How Some Cool Silent Film Effects Were Made Before CGI

Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock in Safety Last! (1923)

How it was done: When Safety Last was made, it wasn’t feasible to insert a fake background using rear projection or a green screen, so they used a trick of perspective. The set was built at the right height for Lloyd’s climb, but on the roof of a building across the street. As Lloyd climbed higher, the set was moved to taller buildings.

Charlie Chaplin roller-skating in a department store in Modern Times (1936)

How it was done: Charlie Chaplin roller-skating in a department store in Modern Times (1936)
A good example of the classic movie making technique of glass matte painting. Part of the background was painted on a piece of glass, which was placed in front of the camera.

Colleen Moore’s eye trick in Ella Cinders (1926)

How it was done: The two halves of her face were filmed separately, using a matte shot. Basically, a piece of glass with half the frame painted black was placed in front of the camera, so only one side the film was exposed. The film was then wound back, the glass was switched for one with black on the other side. The key was to avoid having either the camera or the Moore’s face shift in position while shooting, or the effect would be ruined.

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