All You Need is Paint: Movie FX in the Pre-Star Wars Era

In the 1970s, Universal Studios consisted of two main divisions. The TV side cranked out endless formulaic detective shows for the networks. Colombo, McMillan, McCloud, Rockford, Kojak, they all defended the Universal backlot from evil-doers. The film division seemed to specialize in endless formulaic disaster movies: the Airport franchise, Irwin Allen’s Earthquake, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws -- all terrorized filmgoers, along with serving up plenty of epic cheese along the way.

So it’s not surprising that in 1975, the studio turned to the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 as a film plot: it’s Airport set in the 1930s! Robert Wise could direct -- he knows his way around big movie projects! We could have a detective looking for saboteurs! We can produce the big explosion at the end in Sensurround!

The result was a typical 1970s Universal potboiler -- but check out the special effects to bring the dead zeppelin back to life:

There’s a terrific book from 2002 titled The Invisible Art (I bought my copy at the local Borders a couple of years ago for the cover price after noticing it's currently going for insane money on Amazon). It's a coffee table style look at the history of matte paintings, that’s chockablock filled with large color reproductions of the classic matte paintings created throughout the history of cinema. Some shots are simply reproductions of the completed image, but many also include the original matte painting (typically painted onto a large sheet of glass), showing the area left blank for the insertion of actors, typically via rear projection.

The original idea behind matte paintings of course was that it made set production much cheaper -- only a small set need be built for the actors to appear in, and the rest of the image painted around them afterward. During World War II, when government mandates forced movie studios into building sets with a minimum of raw materials, films rarely thought of as “special effects movies” such as 1944's Since You Went Away made extensive use of matte paintings to replace large, free-standing physical sets. Flipping through The Invisible Art, it's obvious that the aesthetics of old Hollywood also helped to sell matte paintings. From Gone with the Wind in 1939, to the great MGM musicals of the 1950s, films made during Hollywood's golden era typically had a softer, more painterly look in general. Contrast this more aesthetically pleasing look to the harsh gritty films that became the vogue in the 1970s after Old Hollywood collapsed.

By the 1970s, thanks to his long apprenticeship to Alfred Hitchcock, matte painter Albert Whitlock was one of the unsung heroes at Universal, crafting large vistas of destroyed urban areas for films such as Irwin Allen’s Earthquake and Hitchcock’s The Birds (arguably the predecessor to the 1970s disaster movies) to be produced. Fans of a certain popular mid-1960s science fiction TV series may recognize this classic matte painting created by Whitlock for the show's second pilot episode.

For Robert Wise’s production of The Hindenburg, most of the long shots of the airship consist of Whitlock’s matte paintings. While a large model of the Hindenburg was built for the movie, many of its appearances are a photograph of the model (which now hangs in the Smithsonian), with extra details painted in by Whitlock, and then glued to a piece of glass, which was then placed atop another Whitlock painting of the landscape below. Via stop motion animation (where the image of the zeppelin was moved a frame at a time) the Hindenburg was made to “fly” over a beautifully painted landscape of 1930s-era New York. (The end of the movie switches to black and white to allow stock footage of the infamous crash to used intercut with Scott and crew on sets; Ted Turner’s crayon-like film colorization techniques mercifully not yet invented.)

The result was one of the last big special effects movies before George Lucas's Star Wars revitalized the moribund film industry, and revolutionized special effects. Lucas would of course create Industrial Light & Magic, his own in-house effects department, which would bring a host of new techniques to the industry during the following decade.