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American Cinematographer (1974) - Profile: Irmin E. Roberts, A.S.C


  • magazine article: Profile: Irmin E. Roberts, A.S.C
  • author(s): John Ormond
  • journal: American Cinematographer (01/Dec/1974)
  • issue: volume 55, issue 12, page 1396
  • journal ISSN: 0002-7928
  • publisher: American Society of Cinematographers




In the realm of moviemaking, few people qualify more for the title of "unsung hero" than the special effects man. Little is known about his work outside the studios, and few members of the filmgoing public give him much consideration. Yet, without this talented and versatile member of the moviemaking team, many of the most memorable and awesome film sequences would not have been possible.

One of the most successful ‑ and most popular ‑ exponents of the special effects art is lrmin E. Roberts, ASC, who has been doing his "thing" before and behind the motion picture cameras since way back in 1926. That was when Roberts went to work at Paramount studios, in Hollywood's salad days.

"The special effects departments came about not only for the sake of j economy, but also because many ; directors and producers realized that scenes sometimes could be done better by the special effects people than if they were done on an actual location," maintains Roberts.

A man of great energy and enthusiasm, Roberts has worked for the best. His film credits read almost like a Who's Who in Hollywood, with major productions for such producers and directors as DeMiIIe, Stanley Kramer, Alfred Hitchcock, Norman Taurog, Edward Dmytryk, Hal Wallis, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz and George Stevens.

During the making of more than 150 motion pictures, Roberts has traveled to every continent, and has worked under all kinds of conditions.

For example, he and his colleagues endured monsoons and 120‑degree heat in the filming of "ELEPHANT WALK" in the lowlands and highlands of Ceylon. In "secRET OF THE INCAS", Roberts worked in the Andes at altitudes in excess of 12,000 feet, in extreme cold. For "MARACAIBO", he was back in the jungles again, this time in Venezuela.

"That was a picture we did for Cornel Wilde, who was both producer and director," Roberts recalls. "I went down there with the assistant director and a small crew, and we filmed everything with doubles and process plates. We kept the film in our icebox, then came back to Hollywood.

"Everybody was so surprised. The doubles looked like the real people in the cast. So Cornel Wilde was able to use a lot more of the footage from Venezuela than he had anticipated."

During that filming of "ELEPHANT WALK" in Ceylon, Roberts came to realize that Lady Luck was very much on his side. He flew in to Colombo, Ceylon, aboard a new Comet jetliner, and left the plane there. During its subsequent flight across the Persian Gulf from Ceylon, that Comet blew up in mid‑air, with total loss of life.

"That was a tough picture for me, though," he reminisces. "Vivien Leigh was replaced in the lead by Elizabeth Taylor, and I had to make special plates for the Liz Taylor scenes, which were supposedly done on a plantation near Kandy. As it turned out, we had to do most of the picture all over again at London, because of the change of Taylor for Leigh."

Not all of Roberts' locations have been big problems, though. For Hal Wallis' "GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS", he had the luxury of a three‑month tour of duty in Hawaii. And for Wallis' "FUN IN ACAPULCO", he labored almost four months in the lush tropics of Mexico's Riviera. In 1960, he had another toughie: four months at Miami Beach for Jerry Lewis' "CINDERFELLA".

During his career, many of his films have won Academy Awards for photography for special effects, though he himself has never been the recipient of the coveted Oscar.

It was Roberts' work on "WAR OF THE WORLDS" that led to that George Pal production winning an Oscar for special photography. And Roberts did it again on George Stevens' memorable western, "SHANE".

On that occasion, though, Roberts did get some of the credit.

Loyal Griggs, ASC, one of Hollywood's most distinguished directors of photography, was awarded the Oscar for "SHANE". When he went to collect his statuette, Griggs turned to the huge audience and said, "I really didn't win this! lrmin Roberts won it with his second unit."

When Roberts is cornered and asked about the "secrets" of his cinematic art by students or inquisitive members of the general public, he tends to "clam up" a little. It's understandable, since this is his bread and butter, and a man's value nowadays is in what he knows ‑ and what other people don't know!

One of his favorite stories, though, concerns an assignment he took for the film, "FRENCHMAN'S CREEK", which was photographed near Fort Bragg, in Northern California, in 1944.

"For one particular sequence, we had to construct a miniature castle, which was about four feet high, and set it against a real background of coastline and rolling hills. The castle had to look like it was really there, in the middle of this country scene."

Roberts and his masters of trick photography did their job so well that, when the "dailies" were shown to the studio chiefs in New York a couple of days later, they were furious.

"The New York people wanted to fire everybody, for having the nerve to build a big castle for a movie, when everybody then was stressing economy and the war effort!" Roberts chuckles.

That film won an Oscar for art direction and interior decoration ‑ but not for special effects.

"The studio didn't put the film up in that category," Roberts recalls, wryly. "It would have won, hands down!"

Nevertheless, there has been much that has gone right in the life and times of lrmin Roberts.

In 1976, for instance, he will celebrate his 50th (fiftieth) wedding anniversary. He and his wife, NeIIe, plan another long trip to celebrate that one. They have two grown‑up children.

He has been around the world three times. Last year, he took a tour by bus from Finland, through Russia to Poland. He'd still like to see the Wall of China and explore South Africa, though.

He and Nelle have a four‑bedroom home in Palos Verdes which they purchased 12 years ago, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles. Roberts plays golf twice a week, at the Los Verdes Country Club.

He was a member of the Academy's Special Effects Committee for eight years, retiring from that committee early in 1974. He has been a member of the Masonic Scottish Rite at Long Beach for more than 20 years. And, most important to lrmin, he has been a member of the American Society of Cinematographers since 1933.

"Just think," says Roberts, with a twinkle in his eye, "I could have been an electrical engineer, like my folks wanted me to be. Look what I would have missed!"