Roots of Cinema – Handschiegl Twin Camera Matte Process

Handschiegl Twin Camera Matte Process

If you’re interested in the history of visual effects, you’re probably familiar with the Williams process. By combining two separate filmed scenes, it enables a filmmaker, for example, to place an actor inside a miniature environment. The Williams process relied on what became known as a traveling matte, and I’ve written about it before, in a Cinefex article called C is for Composite. Here’s a brief extract:

Early travelling mattes were created using a variant on the bi-pack method, invented by Frank D. Williams in 1916 … Here’s how it works. First, you shoot your actor against a blue screen. By carefully printing this footage on to high-contrast film, you can generate a black silhouette of the actor moving against a pure white background – a holdout matte . Reverse-printing the holdout matte then creates a corresponding cover matte – a white silhouette against black.

The Williams process is just one of many ingenious visual effects techniques developed during the early days of cinema. Others include the Dunning process, on show in the original 1933 King Kong, and the Schüfftan process, used to great effect in 1927 by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan to create the spectacular future visions in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. These are some of the better-known examples but there are many more. Browse the literature of the day and you’ll find all manner of claims by competing technicians that they’d invented a new and revolutionary process that was set to change the landscape of cinema forever. It was a veritable turf war.

While browsing the October 1926 edition of the Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, I was surprised and delighted to discover a compositing process I’d never heard of before: the Handschiegl process. It was presented to the Society by William V. D. Kelley, president of Kelley Color Films Inc.

Kelley begins his address with the following introduction, which applies just as well today as it did back in 1926:

Every large film producing organization now has its trick and miniature departments. These are used to cut down costs, produce impossible situations, create dramatic suspense without danger to the actors, to save moving from one part of the globe to another with a cast, and to enhance comedy situations.

Kelley goes on to introduce the Handschiegl process, which he claims “is thought to be an improvement over the Williams’ system.” He describes the process in the words of its inventor, engraver Max Handschiegl:

We photograph two negatives of any objects … against a blue or a black background. One negative is developed and especially treated, thereby making it a mask … We [then] use a special camera or optical printing machine and place the [mask] in front of the other negative which has the same image photographed but undeveloped. There is hardly anything that cannot be done photographically under this process and the results obtained are such that they defy detection on the screen.

Significantly, Handschiegl claims his process is able to incorporate the shadows of the actors or other foreground elements into the background scene, something of a Holy Grail in any compositing process:

We can successfully put shadows of people or objects into a scene with the action by using the blue background. Our process is the only one with which shadows can be put on with the action.

Later in the article, Kelley sheds light on that turf war I mentioned, when he describes “an interference in the Patent Office involving Handschiegl, Williams, Pomeroy, Crespinel and Mitchell” concerning what appears to be an ongoing competition to perfect a system whereby “two matched negatives are made of the action against a non-actinic background. Kelley summarises as follows:

Various ways of converting the second negative, or a print from it, into a silhouette are available and doubtless the different inventors describe them in their patent applications … Frank D. Williams has a patent, used and developed by him and utilized by many of the large producers, in which only a single negative is required.

William V. D. Kelley was not an entirely disinterested party in this debate, by the way. In 1916, Max Handschiegl had invented a technique to colorise black and white film, first used in Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman. In 1927, this process was taken up by, you guessed it, Kelley Color Films Inc. Handschiegl’s colorisation process remains as the invention for which he is best known today.

Reporting on Handschiegl’s twin camera process in its August 1926 edition, American Cinematographer reveals that “the camera which takes the two negatives is of Handschiegl’s own device” and that the two negatives are taken “in perfect registration.” Here’s the full article, extracted from the Media Digital History Library:

Handschiegl process, American Cinematographer, August 1926.

While Kelley describes Handschiegl’s invention as a “twin camera” system, American Cinematographer mentions just one taking device. This makes sense: two cameras side-by-side would be incapable of capturing the identical images required to make a perfect mask. I can only assume Handschiegl’s camera contained some kind of beam splitter – a half-silvered mirror directing an image from a single lens to two separate gates – but in the absence of any evidence that’s just speculation.

I found a further fleeting reference to Handschiegl in Jay Scarfone’s and William Stillman’s excellent The Road to Oz: The Evolution, Creation, and Legacy of a Motion Picture Masterpiece. At one point, United Productions planned a series of 26 short films based on Frank L. Baum’s Oz books using the Handschiegel [sic] Color Process, described as “a primitive green-screen precursor, for tinting of ‘unusual backgrounds and trick camera shots.'” From the description, it’s unclear to me whether this refers to the traveling matte process described by Kelley, the Handschiegl colorisation process dating back to 1916, or both.

Dig down into the roots of cinema and you’ll find all manner of buried artifacts. Max Handschiegl’s twin-camera matte process is one of them, although at the time of writing I’ve only managed to unearth a corner of the treasure chest. That’s why exploring rabbit-holes can be so rewarding. You never know what you’ll find, or how deep you’ll end up going.

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