- The Screen on the Set:The Problem of Classical-Studio Rear Projection
Rear projection was the primary special effects composite technology in the Hollywood studio system from about 1935 to about 1970.1 Rear projection's major advantage over other composite techniques was its efficiency: it could be completed immediately on the set, under the control of the producer, director, and cinematographer, instead of much later and much more slowly in postproduction. Yet, although it may have been favored by the studio producers, research suggests that the effects technicians in charge of the technique never solved the problem that we recognize quite clearly today: the discrepancy of the image quality between the foreground and background. Farciot Edouart, who was a special effects industry leader and head of Paramount's rear projection department, proclaimed rear projection's equipment "perfected" in 1943; however, examples of rear projection from many midcentury films would seem to suggest that he was overly optimistic.2 This essay describes the [End Page 157] technical specifications of rear projection, its adaptation as the primary composite technique for Hollywood studios by 1940, and its baseline practice in the mid-1950s.
It is the spectacular special effects of science fiction and fantasy that have thus far received the majority of our attention. Why explore rear projection, a classical-studio technique that succeeded in streamlining production, but which, according to the technicians in charge of it, never actually achieved the system's desired perfect seamlessness? By analyzing technical discourse of the studio era, we can see how special effects problematize theories that homogenize classical Hollywood cinema into a series of norms into which all exceptions can be subsumed and regularized.3 Providing a historically rigorous account of rear projection is also part of a larger project that seeks, first, to understand the importance of special effects, both locally in the case of specific films and more broadly in terms of historical industrial practices, and, second, to demonstrate the importance of troubling ostensibly settled terms and theories in Film and Media Studies.
As many technical articles in professional journals like American Cinematographer attest, the concept of rear projection is very simple to explain and understand, but technologically very difficult to pull off seamlessly. In the simplest terms, rear projection is a special effect composite technique that involves projecting prefilmed footage behind actors on the set, typically to present the illusion that the actors are in a far-flung location and not on a sound stage. Rear projection background footage, called "plates," is seen most often in shots of actors speaking dialogue while in a car or other moving vehicle.4 If the projected background is moving, it is typically called a process shot.5 If the background is still, it's called a transparency shot.6
One surprisingly prevalent misconception about rear projection is that it is basically the same as blue or green screen composites, a technique that we are very familiar with in the post-Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) era. Both techniques do indeed typically share the goal of compositing the main actors with a background and creating the illusion of a seamless diegesis. However, technically, they have very different on-set and postproduction specifications and, of course, require very different equipment. Again, rear projection's main advantage is that it is completed in the camera and on the set at the same time as principal photography by studio personnel, in the presence of the main actors and the director, and checked almost immediately in the dailies. Blue screen composites (part of a varied set of postproduction composite techniques known historically as traveling mattes or simply "opticals") are created by having the actors perform in front of a blank blue screen. In the classical era, blue screen composites were completed by optical printing specialists, often subcontractors, long after the actors had been dismissed, often with director, cinematographer, and art director nowhere in sight.7 [End Page 158]
Rear projection was used in countless Westerns, women's pictures, social problem films, musicals, crime thrillers, teen pics, comedies, war pictures, historical dramas, and even Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Although ignored by academics and special effects enthusiasts alike...