Tuesday 28 December 2010

Fred Sersen burns Chicago and floods Ranchipur - the effects shots from IN OLD CHICAGO and THE RAINS CAME

 Blog update:  Just before embarking upon my last blogging for 2010 I'd like to say how pleased I am with the reaction to this little effects blog.  The comments and emails have been very favourable and so many people around the globe seem to share my passion for this old school stuff, which is indeed gratifying.  Not only do the likeminded effects fans out there appear to enjoy it, but so too do a growing number of  effects people currently in the industry, and even better still, so too do some of the descendants of many of the long gone  titans of the visual effects world - and this really pleases me!  I've had notes from family members of Edwin and Ralph Hammeras, Les Bowie, Albert Whitlock (by way of Bill Taylor), Jan Domela and as of a few days ago a real 'thumbs up' from the grand daughter of one of my all time heroes, Mr Fred Sersen - the subject of today's blog no less!  To have these next of kin acknowledge and affirm what I'm trying to do for the memory of the men and the HUGE achievements made by their often famous (and sometimes totally unheralded or completely neglected) relatives makes this whole thing so worthwhile to me.

A few new add ons in past articles for the completists among you though bare in mind that in many cases I don't post anywhere near the full quota of mattes from some films, especially in my profile pieces on specific artists as there are just too many to upload, so I put representative frames to cover long careers in some instances.

I came across some wonderful original art director sketches and oil paintings for some of the proposed  Lee LeBlanc-Matt Yuricich matte shots in BEN HUR (1959) which are really interesting.  These are currently up for auction along with several old matte paintings.  These sketches can be seen on 'The Epics' article on that film elsewhere in my blog.

I've also added a terrific original Chesley Bonestell oil painting he did for THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949) on my Warner Bros tribute page.  This film is one of my favourite matte shows and a real 'hat's off' to the legendary Stage 5 effects Unit at Warner Bros, and the painting, another of those auction pieces, is superb.

I've also added more to Jan Domela's article (of the hundreds of frames I have from Jan) in which I have put high quality mattes Jan did for the 1948 A CONNECTICUTT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT whereby my earlier frames were awful vhs grabs, these are from the beautiful DVD edition.  Again, not all the mattes, just a representative few, with some excellent period castles among them.  Also on Jan's page are some rather elegant etchings he did for the title sequence of THE MATCHMAKER (1958).  I hope to add a considerable parcel of additional Domela shots early in the new year.


To reply to a question from a particular CG visual effects supervisor who contacted me asking whether I actually liked any newer "effects driven extravaganzas" - well sadly, for the most part the answer is "no".  Truthfully, I hardly see any of the newer films, not so much due to the technology itself, more along the lines that the films themselves simply don't interest me!  It's not that I have an inborn mistrust nor suspicion of the modern techniques all too commonly employed, it's more that I tend to be reduced to throwing my arms up in dispair at the apparently thoughtless use of the technology, who's sole intent is to bludgen one to death with often very poorly concieved 'action', implausible camera moves when they just aren't required and often just plain lousy 'physics of  weight in relation to motion '.  

The notion that all effects films must be a veritable 'rollercoaster ride' from start to finish is not one I subscribe too.  I was coerced by my two sons to watch AVATAR over Xmas on BluRay  - which I must admit, I bought for them, and while I consider the effects work to be jaw dropping, especially the exquisite environments as designed by traditional matte painter  and Whitlock alumni Robert Stromberg and utterly worthy of the Oscar (again to New Zealand's WETA  - well done guys) - the whole show just got more than a little too much with no end to the mostly unnecessary mo-cap visuals and headache inducing "is it over yet" action that was at least 3 reels too many.  I won't even begin to critique the penny dreadful writing, one dimensional characterisations (especially the embarressing Worthington character) and  Play Station direction on that show.  PIRANHA 2 FLYING KILLERS may well have been James Cameron's finest hour maybe?

Maybe I'm getting old, but pristine state of the art VFX do not a film make!  The visuals in the film INCEPTION were flawless, but for the most part gratuitous, overindulgent and superfluous to the plot - whatever the hell the plot was as I couldn't make head nor tail of the damned thing - a sore point for my sons who adore this film and all it claims to be.  Is it just me or was that film a load of old bollocks?  God, even the low budget DREAMSCAPE (1985) with Dennis Quaid and Christopher Plummer and featuring great, economical Peter Kuran effects  and Rocco Gioffre mattes was better, and kept to the point.  If my boys ever read this editorial I'll be thrown from the highest peak (and we have some bloody high peaks here)  - it's a generational thing I suppose.  Give me a solidly written script, production values that are in key with the nature and requirements of the story and no more, and a director who doesn't feel the need to outdo himself with each successive set piece as if it's a sausage fest behind the bike sheds!

On with the blog......................

Fred Sersen burn's Chicago and floods Ranchipur

a very early photo of Fred Sersen
Two of my favourite visual effects films of all time happen to both be the work of one of the industry's all time greats in the sphere of photographic effects, the legendary Fred Sersen.   IN OLD CHICAGO (1937) and THE RAINS CAME (1939) were monumental achievements for their day and still stand up to scrutiny 70 plus years down the track. Born in Czechoslovakia, Fred started out as an art director at 20th Century Fox in the early twenties and ventured out into title design and production illustration before finding his niche in matte painting.  

His contributions to the art and technology of matte shots was well acknowledged throughout the industry and some excellent articles were penned by Fred himself, including the 1931 American Cinematographer article Making Modern Matte Shots in which Fred describes new developements for the process of the day.

Fox - the home for Fred for over 30 years.
Sersen's career was one of exclusivity to his long time employer Darryl F.Zanuck at Fox where he worked from the mid twenties till his retirement in the early fifties.  Retired he may have been on paper, but Sersen was retained in a 'consultant' arrangement with the studio well beyond his departure and was involved with many film effects requirements throughout the fifties, although long time associate Ray Kellogg was by then heading the department.

Although primarily a matte painter Sersen was to become one of the industry's great effects visionaries with an uncanny ability to design, photograph and assemble some unique and truly memorable photographic and miniature special effects shots throughout his tenure at Fox.  Under Sersen, the effects department at Fox was one of the biggest and strongest in Hollywood, with a substantial staff of painters, cameramen, miniaturists, effects editors and optical cameramen.  The quality of the large effects output was really something, as today's blog will testify I'm sure. A great deal of information here comes courtesy of Joseph Serbaroli's article on his father and grandfather - both matte artists in the Sersen department which appeared in an issue of Perspective magazine.
Fred Sersen

Among the roster of greats were Ray Kellogg, a matte painter who was Fred's right hand man throughout the several decades in which they worked together, and a man later Fox employee Matthew Yuricich would regard "as a very conscientious, first rate effects man".  Also on Sersen's staff was Lenwood Ballard Abbott - better known as L.B Abbott.  'Bill' as he was known was a cinematographer who learned his trade on early silent pictures such as SUNRISE (1927) and like Sersen  and Kellogg would soon become one of the studio's biggest assets as a skilled visual effects cameraman on hundreds of Fox films, including both of the titles covered here today eventually heading the effects department after Kellogg's departure in 1957.
The effects wizards behind IN OLD CHICAGO, with head of department Fred Sersen in both left pictures and mechanical effects maestro Louis J.Witte shown in both right pictures.

Another icon of the world of visual effects Ralph Oscar Hammeras also had a key involvment, not only in both of todays featured films but as a whole in the development and advancement of special photographic effects, especially matte shots.  Hammeras was a major exponent in glass shot set ups and painted on the original LOST WORLD in 1924 among other shows.  Ralph was an integral part of Sersen's department and continued in varied interchangable roles as matte artist, miniatures cinematographer and process man throughout his very long career which culminated with his magnificent dual glass foreground paintings of ancient Alexandria for the huge 1963 picture CLEOPATRA - mattes which won Emil Kosa (!) the Oscar that year.  Ralph was unfortunately sited somewhat below the radar in the Fox community and didn't recieve very many credits on the hundreds of films he worked on, nor did he recieve much exposure sadly.
Visual effects pioneer and one of the key names in the field from as far back as the silent LOST WORLD through to the sixties epics such as CLEOPATRA and THE LONGEST DAY, Ralph Hammeras is shown here in one of his miniature sets from the film THE SKY HAWK made in the late twenties.

Another important name in the special effects field, and for a long time associated with Fox was Louis J.Witte. Witte's area of expertise was in special mechanical effects, incendiaries and pyrotechnics - of which today's films feature significant quantities, especially IN OLD CHICAGO.  Other names associated with Sersen's unit for many yeras were fellow Czech immigrant Emil Kosa snr and later his son Emil Kosa jnr - both of whom worked as matte painters.  Other matte artists included Menrad von Muldorfer who worked right up into the nineteen sixties, Max De Vega, Gilbert Riswold, Clyde Scott, Matthew Yuricich, Jim Fetherolf, Hector Serbaroli and his son Joseph Serbaroli.  Even iconic Universal effects man John Futlon's dad, Fitch Fulton painted for Fox for a period.

Among the many specialist cameramen, in addition to Bill Abbott employed were Walter Castle, Sol Halperin, Frank van der Veer, Clarence Slifer, Harry Dawe, Paul Mohn, James B.Gordon and Til Gabbani.  Several of these names went on to become key players in the effects world such as Slifer and Gordon.  Many of these employees are featured in the group photo below, taken outside the Twentieth Century Fox special photographic effects department in 1938
Known at the time as The Scenic Art Department, the Fox effects unit comprised of, as best can be verified, from left of photo: standing group=  #4 Gilbert Riswold, #5  Emil Kosa jnr,  #6 Menrad von Muldorfer,  #12 (with hands in pockets) Fred Sersen,  #14 Ray Kellogg,  #18 James B.Gordon,  #21 Hector Serbaroli. Sitting group=  #2  Elbert McMannigal,  #3  Joseph Serbaroli, snr,  #4  J.B Allin,  #5  Wally White,  #9  L.B 'Bill' Abbott,  #10  Herb Schoellenbach,  #13  Bud Fisher,  #15  Al Irving.  Also believed to be present in this photo are matte artists Ralph Hammeras, Max DeVega and Clyde Scott.    *photo from collection of Joseph Serbaroli,  which originally appeared in Perspective Magazine.

Though fairly standard as film narratives go, the show is outstanding in it's special effects work and the spectacular 35 minute conflagration alone makes for exciting viewing and a showcase for Fred Sersen's effects department.

Extremely rare to have a number of effects credits on a single film, let alone on screen.

The opening matte shot of turn of the century Chicago.

The miniatures were over 8 feet tall and exceptionally convincing in scale of flame and camera placement.

Sersen was gung ho when it came to brilliantly integrated roto live action combined with convincing miniatures.

Flawless split screen work combining backlot crowd, fire engulfed miniatures and connecting matte painting.

A terrific matte composite probably mostly painted.

A Ray Kellogg matte painting with perfectly composited fire elements.

Maybe process, though I'd tend to go with split screen matte due to clean looking effects plate.

A cel animated figure frame by frame rotoscoped into large scale collapsing miniature which 'wipes' out figure.

More utterly convincing split screen work  - superbly designed and photographed for maximum effect.

Large scale miniature set shot in the Sersen lake, I believe then on the Fox backlot and prior to the Fox tank at Malibu.

Live action in the Fox lake split screened with Ray Kellogg painted horizon, ships and sky.

What really sells this film is the excellent scaling of the pyro effects in miniature - an effect that so often fails due to scaling issues and poor camerawork.  Take a look at the 1960 TIME MACHINE and you'll see what I mean!

The money shot - Chicago burns while Nero fiddles... no, hang about...wrong effects movie... what was I thinking....oh, yeah, QUO VADIS.

An effects breakdown from the indispensible bible of old school visual effects, Professor Raymond Fielding's Technique of Special Effects Cinematography, still a wonderful, precise and treasured possession on my bookshelf.


Now, as great as IN OLD CHICAGO was in it's effects shots, it didn't win an Oscar, nor was it nominated, though that was due to the absence of any actual 'special effects' category within the Academy charter.  The AMPAS had given out a couple of special achievement awards prior to and post IN OLD CHICAGO (to WINGS in 1927) and to SPAWN OF THE NORTH in 1938) as exceptions to the rule.  Apparently the motion picture studios went all out to NOT have a category for visual effects as they didn't want the plebs who shelled out 25c a ticket to be aware of any trickery.  That all changed with THE RAINS CAME (1939) as this was the year that the Academy instituted a permanent 'special effects/sound effects' all in one category.

L.B 'Bill' Abbott
The nomination process was bizarre at best, with in some cases a blind grab bag of films put up for consideration, and often a vast list of nominations to boot!  The first year (1939) saw some seven films up for it, with really just two or three titles as really serious contendors - those being THE RAINS CAME and GONE WITH THE WIND.  As great a film as WIZARD OF OZ was (and still is) it really wasn't Oscar fx material in my book, nor were ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and certainly not THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX.
If you think seven films is alot, check out the following years' f o u r t e e n   titles up for the sole fx statuette !!

It was always a close race for me that '39 win... with my all time fave matte show Jack Cosgrove's GWTW versus Fred Sersen's disaster epic.... both darned good, though Sersen's show was the more demanding effects show with so many miniatures, mattes, travelling matte combos and some utterly knockout earth splitting quake scenes with terrified extras being swallowed up right before our eyes via Sersen's camera, the Fox show deserved the trophy against the epic fire and 50 beautiful glass shots in the Selznick classic (as great as they are, and I love 'em).

Special Photographic Effects - Fred Sersen
Photographic Effects Associate and Key Matte Artist - Ray Kellogg
Mechanical Special Effects - Louis J.Witte
Matte Artists - Hector Serbaroli, Ralph Hammeras, Emil Kosa snr and Menrad von Muldorfer
Effects Cinematographers - James B.Gordon and Harry Dawe
Effects Operative Cameraman - L.B Abbott
Process Projection  -Sol Halperin

Yep, Tyrone Power was busy at Fox  -almost as busy as Sersen!
As a huge fan of old time movie title cards (a sadly neglected art if you look at the dismal state of affairs today) THE RAIN'S CAME did not disappoint with it's wonderful 'melting' hand lettered credits - possibly the first of it's kind.  This gag showed itself later on in films such as Universal's INVISIBLE MAN films.  I asked optical effects man Spencer Gill about this technique while chatting with him about a similar effect Universal's SON OF DRACULA and he described it as such: "The title was done using the paint the title in water soluble paint on glass and wash it away gimmick that they used often at Universal. Usually they would pour water in so the title washes away first in the middle and then it all gets washed off. Then they would shoot a pre-optical (an element with some alteration built-in) to get the speed right and to kick up the contrast a bit. The print of the the pre-optical would then be burned-in (a second, un-matted pass through the printer double-exposing the mist)  over the background and voila! A title flows into place and reassembles itself before your eyes!  Check out the Maria Montez Technicolor flicks done during the second world war. They do the title washing away trick in at least one of the main title sequences but it's not really an optical. They just wash away the title and then dissolve to the next title actually painted on a wall or some rocks".

That's Fred Sersen standing in the middle while a team of matte artists  paint foreground glasses for an unknown film

A Sol Halperin process shot with the background being matte art from Sersen's department.

An invisible matte shot that features early on in the proceedings.  Truly a testament to the skills of the matte painter.
And here is that same matte being painted by Hector Serbaroli.  I'd like to compliment the effects cameraman for this shot too as the composite is flawless and at no time would one suspect a trick is being played on us the viewer. *Photo from the collection of Joseph Serbaroli

Several matte artists painted on this film including Ray Kellogg and the Emil Kosa father and son team.

Once again, a truly flawless matte comp tying together a wholly backlot shot adventure.

A wonderful composite joined with a near invisible soft semi-circular arc matte line.

As with the previous film, and many more to come, Sersen was the maestro at combining fleeing extras with miniature mayhem, and probably none more brilliantly than in THE RAINS CAME where he went all out with roto mattes.

The frames aren't as good as I'd like (nor was the DVD in fact) but this miniature dam is bursting and enveloping a crowd of running extras, and it looks great in motion.

Another set piece that would have had the judging panel at the Academy no doubt declare 'a winner' is this astounding sequence where the deluge obliterates the hundred or so Indians seeking high ground.  An amazing piece of (I presume) live action upper bridge set with extras, painted lower archways etc and roto matted in water element which is meticulously hand matted to swallow up the people and scenery.

Yet another of Sersen's jaw dropping travelling matte set pieces, again showing dozens of terrified extras being drowned.  The shot in motion is a delight(!) as the water element sweeps forward in uneven motion with the left side moving at a different rate to the right, with splashes and pieces of building breaking off as it moves along at a swift pace, as opposed to a clean 'wipe' this is a ripper of a roto effect and no doubt would have consumed months and months of time in the roto department.

Certainly staging the deluge at night worked in it's favour as far as realism goes, not to mention concealment of matte lines and blends.  As with CHICAGO's fire, RAIN's water effects are extremely well scaled, a most problematic task, especially with the slow film speeds at the time and pretty narrow selection of focal length available to the effects cameraman. 

Now this shot blew me away (as it did the two guys in the scene!).  Actors on a set (I assume) and a wall of water tears down the wall and demolishes both them and the entire setting in one uninterrupted shot!  Jesus H.Christ this is well done.  The water is certainly 'miniaturised' but where reality ends and magic begins I just have no idea.  It may be that the entire set is a large miniature and the two actors matted in and roto'd out as the torrent hits them??  Again a superb, Oscar worthy moment from a genius of camera effects that deserves a pat onthe (soaked to the bone) back!  Bravo.

A vast, sweeping deluge shot - again perfectly scaled water and matted in actors in various parts of the frame.  Bravo !!
Sersen's original sketch for the design of the above trick shot.

The damage seems unstoppable.

A gem of a photograph taken in 1938 (featured in the article by Joseph Serbaroli in Perspective magazine) showing us the interior of The Sersen Department at Fox while THE RAINS CAME was in production.  We can see two RAINS CAME paintings under way, one in the rear with Hectore Serbaroli finishing off his matte depicting the statue of Queen Victoria against the bridge and mountains (shown earlier in this article).  The unidentified matte artist in the white hat and shirt is also at work on a painting of Ranchipur for the same film (see below for finished shot).  Among the painters at left is Menrad von Muldorfer (standing in semi shadow) and others unidentified.  The foreground theatre marquee is a matte for HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE (1939)

The final composite of the painting of the city of Ranchipur seen being completed in Sersen's matte room above.  For this shot the full frame painting has been utilised as a process projection plate by Sol Halperin behind the actors and prop tree.

Not only does Tyrone have to compete with a big-assed earthquake and a flood but also a fire as well in this show!

Another of Sersen's great travelling matte comps with falling miniatures and the requisite extras in panic.
Now this one's a doozy my friends!  We have a 'jaws to the floor' sequence here where, on camera, in one uninterrupted shot the earth just opens up and drops down some distance and dozens of hapless extras are swallowed up whole by this great almighty gash!!  An unforgettable effect that not even EARTHQUAKE (1974) dared to pull off, and Sersen outdoes himself here with technical perfection.  I've no idea how this was pulled off - really, not a clue!

A matte painted comp, probably by Ray Kellogg of the post EQ destruction.

Sersen, shown in this photograph accepting his Oscar for best special effects for the 1943 picture CRASH DIVE, with fellow co-winner in sound effects editing Roger Heman snr at right.  For decades both audio and visual effects were lumped into one quite bizarre 'unified' category by the Academy for some odd reason. 
A Fox publicity department paste up photo composite, and a good one at that.

A couple of frames from the 1955 technicolor and CinemaScope remake THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR starring Richard Buron with visual effects by Ray Kellogg, L.B Abbott and James Gordon this time round.

The show was nominated for the Oscar in the effects category but lost out to John Fulton's BRIDGES AT TOKO RI.