Navigate / search

The "Dawn" of FX

By Jennifer Tisdale

You must have Javascript enabled and the Flash 8 plugin installed to view this content.

Consult your browser’s help file for instructions to enable Javascript.

Click on the four-way arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the slideshow to convert into full-screen mode.

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and other trade press clippings; explanatory texts and recent sketches to illustrate his methods; and pages from an unpublished autobiography.

Norman Dawn's special effect card for 'Master of Women'
Norman Dawn's special effect card for 'Master of Women'

Making Movies Film Series: "Detour"

By Alicia Dietrich

Publicity poster for 'Detour'
Publicity poster for 'Detour'

The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour

(1945), starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. Savage’s archive is housed at the Ransom Center.

Kent Adamson, who has written a biography on Ann Savage, writes about Savage’s connections to Texas and why Detour is still loved by critics.

Since its original release in 1945, Detour has become possibly the most famous and critically examined B-film of all time. In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas called Detour “one of the most relentlessly intense psychological thrillers anyone has ever filmed.” Roger Ebert in his “Great Films” series says, “It lives on, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.” In 1992, Detour was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

In a recent article by Time magazine critic Richard Corliss listing the “Top 10 Greatest Villains,” Ann Savage was one of only two women named, honored for her role as Vera. Detour was also chosen as one of Time magazine’s all-time 100 best movies.

In the public domain, Detour persists based on its own powerful strengths. That it is now considered a noir classic is due to the hard work of many people, including director Edgar G. Ulmer, co-star Tom Neal, and in large part to the fearless, unnerving performance of Ann Savage.

Ann Savage’s character, Vera, is like a dark goddess set free in the blazing California desert, the sexiest and scariest succubus ever filmed. Noir author Christa Faust describes Savage’s performance of Vera: “She was less of a constructed, conniving femme fatale than an unstoppable force of nature. Savage imbued that character with a raw, aggressive and almost masculine power that evokes the same kind of dangerous, unpredictable animal magnetism exhibited by Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill.”

Detour was shot in 28 days at the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) studio in Hollywood over the summer of 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close. Shooting began after the death of Hitler and defeat of Germany in the spring and was concluded before the surrender of Japan.

Well into her 80s, Ann Savage toured regularly to make public appearances with Detour, including an engagement at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin. Savage had spent the bulk of her early childhood in Dallas, where her parents ran a jewelry store. As a lifelong film lover, she remembered going with her parents to the movie palaces on Elm Street in Dallas. The first film she remembered attending was Valentino’s silent masterpiece, The Son of the Sheik, in 1926.

“One of my earliest memories is being taken to a gigantic palace to meet a very important king,” said Savage in 2006. “I realized years later, when I asked my mother about it, that we had gone to an ornate movie theater to see Valentino.

“The movies were silent then, and the theater was filled with beautiful music. I wanted to get up and dance for the king. When we got home from a night at the movies, I would cheer my parents up by play-acting scenes from the films.”

Costumes reveal character revelations

By Jennifer Tisdale

As the Making Movies exhibition demonstrates, a costume can reveal much about a film character. For example, a character’s social and economic class can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing also exposes a character’s unique personality traits and self-image. Steve Wilson, the Ransom Center’s Associate Curator of Film, talks about Robert De Niro’s costume in Taxi Driver, and how it supports and enhances the interpretation of the character Travis Bickle.

Film curator discusses "Making Movies" exhibition

By Jennifer Tisdale

Associate Curator of Film Steve Wilson elaborates about Making Movies, an exhibition that focuses on the artistic collaboration that is unique to the medium. Wilson shares how the Ransom Center’s holdings document the history of the motion picture industry to illustrate the highly collaborative nature of the movie-making process.

Making Movies: "North by Northwest"

By Alicia Dietrich

Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and Psycho. At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest, a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina and The King and I, wrote the screenplay, his only original one and now widely regarded as his best.

The film follows Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, in a journey that travels “in a northwesterly direction” through New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and eventually Alaska. The plot emerged through Hitchcock and Lehman’s usual process of batting around ideas and imagining their character into impossible situations, then figuring out ways to extract him.

This brochure from Mount Rushmore National Memorial shows notes made on the cover by Lehman during his research trip. You can view a slideshow of more photos that Lehman took during this trip to the national monument.

Making Movies: "Black Narcissus"

By Alicia Dietrich

Alfred Junge's notes on design for 'Black Narcissus.' Click on the image to view larger version
Alfred Junge's notes on design for 'Black Narcissus.' Click on the image to view larger version
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), starring Deborah Kerr and David Farrar. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Arguably Britain’s greatest production designer, Alfred Junge was born in Germany and spent his teenage years working as an apprentice to a painter. At 18 he was “kissed by the muse” and began working in the theater, painting sets, designing costumes, and operating special effects. In the late 1920s he began working with British International Pictures and later Gaumont British, where he gained a reputation not only for his brilliant designs but also for his organizational skills in running a large staff of art directors and craftsmen.

Alfred Junge’s best known film work is on Black Narcissus, the story of emotional tensions among a group of Anglican nuns who try to establish a convent in the remote reaches of the Himalayas. Director Michael Powell gave Junge unusual freedom in terms of color, composition, and technique, and Junge received the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for the film in 1947. Audiences are still surprised to learn that the film was not shot on location in the Himalayas but on sound stages in England.

The notes shown here, written and drawn on a letter from Junge’s son, are believed to be the earliest notes on the design of the film. Note the comments about the colors of the costumes and the dramatic effect of the bell tower.

You can also view a previous blog post that shows a scene design that Junge created for this film. Also, view a trailer for the film.

Making Movies Film Series: Duel in the Sun

By Alicia Dietrich

'Duel In The Sun' matte painting. Click image to enlarge.
'Duel In The Sun' matte painting. Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946), starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

This matte painting from the David O. Selznick collection was used for the opening shot in Duel in the Sun. The camera starts at the top of the painting and tilts down while zooming in on the cactus at the bottom. This perspective accounts for the stair-step configuration at the bottom of the painting.

Take an exhibition survey about design for a chance to win

By Cathy Henderson

Take the survey for the chance to win 'The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941'
Take the survey for the chance to win 'The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941'

Help the Ransom Center plan an exhibition about design by answering the questions in this survey. The survey should take about 15 minutes to complete. Those who complete the survey will be entered into a drawing to receive a first edition of The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s exhibition catalogue The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941.

The first photograph gets a check-up

By Elana Estrin

In 1952, photohistorian Helmut Gernsheim rediscovered the first photograph lying forgotten in a trunk, 125 years after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the famous image. “I held the foundation stone of photography in my hand,” Gernsheim recalled. “I felt myself in communication with Niépce. ‘Your nightmare existence in a trunk is over,’ I thought. ‘At long last you will be recognized as the inventor of photography.’”

Today, the first photograph is on permanent display in the Ransom Center’s lobby. In 2002, the Ransom Center and the Getty Conservation Institute began a collaborative conservation project for the first photograph. Dr. Shin Maekawa, Senior Scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, designed an oxygen-free display case to protect the heliograph from potential oxygen-induced deterioration. Both institutions regularly monitor conditions in the display case through a website, which logs oxygen, pressure, relative humidity, and temperature.

Maekawa returned to Austin in March to teach Ransom Center Photograph Conservator Barbara Brown how to maintain the case.

“We’ve been working on maintenance for the oxygen-free case in which the photograph is housed and presented,” Brown said. “This is something that needs to be done periodically. There have been no problems, but it’s always good to double-check the sensors every couple of years to make sure everything is running the way it’s supposed to.”

In addition to assisting Brown with maintenance, Maekawa also came to help the Ransom Center determine whether or not the first photograph could possibly tour.

“When you take a sealed case into an airplane, there’s a lot of pressure acting on the case. So the idea is [to find out] whether we can transport the case or not, and how we can go about it. Since I designed the case, being here will give me a better idea of exactly what other issues there are to consider. The main issue is to maybe build a special container for traveling,” Maekawa said.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Web exhibition explores costume designs for stage and screen by B. J. Simmons & Co.

By Alicia Dietrich

The web exhibition A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons & Co., which highlights the work of the British theatrical costumier company from 1889 to 1959, is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. Founded in 1857, Simmons & Co. dominated costume preparation in London for more than 100 years.

The web exhibition highlights the immense scope of the Simmons & Co. archive and is intended to encourage research in the collection. The exhibition is organized into 10 categories of costume design and showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 film and theater productions. The Web exhibition was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The Ransom Center acquired the voluminous archive of B. J. Simmons & Co. in two separate installments in 1983 and 1987. Comprising more than 500 boxes, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons & Co. created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons & Co. also provided costumes for more than 100 films, including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.