Lou is a mystery? Any takers out there among the real fx guys who read this blog?  Horsley did alot of clever effects tricks on the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO latter series so I might have to do a blog on those one day as I have a stack of them.


  1. "my recent and somewhat lengthy former career was in a particular branch of medicine affiliated day to day with such anatomical insights."

    You were an Invisibleologist? Outstanding!

    Excellent article, as ever - I shall drag out my copy of The Invisible Man later...

  2. Hi Andy

    Think more CSI - without the one liners and beautiful people.


  3. Cult movie and outstanding effects, great article! :)

  4. I am one of Russell Lawson's granddaughters and I notice that his name was spelled wrong in a couple of places.
    He was a highly talented painter. Some of his painting were stolen from us when our step grandmother passed away. They were stolen by her biological grandchildren we are hoping one day to recover them. Hope one of them will see this and make things right.

    1. Hi there

      Thank you so much for contacting me. I would be VERY keen to speak with you and learn anything else about Russ that you can share, as there is just so little info on him. If you'd care to email me I would love to be able to write a more accurate and in depth article on him and his huge career at Universal. I would be extremely happy to even see any pictures of Russ and him at work if at all possible.

      Hope to hear from you on this.