Thursday 12 July 2018


Pete's Editorial:
Greetings friends and assorted special effects 'nuts' (and I do mean that in the nicest possible way!)
I'm back with a fresh blog post of some substantial volume (would you accept anything less?) and I think many of you will enjoy this retrospective.  However, before we do that I'd like to take a moment to mention a superb book that I've just finished which I'd rate as probably the best of it's kind when it comes to giving the lowdown on the making of any motion picture you'd care to name.
AND THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE by Michael Benson is the book in question, and what a book it is.  I've read several published accounts on the making of Stanley Kubrick's often misunderstood 1968 cinematic masterpiece but none came even close to exploring that mammoth, complicated and certainly controversial production as comprehensively as Benson has done.  Not a word is wasted in this 500 page tome, with a great many portions of the text being re-read a second or third time by this reviewer such was the quality of the writing.  With scores of (the then) surviving cast and crew members interviewed - including Arthur C.Clarke, Douglas Trumbull, Stuart Freeborn, Brian Johnson and many others - often with surprisingly candid and revealing results, some of which are quite hilarious.  Of course the film's groundbreaking photographic effects work is covered in much detail and even I learned so much more than I thought I already knew.  Michael has augmented these very passionate recollections with many archival interviews from those no longer with us, often from unpublished sources.  The result is to put it simply, wonderful.  The accounts presented to the author from the least likely of interviewees such as low ranking production assistants and even newbie 'green' pimply faced interns and the like, who amazingly wound up having key creative input and artistic responsibilities on the film in itself was such a revelation and for me proved among the most rewarding aspects of the 'out of control' behemoth that was Stanley's baby.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It's certainly one that takes a special place on my bookshelf.  A must read!
*PS:  For those interested, I did an extensive and surprisingly well received blog on 2001's special photographic effects a few years ago and it can be read right here.


Today's blog is something a little different inasmuch as there ain't a whole lot of matte painted effects on show here for once.  Instead we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable visual effects sequences where catastrophic mayhem was the order of the day.  It's not really a disaster film showcase that you might anticipate, as this article covers a range of genres that just happen to have an element of epic scaled mayhem as created by the special effects departments of various studios over a long timespan of movie history.  There are war films, drama's, soppy love stories, westerns, fantasy films, science fiction yarns, dawn of man epics, comedies and even musicals among the line up here.  Musicals I here you utter?  Well, yes... MGM's big CinemaScope song and dance show SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS wasn't all vocals and melody, as there was a ripper of an avalanche in the movie with much technical virtuosity required.

Of course there are some of the obvious entries such as EARTHQUAKE, which played a massive part in my love for visual effects back in 1974, and there are some classic effects sequences from terrific war pictures such as THE DAMBUSTERS and the amazing HELL'S ANGELS in addition to shows like the classy Cinerama epic KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA through to the dire Irwin Allen flick THE STORY OF MANKIND.

Some of these films had significant chunks of running time devoted to some form of catastrophic mayhem, while others may have just had one brief segment that occurred within an otherwise unremarkable movie, but all those effects sequences selected are here because NZPete fondly remembers them.  Not all are masterpieces (ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT - what were they thinking?), while others remain to this day fully fledged classics in all aspects of the artform and entertainment value (THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO - unforgettable!).
Some time back I published my Magicians of the Miniature blog special on all things miniature, which incidentally has proven to be my most popular post ever.  While today's blog post isn't really a follow up, it's probably the next best thing for those of you who dig models in the trick shot arena. My big miniature effects blog can be read here.

So, with that, let us put our feet up onto the seat in front of us, dig into our popcorn (or if you were me back in the day, a double chocolate dipped ice cream) and become immersed in a few hours of most worthy m a y h e m ... I'm sure you'll get a kick out of it  


I'll start off with one of my absolute all time favourite movies, and certainly one of the finest special effects entries ever, MGM's big budgeted THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944).  The film deserved took home the Oscar that year for it's effects work which included fabulous miniatures by the great Donald Jahraus under the overall supervision of the legendary A.Arnold 'Buddy' Gillespie in what I'd regard as a career best for both men.
The film deals with the famous Dolittle bombing raids on Tokyo as a show of force after the calamity that was Pearl Harbour.  The bomb run itself as shown here was brilliantly executed on the MGM backlot by Buddy Gillespie and a crew that included several son to be famous in their field effects practitioners such as A.D Flowers, Jack McMaster and Glen Robinson - all of whom went on to major endeavours later in their careers. These sequences were shot from atop a 90 foot tower erected on the backlot.
Part of Don Jahraus' massive miniature set of Tokyo.  The blur at the lower edge of the frame isn't the fault of Max Fabian's excellent fx cinematography but is a result of these frames being screengrabs from what was a fast motion sequence filmed from the bomber aircraft's POV as it swoops low over the industrial area in flames.

Miniaturist Don Jahraus started off his career at RKO around 1930 and then did some time at Universal briefly before taking up the position at MGM where he stayed for the remainder of his illustrious career.

Part of the aerial bombardment set piece, and although it's hard to see on these frames, the B25 is actually visible flying across the devastation as it occurs. What I love here is the remarkably authentic pyrotechnic work that is perfectly scaled to the large miniature set and looks utterly convincing. Marvellous horizontal piano wire guidance system (that can faintly be seen vibrating as the explosion goes off)  that was an industry standard for decades and was largely known as a Lydecker rig, named after Republic special effects masters Howard and Theodore Lydecker.  The system would still be in use by Gillespie's assistant A.D (Adlia Douglas) Flowers on the big Steven Spielberg film 1941 (1979) and also featured in later shows such as INDEPENDENCE DAY among others.

In his memoir, Buddy Gillespie called Donald Jahraus "...the best executor of miniature assignments with whom I ever came in contact - imaginative, intelligent, artistic and creative - Truly one of the greats."

Glen Robinson and Robert MacDonald were Gillespie's 'powder men' for these scenes.  Buddy described these miniatures as being 1/2 scale, which suggests enormous models, though maybe he meant 1/2 inch to the foot scale?
A close up of one of the B25's from Gillespie's own historic collection.  The take offs and landings were executed with a vertical piano wire system (barely visible in this still) attached to an overhead trolley rig which ran along cables strung between telephone poles.

A rare still taken from the same position as Maximillian Fabian's vfx camera - atop the 90 foot tower - which demonstrates the amazing skills of the powder men and their pyro mix.  I just can't get enough of miniature explosions, with Gerry Anderson's THUNDERBIRDS being my weekly 'fix' back in the 1960's.

While on aerial mayhem, we cannot overlook the phenomenal effects work in Spielberg's 1941 (1979) which was orchestrated by one of the THIRTY SECONDS veterans, A.D Flowers.  Jaw dropping miniature set pieces with brilliantly executed 'Lydecker rigs' allowing model aircraft to not only fly down Hollywood Blvd but to do barrel rolls and all manner of stunt gags.
Greg Jein's miniatures get all blown to hell in 1941.

Another viewpoint of the miniature Hollywood Blvd aerial sequence.  Oh, and I've actually stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel once while on an expedition to great places like Larry Edmunds Movie Bookstore and Hollywood Book & Poster etc ... and all while 'attending' an international conference as an invited speaker on very weird medical things in a previous life, but keep that to yourself.

Frames from the climactic Ferris wheel sequence where the whole thing comes off it's axis and rolls into the bay, though sadly Eddie Deezen survived!

Effects crew at work on 1941.  That's Logan Frazee at lower left and A.D Flowers middle right.  For much more on the effects from this movie you can visit my special blog right here.
Kiwi director Roger Donaldson did a splendid job with his version of the famous Bounty mutineers saga with THE BOUNTY (1984) and the film hit all the bases for this viewer.  A couple of effects shots which included a first rate climactic scene where the Pitcairn deposited mutineers deliberately sink the mighty ship The Bounty so as to not draw attention to their whereabouts.  Excellent model work and composite photography by Van der Veer Photo Effects - a company established by longtime effects cameraman Frank Van der Veer who sadly died in 1982.  Frank began in the effects biz in 1950 at 20th Century Fox as one of Fred Sersen's crew and he founded his own optical house in 1962 and produced many composite shots for films as wide ranging as EXORCIST II-THE HERETIC, ORCA THE KILLER WHALE and the 1976 incarnation of KING KONG.
Epic conclusion to an epic film, THE BOUNTY.

For the MGM film ABOVE AND BEYOND (1952), A.Arnold Gillespie re-created the Atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima to frightening effect though I'm sure the footage was in fact lifted out of an earlier MGM picture called THE BEGINNING OR THE END (1947).  The terrain was actually just a scenic painting inside a large glass tank measuring 4 by 5 feet and 7 feet in depth,  filled with distilled water. The mushroom cloud was created by injecting a chemical formula into the tank at a strategic point, augmented by specially rigged flash bulbs behind to add to the illusion.  The subsequent views of devastation were achieved via miniatures.  At the time Gillespie created this effect, nobody outside of the military had actually seen the effects of an atomic bomb blast so it was a bit of guess work on the fx technicians part.
For the 1957 Korean war drama, BATTLE HYMN, Universal's effects department under Clifford Stine produced a superb bit of  destruction.  Miniature most likely made by veteran Charlie Baker, with Fred Knoth being one of that studio's pyro experts.
Irwin Allen's feeble attempt at remaking the classic LOST WORLD (1960) was an insult to Willis O'Brien who was engaged on the film purely to have his esteemed name associated with this turkey and nothing more.  Anyway, there was a halfway decent cataclysmic finale when the whole she-bang goes up like the forth of July.  L.B Abbott was effects chief with Emil Kosa jnr painting the matte art, which I think much of this shot is.
George Pal produced many memorable films but ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT (1961) definitely wasn't one of them.  A dreadful film barely saved by some okay effects which included lots of Lee LeBlanc and Matthew Yuricich matte shots, a devastating miniature climax where the whole of Atlantis sinks to the briny depths and a hell of a lot of stock footage from movies such as QUO VADIS and THE PRODIGAL.
This film was one of Buddy Gillespie's last for MGM and he retired after a very long career with the studio.

Part of the vast tank miniature set for ATLANTIS where a number of Roman buildings are in fact left over props from the 1951 epic QUO VADIS.
Although not in the least a memorable movie, Disney's THE BLACK HOLE (1979) did have some interesting mattes, miniatures and effects set pieces.  This dramatic moment where a meteor slams into the space station is the best bit in the film by a long shot.  Great combination of miniatures and live action, combined via bluescreen.  Traditionally the studio relied upon the superior yellow backing sodium composite process but the beam splitter gates in those effects cameras were not compatible with scope anamorphic lenses.

BLACK HOLE miniatures supervised by Peter Ellenshaw, with Danny Lee handling the mechanical effects side of things and Art Cruickshank shooting the set up.  Eustace Lycette and Bob Broughton did all of the optical compositing.

An Oscar nominee for it's special effects, BOMBARDIER (1943) was a field day for the RKO effects department.  Tons of trick work supervised by Vernon L. Walker with effects photography by Paul Eagler.  Russell Cully was matte cameraman and Linwood Dunn handled the opticals.  Clifford Stine was also probably on board.
More great camera effects work from BOMBARDIER.
The Japanese didn't stand a chance from this aerial vfx bombardment. The shots look quite impressive still today.
A thoroughly under appreciated sci-fi picture was JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN (1969), aka DOPPLEGANGER.  Derek Meddings handled all of the quite considerable effects direction, with scores of terrific miniature sequences complimented with excellent optical composite work by Roy Field.  Meddings was, and remains, a hero of mine thanks to my formative years being very much exposed to all of those shows like STINGRAY, THUNDERBIRDS, JOE 90 and UFO.
Same film, which was incidentally submitted to the Academy as a potential visual effects nominee but never made the grade. Astonishingly, MAROONED took the Oscar that year and beat out the superior KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA which should have been a no brainer as they say.
Another of those all time greats in NZPete's VFX Hall of Fame was the stunning BOOM TOWN (1940) from MGM.  An above par vehicle for Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy as oil well fire fighters the film is packed with jaw dropping trick work that run the range from fabulous Newcombe mattes, Buddy Gillespie mechanical effects and excellent Irving Ries optical and rotoscope work.  
Just some of the outstanding and truly frightening trick shots in BOOM TOWN, with heart stopping combinations of fire effects with the actors.  The film was nominated (plus some 13 other films) for the best special effects Oscar that year but lost out to THE THIEF OF BAGDAD.
Superbly executed optical printing allows the actor to be enveloped in the out of control conflagration.  Brilliant work.
Irving G. Ries was MGM's resident optical genius and was responsible for many notable shots throughout his long career, with BOOM TOWN being my favourite.  Lots of meticulous optical printer manipulation going on here folks.
As frightening a sequence as had ever been at the time.  Incidentally, many years later director Andrew McLaglen made an explosive film THE HELLFIGHTERS with equally thrilling fire fighting sequences, though these were all conducted in full scale on a live set with stunt guys and very carefully controlled fire gags by Fred Knoth and Herman Townsley.
THE BLUE BIRD (1940) was an amiable family film with Shirley Temple, though it did have a staggeringly well done out of control forest fire sequence by Fred Sersen which garnered Fred an Oscar nomination for his work.  Brilliant combinations of miniatures, matte art and live action it really was a sight.

There were a number of big all star showcase war pictures through the sixties with BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965) being one such production.  As an overall film it was a little on the tedious side, though this was more than made up for with outstanding miniature and pyrotechnic effects.  Russian born Eugene Lourie was a multi-talented larger than life figure in European based cinema, with a versatility in production design, hanging miniatures, models, special effects and even feature film direction.  With miniature constructor Charles-Henri Assola and physical effects expert Alex Weldon, Lourie produced a number of stunning effects sequences for BATTLE OF THE BULGE.  From bombed out miniature cities to remote control model tanks engaged in battle, the trick work was excellent.
Miniature tank in action, with effects men Basilio Cortijo and Richard Parker involved.
BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965) - Mayhem in miniature.

Eugene Lourie poses with one of his magnificent miniature tanks.  Big boys toys indeed.
Production Designer and Miniature Effects Director Eugene Lourie contributed much to other notable effects shows such as KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA, CRACK IN THE WORLD and CUSTER OF THE WEST, all of which are examined in this very blog.
For the tank sequences, recreated almost entirely in miniature, Lourie described his work in his memoir:  "My miniature tanks were about three feet long, with two horsepower motors, and they had numerous electrical commands to advance, retreat, turn the turret and shoot the guns.  They had realistic recoiling guns and were perfect reproductions of real tanks right down to the smallest detail.  All the scenes that were difficult or impossible to achieve with real tanks were performed in miniature"
I'm a big fan of Ray Harryhausen's films and they played an important part in my younger years without question.  Sadly, Ray's last great film was the very under rated GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD made in 1973 which hit bullseye in all areas for this viewer.  The frames above though are from Ray's last feature CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) which was a very bitter disappointment in my book and lacked everything that made Harryhausen's films an event worth waiting for.  The stop motion was sub-par though the other effects such as this massive tidal wave were pretty good.  
Westbury Design & Optical's Cliff Culley and Leigh Took created this sequence in miniature, with live action extras blue screened in later by Roy Field or Frank van der Veer.
Neil Culley mans the high speed camera as a torrent of water is released into Leigh Took's miniature temple and courtyard. According to Leigh one of the takes looked great until they projected it at dailies the next day whereby a huge candy bar wrapper was seen floating through the deluge.  It appears that a crew member had been napping up in one of the empty reservoir tanks between set ups and left his litter behind!
Miniature with travelling matted people.
All up, an impressive sequence and arguably the high point of an otherwise flaccid film.

As mentioned earlier, Eugene Lourie was a major force in creative trick shots for mostly European based productions and was especially skilled at perspective gags and miniature mayhem (and the mayhem aspect is what we're all about folks!)  CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965) was an interesting melodrama with some great miniature shots though in truth, the original one-sheet movie poster was far more exciting than the actual film (not at all uncommon with sixties cinema and those magnificent artist renderings that curiously pre-sold many a film beyond it's actual status).
A wonderfully carried out miniature train wreck from CRACK IN THE WORLD.
Shooting miniatures in actual daylight is the key to credibility.
I presume Lourie had his usual crew on this assignment, with Henri Assola on model making with Basilio Cortijo.
Eruption, landslide and lava as seen in CRACK IN THE WORLD.

While we're on trains coming to grief on trestle railway bridges, here is another prime Eugene Lourie example from the fine, sprawling western CUSTER OF THE WEST (1966).

Two of the most highly regarded craftsmen contributed much to CUSTER OF THE WEST, Francisco Prosper at left and the great Emilio Ruiz del Rio at right.  Both men worked together on the trick effects on numerous films such as THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD with Francisco's specialty being elaborate miniature settings and Emilio's being both miniatures and foreground matte paintings - several of which he contributed on CUSTER.

One of the greatest acts of heroism and daring of the second world war was adapted into the classic British picture THE DAM BUSTERS (1953).  A great deal of miniature work by veteran George Blackwell, with model photography by Gil Taylor (who would later be D.P on STAR WARS decades later).  A considerable amount of carefully plotted roto animation by Ronnie Wass placed massive explosions at key points along the wall of the dam, though made more impressive by virtue of these opticals being viewed from a moving aircraft, thus requiring a fair bit of precise calculation I'd suggest.
George Blackwell's large miniature of one of the dams over the Ruhr valley in Germany.
A great shot with large dam set and miniature RAF bomber flying across and dropping the famed bouncing bomb which did the trick very nicely, thank you Dr Barnes Wallis.
More sensational shots from THE DAM BUSTERS featuring George Blackwell's finely detailed miniatures and some Les Bowie matte work.
The result of the RAF raid being the flooded Nazi armaments factories down the valley.  Matte painted factories with rushing water and smoke effects added later.
Munitions workers in dire peril in THE DAM BUSTERS.  Miniature set combined with actors by way of Vic Margutti's travelling matte process.  Peter Jackson had already started filming his remake a few years ago but put it on hiatus as he got tied up with those bloody HOBBIT films.  I can't wait to see Peter's version when and if it ever gets finished.
Another view of the carnage.  THE DAM BUSTERS was nominated that year for an Academy Award for it's visual effects but lost out to Paramount's THE BRIDGES AT TOKO RI.

Some very rare pictures here from the making of THE DAM BUSTERS that George Blackwell's family kindly shared with me a while ago.  That's George at top left with one of the miniature bombers.  Also shown here is the actual Academy nomination certificate for George's special effects contribution.
Probably cinema's first bona-fide disaster flick, DELUGE (1933) is an interesting enough watch and packs a fair punch in it's brief running time, not to mention some eye popping pre-code sadism and in-your-face cheesecake.   
Given it's period, the trick work isn't too bad actually, with the main drawback being limited depth of field in the camera work and too long choice of lens.  Ned Mann was effects director and was without question one of the pioneers of trick photography with a career dating back to the original silent THIEF OF BAGDAD (1923) all the way through to AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956).  Mann specialised in hanging miniatures and various other gags, with much work being for the Korda organisation.  Several prominent effects men were trained by Ned.
The best shot in DELUGE is this birds eye view of the tidal wave washing out New York city.  William Williams was effects cameraman, and if you think that name is made up then I'll tell you that one of the mechanical fx guys on this film was named Donald Donaldson.
New York scaled way down for DELUGE.
More trick photography from DELUGE (1933).  The composite shots were Dunning Process travelling mattes and the numerous matte paintings (not shown here) were very atmospheric and rendered by Russ Lawson.
One of Russ Lawson's matte painted shots from DELUGE.
Roland Emmerich's INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) may have been a daft crowd pleaser but I did admire the film maker for utilising a great many traditional era old school effects gags.  Lots of great miniatures and pyro work, with shots like this being your basic 1930's Lydecker rig that worked a treat, and garnered an Oscar for visual effects.
The money shot from INDEPENDENCE DAY has to be the destruction of the White House by those odd illegal alien fiends.  Try and build a wall big enough to keep these bastards out Donald!

Columbia's spectacle THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK (1961) was a sizable project for effects men Larry Butler and Donald Glouner.  Some very large miniatures, filmed out of doors in sunlight against an actual sky worked a treat here.
I don't know who was more temperamental here, Spencer Tracy as a priest with a chip on his shoulder or that bloody volcano?

The volcano in question as constructed on effects man Larry Butler's ranch.
The original DIE HARD (1988) proved to be one of the best of the genre when it came to shoot 'em up action yarns, and unlike some of the latter entries in the series practically everything on show here was done real time and in-camera.  Richard Edlund's Boss Films did all of the effects work, with this miniature chopper crash being the primo set piece.

One of the all time great cinematic train wrecks was seen in the Harrison Ford thriller THE FUGITIVE (1993). William Mesa's company Introvision had already provided some amazing visuals to such fare as OUTLAND and others, and was ideally suited to bringing this sequence together. 
Superb large scale miniature railway set up combined with the performer by way of Introvision's patented reflex front projection system.

As if the preceding action hadn't been riveting enough, the train has now jumped the tracks and is about to mow down Han Solo!
Introvision front projection at work.
An effective miniature is only as good as the cinematographer makes it.
Carnage at platform nine ... all aboard.

Next to KING KONG (1933),it was EARTHQUAKE (1974) more than any that hooked me onto special effects.  I saw it back in the day in 70mm, 6 Track stereo and with Sensurround of course and it totally blew my mind.  
Clifford Stine was effects cinematographer and I feel he contributed much to the film by shooting all of the many miniatures in actual daylight which is always a big plus for achieving credibility.  Stine began in the business in the late twenties in various capacities before finding his niche in camera effects with Vernon Walker at RKO on films such as KING KONG and CITIZEN KANE.  With a move into conventional production cinematography at Universal for several years Stine would drift back into effects camera work on a number of Universal's 50's sci-fi pictures and then move back into non-effects photography.  Clifford was called out of retirement to shoot the miniatures for EARTHQUAKE and again a year later for similar on THE HINDENBURG.
One of the marvellous miniature sets as used in a major effects sequence shown above and below as frames from the film.. Former MGM effects man Glen Robinson oversaw all of the miniature work, with longtime Universal model maker Charles Cleon Baker.  Baker had a massive career that dated back to the original Willis O'Brien LOST WORLD in 1924, and would join Universal Studios in 1930 where he would remain through to 1979 with films such as THIS ISLAND EARTH and all of those 50's monster-alien films having Charlie's work.
Further frames from that amazing sequence.
This scene had me on the edge of my seat back in 1974 and I always worried about those cows!
This scene from EARTHQUAKE was so well done I'd always assumed they knocked down real houses!
Pictured here on the left is Glen Robinson preparing the stilt house sequence in miniature.

The Wilson Plaza miniature set for EARTHQUAKE.  The film was actually just a modest budgeted affair, coming in at a surprisingly paltry $7.5 million, which when you consider the result up on the screen, is pretty impressive.  The cost of the film THE TOWERING INFERNO that same year was double at some $15 million.
Matte artist Albert Whitlock painted this and some 21 other glass shots for the film which would feature in some 40 odd cuts.  Probably Whitlock's most well known matte shot, and rightfully so, with the only giveaway being the artificially illuminated 'smoke' elements that have been superimposed later with the 'smoke' lighting not matching Whitlock's precise interpretation of sunlight.  Note, this BluRay frame is oddly incorrectly timed to a strong magenta hue for some reason whereas DVD, VHS, 16mm and TV all had the same original colour timing.
Another of Al Whitlock's post quake mattes that extend limited Universal backlot settings. Long time Universal matte and effects cinematographer Roswell Hoffman composited all of Whitlocks shots on original negative, with this film being his last whereby he retired and Bill Taylor took over the camera side of things.
The climax of EARTHQUAKE features a massive flood as the Hollywood Dam breaks apart.  Here we can see special effects cinematographer Cliff Stine (in white) operating the high speed camera at right.
Members of Glen Robinson's miniatures crew put the final touches on the vast Hollywood Dam set constructed on the Universal backlot. Damn, I loved this movie back in the 70's.
Thar she blows!  Although filmed in the daytime, the final sequence was printed down so as to be a night shot which is one way on concealing scale problems with water as it cannot be 'miniaturised' very easily.  EARTHQUAKE won the 1974 Oscar for best visual effects.
Republic's spectacular John Wayne war picture FLYING TIGERS (1942) gave the Lydecker brothers, Howard and Theo, to have a field day with what they did best.  Plenty of first rate aerial dogfight miniatures that are completely convincing.
Plane meets train in FLYING TIGERS.
Behind the scenes look at the Lydecker's miniature rigs for FLYING TIGERS.  This film was one of 10 nominated that year in the visual effects category.
A fairly routine period melodrama mostly set here in New Zealand, GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (1947) was an all out bonanza in the special visual effects stakes.  Magnificent matte art by Norman Dawn and Howard Fisher together with a wide array of wonderful miniature sets by the great Donald Jahraus, supported by fantastic mechanical effects Arnold Gillespie and some of the best process projection scenes ever shot.  Understandably the film won the 1947 Oscar for it's effects, with Gillespie and matte supervisor Warren Newcombe both collecting the statuettes (though why was miniaturist Don Jahraus overlooked?)

Part of the scenario involves a big mother of an earthquake here in NZ which in turn creates a tidal wave from a vast volcanic lake.  The scene above is an utterly amazing combination of superb miniature construction of a vast forest which in turn is brilliantly engineered by Gillespie's crew for huge Kauri trees to uproot and topple onto the fleeing Maori natives.  What makes this so damned effective is the flawless rear projected miniature action that blends perfectly with the soundstage extras at MGM.  Great care has been taken in matching light and shadow, with none of the usual grain or 'fall off' in process illumination across such a large screen as is commonly seen.  Buddy Gillespie was unique as far as major studio effects chiefs went in that he controlled three facets of the five acknowledged areas of special effects; those being practical effects, miniatures and process.  Optical and matte shots were controlled by Irving Ries and Warren Newcombe respectively.
MGM did pioneer multiple projector systems where 2 or 3 process projectors were able to be interlinked with each providing a portion of the screen image (such as half or a third).  Each projected image was able to be blended perfectly onto the large process screen to form one very wide complete background plate.  This I believe didn't come into being until well into the late 50's or early 60's with films such as the 65mm MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY.
Gillespie rehashes a gag he learned from former effects head James Basevi on SAN FRANCISCO back in 1936 where the earth literally swallows up the innocent.
An on set photo of the marvellously detailed miniature Kauri forest constructed by Donald Jahraus and his model crew with the main trees modelled and cast in plaster.
The quake causes a huge mountain lake to burst it's banks and race down into the village.  All miniature of course.
The deluge envelopes the small settlement and flows into what I assume to be the Wanganui River where things go from bad to worse.  Another fine example of large scale miniature set, meticulously detailed and scaled sufficiently to give the water a credibility factor.
MGM's premier effects cameraman was the amazingly resourceful Maximillian Fabian who was director of miniature photography on scores of major productions such as FORBIDDEN PLANET, SAN FRANCISCO and  A GUY CALLED JOE.

Amazingly, this vista is entirely a Donald Jahraus miniature set.  The distant water cascading down is actually gypsum dust and steam producing a misty 'water like' effect while the foreground floodwaters is in fact actual water that Gillespie has released from a hidden reservoir.
The resulting tidal wave devastates the river and those unfortunates trying to escape.  The distant raft and people are models as is the entire river, with trees recycled from the main earthquake forest miniature dressing this set.
Van Heflin wishes he'd brought his surfboard.  Rear projected miniature deluge that suddenly takes on a jarring effect as real water is blasted onto the actors from underneath the process screen.  Worked very well.
Best picture of 1952, Cecil B. DeMille's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH was relatively free of trickery until the major set piece train on train collision.  Gordon Jennings was Paramount's chief of special effects and was DeMille's favourite trick shot man reportedly.  The miniatures were constructed by long time technician Ivyl Burks who did many memorable shows, most notably WAR OF THE WORLDS a year or so later.  Gordon's brother Devereaux shot the sequence with Irmin Roberts matting in the crowd of people next to the miniature track.  Farciot Edouart was Paramount's process man and oversaw those shots with his cameraman Wallace Kelley.

A film largely forgotten today except by fans like me, Howard Hughes' labour of love HELL'S ANGELS (1930) was a bold World War I adventure with some of the most amazing effects shots ever done, and shots that stand up to scrutiny even today.  The film was released with certain sequences tinted such as this fantastic night time aerial battle between biplane and dirigible.  
The airship goes down like a ton of bricks in an extremely well choreographed and shot set piece that still looks good.

The two-tone colour tinting contributed a lot to the sequence and must have wowed audiences back in 1930.

Same film, though all the rest of it is regular monochrome.  I still find this extended aerial bombardment miniature sequence to be among the finest of it's kind.  The effects chief was E.Roy Davidson who for years ran the camera effects department at Columbia with films like ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and later was effects director at Warner Bros for several years.

I'd love to know how big the miniatures were for HELL'S ANGELS as the explosive work is so well scaled with the supposed target that the models must have been huge.
Other effects cameramen on HELL'S ANGELS were Harry Zech, who was one of Ned Mann's colleagues, and Cecil Love who would go on to enjoy a long career with Linwood Dunn at RKO and later Film Effects of Hollywood.  Legendary fly-boy Elmer Dyer was also involved with the daring aerial photography.
I could watch model set ups blow up all day long, and they don't get much better than this.

I just love this shot from HELL'S ANGELS where the truck driver reckons he can make a quick getaway though the Ace in the sky above has different ideas.  Marvellous miniature carnage here.

I really like the films of Samuel Fuller.  Sam made many hard as nails noir dramas and war pictures throughout his career, and all of them have his stamp on them.  HELL AND HIGH WATER (1954) had a good plot and star (Richard Widmark), and had great action bits but was so sabotaged by an utterly unwanted and out of place love sub plot that would make you want to scream!  I'm sure Fox's Darryl Zanuck insisted on having a chick on board the US Navy sub on a secret mission. Anyway, the effects included this major showdown where Widmark's boys blow the shit out of an enemy installation on an island.  All done in miniature with matte art and actors combined with a great amount of blue screen work.  The film was nominated for an Oscar for the effects.
An early entry in the disaster movie genre was John Ford's THE HURRICANE (1937) featuring the eternally delectable Miss Dorothy Lamour wrapped in that tropical sarong which made her famous.... though as usual, I digress.  The huge miniature set of the island and it's trappings was some 600 feet in length apparently.
There are some good effects shots in this film, with this sequence being my favourite.  Some excellent miniature destruction combined with the actors via back projection.  British born James Basevi was in charge here and had previously been head of all special effects over at MGM before leaving that post to his assistant Arnold Gillespie around 1937 and moving over to Samuel Goldwyn Studios.   Effects cameraman Ray Binger had a long career with Goldwyn and also did notable work on Hitchcock's wonderful FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.
First rate model construction and de-construction.
The mission station as well as the island as a whole, are devastated in the storm of the century, though there was nothing quite as devastating to NZPete as the exquisite Dorothy Lamour (!)

The 1930's saw a significant number of classy effects event films such as IN OLD CHICAGO (1937).  I've often discussed this film in my blogs as it remains a fave in the trick shot stakes for sure.  Based on a true story, the city of Chicago is reduced largely to ashes.  Fred Sersen designed and supervised the myriad effects shots which ranged from matte art, opticals, miniatures and roto animation, with the resulting spectacle being impressive indeed.
20th Century Fox was really at the top of the game when it came to big effects laden showcases like IN OLD CHICAGO, no question about it.  Assisting Sersen on the endeavour were longtime Fox effects cameraman and matte painter Ralph Hammeras as well as Fox studio's chief of mechanical effects Louis Witte.  Future vfx wizard L.B 'Bill' Abbott got his first assignment in trick work when he was loaned out from Fox's camera department to assist Sersen and Hammeras in shooting miniatures on this film.  Bill would of course later become chief of all special effects at the studio.  Incidentally, the burning warehouses in the upper frame were built some eight feet tall and collapsed with specially rigged wires.  
Some shots had people matted in via hand drawn rotoscope animation which allowed the crumbling structures to 'crush' the performers. 
IN OLD CHICAGO matte shot.

One of the numerous 'B' pictures of the fifties that dealt with the so-called 'Red Menace', INVASION USA (1952) had a few interesting cut price miniatures and photographic effects by Jack Rabin, who always seemed to get lumbered with nickel and dime productions.
Irving Block's matte painted post H bomb devastation.
Ever since I was a kid attending the old Saturday matinee double features at my local movie houses like the Crystal Palace (still standing, amazingly), I've always loved this sort of show, the espionage/saboteur gig where agents go behind enemy lines to blow the shit out of some Nazi munitions factory or some such thing ... in fact even today decades on I still seek out such flicks.  OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965) was one of those movies I was drawn to and it's still a good yarn all these years on, even if Sophia Loren is completely extraneous to the plot!

The tense film builds up to a great climax where the evil Nazi war machine suffers a major setback, the destruction of their U2 program.  Tom Howard was photographic effects man on this major film and he furnished a fabulous wizz-bang of a finale via much miniature mayhem and about a hundred explosions!
The vast underground complex has been infiltrated by George Peppard (why did we lose that great actor so soon?).  Good effects photography made the whole she-bang look larger than life on the big cinema screen.
Tom Howard was in charge of the United Kingdom Boreham Wood MGM studio effects department and was instrumental in Kubrick's 2001 looking as good as it did.
OPERATION CROSSBOW was, believe it or not, later retitled by some 'genius', THE GREAT SPY MISSION (!!)
Our hero George Peppard gives it his all and dies a hero in a great bit of Tom Howard optical trickery.
Rudyard Kipling's timeless classic, JUNGLE BOOK (1942) was one of many Oscar nominated pictures in the best special effects category.  Being a Korda production Lawrence Butler was charged with creating the effects shots which included this amazing jungle inferno in miniature.

I remember KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA (1969) as being one of those eagerly awaited 'event' movies of the era, with lots of fanfare.  It stands up reasonably well today, though is fatally overlong and features an absolutely insufferable musical interlude that is as bad as it could ever get.  The action, when it arrives that is, is pretty spectacular and we the viewer aren't left short changed.  The aforementioned maestro of special effects, Eugene Lourie, designed and directed all of the fx work which relies heavily on large miniatures and a hell of a lot of of explosions (too many actually as they become a wee bit tiresome after the first 100 or so).
Among the large effects team on the film were practical effects man Alex Weldon who worked often with Lourie on other projects; Spanish master of miniature set ups Francisco Prosper; miniature builder Henri Assola; miniature effects technician Basilio Cortijo; matte artist Bob Cuff and visual effects cinematographer John Mackey.
The village ablaze from flaming lava projectiles.  A large miniature set combined by travelling matte with the actors.
More examples of some of the sensational model work from KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA.
Why have one catastrophe when two will work even better?  The volcanic eruption triggers a tsunami of considerable proportions.
Outstanding model work with flawless blue screen matte composite.
Oh boy, this stuff is good.  Miniatures maketh the movie.
Krakatoa is actually west of Java.
Behind the scenes on the KRAKATOA set.  At left is miniatures maestro Francisco Prosper while at bottom right is effects technician Basilio Cortijo rigging the enormous miniature port and township for the impending tidal wave.  The fellow with the model ship is unidentified.
Brian Johnson furnished this horrific sequence to the mediocre THE MEDUSA TOUCH (1978).  Brian had years of experience, mainly in mechanical effects, having gotten his start in the industry from the father of British trick work Les Bowie, on such early classic films such as the original DUNKIRK and THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE.

Well, I can't honestly say the work in METEOR (1979) was especially memorable, in fact some of it was of a very poor standard indeed for a huge budget disaster epic ($20 million in 1979 was a big chunk of cash!).  A problematic affair was METEOR, with initial visual effects supplier Van der Veer Photo Effects having their plug pulled some way into the assignment and others taking over the reigns with very mixed results.  William and Margot Cruse were eventually billed as vfx supervisors, having just come off of the post apocalyptic DAMNATION ALLEY.
Numerous cataclysmic events occur in METEOR such as this avalanche in Austria after a meteor hits.  The compositing was a major problem on this film with vivid blue matte lines around every travelling matted element (and there were a lot of them).  Some visual effects concepts missed the boat entirely and just crashed such as a major set piece with Hong Kong being obliterated by a big bastard of a tidal wave (not bothered to illustrate here).  I've got a bunch of behind the scenes pics of model profiles set up in a big tank resembling Hong Kong by, I think, Fantasy II (?), though quite clearly that footage never made the final film as in the end American International went the cheap route and just superimposed hilariously out of scale churning water over the top of actual HK plates.  Just look back at the 1951 variation of the exact same technique as employed by Gordon Jennings on WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and you will be disbelieving as to how the METEOR people got it so wrong.  Other shots where blue screen was employed had the anomaly of the nearer the edges of the scope screen the matte was, the thicker the matte line - something peculiar with the squeezed optics of scope lenses employed.
Probably the most effective scene of destruction in METEOR was the collision between a meteor and the (gulp) World Trade towers in New York.  
The World Trade Centre's twin towers come down in the all star and very pricey METEOR (1979).
A big plus in favour of METEOR were some superb matte painted shots by Jena Holman.

The very amusing Andy Griffith comedy NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS (1958) even managed to get serious with an atomic blast courtesy of matte painter Lou Litchtenfield's effects department at Warner Bros.

Michael Curtiz' quite strange NOAH'S ARK (1929) was a hard act to follow though it did have great effects work by Fred Jackman at Warner Bros which included many mattes by artist Paul Grimm, miniatures by Ned Mann, effects photography by Hans Koenekamp and Vernon Walker and optical effects by William Butler and his son Lawrence (soon to be famous as Larry Butler, one of the most experienced effects technicians in Hollywood).
One of Alfred Hitchcock's best ever films, and actually one of the best films period, NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) had this nifty though brief miniature cut by Arnold Gillespie which concludes the famous chase through the cornfield sequence.
Made on a tight budget, the old Hal Roach ONE MILLION B.C (1940) sure kept the guys in Roy Seawright's effects department on their toes.  Under Roy's supervision were effects cameraman Frank William Young, matte painter Jack Shaw, miniatures builder Fred Knoth and optical cinematographer William Draper.  This movie was on the ballot for best effects in 1940 but didn't win.
From the same film is this impressive shot of a cave gal being enveloped in burning lava.  A great effect achieved with hand animated mattes by William Draper and miniature 'lava'. This, along with a ton of other shots from the film would be endlessly recycled over the coming years and turn up in many a B picture such as TWO LOST WORLDS and even a few A pictures too.
Some 25 years later Ray Harryhausen had a stab at the same story and a pretty good film was the end product (though I feel Jim Danforth's WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH was somewhat better).  For the dramatic earthquake sequence Ray enlisted the help of Les Bowie and veteran George Blackwell to create a quite impressive extended sequence.
The quake causes much distress among our primitive cave dwelling folk.  Miniature set merged with actors via blue screen.
I think this entire sequence worked and still looks sensational today.  This shot especially.
More effective shots of a miniature landscape opening up and swallowing folks.

Not many people are aware that effects wizard Willis O'Brien was not only associated with stop motion pictures such as KING KONG but also had a significant part to play in the creation of other genres too.  THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935) was a prime example, with O'Bie tasked to oversee miniature destruction, optical compositing and various matte shots required for the narrative.

A rare test frame from LAST DAYS OF POMPEII of an unfinished matte one of artist Byron Crabbe's vistas.

The ancient city of Pompeii is decimated by a Willis O'Brien effects eruption.  The miniature setting was combined via the Dunning Process matting technique.
At left is a rare pic of O'Bie and an unidentified technician posing with one of the giant miniature sets that will have lava flow through it and be combined with live action by travelling matte.  Gus White built the miniatures with Marcel Delgado assisting.
One of Byron Crabbe's glass shots.  Clarence Slifer was matte cameraman on the film.
The temple collapses as the earth rattles.  A Gus White model combined with the actors by a Dunning Process matte.

One of the best of the Roman-esque epic films was QUO VADIS (1951).  Top shelf production all the way and complimented by a myriad of fantastic effects shots that included several beautiful matte shots by an unbilled Peter Ellenshaw (that I feel were some of his best ever) in addition to this superbly handled centrepiece of the film where Rome burns while Nero fiddles - all achieved in miniature. 

While the production was carried out in Europe - with the optical and matte work being produced under Tom Howard at Boreham Wood in England - the film's massive miniature sequence was done on the MGM lot back in the US.  Donald Jahraus was in charge of all of the many miniatures with A. Arnold Gillespie looking after the actual raging conflagration, and to outstanding effect.

Photos taken by Gillespie during the miniature shoot shows just how well scaled the models were, with the full 'city' measuring some 300x300 feet which was huge by anyone's standards.  Gillespie and his staff arranged a whole range of special copper 'fan' nozzles piped from several fuel supply tanks, with all of the safety manifolds wired up to a single station.  All of the Roman buildings were cast in plaster and assembled on set.  The plaster construction allowed for as many repeat takes as required with little apparent damage.  These same buildings were recycled a decade later by George Pal for the sub-par ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT.
The Jahraus-Gillespie miniature destruction was expertly combined with live action via the blue screen travelling matte process.  I assume Tom Howard handled all of that back in the UK as the main production was based in Europe.

All of the visual effects in QUO VADIS are remarkable and the film should really have been considered for an Academy Award in this field as the work is that good.  Here are more examples with the wide view on the left having running people matted into the shot.  I love the very bold design of that complex scene at right where the collapsing temple and the matted in players have been filmed at a very tricky angle, presenting a good deal of calculation on the parts of all involved in compositing and timing miniature action from such a low camera position. These shots would reappear in a few other films over the years and were usually the best thing about those respective enterprises.

20th Century Fox knocked out many impressive spectacles over the years and were never afraid to push the visual boundaries.  Thanks to an extremely resourceful trick department Fox could tackle virtually anything with panache. THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR (1955) was nominated for an Oscar for it's many, generally excellent effects shots, with Ray Kellogg running the effects department at the time.  Some terrific shots abound such as these with buildings toppling onto hapless Indians, and often designed and executed in a non typical technical fashion.  Extensive use of travelling mattes, split screen and rotoscope animation made the shots all the more involving.

Fox's chief of special photographic effects, Ray Kellogg, is shown here posing with one of the large RANCHIPUR miniatures on the backlot.  Note the large dump tanks positioned for the planned flood, which will have scores of extras matted onto the model bridge.  The upper background 'Milling Co' is, I think, the vast woodwork shop where many of these models were built.
The final sequence with the miniature bridge, matted in people and a hell of a lot of water.  The 'people' are carefully removed as hand drawn rotoscope mattes as the water hits them.
Miniature buildings crash down onto the blue screened in locals. Optical effects veteran James B. Gordon was a key player in making scenes like this work.
A sensational shot here with folk obliterated by falling masonry.  Miniatures and live action combined with travelling mattes and roto opticals.
It never rains but it pours in Ranchipur.
My favourite shot in the film is this amazing multi-part trick with large miniatures and live action combined with what looks like a completely separate water element, probably one whereby an enormous dump tank has offloaded it's water onto a simple structure which I'd guess was just black painted 'flats' or profiles set up to conform to the street shape and angle of the deluge.  I think Kellogg would then lift this 'water on black' element as an individual element and then have Jim Gordon double it into the miniature footage.
THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR - more matted miniature mayhem.  The water 'scale' here is most impressive.  A whole slew of effects cameramen worked on this film such as L.B Abbott, Walter Castle, Al Irving, Til Gabbani and probably Ralph Hammeras.
The rains have ceased but the city isn't what it used to be.  A striking matte painting, probably by Emil Kosa jnr, from THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR.

I tried to lay this out before the former film but the Blogger platform is being extremely difficult and attempts to shift things around have been problematic!  Anyway, the RANCHIPUR picture was in fact a remake of a much earlier epic, THE RAINS CAME (1939), which actually did manage to win Fred Sersen an Oscar for his remarkable trick work. The effects are fantastic and even the title credits are way cool too!  

Now this is one mighty trick shot - and one repeated, though not as well, in the remake.  We see the earth literally split apart and the left side suddenly drops down into a massive hole, with the terrified folk going down too.  An utterly amazing effects shot with miniatures, large physical effects and a rain overlay to boot.  I'm under the impression that the shot was a split screen down the middle (the one in RANCHIPUR certainly was), with optical manipulation carried out on the left side of the frame (?)
The sequences are at night and very dark - no doubt to help hide any flaws - so I've lightened several of the frames so as to see what's going on.  The bridge gets washed out and the same methods are used by Sersen as those later adopted by Kellogg.
A wrecked city as far as the eye can see in THE RAIN'S CAME (1939).  Miniatures, matte paintings and live action combined with superimposed rainfall and atmospheric effects.  Wow!

A joyful musical (and a good one at that) that happens to have a catastrophic climax (sounds painful!)  SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) was one of MGM's first CinemaScope epics, and as such an experiment was shot simultaneously in both anamorphic and flat formats to ensure that all movie houses could screen it.  I believe that all of the mattes and such also had to be done twice (separate paintings for each, I don't know, but I think Matthew Yuricich, who worked on the mattes stated that might have been the case).  Anyway, the film concludes with a very dramatic deliberately provoked avalanche of rock, ice and snow.
A frame from the 'flat' version.  Miniature canyon walls and blue screened people and horses.

Another example from the separately shot 'flat' version shows better detail of Buddy Gillespie's model set in action due to spherical lenses having a far greater depth of field and fidelity than cumbersome CinemaScope lenses, especially those enormous chunks of glass of 1954.
The CinemaScope release print.
Another 'flat' frame for comparison.  According to Gillespie the mountain pass miniature was built at half inch scale from plaster rocks over a standard wooden frame, with pyrocel 'snow'.  The sequence was photographed by Maximillian Fabian at some 84 fps, with five cameras - three were CinemaScope and two were 'flat' non-anamorphic.
Note the people matted into the frame, with left top being our kindly 7 brothers and women folk, while the top right is a reverse view from the other end of the canyon where the avalanche has conveniently blocked the passage of a horde of unfriendly characters.  Great movie too!

Out of interest, the miniature cost $12'748, and the special effects for the scene costing a paltry $279.75

The film itself was far too soggy with endless singing and thinly realised romance, but SAN FRANCISCO (1936) did have a real banger of an earthquake sequence and taut aftermath... it's just that we had to wait so long for it to occur.  The shot above is good, with fire optically superimposed onto a real block.  The people in the window are a separate element as is the person jumping into the fire brigade's net.  Great work.
The special effects were directed by British effects artist James Basevi, with the assistance of a young Arnold Gillespie.  This shot in particular has always lingered with me as being one of brilliant model destruction and seamless compositing in of running extras, probably via the Williams travelling matte process which was popular at the time.
A closer look at that fabulous shot.
More first rate miniature destruction combined by rear projection in SAN FRANCISCO.
MGM's career effects cameraman Max Fabian shot all of the miniatures, with assistance from future RKO fx cinematographer Russell Cully and future Paramount DP, Loyal Griggs.
San Francisco burns while Nero fiddles (!?)

Wow, what a shot this is!  An entire facade crashes down from a row of buildings and a optically superimposed person leaps to her death.
Awesome full size mechanical effects.
SAN FRANCISCO - The upper frames are miniatures combined with Clark Gable by either the Dunning Process or more likely the Frank Williams composite technique (likely the latter which was now commonly used).
Most films with a disaster theme really had to live up to the high standards set by Basevi, Fabian and Gillespie on SAN FRANCISCO.

I figured I'd better throw in a couple of 'big arsed monster on the rampage' type flicks, just to keep a healthy balance.  GORGO (1961) was actually quite good, especially when compared to artifacts like KONGA or QUEEN KONG (yes, they are real movies)
British optical effects veteran Tom Howard created some effective visuals for GORGO, with a number of sizable miniature sets and inventive use of split screen mattes.
Optical trickery where burning oil on the Thames envelopes a bunch of hooligans.  Tower Bridge comes falling down, falling down, falling down...
A nice pic of the vast river Thames miniature set made under Tom Howard's supervision.
I never cared much for those Japanese 'dude in a rubber suit' monster movies, but the British made GORGO is somewhat better, I think because the cast is pretty solid and it's quite a decent script, all things considered.
More from GORGO's pissed off rampage through London.  Excellent matte work tying together the location action with a partial miniature street and the guy in the suit.  Nice roto of falling debris onto bystanders.
GORGO at the amusement park is anything but amusing!

Time for a bit of Disney mayhem, and they didn't really do much of that sort of thing, but ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD (1974) was a massive effects film - possibly Disney's biggest all round trick shot show - and among the many and varied trick shots was an exciting volcanic eruption and subsequent lave flow that threatens our family friendly cast.
Donald Sinden makes a mad dash for safety as a beautifully realised lava flow encroaches.  Danny Lee and Art Cruickshank engineered the shot with Peter Ellenshaw who was production designer and one of the effects crew too.  The miniature lava flow is among the best I've ever seen and moves very realistically.  Sinden has been combined into the shot by a yellow backing sodium travelling matte by Eustace Lycette.
Visual effects supervisor Peter Ellenshaw, seen at upper middle right, and his special effects unit with the lava flow rig.
Shots from the same sequence with a nice subtle touch (top right frame) of having an animated reflection extend across the rockface as the lava approaches and the actor is hauled to safety.  Good work by all technicians involved.
Matte painted terrain by Alan Maley with rear projected elements of the huddled people and additionally, the miniature lava flow.  Steam and sparks etc added optically. The movie was submitted to the Academy with a comprehensive breakdown of all of the hundreds of individual effects shots but failed to make the selection process.  The winner that year was EARTHQUAKE.
An absurd stab at a history lesson, Irwin Allen's THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957) with the most bizarre collection of major stars shoe horned into the least likely of historic roles.  There are a number of effects in it, probably supervised by Louis Litchtenfield, though many seem to have been lifted straight out of other movies and just spliced in.  I'm not sure about this rather effective flood sequence but I did spot other shots from shows like FOREVER AMBER and ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD to name just two.

I did a whole tribute piece on SUEZ (1938) last year, and that may be viewed right here.  The movie was a monumental visual effects event and is packed with great trick work from matte art, miniatures, process, optical gags and very much full on live physical effects. The particular sequence shown here is a massive rockslide down onto the canal workers' settlement in Suez, Egypt.  A brilliant combo with several pockets of live action, a miniature rockface and matte painted vista extending out and beyond.
A frame from the sequence.  Fred Sersen and Ralph Hammeras were 20th Century Fox's premier trick shot men.
From SUEZ is this phenomenally accomplished shot which invisibly blends the miniature collapsing rock face with a location plate of running workers.  I tend to think this was some sort of supremely well executed hand animated moving soft split trick.

One of my favourite films was the marvellous Richard Donner flight of fantasy SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE (1978).  You can keep all of these present day so-called super heroes as none was better than the late great Christopher Reeve and this film was right on target all the way.  Grand entertainment indeed, with so many memorable moments, lines, characters and visuals.  At one point, Lex Luthor, played impeccably by Gene Hackman, sets off a nuclear device which our caped hero must sort out rather quickly.  The mushroom cloud shot is an oldy but a goody.  Les Bowie concocted a variation on the distemper paint infused into a water tank, with this element doubled over a full, expansive matte painted desert, probably executed by Les as well.
The aforementioned H bomb causes the Hoover Dam to burst and cause havoc.  A big miniature built at Pinewood as shown below.
The run off from the dam is blocked by Superman and a million tons of boulders.  All miniature once again.

Derek Meddings' miniatures unit at Pinewood with Derek's usual D.O.P, Paul Wilson, photographing the sequence.

The dam at Pinewood.  Derek was one of around 6 VFX supervisors assigned to the film, with Roy Field on opticals, Colin Chilvers on physical effects, Les Bowie on matte shots, Wally Veevers on front projection flying rigs and Zoran Perisic on the patented Zoptic zoom-process camera system.  SUPERMAN won the Oscar in 1978 for visual effects.
The immediate sequel, SUPERMAN II (1980) was a most worthy follow up indeed with a multitude of amazing visuals (filmed at the same time as the first film in one gigantic shoot for the most part).  Shown above are miniature effects boss Derek Meddings and model cameraman Paul Wilson (left) prepping a major effects sequence where a helicopter is literally 'blown' off course and into a farm.  What a shot it was too.
Note the overhead rig 'flying' the chopper into the barn.
Meddings was also a master at producing 'miniaturised' explosions and had decades of experience.
Still photo taken on the set by one of Meddings' crew beautifully demonstrates the final impact.
Zod, a wonderfully cast Terence Stamp, and his minions take on our caped hero and attempt to destroy as much of Metropolis as possible.  
The centre piece action sequence in SUPERMAN II was the jaw dropping Battle of Metropolis where Zod and his evil cohort fight it out with Superman in, on, under and above the city of Metropolis.  Here, Derek Meddings finalises the miniature set for the incredible sequence that must be seen to be believed.
I saw this film initially in work print form while working at the NZ distribution offices of Warner Bros back in the day.  Some of the blue screen shots hadn't been polished and I think the edit was a little longer.  Anyway, here are frames from the unforgettable Battle of Metropolis whereby our three villains (perfectly cast and played) match Superman strength for strength and manage to blast the streets with their exhaled breath, blowing vehicles all over the place and causing... yep, you guessed it, mayhem.
This really blew audiences minds back in 1980 and I still love it.
I remain astounded that such small miniatures can photograph and be propelled so realistically.

Meddings and his dedicated crew.
The film kind of left me cold, but TERMINATOR 2-JUDGEMENT DAY (1991) certainly delivered the goods as far as several well executed set pieces go.  The nightmarish nuclear blast sequence was an absolute knockout and for my money was the best in the movie.  Robert and Dennis Skotak orchestrated this remarkable sequence using traditional photo-chemical optical printing techniques for that blast shot over the city.  For the subsequent shots of Linda Hamilton bursting into flames it was all strictly old school special effects knowhow.  Stan Winston built a series of articulated puppets of the actress and had flammable rubber cement smeared over the puppet which was ignited electronically.  This particular effect was the highlight for me and all of the other high tech CG breakthroughs elsewhere in the film didn't hold a candle to this practically executed horror scene. Real movie magic.
The nuclear shockwave pulsates across Los Angeles as the sequence continues with an elaborate matte painting by artists Rick Rische and Richard Kilroy (see below). 
For the devastated cityscape (sadly never really shown to it's best advantage in the final cut) Dennis Skotak arranged for a giant six foot wide print be made from a large format negative taken of LA.  Firstly, matte painter Rick Rische painted a considerable amount of retouch work and subtle compositional changes for a more cinematic effect to the un-destroyed city photo blow up.  Then, fellow matte painter Richard Kilroy applied a clear acetate cel over the entire six foot surface and rendered a complete overhaul of the LA landscape, this time with major devastation and not much left standing (you can see Kilroy's hand at the extreme bottom left adding details with his brush).  For the final effect a wipe like travelling split moved across Rische's painting revealing the apocalyptic Kilroy painting in it's place, with the aid of additional elements as the blast wave occurs.  Artist Richard Kilroy told me a while back that whilst painting this monumental (my words) matte, one of the Skotaks came by and while clearly admiring the work said:  "The camera is just gonna love this".
More devastation from the same sequence in T2 has several large miniature sets subjected to the nuclear blast with the aid of hidden compressed air cannons and complex trip wire rigs the final shots looked swell indeed.
TERMINATOR 2 - Skotak miniature effects.
Carefully scored and prepared breakaway buildings rigged with trip wires, pulleys and special drop weights, all of which were triggered by hidden squibs.  Pyro maestro Joe Viskocil was the man for the job.
4-Ward Films were masters at demolition.

I grew up with those Gerry Anderson tv shows and was thrilled to catch the feature length THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO (1966) in colour (NZ just had b&w tv and one channel back then) and in widescreen on the big theatre screen.  I was not disappointed and saw the film numerous times over the years on various double bills.  Derek Meddings, Shaun Whittaker-Smith and Brian Johnson did a grand job with some major mayhem involving the experimental Zero X craft.  Loved it.
A brief scene at the start of the Sandra Dee comedy THAT FUNNY FEELING (1965) saw two fully loaded trains collide head on.  Although it was a Universal film and Albert Whitlock did mattes for some other scenes, this and another miniature sequence were farmed out to Project Unlimited.  Wah Chang and Gene Warren were chiefly involved, with a young Jim Danforth providing the painted sky backing.  Jim also did a phenomenal stop motion car chase scene for the same film that stands up today as a mini masterpiece in it's own right.

A timeless, no pun intended, classic that's always proven highly enjoyable, even with its vivid marker pen sized matte lines and inferior model photography.  George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE (1960) did in fact win the Oscar for best visual effects
The big moment of apocalyptic chaos occurs when a British volcano erupts (I didn't know they had any volcanoes, but what the hell) and all is in ruin.  In typical George Pal fashion some of the effects shots were lifted straight out of other of his films.  The top two frames are from the earlier WAR OF THE WORLDS.
More Paramount effects shots from WAR OF THE WORLDS that ended up in THE TIME MACHINE.

As the lava flow increases, Rod Taylor has but one choice, to put his Time Machine into overdrive to try and zap his way into the future, though staying geographically in the same spot, thus he ends up encapsulated in solid rock!  Bugger!!  The top frames would see another life by producer George Pal in his next film, ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT a year or two later.
Project Unlimited did all of the effects for THE TIME MACHINE (and won an Academy Award).  Gene Warren, Wah Chang, Tim Barr, Don Sahlin, Bill Brace, Luis McManus, Jim Danforth and Ralph Rodine were the main personnel.

I love old school war pictures and I remember seeing this at the movies long, long ago and really enjoyed it.  It's one that deserves repeat viewings as the action material is so damned good.  Along with outstanding Albert Whitlock matte shots, TOBRUK (1967) had some incredibly good miniature battle sequences by Howard Anderson's effects house.
Now folks, just look at this superb pyro work in this miniature set.  Just so well engineered and photographed.
To my eternal astonishment, TOBRUK lost it's Oscar that year to the vastly inferior DR DOLITTLE in the best visual effects competition. Is there no justice in the world?
TOBRUK miniatures with supervisor Howard A. Anderson jnr shown on the right.
Another winning war film for this viewer was the Fox film TORA!, TORA!, TORA! (1970).  Historic accuracy and an almost documentary style of recreation without any big name stars nor unwanted subplots were just what this film needed, and it was all the better for it.  Pictured here, director of photographic effects L.B Abbott and his crew are in the process of shooting the attack on Pearl Harbour's Battleship Row in the Sersen Tank on the Fox Ranch.
Bill Abbott was a master of miniature cinematography and had a particular knack at shooting water scenes in tanks.  Bill had worked out various tried and true methods of 'minimising' the waves and body of the water with small fans strategically arranged so as to lend a remarkable degree of believability to tank shots.
Mechanical effects expert A.D Flowers did some staggering work on TORA and, along with Abbott, would win the Academy Award for outstanding visual effects that year.

Various TORA miniatures in the Sersen tank.  Assisting Bill Abbott were Art Cruickshank and Irmin Roberts, with Matthew Yuricich painting two mattes. 
I have a penchant for 50's sci-fi and monster flicks and THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) was a solid little entry in the genre.  For a low budget film, shot in Mexico, it had adventurous effects work indeed with the great Willis O'Brien in charge of a large amount of stop motion.  O'Bie was ably assisted by one of his MIGHTY JOE YOUNG proteges, Pete Peterson, who, even though he was never what might be termed a 'professional' effects man actually had a natural ability when it came to stop motion and turned out first rate footage.  This sequence is memorable where a couple of giant, ugly scorpions assault a fully loaded train.  All of it was done as animation, train included, and the very bold choices of camera angles and composition were really impressive for such a 'B' movie.
The approaching train is in for a whole lot of trouble.  Sensational camerawork that even Harryhausen's films didn't typically attempt.
THE BLACK SCORPION railway delays are a nightmare for commuters.

Passengers run for their lives in this split screen matte, while the bugs get down and dirty with the rolling stock.

Another of those wildcat oil well disaster stories, TULSA (1949) was a spectacular melodrama once the fuse was lit.  Supremo movie magician, the great John P. Fulton did the considerable array of effects shots, with a lot of model work, some painted mattes, clever rotoscope gags and generally awful back projection (colour process work was so often dreadful, especially back in those years).
More of John Fulton's first rate miniature conflagration scenes that made TULSA stand out.  
The footage proved to be so high in quality that it would appear in other films later on such as the George Pal sci-fi picture WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.
Star Susan Hayward in the midst of an especially fierce oil well inferno.  John Fulton was nominated for an Oscar for these fantastic effects but lost out to MIGHTY JOE YOUNG that year, which coincidentally had John's father as a key member of it's visual effects team!
The miniature oil derricks in TULSA measured some 14 feet in height, thus allowing a very realistic scale to the flames.

Possibly the best of the whole disaster movie trend of the 1970's would be Irwin Allen's THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974).  The photographic and miniature effects were by L.B Abbott, with Frank van der Veer compositing the blue screen shots.  The great A.D (Adlia Douglas) Flowers was responsible for the frightening mechanical and pyrotechnic effects.  Even without these trick shots it's still a tremendously exciting movie, superbly cast and well written and proved itself a winner at the box office.  Repeat viewings essential.
The Dino DeLaurentiis version of KING KONG (1976) had it's share of mayhem as Rick Baker's monkey suited Kong goes on a rampage through New York and impolitely dismantles an overhead commuter train. Aldo Puccini made the models and Glen Robinson and Joe Day were mechanical effects men.  To the film world's dismay, the Academy had already granted LOGAN'S RUN the effects Oscar that year but bowed to threats and pressure from DeLaurentiis and granted an 'extra' Oscar to the KONG effects team as well, meaning both films were winners (!)  The biggest sham since Stanley Kubrick 'robbed' his actual photographic effects supervisors of their thoroughly deserved Academy Awards for 2001.  Sad, but true.

The lush looking though predictably shmaltzy Keanu Reeves love story A WALK IN THE CLOUDS (1995) would utilise the services of the highly regarded effects house Illusion Arts to supply a number of mattes as well as this genuinely edge of your seat sequence where a vineyard erupts into an out of control inferno despite the workers attempts to stem the flare up.
Bill Taylor was director of effects photography with Illusion Arts business partner Syd Dutton as matte supervisor.
The aftermath of the inferno that destroyed the vineyard as depicted here in painted mattes complete with smoke elements and moving smoke.
Paramount produced the popular George Pal sci-fi picture WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) with such a heavy schedule of effects shots that Gordon Jennings' fx crew were nearly pushed to breaking point.  So many shots packed into a short running time that ran the gamut of every trick imaginable.
I loved the design of the alien craft in this film.  Production designer Al Nozaki was a former matte artist at the studio and was chiefly responsible for the spacecraft design.  Above we can see one of miniaturist Ivyl Burks' pieces being detonated.
Paul Lerpae was the studio's long established optical effects expert and worked long and hard on the daunting number of travelling mattes and rotoscoped hand inked cels required for dozens of scenes of destruction.  Incidentally, parts of this sequence - sans spacecraft - appear later in George Pal's TIME MACHINE.
Members of Ivyl Burks' model construction team work here under Paramount head of special effects Gordon Jennings, whose last film this would be as Gordon passed away suddenly, though I think he did live to receive his best visual effects Oscar that year.
Now classic scene, both in terms of pop culture symbolism but also an icon of the art of vision and sound merged as one to produce a unique and unforgettable moment in sci-fi cinema.

Behind the scenes on WAR OF THE WORLDS with some very cool models in action.
One of the large miniature sets on the special effects stage at Paramount.
A rarely seen letter of appreciation from producer George Pal to chief model maker Ivyl Burks.
Classic finale from WAR OF THE WORLDS as a Jan Domela matte painting.

Not as polished as the aforementioned film, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) had it's moments though it tended to be somewhat cheesy.  
This film won it's effects crew Academy Awards of the visuals though oddly quite a number of the effects shots were lifted from other films!
Ivyl Burks' miniature effects, photographed by Devereaux Jennings, who was the brother of effects head Gordon.
The tidal wave from WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE is actually a sequence from the earlier Paramount picture TYPHOON.  Some of it would crop up again years later in WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH.
I previously mentioned a similar scene in METEOR which used the same methods as this classic moment in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.  The effect, as done here, is really very good, unlike the feeble variation of it made some nearly 30 years later with a shitload of money!  For this shot above, a fairly large, though completely opaque black painted 'model' that approximated the form and angles of the desired location in New York city, though with no detail whatsoever.  Large dump tanks were set up and the water released through this black series of 'flats' in order to achieve the desired turbulence and splash factor.  That footage was then passed over to Paul Lerpae to isolate the water element and extract the desired mattes in order that the footage could be used as a composite.  Jennings obtained a particular shot from another Paramount picture (with Danny Kaye) with Times Square.  The optical department secured a single frame apparently, from which optical cinematographer Paul Lerpae and assistants Aubrey Law and Dewey Wrigley jnr printed in the isolated water footage with surprisingly clean results that still look impressive all these decades later.

Okay, so it's not really mayhem in the true cinematic sense of the phrase, but this sequence from Selznick's THE YOUNG IN HEART (1938) is a gem.  All done with miniatures, split screens and matte painting, the train races over bridges and viaducts and de-rails high above a small town with the occupants clambering out onto a narrow ledge.  Sounds pretty simple but it worked a treat.  Selznick's regular photographic effects expert Jack Cosgrove and his usual cameraman Clarence Slifer were responsible.
YOUNG IN HEART post train derailment done with a Jack Cosgrove matte painting.

I don't care much for Sam Raimi's films but I did like DARKMAN (1990).  It was engaging, grim and heaps of fun.  Tons of high calibre visuals from a number of suppliers such as Matte World, 4-Ward, Visual Concept Engineering and Introvision.  The scene here is one of several substantial miniature action sequences.
Background buildings all miniature by Robert and Dennis Skotak's 4-Ward Productions.

As mentioned previously, a good miniature can become a great miniature when photographed properly.  Dennis Skotak shot these model sequences.
A madcap chase scene in DARKMAN sees a helicopter try to negotiate a freeway underpass, though the underpass wins hands down.  Super miniature work here and great editing that made it really hum.

Anthony Doublin and Tom Scherman were key model makers and fx industry 'wizz-bang' maestro Joe Viskocil did the explosions with the skill of a true artisan.
Our anti-hero, Darkman, makes it through the underpass as the chopper comes down in one big flaming heap, though a brilliant touch was having the tail rotor blade come hurtling down the tunnel.  Nice gag.
Robert Skotak's 4-Ward Films miniature helicopter stunt being photographed.  
Miniature set ups from the very cool film DARKMAN.

The Tom Clancy-Jack Ryan franchised THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (2002) contained a couple of spectacular miniature scenes of carnage involving a Russian missile attack upon a US Navy aircraft carrier.  One missile hits the bridge, or tower of the ship, with devastating results.  Rythym & Hues were effects providor and the miniature is shown below.
The miniature's size can be appreciated by the small crew member with the fire extinguisher.  The film incidentally I found tremendously exciting and the best of those 'Jack Ryan' thrillers.
A second missile homes straight on into the open hanger where fighter jets are being elevated to the flight deck.  Nice miniature work here too.

The miniature construction was overseen by Carlyle Livingston, with the impressive pyrotechnics were by John Cazin.
This blog deserves a nice rainbow after all of that destruction ...

Well, I hope this proved illuminating and even enjoyable.  Catch you later.



  1. That's a impressive collection of miniature photos. Great work!

  2. Thank you for any other wonderful article.
    The place else could anyone get that kind of information in such an ideal method of writing?
    I've a presentation next week, and I am on the look for
    such info.

  3. Wowww...
    i always love this moment from the 'Sum of all fears', this attack on the Aircraft carrier, and explosions was too godd to be CGI... :)

  4. Just a funny FYI on "Crack In The World" - the full size train was just an engine and passenger cars. When it wrecks on the bridge somehow it's gained log and tank cars.

  5. Just a correction.

    The Fugitive (1993) train wreck was a full size practical affect not a miniature.

    From a DVD extra...

    Derailed: Anatomy of a Train Wreck

    Some of the wreck is still there.

    Drone footage.

    1. Might not be easy to believe it, but Pete was on to something with that sequence, as not all of it was done in-camera with life-size practical effects.

    2. Wow, thanks for that.

      I remember the publicity at the time so immediately thought 'no, they did it for real'.

      Apologies to Pete.

  6. I saw a photo posted by Jim Davidson (who worked on the Terminator movie miniatures) that showed how the blown up buildings were built - broken pieces of Passover Matzah !

    1. Hi Steve

      I've no idea what 'pass over matzah' is, but I guess it worked a treat.


  7. Always huge interest rolling your blog, eagerly waiting for what will come up after. Great photos to look at, great informations to learn (or be remembered) and so great to share that same interest in traditional SFX and their Masters with so many people over the world. Again, many thanks for your work, your time and your passion used here to fascinate us Pete. Fred

    1. Hi Fred

      It's really for fellows like you that I enjoy writing these big blogs.
      I'm so glad you enjoy them.


  8. Another tremendous piece of work!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

  9. It appears that 'pass over matzah' (also spelled as 'matzo') is unleavened bread:

  10. Fantastic post! You are doing tremendous work! Love miniatures!

  11. Fantastic article again Peter. I just missed some Tokio destruction images from Toho films.

  12. Talking about large scale ship destruction (the aircraft carrier from "The Sum of All Fears") what about the cruise ship "Argonautica" from the movie "Deep Rising"(1998)? A 110 foot (33.5 m) detailed model was built and spectacularly destroyed:

  13. Once again you prove to be unequaled in the examination of effects material, both mattes and miniatures - bravo!

    Considering how many of these films include miniature representations of the actors in the productions, would you consider doing a posting on this subject?

  14. When I originally commented I clicked the "Notify me when new comments are added" checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thank you!

  15. Great blog as usual. One note: most of the Avalanche shots in "Meteor" were actually taken from the Rock Hudson film "Avalanche" From New World Pictures. On Benton Pierce's channel there is actually a segment for Meteor in which Fantasy II model maker Tony Doublin mentioned the original Hong Kong Miniature's dump tank was leaking due to it's crude construction. Might be one of the reasons why that tidal wave didn't work out so well in the end. (Hell, probably the ONLY good shots in the film are the destruction of the Twin Towers and the matte paintings by Jena Holman.)

  16. Terrific blog post once again. The destruction scenes of the base (as shown in your images) from "Hell and High Water" were lifted entirely from the earlier film "Crash Dive" made in 1943 with the great Fred Sersen supervising.

  17. Great fun. Reminds me of the days when I was interested in such things. Did a few days work on T2. Like I said, fun.