The Vault

How To Stage An Action Sequence in 1935: An Effects Master’s Colorful Portfolio

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These collages break down and illustrate some of the work that went into creating special effects for early films. Norman O. Dawn, a cinematographer, inventor, and effects guru, composed these display boards using notes from his production diaries, oil paintings, photographs, and clippings. The archives of the Harry Ransom Center hold 164 of these collages, which illustrate Dawn’s work throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Among a few other early filmmakers, Dawn had a claim to having invented the matte shot, the technique in which filmed action is combined with a carefully painted backdrop. (Here is a detailed description of Dawn’s process, which varied from film to film.)

These particular cards illustrate effects created for a film that Dawn also directed: “Tundra,” an action-adventure set in Alaska. In the story, a doctor on a humanitarian mission to a remote village crash-lands in the wilderness, and makes his way to safety with the help of two friendly bear cubs. Dawn spent seven months on location shooting this film in 1935.

For “Tundra,” Dawn often combined two filmed sequences, rather than a filmed sequence and a matte painting. The cards show how heavily double exposures played into the technique of representing dramatic action before computer manipulation was available.

For the sequence in which a mountain lion pushes a log containing the doctor and the bear cubs into the ocean, for example, a double exposure created the illusion that the three were inside the hollow log, falling through the air and suffering in freezing water. 

The notes on the cards also show how luck and flexibility played a big part in shaping Dawn’s decisions. Of this sequence, he writes: “I had access to a tame puma, which started the whole thing.”

Many more of Dawn’s FX display cards appear in a slideshow on the Ransom Center’s blog.

Collage by Norman Dawn illustrating special effects techniques. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

Dawn Board 1

Collage by Norman Dawn illustrating special effects techniques. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.