Behind the scenes of 'Les Trucs du Cinema'

Curator's Note

These trading cards were distributed by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company around 1910. Each picture illustrates the shooting of a scene from a well-known trick film, and on the reverse is an explanation of how the special effect was achieved. For instance, in Accident d’Automobile, a man’s legs are severed by a speeding car, and magically reattached by the driver who, most conveniently, turns out to be a surgeon. The outdoor setting and the apparently unbroken take give the impression of an actuality, filmed outside the artifice of a studio, but the impossible action indicates that an illusion has taken place. As revealed by the card (and, at length, in Frederick Talbot’s Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked), the injury, and its instant healing, was achieved using two actors, one a double amputee, and alternating between them using a stop-action substitution and some dummy legs. The film, then, is designed to efface the traces of illusionism (e.g. it is not “theatrical”, and the substitution cut aims to conceal the join where the actors have switched places), while the existence of these “behind-the-scenes” explanations gives the viewer the chance to reflect upon the film with fresh knowledge, and the skills to decode the fabrication. 

How many times have we heard reports of audiences fleeing in terror from screenings of the Lumière Bros’ Arrival of a Train? This, one of the foundational myths of film history, may have been spread to promote the Lumiere shows, or may have been invented by urban sophisticates to make fun of rural rubes (an interpretation lampooned in R.W. Paul’s The Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901)), but whether or not it actually happened, the idea has lodged in the public consciousness ever since: we like to think of early film spectators as credulous dupes, awed into submission by a medium they were ill-equipped to understand or explain. Perhaps this is because, conversely, it lets us characterise the modern spectator as a connoisseur, armed with technical information, able to see through every trick. I like to use these trading cards as a reminder of the simple fact that the production and consumption of special effects has always been built around a constructive interplay between filmmaker and spectator, a continual back-and-forth between ineffable mystery and prosaic solution. 


Bob Rehak's picture

Special Effect as Quasi-Object

Dan, splendid post — and I appreciate the elegance and charm of your slideshow, itself something of a "special effect" that fittingly concludes our week organizing In Media Res.

Your framing of the Liebig trading cards helps to crystallize a thought that’s been recurring to me lately — that we are mistaken to define special effects exclusively in terms of their production (les trucs involved in their realization), their display (whether in seamless verisimilitude or blatantly unreal spectacle), or their reception (the sense we make of them). Clearly, all of these ingredients are at play, but there is a missing fourth term, the explanation, which is always some form of paratext, a DVD extra, magazine article, blog post, or (in this case) promotional cards for a meat company. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a text. It can be someone whispering in your ear while watching a movie that "they did it with wires," or explaining over coffee that this or that shot was done with stop-motion animation. Whatever the case, the special effect "becomes" a special effect only when its manufactured nature has been revealed in some way (even if inaccurately!), so that we see it retroactively as a construct.

I’m treading vaguely on actor-network territory here, specifically the idea of the quasi-object, whose odd agency arises from its location and movement within larger networks. I suppose I’m also comparing special effects to germs a la Latour’s Pasteurization of France. The point is that special effects are as much discursive and historiographic in nature as they are technological, sensual, and spectacular; they are written and spoken into existence by the very behind-the-scenes documentation that purports to stand outside their creation. I suspect it is this temporally-displaced disavowal that underpins the interesting dynamics you explore here, between modern and early cinema audiences, and the ways we assign naive credulity or sophisticated understanding to the one or the other.


Dan North's picture

The explanation

Bob, I can always rely on you to take something I’ve written in a bit of a fug and then explain it to me in lucid terms. I’m also becoming more and more interested in a rhetoric of special effects, the framing discussions that orientate spectatorial engagement and investment. Someone once complained that, by arguing that the spectator was always and necessarily "in on the trick" (even when they don’t know every detail of how it was achieved), that I was positing an "ideal spectator"; but who are the people who don’t know that James Cameron didn’t really sink the Titanic, or that a man can’t really fly, and why are such people allowed out in public without psychiatric supervision? I would never presume that everybody comes to the screen with the same paratextual baggage, and that’s the challenge for us, because as you say, the range of paratexts is endless. But we need a model of analysis that begins from the standpoint that the spectator is engaged and involved, otherwise we end up believing that there still are the kinds of fools who supposedly ran from the Lumieres’ train - they are the mythical, or at the very least hypothetical paratextless spectators, unable to square what they were seeing with anything they had previously encountered. 


Michael E. Muhme's picture

The Magic Trick

This post also makes me consider, especially in contrast to the many conversations this week on CGI effects, the way special effects carry with them the same quality of a magic act. The audience knows a trick has been pulled and that is part of the fun.

These paratext events function to satisfy that audience desire to "be in on the trick."

Dan North's picture


Exactly right, Michael. I’ve often used the magic trick as an analogy for filmic special effects (it’s also more than that, as the histories of magic theatre and early film are neatly intertwined), stressing that magic is invariably sold on the fact of its mystery, a challenge to be solved, but the paratexts always help to navigate the viewer’s engagement. Paratexts for magic tricks might be other versions of similar tricks, or the things we know about the real world, i.e. we know that people can’t levitate, so we approach the trick from the standpoint that what we see must be a fabrication - you would miss the point of a magic trick if you ever, for a moment, believed in the possibility of its reality. The magician can then control the spectator’s perception in pleasing ways that play upon tests of knowledge - one minute you might be assuming that the levitation is produced with wires, so the magician passes a hoop around the floating body to show that there must be a different solution, and the viewer must adjust to these deflections. 

Films have trouble synthesising the crucial liveness of magic performance, but that interplay between performer (filmmaker) and spectator can still be seen in the structure of film special effects sequences. I’ve written about this in relation to Georges Melies’s Vanishing Lady

Michael S. Duffy's picture

The "Special" in Special Effects

I think this comment could apply equally to both Chuck’s and Dan’s posts, but to hopefully end the week on a positive but semi-inquisitive note: I have always found most interest in what I would call the complicated (and arguably, under-explored under-explained) tension between the analog and digital, the effect itself and its so-called ‘practical’ referent…the malleable moments in either technologically-incorporative film history or in films themselves, when the audience can never be quite sure what they’re seeing…is what they’re actually seeing (unless previously told so by a behind-the-scenes reveal), which is why, I suppose, during my PhD, I became interested in further interrogating just how morphing technologies in the 1980s and 90s were affecting imagery, context, and meaning in popular cinema.  Dan, your piece does a nice job of reminding us that the complications of spectacle in early cinema were just as much about communicating to the audience the process of the spectacle itself, as they were about making the audience believe and be immersed in it.  Achieving verisimilitude has, for many, been a default rule in establishing a sense of believability in spaces and worlds in cinema, but the constant tendency of the industry (particularly Hollywood) to be just as interested in promoting itself and its technologies as well as the immersiveness of its narratives remains a complication in the process of both mainstream and academic film-going.  I think it’s an interesting problem that over a century later, what we know as special effects continue to tread a fine line of creating an invisible illusion and the promotion of their own artifaces.  The idea of truly immersive cinema is regularly abandoned in favor of elevating the recognition of "How did they accomplish that?" and of course, the need for effects artists to "be recognized" themselves.  For many facets of the industry, effects work remains a complex and often meaningful self-reflexive line of work, equally as concerned with making audiences believe in worlds other than their own as it is in popularizing its own ability to do so.  Thanks to all of our contributors.


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