The digital collections platform provides access to the Ransom Center’s collections for students, scholars and members of the public who are unable to visit the Center. It also provides a way for visitors to access fragile materials or collections that exist in challenging formats, such as personal effects and costumes. One example is a collection of glass plate negatives that documents theater performances in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The fragile collection was previously inaccessible, but the negative plates were digitized and converted to positive images for the digital collection.
Visitors to the Ransom Center’s website can search within collections or across collections, often revealing related materials. Additional tools provide users with the ability to virtually flip through books, enlarge images and compare page images with accompanying transcripts, which are text-searchable.
Collections are being added on an ongoing basis, and planned digitization projects include the photographs of nineteenth-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and photographs and ephemera from the Fred Fehl dance collection.
This project was made possible with funding from the Booth Heritage Foundation.
Leslie Delassus worked as a graduate intern in public services at the Ransom Center in 2005–2006, and she returned to the Center in 2013 as a dissertation fellowship recipient to conduct research in the Dawn collection. Below, she explores Dawn’s working method and approach to special effects.
Norman O. Dawn was a relatively obscure yet historically significant early special effects cinematographer, inventor, artist, and motion picture director, writer, and producer. The image above is an example of the 164 cards in the Dawn collection that illustrate special effects processes.
Produced by Dawn himself during the 1970s, these 16×20-inch cards explicate the process of special effects Dawn produced during his career as a filmmaker, dating back to as early as 1907. Between 1907 and 1951, Dawn created more than 800 special effects for more than 80 films, ranging from his early non-narrative “scenic” films to his subsequent narrative films. All of these effects consist of the juxtaposition of two or more images, a process Dawn refers to as “image manipulation.” The cards include artifacts from the production process including oil, watercolor, pencil, and ink sketches; film clips; frame enlargements; camera records; and production stills. The cards also contain ancillary documents such as movie reviews, advertisements, other trade press clippings, and sections from textbooks and pages from an unpublished autobiography.
This wealth of materials visually traces the history of cinematic special effects, situating their development within film scholar Tom Gunning’s notion of the “cinema of attractions,” a much earlier period vastly different from popular narrative film. The cinema of attractions was a more sensational cinema that appealed to audiences through overwhelming spectacle and images of the unfamiliar associated with tourism.
The card above explains the production process of the footage Dawn shot for Hale’s Tours of the World (1907), a cinema of attraction par excellence. Combining spectacle and tourism, Hale’s Tours was an amusement park ride set in a trolley, which simulated the sensations of a train ride as riders watched films shot from the point of view of a train in motion. In his footage for the ride, Dawn deployed arguably his most famous special effect innovation, the glass-shot, in which he shot a live scene through a large glass painting. In this particular shot, Dawn juxtaposed footage of members of an indigenous community in Mexico with a painting of ancient Mayan ruins situated in the background, thus combining two spatially distinct objects of tourism into one view. With his glass-shot, Dawn raised the stakes of spectacle by transporting his audience to a place otherwise inaccessible, one only possible through special effects cinema.
Significantly, images of spectacle and tourism resurface in Dawn’s fiction films, which are largely underrepresented in film history. While Dawn produced effects for—and in many cases directed—over 80 films, most of these films no longer exist. The few that remain reveal the way in which Dawn’s work in early cinema, like Hale’s Tours, influenced his narrative filmmaking. Often shot in remote and unfamiliar locations, such as the Arctic tundra, these films emphasize spectacle and tourism as integral narrative elements. Much like the audience of the attraction film, the protagonist of these films is overwhelmed by spectacular locations and charged with the task of navigating this unfamiliar terrain. This emphasis on spectacle over narrative links Dawn’s fiction films not only to the much earlier period of the attraction but also to the high-budget blockbuster of contemporary cinema. In this sense, Dawn’s protagonists have much in common with archetypal figures of New Hollywood cinema such as Indiana Jones, thus bridging the gap between the distant past of early cinema and the present moment of popular film.
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.
Special effects in film are most often associated with monsters and space aliens, explosions and gunfire. While such features certainly fit into that category, more often than not special effects are used to make something look real and normal that would otherwise be too difficult or expensive to photograph. Fair weather, for example, can be unpredictable; exotic or imaginary locations may be inaccessible or may not exist at all. But both can be realized through the use of matte paintings, glass shots, or other special effects techniques.
Many of the techniques were devised in cinema’s earliest years by Norman O. Dawn (1886–1975) and subsequently refined and improved by succeeding special effects artists. Recently, digital technologies have enabled new ways to create the “trick shot.”
Dawn was a relatively obscure yet historically significant early special effects cinematographer, inventor, artist, and motion picture director, writer, and producer. He worked with many important film pioneers including Mack Sennett, Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg, and Erich von Stroheim. The Dawn collection consists of 164 display cards that illustrate over 230 of the 861 special effects Dawn created in more than 80 movies.
Constructed personally from his 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.
Each display card documents one of his special effects, most often a refinement or improvement of a matte shot process. This card illustrates a very early special effect Dawn created with Edwin S. Porter, one of the top directors in Thomas Edison’s motion picture company. Dawn’s notes about Porter, Mrs. Edison, and his sketch of Edison’s Bronx studio are also of interest.
This is just one item from the “Special Effects” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”
For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.