Leslie DeLassus is a film historian and instructor with a Ph.D. in Film Studies from the University of Iowa. While working on her Ph.D, DeLassus came to the Ransom Center to research early film special effects innovator, Norman O. Dawn, and his groundbreaking work.
The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the Norman O. Dawn collection. More than 240 items from that collection, including the cards highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform.
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such as movie reviews, advertisements, other trade press clippings, and sections from textbooks and pages from an unpublished autobiography.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.
Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.
The archive of visual effects producer Thomas Smith has been donated to the Ransom Center. Smith worked on the special effects for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Star Trek: The Search for Spock (1983), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Below, he shares why he chose the Ransom Center as the repository for his papers and why it’s important to preserve these materials.
Why did you choose the Ransom Center as the home for your archive?
I began making 16 mm films right after I was discharged from the Air Force. I worked in this small screen format for 15 years. During the years when I was making documentary and academic films, I often used the good services of many archives, in search of photos or audio recordings for my films. About eight years ago, after working on my last feature film project, Gods and Generals (2003), I made one more small screen documentary. For this, I needed photos of American poet Edgar Lee Masters. I came to the Ransom Center since they were the largest depository I could find of Masters’s material. I was very impressed with the organization of the library, the courtesy of its staff, and the care they showed for the Masters collection. After I retired from working in feature films, I felt there would be no better place for my collection of motion picture scripts, photos, storyboards, and notes than the Ransom Center.
Why is it important to preserve the types of materials found in an archive such as yours?
Nothing is permanent, but a well-organized and well-housed archive is our best bet for preserving documents from the past and keeping them available to future generations. The material I have donated to the archive represents working papers from the motion picture industry from around 1980 to shortly after 2000. Most of it concerns the visual effects work I was involved with. Some of this will be interesting to students and film scholars immediately and some decades from now as it takes on a historical value and in some cases may attract artistic interest.
You’ll be meeting with students during your visit to campus. What can students learn from an archive such as yours?
The collection of my papers represents over 20 years of feature film scripts and story boards. By reading and studying these working documents, they will hopefully get some insight into the enormous amount of planning that goes into the making of a feature film, particularly the ones with visual effects. I was fortunate to have worked on many films students will have seen, films that are part of the American memory of popular movies. Some of these include two early Star Wars films, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Poltergeist. I also produced films for Walt Disney such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and several 3-D theme park attractions, one with pop singer Michael Jackson and another with Jim Henson. This was Henson’s last film. Sadly he died just as we finished the work. For the Jim Henson Company, I produced not only the 3-D film currently running in all Disneyland parks, MuppetVision 3-D, I also produced the visual effects for three feature films. For the Ted Turner company, I produced the visual effects and directed battle scenes for the 2003 Civil War epic Gods and Generals. For the ABC Network, I directed a one-hour special for children, called Ralph S. Mouse. So this is a cross section of work from a variety of films that students may find informative, and there are documents associated with nearly all of them in the collection.