ByElle McFarlane, writer at
'There's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.'
Elle McFarlane

& have become almost synonymous with jaw-dropping visual effects. With their eye-watering budgets of upwards of 200 million dollars per flick, you can bet that aside from buying an obscene amount of sandwiches for the cast and crew, a large chunk of that cash dollar is spent in post, generating stunning visual effects which transforms your average Spider-Man into 'The Amazing' Spider-Man.

But what if there was a way to achieve the same result for a minuscule fraction of the cost? Let's travel back in time well over a century to see just how the visionary special effects of a few key silent movies paved the way for the of the Superhero movies we know today, and in some cases, are still well outperforming them.

1. Spider-Man & The Dangling Clock Tower Illusion

In this wonderful clip of visual wizardry taken from the 1923 movie Safety Last, we can see what appears to be Harold Lloyd hanging 100 feet in the air while gripping precariously on to a clock face over a busy high street.

During the production of Safety Last, green screen technologies clearly weren't available, but one thing the filmmakers did have was the ability to fool our eyes through a classic trick of perspective. Consequently, the entire scene is shot on a roof of a building overlooking the street, but shot from an angle which makes it feel as though Harold is literally hanging over it.

Look familiar? This is a clip taken from Spider-Man 2, a movie which had a budget of 200 million dollars — and it shows. Instead of just watching old Peter Parker dangle from a clock face as in Safety Last, we see him engage in an epic battle with Doctor Octopus down the entire length of the building. But has it aged well since it's 2004 debut?


Have the VFX of Spider Man 2 stood the test of time?

2. Captain America V. Charlie Chapman

In a classic silent movie setup, here's Charlie Chaplin trying on a pair of roller skates in a shoe shop that's at least 3 stories up, without a balcony, in the movie Modern Times. But just how on earth did he achieve this near deadly feat without a safety net?

Ingeniously, the trick behind this particular movie technique was to paint a realistic looking part of the background onto matte glass and position it in front of the camera to add a different perspective. As is the case in Modern Times, the sense of Charlie being at least 3 stories up is an illusion, the other floors are actually part of a painted image.

Unlike Charlie, Captain America in Captain America: Civil War doesn't have a painted mirror to give us a distorted sense of height. Instead, he has the beauty of computer animated effects to make it look not only as though he spends a while dangling close to the edge, like Charlie, but that he actually commits to a full fall at the hands of Bucky and his unwieldy helicopter driving skills.


Does Charlie's near-miss create more tension than Captain America's big fall?

3. Seeing Double With Doctor Strange

Here we can see the original queen of the silent movies and old Hollywood, Mary Pickford, seemingly kissing herself (in a very PG manner of course) in the 1921 movie Little Lord Fauntleroy, but just how did the filmmakers achieve this lip-pursing double-trouble illusion?

While seeing the same actor twice in once shot was not particularly novel at the time Little Lord Fauntleroy premiered, the particular technique used to create the illusion was. Whereas the likes of George Mélies had double exposed himself into the same piece of film to create a similar illusion, in this particular shot, cinematographer Charles Rosher used the technique that Charlie Chaplin would use 15 years later in Modern Times and had a detailed silhouette of Mary painted on a pane of glass, then got the real Mary Pickford to mock kiss it. This 3 second scene took a colossal 15 hours to complete.

Taking a leaf out of Mélies book, the doppelgänger effect used to demonstrate Stephen Strange's astral projection prowess in Doctor Strange is much more akin to the double exposure technique than the laborious task of painting a life like image of him onto a pane of matte glass as demonstrated in Little Lord Fauntleroy. However, with a budget of 165 million, I doubt any expense was spared on this epic VFX sequence.


Which double act was more convincing?

4. How To Pull Harley Quinn

Douglas Fairbanks makes sliding down a sail with a dagger look easy in 1926's The Black Pirate, but as we've learnt, looks can be very deceiving when it comes to these tricksy silent movies!

As this wonderfully old school graphic shows us, the effect was achieved by attaching Fairbank's knife to a secret pulley and counterweight system, with the camera and the sail being positioned at such an angle so that the hidden mechanics stayed out of view. This piece of simple but effective mechanical wizardry was actually concocted by Douglas's brother, Robert Fairbanks.

Naturally having to do things her own way, here's Harley Quinn essentially doing the Douglas Fairbank's pulley technique - but in reverse, and most probably in front of a green screen with the absence of any physical set whatsoever. However, the results are just as effective, and 100% more explosive.


Who wore those short shorts better?

Live Action V. Animated Superheroes

All Star Superman [Credit: Warner Bros.]
All Star Superman [Credit: Warner Bros.]

Ultimately it's difficult to pin point exactly what inspired Marvel and DC's mega superhero flicks to become the epic VFX blockbusters that they are today, but they without a doubt owe their murky beginnings to the pioneering work of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Charles Rosher, Georges Mélies and Robert Fairbanks. Without them, perhaps the DC Universe and Marvel Cinematic Universe's far fetched effects would only be able to exist in animated movie form, just as they do in the original comics.

Do You Think Marvel & DC Should Have Stuck With Animated Movies Rather Than Live Action?


Latest from our Creators