Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Wizard of MGM by A. Arnold Gillespie


Every art has its stars. Buddy Gillespie’s star shone brightly in the Hollywood motion picture industry for more than four decades as a creator of dramatic, eye-popping visual effects for Hollywood’s major motion pictures.

A master of both art and technology, he served as head of special effects on more than 180 major feature films at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Studios, endowing their stories and adventures with unforgettable images that enhanced and supported their dramatic impact. For his work in these cinematic milestones he was rewarded with twelve Academy award nominations and four Oscars.

This very readable and richly illustrated set of memoirs chronicles the life and work of one of Hollywood’s most distinguished filmmakers, describing his career in detail and revealing the complex techniques with which he achieved his results.
Dr. Raymond Fielding, Dean Emeritus
College of Motion Picture Arts
Florida State University

The artistic vision of A. Arnold Gillespie set the bar for special effects as the film industry evolved during MGM’s golden age of Hollywood.

"Buddy’s" seamless in-camera miniature, pyrotechnic and mechanical effects have inspired me since I can remember and his stunning sequences have laid the ground work for my career. Even in this digital effects age, the timeless techniques that Buddy pioneered I still employ on some of today’s biggest blockbuster films, allowing Buddy’s legacy in the magic of Hollywood to persevere.
Matthew Gratzner
Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-founcer,
New Deal Studios

Back before effects artists were the rock stars they are today, when most toiled in anonymity, often without screen credit, a few celebrated masters stood head and shoulders above the rest. Among those, none stood taller than Buddy Gillespie, who spent most of his 40-year film career as head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer special effects department, where he contributed cinematic illusions to such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, North by Northwest, Forbidden Planet and Ben-Hur, setting the standard for excellence in matte work, miniatures and other photographic effects. His legacy endures to this day.
Don Shay
Publisher, Cinefex

About The Book

"Wizard of MGM" was originally titled "Big Ones out of Little Ones".  The entire book, except for the Introduction by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn,  was authored by A. Arnold "Buddy" Gillespie in 1965. 

Buddy kept an extensive archive of effects he worked on throughout his career.  Starting from 1922 with C.B. Demille, to 1965 retiring as the head of MGM Special Effects, Buddy had contributed to over 400 films.  Each chapter immerses the reader into the artistry and MGM studio machine; matte painting, miniatures, process shots, optical and animation, includuing inner workings of the studio itself.
AAG measuring for "Wizard of Oz" process shot.
The Effects team suited up in waders in Tank Lot 3 for Ben-Hur.
The author with "Forbidden Planet" rover miniature.
"Guy Named Joe" (1944) 3/4" miniature plane "flown" by 3 guide wires shot in Tank Lot 3.
"Forbidden Planet" Internal Krell Tunnel Background - Electrical driven revolving glass painted black ith a clear pattern in a spiral design.
Form 48s for "Forbidden Planet" effects - Altair #4 Space Ship shot in Tank Lot 3 using 2' and 4' ships.  And Krell Tunnel Background effect. Cameraman Max Fabian was renown for his miniature work.

"Wizard of Oz" Flying monkey background process shot. Assebly was in front of small painted backing.  Monkeys were cast in rubber with rubber wings.  Each was hung by two staionary wires to head and feet.  Two movnig wires were fastened to tips of wings and move by accentric in overhead frame.

Auto roller for "Captain's Courageous" car body and boat.

The 378 page book is filled with over 640 photographs, illustrations, scene diagrams and extensive examples of "how they did that" back in the glory days of MGM Studios. 

As of 1963, Albert Arnold "Buddy" Gillespie worked on over 400 films including Wizard of Oz, both Ben-Hur movies, both Mutiny on the Bounty movies, Gone With the Wind and many other notable MGM blockbusters.  His career spanned some 45 years, starting from set designer, to head of Special Effects.

Buddy's prose takes the reader back in time when the MGM powerhouse first began.  Each of the chapters focuses primarily on a particular Academy recognized category for achievement.   Whimsical stories about the personalities that worked at MGM, life lessons, and technical details of how effects were achieved are interwoven together.  Historian, film and effect students, and general MGM enthusiast are each entertained as "Buddy's" personality pops off the page.  Visual representation including details set diagrams, miniatures, and the team of individuals working together to build these effects take the reader back to pre-computer generated graphics days.

This book is not only historically important, but covers material never before available in print. 

About the Author
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers by Greg S. Faller

The complete filmography of Arnold Gillespie is one of the largest in Hollywood, reaching nearly 600 films and almost evenly divided between art direction and special visual effects. He worked on both versions of Ben-Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty, created the visceral quality of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in San Francisco, the alien beauty of Forbidden Planet, and the maleficent nightmare of The Wizard of Oz. Gillespie's work in The Wizard of Oz demonstrated the imagination, ingenuity, and patience that became his trademark. To produce the witch's skywriting of "surrender Dorothy," he used a mixture of sheep dip and nigrosine dye released through a stylus into milk in a glass tank. The attack of the flying monkeys required the hanging of 2,200 piano wires from the sound stage's ceiling.

When Gillespie began special effects work for MGM, the studio was an efficient organization, all facets of production departmentalized. He was head of the Special Effects Department under the titular guidance of Cedric Gibbons' Art Department and in charge of the crews who worked with miniatures, rear-screen projection, and full-scale mechanical effects. The other aspects of visual effects fell under two other main departments; the Optical Department (matte paintings and optical printing) and the Animation Department. Gillespie seemed particularly intrigued with miniatures (Circus Maximus in the original Ben-Hur, the sea battle in the 1959 remake, the tank chase in Comrade X, the ships in Torpedo Run, and the raft sequence in How the West Was Won) and full-scale mechanicals (Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet and the four Bountys used for the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty). But his forte lay in designing solutions for odd effects never before photographed. As in the skywriting effect described above, he usually employed liquids in a glass tank. To create the plague of locusts in The Good Earth, Gillespie dumped coffee grounds into a water tank, filmed their dispersal upside-down, and then superimposed the image with shots of the crops. For the atomic explosion in The Beginning of the End, he visualized a mushroom cloud before photographs and information were declassified by the government. By releasing blood bags under water and superimposing the image with a background shot, Gillespie manufactured an effect so believable and accurate that government officials thought he had access to secret materials. The footage was later used by the United States Air Corps in their instructional films.

Gillespie had the talent and a studio system to make the remarkable, the unexperienced, the fantastic, and the cataclysmic very believable and authentic. As he described his profession in a FilmComment interview, "The whole physical end of movies, in my opinion, was so interesting because whether the picture was modern, whether it was in the future, whether it was a dream world like The Wizard of Oz or in Outer Space like Forbidden Planet, it was illusion made real."

—Greg S. Faller

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