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Cinema Journal (2012) - The Screen on the Set: The Problem of Classical-Studio Rear Projection




In the classical era, blue screen composites were completed by optical printing specialists, often subcontractors, long after the actors had been dismissed, often with director, cinematographer, and art director nowhere in sight. Rear projection was used in countless Westerns, women's pictures, social problem films, musicals, crime thrillers, teen pics, comedies, war pictures, historical dramas, and even Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Color, large-format film stock, and the popularity of location shooting - in part initiated by films like To Catch a Thief - pointed up the visual disadvantages of rear projection and gave technicians headaches for the next two decades.16 Research and reviews suggest that rear projection was not a major problem for directors, critics, or the mythical "average" moviegoer, and the studio technicians thus found their aesthetic standards to be out of sync with the majority, yet they continued working to improve the technology.


The Screen on the Set: The Problem of Classical-Studio Rear Projection

Julie Turnock

Rear projection was the primary special effects composite technology in the Hollywood studio system from about 1935 to about 1970.1 Rear projection's major advantage over other composite techniques was its efficiency: it could be completed immediately on the set, under the control of the producer, director, and cinematographer, instead of much later and much more slowly in postproduction. Yet, although it may have been favored by the studio producers, research suggests that the effects technicians in charge of the technique never solved the problem that we recognize quite clearly today: the discrepancy of the image quality between the foreground and background. Farciot Edouart, who was a special effects industry leader and head of Paramount's rear projection department, proclaimed rear projection's equipment "perfected" in 1943; however, examples of rear projection from many midcentury films would seem to suggest that he was overly optimistic.2 This essay describes the technical specifications of rear projection, its adaptation as the primary composite technique for Hollywood studios by 1940, and its baseline practice in the mid-1950s.

It is the spectacular special effects of science fiction and fantasy that have thus far received the majority of our attention. Why explore rear projection, a classical-studio technique that succeeded in streamlining production, but which, according to the technicians in charge of it, never actually achieved the syst...

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Julie Turnock is Assistant Professor of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of "Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Art and Technology in 1970s US Filmmaking" (forthcoming). She has published on special effects in the sixth edition of "Popping Culture" (Pearson, 2010) and in the "New Review of Film and Television Studies".

This essay was completed with the support of a Mellon/ACLS Early Career Fellowship, and with the help of the Davis Humanities Institute at the University of California-Davis. I gratefully acknowledge the research assistance of the team at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, and interview subject Bill Taylor, ASC. Thanks also to Haidee Wasson, Katharina Loew, Allyson Field, and Jonathan Knipp.


  1. My research is based on technician discourse in professional journals. There is only meager mention of rear projection in the canonical surveys. In David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson's The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), rear projection is only mentioned tangentially in relation to other topics, such as deep-focus photography (349) or Technicolor (354). Tino Balio's Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (New York: Scribner, 1993) includes a short discussion of special effects techniques of the 1930s—contributed by Bordwell and Thompson—in which rear projection is included (131-132). Thomas Schatz's Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) includes no discussion of special effects at all. In Peter Lev's The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), rear projection is not discussed at all in the "Technology and Spectacle" chapter. See also Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (London: Starword, 1992), 209. For theoretical approaches to rear projection, see Laura Mulvey, "A Clumsy Sublime," Film Quarterly 60, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 3; and Dominique Païni, "The Wandering Gaze: Hitchcock's Use of Transparencies," in Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences, ed. Païni and Guy Congeval (Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2000).
  2. Farciot Edouart, ASC, "The Evolution of Transparency Process Photography" (1943), in The ASC Treasury of Visual Effects, ed. Linwood Dunn and George E. Turner (Hollywood: American Society of Cinematographers, 1983), 115.
  3. Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, Classical Hollywood Cinema.
  4. Raymond Fielding, The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography (New York: Hastings House, 1968), 259-304.
  5. Frederick Foster, "The Photography of Background Plates," American Cinematographer (February 1962): 98.
  6. The terminology that differentiates various special effects techniques is wildly inconsistent. See William Stull, ASC, "Producers Pool Composite Process Patents," American Cinematographer (November 1936): 461. For more about the technical specifications, see Fielding, The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography, 264-266.
  7. On "opticals" versus "process shots," see Julie Turnock, "Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Art and Technology in 1970s US Filmmaking" (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2008); Fielding, The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography; and Richard Rickitt, Special Effects: The History and Technique (New York: Billboard Books, 2000).
  8. Edouart, "The Evolution of Transparency Process Photography," 108.
  9. Charles Anderson, "Background Projection Photography," American Cinematographer (August 1952): 342.
  10. See Fielding, The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography, 191; and Stull, "Producers Pool Composite Process Patents."
  11. Lynn [Linwood] Dunn, ASC, "Optical Printing and Technique," American Cinematographer (March 1934): 444.
  12. Herb Lightman, "MGM's 'Laced-Process' Rear-Projection System," American Cinematographer (August 1964): 456, 466-467.
  13. Ibid.; Edouart, "The Evolution of Transparency Process Photography," 108.
  14. Bill Taylor, ASC, interview by Julie Turnock, July 25, 2006, Illusion Arts offices, Van Nuys, CA.
  15. Loren Ryder, A Statement from Paramount, about VistaVision (Los Angeles: Paramount, 1954), http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/vistavision.htm (accessed June 29, 2011).
  16. See Edouart, "The Evolution of Transparency Process Photography"; Anderson, "Background Projection Photography"; and Lightman, "MGM's 'Laced-Process' Rear-Projection System."
  17. Similarly, on the transition to sound film, see Jim Lastra, Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).