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and other trade press clippings; explanatory texts and recent sketches to illustrate his methods; and pages from an unpublished autobiography.

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.

No wire hangers: Costumes in Robert De Niro collection receive a set of custom padded hangers

By Elana Estrin

In a scene from the 1995 film Heat, Robert De Niro storms into Ashley Judd’s hotel room, grills her for answers, and knocks a line of wire hangers off the rack. According to Ashley Judd, detail-oriented director Michael Mann chose those particular metal hangers for just the right visual and sound effect.

The Ransom Center also carefully selected hangers specifically for the costumes of Robert De Niro, whose film archive resides at the Ransom Center. Last October, the Ransom Center’s preservation lab constructed 100 custom-made hangers for heavy coats and jackets in the De Niro collection.

“Robert De Niro had a lot of large, heavy coats. For one film, for example, he could have five full-length leather jackets. We had to have something that would be very sturdy and also very good for the textile,” says Apryl Voskamp, Preservation Housings Manager.

Before acquiring De Niro’s collection, the Ransom Center had few costumes to house and could afford the space to store the costumes in the ideal environment: lying flat and in the dark. But with thousands of costumes arriving in the De Niro collection, Helen Adair, Associate Curator for Performing Arts, and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, inspected the costumes and deemed some costumes appropriate for hanging storage, including many of the jackets.

“It takes less space to store things hanging,” says conservator Mary Baughman. “Things like the leather jackets are pretty tough as long as they’re out of the light.”

The challenge was to find or make padded hangers appropriate for De Niro’s jackets.

“We didn’t have any hangers here that would work,” Baughman says. “Some of the De Niro costumes are pretty heavy, and the hangers we had here were too flimsy. And we couldn’t find a commercially made hanger that would work. There are a lot of archival quality hangers out there for your wedding dress, but for a big, heavy leather coat, not so much.”

The range of costumes worn by De Niro’s varied film personae created some unique circumstances for the team. For example, a large, heavy canvas coat worn by the swashbuckling, cross-dressing pirate Captain Shakespeare in Stardust (2007) was treated by the wardrobe department to look weathered and beaten by the elements. This distinctive costume “got an even more macho hanger,” according to Baughman.

Other costumes selected to hang include full-length jumpsuits worn by De Niro’s jewel thief in The Score (2001), as well as the jumpsuits worn by his stunt double. The suits bear burn holes from the blowtorch used by De Niro’s character to break open a safe.

The preservation team also decided not to hang certain jackets. For example, De Niro’s characters get shot, burned, or injured in many of his films, and Voskamp and Baughman were worried about hanging bloody jackets, many of them still sticky.

“I learned that fake blood is an industry secret,” Voskamp says. “Studios don’t want to divulge their recipe because they think it’s the best. It would be helpful to know what’s in the fake blood to know if it will damage other items, but that’s very difficult to figure out. So we decided to isolate these costumes and house them lying flat to make sure the fake blood doesn’t migrate onto other materials.”

Baughman is the mastermind behind the design. She searched for just the right hanger, eventually choosing a sturdy long-necked stainless steel hanger to serve as the main frame. The next step was to construct shoulder supports to cover the metal hanger which would prevent the metal from distorting the garment’s original shape.

“We didn’t want to have this sharp edged metal hanger up against the cloth of the garment. It would’ve left a mark in the garment. After a few years, the fibers will break along those creases,” Baughman says.

Baughman designed the shoulder supports out of lignin-free board. For decades, “lig-free” board has been used to create a variety of custom archival containers at the Ransom Center. Each piece of lignin-free board had to be cut, creased, and tied with twill tape to simulate the shape of human shoulders. The final component of the hanger was a padded cloth covering to go over the shoulder support. Each cloth covering has three parts: two cloth sides and a long cloth tube filled with polyester batting.

It took a team of seven—including Voskamp, Baughman, University of Texas work-study student Liz Phan, and four volunteers—one month to complete the project, spending the entire month exclusively making hangers. Each hanger took an hour and a half to construct for a total of 262 hours. For the Ransom Center’s preservation team, it’s worth getting hung up on the details.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

A conversation with playwright Kenneth Brown

By Alicia Dietrich

Kenneth Brown
Kenneth Brown
Playwright Kenneth Brown, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, introduces a screening of the documentary film Another Glorious Day tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. The film explores the history, context, and performances of the Living Theatre’s European tour of his play, The Brig (1963). A question and answer session follows.

The film is centered around a 2008 revival of The Brig, the inflammatory play that exposed the harsh realities inside a U.S. Marine prison. This documentary by Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies puts former Marine Kenneth H. Brown’s drama into historical perspective—and makes a case for its ongoing relevance—through powerful scenes from the recent production in Berlin and illuminating interviews with directors of the play past and present, revival cast members, and the playwright himself.

The Cultural Compass had a conversation with Brown in which he discussed The Brig, its ongoing relevance, and his archive at the Ransom Center.

Brown discusses how The Brig changed the Living Theatre’s approach to productions.

The Living Theatre’s been in existence over 40 years, and it was in existence about 15 years before The Brig was done. And before The Brig was done, they were doing Brecht and various standard radical theatrical events. They did Paul Goodman and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Brecht.

But once The Brig was done, the play, which the movie demonstrates, created the acting style and the approach to material by the company that has existed from 1963 to the present day. The whole direction of the company was re-directed by their doing The Brig. The reason being, that in order for the play to work onstage, you have 17 Marines—those are all the characters in the play—you have to make them Marines. So we had to conduct a boot camp, which went on for six weeks. By the time it was over, these guys were running ten miles and doing 60 push-ups and sit-ups, and they knew how to march, and they knew how to double-time, they knew how to half-step. They were Marines!

And that made the play absolutely riveting because it was like looking at the real thing, rather than looking at something being enacted. Because the one thing the actors said to me was, “There’s no audience in the brig. And there’s no acting in the brig because if you have to make a bed, you really have to make a bed.” There’s no making belief you’re making the bed. If some guy punches you in the stomach, he’s not really punching you, but your reaction has to be so real that it’s almost as bad as if he really punched you.

So by the time they did the play, it created this whole style and approach to material in the theater that was responsible for everything the Living Theatre did afterward. They did everything in that style and still do to this day.

Brown discusses how it feels to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.

I’m 74 years old. A few years ago—and I’m in relatively good health—I said to myself, “Well, I’m over 70, got a nice little apartment in Brooklyn overlooking the bridge, a beautiful neighborhood with the store where I did my shopping.” I had really kind of retired from life. And it was fine. I hadn’t stopped writing. I never stopped writing. I’d been writing since I was 6 years old. But I had settled on “this is it.”

And then, in 2007, Judith Molina [co-founder of The Living Theatre], who’s now 83 years old, called me and said, “We’re reviving The Brig.” I went, “I don’t believe it.”

And then it opened in 2007, and it was a bigger hit than it was the first time. And in The New York Times, we had a two-page review with pictures. Two pages! Not a column. Two pages with pictures! And then in 2008 it went on the European tour, and then Tom Staley bought the archive, and all of a sudden, I turned around, and I had been thrown back in the pool again. And that’s kind of what my feeling of my archive, of the whole process, is.

It has enlivened interest in a lot of other stuff of mine.

Brown discusses why The Brig is still relevant to today’s audiences.

The Brig has always been relevant, which is kind of amazing to me. But I guess as long as there’s war and as long as there’s a military and especially as long as one questions the ethical right to wage war and in this ridiculous nonsense in Afghanistan and Iraq—when you do a play that studies the psychology of what it is to be a Marine, how more relevant can you get? It’s going to stay relevant forever. Until there’s peace throughout the world. Then the play’s not relevant anymore because then there’s no military threat. If there’s no military threat, then the play ceases to be relevant.

Living Peter Matthiessen

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close
Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close
The Ransom Center screens Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries, the award-winning PBS documentary about the National Book Award–winning writer and environmental activist, on Monday evening at the Ransom Center. Matthiessen’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

The film will be introduced by Jeffrey Sewald, producer, writer, and director of the documentary. He writes about what it was like to work with Matthiessen on this project.

I studied his craggy face as he gazed at the screen, reviewing a rough-cut video of his story, adapted and condensed of course for television viewers and the film festival crowd. More than three years of my own life had been invested in Peter Matthiessen’s, and the thought of my bio film soon being finished left me at once elated and a little bereft. How often does one get to pick the brain and probe the heart and soul of a legend like Peter, a hero to every young man (myself included) who ever believed he had what it took to write for a living? I couldn’t help but think how lucky I had been to get to know him, and how reluctant I was to pronounce the project “completed.” After all, Peter Matthiessen, then almost 82, was still very much alive and showing no signs of wanting to pack it in.

Making films about people, especially living ones, presents both joys and challenges, and this film was no exception. It was captivating to hear Peter speak about his books and journeys, from The Snow Leopard, to Shadow Country, and from New Guinea to Nepal. Few if any people have crammed more into eight decades of life than he has. In fact, the totality of Peter Matthiessen’s written work and personal experience is something most may only dream about. Here is a man who writes both fiction and non-fiction, who married three times, fathered and adopted children, became a Zen monk, and fought the powers that be over human and civil rights. I always found it funny that all Peter asked of my personal take on his life story was “clarity.” Therein was the challenge.

When the final version of Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn last year, Peter seemed to like the film— even though he more than once chided me for taking his life far too seriously. In truth, he can be very funny and wonderful company, which I think we demonstrate on screen. But in a film that was required to clock-in at 56 minutes and 46 seconds (a PBS hour), I chose to focus on what I believe are Peter’s most important works and on how the events and circumstances of his life informed his choices and set the trajectories for his literary and spiritual quests. I still maintain that this approach was the best one. After all, Peter Matthiessen is an important body in the literary firmament. To do anything less would have been unthinkable to me.

I have been gratified by the fact that my film has been in demand on the screening circuit since it first aired nationally on PBS in April of last year. It is always interesting to note audience reactions and to meet people who have seen and appreciated my work and the work of my collaborators. Like writing, making independent films can be a rather solitary process, especially after shooting has ceased and scripting begins. I am now working on my next film, about the author and feminist Isabel Allende. But we’re still in the shooting stage, which means I’m still sociable. So come out and see me on April 12. It will be fun.