The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

belle et la bete end

More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

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8 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava”

  1. As I say in the book, neither Bava nor his son were known for revealing their secrets. Everything I say by way of explaining how the special effects were achieved were based in my own examination of the best available frames and footage available to me at the time of writing, or testimony from family, friends and crew members. In this instance there were two things I considered in support of my explanation: one was the fact that Eugenio Bava had made his own disaster film, TERREMOTO FATALE, circa 1908 – quite some time before he allied himself with Chomon – which depicted through advanced special effects photography an imaginary earthquake devastating a city. It was a phenomenon at the time, so Eugenio would have been more likely asked to stage an historic disaster rather than Chomon, whose special effects skills were not so darkly aimed. Secondly, compare the Vesuvius shot to the shots filmed on the miniature alien planet landscape in PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1966), which Eugenio supervised – the camera set-ups are identical to the Vesuvius shots in CABIRIA and crew members told me that these shots were achieved with the scraped angled mirror technique commonly known as the Schufftan process. It was used on CABIRIA a decade before Schufftan’s earliest screen credit. Of course, Schufftan’s earliest screen credits find his work fabulously well developed already, so it is quite feasible that he worked on earlier films. It is also feasible that he learned from other artisans as he did so. But there you have my reasonings, Of course I might be incorrect in my assessment but I did not arrive carelessly at my conclusion – which I have not double-checked recently, but still feel is correct.

  2. I rather regret missing the projection of Cabiria that took place in Bologna last year — I was there, but went to see something else and missed a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    Everything you say above makes sense, but I still don’t see any reason to believe the shot was other than a double exposure. You haven’t produced an argument that would rule this out — you cite your examination of the film but the details you quote would fit quite easily with an explanation of double exposure. When we don’t know for sure which technique was used, the theory which uses techniques known to be available strikes me as slightly more persuasive that one which depends on a technique not known to have been devised at the time — although film history is constantly being revised to accommodate fresh “firsts”.

    The similarity with the Schufftan shots in Planet of the Vampires IS certainly suggestive, but in that instance you have diligently spoken to witnesses who can confirm how the effect was achieved, the technique was known to be in use at the time, and in this case double exposure without the use of mattes would have been hopeless, since the film is in colour and large areas of screen are NOT filled with blackness.

    I certainly can’t prove you wrong here, but I haven’t seen anything to prove ME wrong either. And I find the idea of Miss Schuftan as an affectionate tribute rather than a score-settling put-down more heart-warming, though here, as in so many other ways, I am indebted to you for pointing out the connection.

  3. Ah, sorry to have gone off-topic but I feel all caring-and-sharing! :p

  4. He’s not wrong. Although, if he could just throw in a FEW killer robots…

  5. Here’s one he made earlier. No killing involved, but some petite mort.

  6. His crowd-funding thing is currently at 70% with 7 days to go btw:

    https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/alejandro-jodorowsky-endless-poetry#/story

    Oh, and I want that Bava book.

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