Side Note

Norman Dawn’s hundred year-old special effects look even more magical today

When an artform is just starting out, there tends to be a period of free-wheeling experimentation where people write their own rules in real-time. In the early era of film, this often meant that special effects weren’t supposed to look realistic, they just needed to look cool. After all, people were watching moving pictures in front of a gigantic frame for the first time, which must have felt magical in ways you or I will never experience. And so, special effects artists had the freedom to play up that unreality, pushing the viewer’s wonder to even greater heights. This is what special effects pioneer Norman Dawn excelled in, coming up with fantastical backdrops for scenes over a career that spanned 80 films. The University of Texas at Austin has a digital archive of his scene sketches, accompanied by detailed notes of his experiences making them real.