Practical Effects in Early (1940's) Film
November 28, 2014 6:05 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone know common tricks used for practical effects in early films?

So I'm watching the movie the Bishop's Wife with my family and there are a few special effects used in the film that have me wondering how they work. Specifically there is an effect where there is refilling glasses and a bottle and after significant googling and brain searching, I still can't figure it out.

Similarly there is a self operating typewriter (we see the keys moving) and a self decorating Christmas tree.

Any ideas? The movie's from 1947 and even looking for 1940's special effects doesn't reveal much.
posted by KernalM to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Here's the full movie on YouTube. If you can tell us when in the movie (h:mm:ss) the effects occur, that would probably help immensely.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:21 PM on November 28, 2014

Here's a scene with a self-refilling bottle (not glass). The bottle is on a desk, so maybe there's just a mechanism under the desk, pumping liquid into the bottle via a tube.

Here's the self-decorating Christmas tree. I'm no expert, but that doesn't look like a practical effect to me – more like something that was done on an animation table.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:27 PM on November 28, 2014

The typewriter is at this point.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:29 PM on November 28, 2014

The christmas tree seems to be just stop-motion animation and either rear-projection or optical compositing. For similar effects, see the demo reel for the optical effects for Bringing Up Baby
posted by nightwood at 6:38 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, as nightwood suggests, the Christmas tree scene uses a split screen; separate takes with the two sides connected (overlapped at a soft line) together later. If you watch behind the tree as it is being "decorated" you can see occasional odd shadows on the wall. Probably took them a couple of hours to do the tree but with a frame exposed only every few minutes.

I bet there was another typewriter with the keys connected to the keys of the one they filmed, and someone was just typing on it.

I've never seen the movie - is it worth watching?
posted by BillMcMurdo at 6:43 PM on November 28, 2014

Response by poster: To clarify there are glasses that do the same trick throughout that scene, the glasses are really what have me stumped because they refill as people are holding them too.

Thanks! And it's a sweet movie, also has Elsa Lanchester in it of Bride of Frankenstein fame, I'd recommend it.
posted by KernalM at 6:55 PM on November 28, 2014

Re the Christmas tree, it's worth noting that animation effects like that were much easier to accomplish in black and white films, because the difference between real props and painted effects was less apparent. A lot of especially ornate sets in black and white movies are actually painted, as well.

The typewriter and the bottle are definitely rigged up with effects elements we can't see onscreen, likely under a table (in the case of the bottle) or just out of frame (in the case of the typewriter).
posted by Sara C. at 7:20 PM on November 28, 2014

I followed the link provded by Escape from the Potato Planet and watched a bit of the glass-filling scene. At 34:33 the wine glasses are on the table, and fill themselves. This, and the bottle on the table, are probably done by simply having a hole in the table and a mechanism pumping the wine into the glasses. Notice that the director cuts away from this shot to the next one, where they pick up what are likely normal, non-rigged glasses.

At 35:04, we see the younger man make a gesture to indicate that he is magically refilling the older man's glass again. However, it is important to note that the glass doesn't appear to be in frame (unless there's more to this frame that's been cut off by Youtube's aspect ratio), and we cut almost immediately to a wider shot where we can see the older man's glass, now full. This appears to be an editorial trick. Unless, as I said before, there's a more full frame that's been cropped where we can see the glass filling in the older man's hand.
posted by cleverevans at 7:36 PM on November 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

You may like the book Special Effects: Wire Tape and Rubber Band Style which was published in 1984.
posted by Sophont at 7:38 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've never seen the movie - is it worth watching?

Some rank it among the best, but its charms eluded me.
posted by Rash at 7:39 PM on November 28, 2014

See also.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:42 PM on November 28, 2014

If you're interested in these kinds of old school special effects, John Brosnan's Movie Magic is a real goldmine of info. It was published just before Star Wars came out and changed everything, and is all about effects from the dawn of cinema to 1975-ish.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:54 PM on November 28, 2014

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