The Making of Metropolis: Special Effects by Gunther Rittau

Metropolis (1927)In this 1927 article written by cinematographer Gunther Rittau, he discusses the many groundbreaking special effects that were devised for the film.  Metropolis took an astounding 310 days to shoot in 1926, requiring the services of hundreds of technicians, and Gunther Rittau shared the camerawork with Karl Freund, who like Lang came to Hollywood where he photographed many memorable movies, including  Dracula and Murders in the Rue Mougue.

SPECIAL EFFECT IN THE FILM METROPOLIS

By Gunther Rittau

The shots which use the Eugen Schǘfftan process make up a special chapter in the area of special effects. Had all the colossal constructions needed for Metropolis been built on the intended scale, the costs would have been astronomical and most of all, precious time would have been lost. The Schufftan process offered the only possibility for a practical solution and this was used a great deal. With the help of partially finished constructions and miniature Shufftan models, not only were parts of the overwhelming street scenes shot, but the atmospheric cathedral scenes as well. With Schufftan shots, the visual trademark is dictated entirely by how the camera is adjusted, and how lighting is used for model constructions. Unusually difficult were the visionary shots of the Moloch-machine, also produced with the help of the Schufftan process. Other shots occurring with the course of movement, for which the Schufftan process was not applied, were completed using model constructions. These included the shots of the traffic-congested main thoroughfare, the explosion in the heart machine room, and the blanket of dust.

Whether shooting model constructions or building models; whether lighting a scene or setting adjustments for equipment, the utmost precision was necessary. To illustrate the difficultly involved in making such shots: it took nearly 8 days to make 40 meters of film capturing model-generated scenery, since every frame had to be shot individually, and 40 meters of film contain approximately 2,100 frames. In the actual film, this amounts to 10 seconds of footage (By these figures, it is clear that Metropolis should be projected at 20 frames a second.)

By far, the cameraman’s most interesting job was designing the light effects for the scene in which the android is brought to life in the laboratory of the inventor,  Rotwang.  In the film this occurs during a transfer of electric currents that pass between the android and Maria’s human form. Electric currents of this kind usually remain invisible. Here, however, to emphasize this fantastic-secretive process, they had to be visible to the eye. Making this shot work called for weeks of preparatory experiments in the laboratory, and making equally long calculations connected with the shooting. The photographic chemistry was anything but unimportant, and while preparing this shot the strangest of technical aids were used.

An in-depth description of the process would too time consuming here, as well as counter productive. It should only be kept in mind that concealing iridescence, soft soap, vignettes, and complicated technical constructions of one’s own design played a decisive role. For days on end, workers had to be versed in operating equipment that demanded accuracy based on dealing with fractions of seconds. Individual filmstrips were exposed as often as 30 times and people with knowledge of photography know exactly what this means. With works of this nature, everything depends on meticulous calculations, highly precise working methods and equipment and most of all, on the nerves and patience of the cameraman. I can safely assume that shots like these were never shown before.

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About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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