how did they add effects to old movies on film?

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Take Harryhausen skeletons for example. They film the actors and the skeletons, but how did they put them onto one bit of film? Surely someone didn’t have to cut out a skeleton from each frame and stick them on?

Likewise, how did they add matt paintings to the film?

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There were a lot of cool optical effects that could be done in a black room. One of the things they do is to copy the content of one film onto another by shining a light through the old film onto the new film. So you can copy the film of the actors. However instead of copying the film with the skeletons to a new film you can just reuse the same film that now have the exposure of the actors. The result is a film with both the actors and the skeletons. This is called double exposure.

You can also load both films on top of each other into the same operation. When you shine a light through them both then they would act as a filter. You could also add various other items in the light path to block part of the image or change it in some way. If you have used a film editing tool then you might recognize most of these techniques and the way you stack layers on top of each other. Modern software is essentially simulating working with old optical films.

A lot of times the matte would be brought to set and set up in front of the camera so it was covering that part of the frame and the effect was just done live. Another way to do this is that, if you cover part of the camera with black, that part of the frame won’t be exposed and you can expose it to something else later.

For Jason and the Argonauts, the skeletons were stop motion animated. So they had these small models of the skeletons that they moved one frame at a time and snapped a picture. To mix it with the humans, they had a projector behind the model stage where they were showing the live action footage and they would move it one frame at a time as they were moving the models. And this can be a very intricate process. If you had an actors sword hit a skeleton’s sword, they would get a little extra piece of the sword for the stop motion to cover the gap.

This video does a good job explaining some of the details. https://youtu.be/eO0Di-Iczuo

I’m sure there’s tons of documentaries on the internet showing all sorts of neat little tricks older filmmakers used to create effects.

The effect you cited can be a simple overlay. It’s not so different from green screen or rear projection.

A matte painting is, well, just a painting that actors act in front of. The camera positions itself to make the actor and background blend. Again, an early ancestor to green screen.

For something crazy like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, they specifically had sound stages that were elevated so crew could run underneath and manipulate real objects that animated characters would appear to be holding. Overlay several different layers of animation on top of the live action stuff to give the animated characters realistic lighting, shading, and focus depending on what the camera and lights were doing. It’s a massive pain in the butt compared to CGI, but ultimately it looks better.

All the colored lasers and force lighting in the original star wars was all hand drawn stuff. There are matte paintings left right and center.

Even modern movies employ old techniques. Lord of the Rings uses forced perspective to make Hobbits short. Titanic filmed a 3 foot model of the ship breaking in half in slow motion then added in some CG elements later.

Again, lots of behind the scenes documentaries exist for all sorts of shows, films, etc. Check them out, It’s really cool how clever filmmakers can be at making an effect.