Friday, 3 September 2010

Big boys toys... Howard and Theodore Lydecker's miniature wonderland

 Howard and Theodore Lydecker are two names that have always been synonymous within the special effects community and among fans of forties action  cinema. Recognised as the specialists, bar none, in mobile miniature action - be it aerial dogfights, car collisions, train wrecks or battles at sea, the Lydecker brothers achieved it all with customary  high calibre miniature action set pieces and cinematography. Normally associated with the films and large roster of weekly serials produced at Mascot Pictures and later Republic Pictures - there true home base for hundreds of movies over the years.  I wish as an enthusiast, I could access more of their films and serials, but these are extremely difficult to find, so I've had to make do with a sort of mini tribute, based in large part upon the Dydecker's Oscar nominated work for the John Wayne aerial combat picture FLYING TIGERS.  I've also added a few shots from some of their other shows including some breathtaking full scale (I think) pyrotechnics from the terrific firey climax of another Duke Wayne show THE FIGHTING SEABEES and a few frames from their astonishing maritime special effects showcase SINK THE BISMARK.

Largely seen in action packed war films, the Lydecker boys highly regarded technical polish and realism would be often imitated by later legions of special effects chiefs - namely L.B Abbott at Fox who worked with Howard Lydecker on some of the Irwin Allen tv shows of the sixties such as LOST IN SPACE.  Miniatures exponents such as Gregory Jein would work with Abbott in utilising exclusively the Lydecker rigs and gags for the huge Steven Spielberg effects show 1941. 

Even more recent effects heavy shows such as the Oscar winner INDEPENDENCE DAY where effects supervisor Volker Engel preferred to utilise the in camera Lydecker flying rigs for a number of scenes for a far greater degree of fluidity and physical presence of the aircraft trajectory than was achievable at the time with computer simulation or possibly even motion control.

There is a really good look at the world of the Lydecker Brothers on the net at which is part of an extensive look at the making of the television series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.  I've used 3 or 4 photos (above and below of the Lydecker effects unit) from that essay as I've had difficulty finding such good inside views of their studio and props.  Some of the other behind the scenes pictures I've put here of the special effects rigging on the set of FLYING TIGERS I've taken from very old magazine articles on WWII flying action, I forget the name.  I've mentioned a couple of other key effects figures from Republic here as well  - Ellis 'Bud' Thackeray who was a widely experienced effects cinematographer, and Lewis W.Physioc, a veteran matte painter and matte cameraman who was associated with this studio for a time.

Made in 1942, the story of non-combatant fliers based in China as observers during the lead up to WWII, the highly regarded effects work is the realisation that all the aircraft sequences are miniatures, as with the eventual confrontational action sequences - and it all looks terrific.
Not only are the miniatures themselves flawless, but kudos must go to the boys for the exemplary cinematography of the model action.  They were firm believers in employing big models, shot out doors in natural light.
One of Duke Wayne's flyboys is shot down and survives a forced crash landing - all in miniature.
Ellis 'Bud' Thackery was effects cinematographer on this and many other Republic shows.
I believe that the Lydeckers were the envy of the other major studios for the degree of authenticity.
A large scale eight foot high model bridge and moving train - just superb!
The bombing run - perfect miniature pyro work and always invisible wire rigs.
It gets sticky... Japanese spot the US plane and take action.  Amazingly real fluidity in plane movement.
Smart aleck flyboy John Carroll confronts the armaments train and dies a hero..oh, and 'spoiler alert'!.
The success lies in the large scale of the sets and vehicles with grand pay off on screen.
An old film magazine beautifully demonstrates the Lydecker method for FLYING TIGERS

Again, an ancient article spells out the brothers passion and achievements.
At left we can see the extensive control tower rig for cable driven airplane to slide down on the carefully predetermined trajectory into the pre-rigged miniature train and bridge.  Note the motor and pulley set up which pulls the train along the tracks.  Some key modern era effects Oscar winners such as Dennis Muren at ILM are huge devotees of the Lydecker school of miniature manipulation, and used it whenever possible, in the pre CG days on shows such as INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM in 1984

With a small outfit like Republic, it really was all up there on the screen.

Another great little Republic show with some miniatures, a matte painted Washington Monument, possibly painted by Lewis Physioc, an industry effects veteran who was associated with the studio in a matte art capacity for some time.  On this show Theodore was special effects supervisor, with brother Howard acting as 2nd Unit Director.
Part of the huge finale where the Navy Engineers (the Seabees) blow up giant fuel tanks thus setting the enmey soldiers alight in a truly awe inspiring stunt-physical effects showcase. 
The excellent British made, Lewis Gilbert directed  film SINK THE BISMARK
Outstanding miniature sea battlers and pyro work, all expertly photographed in what is possibly some of the most convincing model ship footage of it's type.
Having seen so many similar sequences in war movies over the years SINK THE BISMARK really stands apart in a class of it's own, both in model set ups and also the superb cinematography.  Note the perfectly scaled ocean breakers and wake, no doubt helped considerably by the overcast sky and being in black and white.  I read I think in the L.B Abbott book (he was consultant on this film) that the miniatures were all shot using spherical lenses to allow excellent depth of field not possible with CinemaScope lenses, with the negative being squeezed later to anamorphic 2.35.
More Lydecker magic from SINK THE BISMARK
I can't figure this shot out - pilot viewpoint approaching miniature Bismark??


  1. The last shot must be back projection surely?

    Funnily enough, I watched the Flying Tigers a couple of weeks ago. It's a great film John Woo is making a Flying Tigers film shot in Imax.

    In the summer holidays when I was a kid, the BBC used to show the odd Republic serial, King of The Rocketmen and the Perils Of Nyoka, excellent stuff with great FX from the boys.



  2. Hi Pete,

    Another great entry, on your great blogsite!

    You might be interested in this book, recently published:

    Best wishes,

    Mark Sullivan

  3. Great, love their Rocketman and Capt Marvel flying scenes they did.

  4. Hi Mark
    So honoured to have you as a reader. A tribute to your exquisite matte art is overdue and will be added to my upcoming list. Definitely one of the best of your generation.
    Many thanks for that Lydecker book info - I had no idea about that.... it's now 'ordered' and I await this with anticipation. There was/is a special HUGE tome by Jack Mathis on the behind the scenes Republic studio... has anyone ever seen that?


  5. Hi Pete,

    I believe the book was titled, "Republic Confidential", but it's been a few years since I borrowed a copy from a collector friend, so I might have that wrong. Well worth having if you can track one down. Gets into the whole history of the Yates organization. Has some interesting shots of the process stage, and some accounts of how it worked.

    Wow, you are posting so much great stuff! I'm having trouble catching up with it all! I love it!

    Keep going!



  6. Hi Mark,

    That's the one...yes, I recall now. I can't find it anywhere, and when it was available years ago it was frightfully expensive. The book you alerted me to by the way is delightful and very interesting, and as such I heartily promote same for any blog readers who are interested in The Legendary Lydecker Brothers.

    I'm so flattered Mark that you take the time to 'tune in' here. I was just now showing that mighty and unused ISHTAR full painting of yours to some friends and they were floored by it.

    Sorry, in response to the rate of articles and whether or not I should slow down ... as our mutual friend 'HAL' would say..."I'm sorry Dave, I just can't do that".... ;)

    Kindest regards


  7. I became a fan of the Lydecker Brothers through a friend of mine that I worked with several years ago. He got me interested in a lot of the Republic serials, of which I have quite a few. For some reason my all time favorite is called Zombies of the Straotsphere. I like it mainly because I believe it is one of the first movies that Leonard Nimoy was in. I spend many hours watching the Republic serials and always watch the credits to see if the Lydecker brothers did the special effects. They both were beyond the best in their field.