Here’s How Special Effects Were Done in Silent Film Before CGI

Way before CGI and the green screen were a thing silent filmmakers were coming out with new and at the time ground-breaking ways to create cinema magic. Without the aid of computers or any digital tools they would rely heavily on a combination of practical effects and camera trickery.

A Redditor called Auir2blaze recently compiled a list of these practical effects in action along with an explanation and look into how they were created and it’s fascinating to see. To check out how things have moved on over the years, check out these awesome behind-the-scenes photos of visual effects in more recent movies.

Safety Last! (1923)

When Safety Last was made it wasn’t possible to use a green screen so instead they used a trick of perspective to make it look as if actor Harold Lloyd was hanging helplessly from a clock.

Modern Times (1936)

In Modern Times they used a tried and tested technique known as glass matte painting to make it look as if Charlie Chaplin was just inches away from falling.

The Black Pirate (1926)

In order for Douglas Fairbanks to slide down a sail in the movie the actors brother, Robert, created a pulley system that Fairbanks was connected to via his knife.

Ella Cinders (1926)

Using a blacked out piece of glass one side of Colleen Moore’s face was filmed and then the film was rolled back and the glass switched to the other side – the key to the shot was keeping Moore’s face and the camera as still as possible between shots.

Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921)

In order to achieve this shot of Mary Pickford kissing herself on the cheek, famed cinematographer Charles Rosher used a highly detailed matte painting of Pickford as well as a metal frame to stop the camera from moving. In total the shot took 15 hours to make.

Ben-Hur (1925)

Thanks to the clever use of coloured filters in Ben-Hur, when adjusted the two women’s leper makeup seems to completely disappear as Jesus “heals” them.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Using another matte shot in this scene the bottom of the frame was blacked out and the actor was riding along whilst the bridge was still intact. The part with the moving trucks was then filmed separately and the two pieces of film layered together.


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