The "Dawn" of FX
By Jennifer Tisdale
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The Ransom Center’s exhibition Making Movies explores the collaborative processes that take place behind the scenes in filmmaking. For another two weeks, visitors have the opportunity to see original materials from the Center’s film collections in the exhibition, which demonstrates the responsibilities of those involved in films, ranging from the producer to the special effects designer.
One portion of the special effects section highlights special effects techniques devised by Norman Dawn (1886–1975) in cinema’s earliest years. Dawn was a little-known yet historically significant early special effects cinematographer, inventor, artist, and motion picture director, writer, and producer. He worked with several important film pioneers, including Mack Sennett, Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg, and Erich von Stroheim.
The Dawn collection at the Ransom Center consists of 164 display cards that illustrate over 230 of the 861 special effects that Dawn created in more than 80 movies. Each display card documents one of his special effects, most often a refinement or improvement of a matte shot process. Information about Dawn’s experiences working with various studios and managers such as Universal’s William Sistrom and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) Louis B. Mayer are also noted.
The display cards could easily be interpreted and viewed as pieces of art, assembled and constructed personally from Dawn’s own field notebooks and methodical records.
The cards contain original oil, watercolor, pencil, and ink sketches used to sell the effects to skeptical film executives and directors; production and personal photographs; detailed camera records; film clips and frame enlargements; movie reviews, advertisements, and other trade press clippings; explanatory texts and recent sketches to illustrate his methods; and pages from an unpublished autobiography.