Special FX

Let's face it, you can't have a film like Superbman without special effects. Flying to the productions rescue was our own special effects genius, Drex Reed. Below he gives a step-by-step explanation of how he did each effect in the film.

Written by Drex Reed

Ah, the good old days, when special effects, for the most part, were done in the camera. That’s the way it was on Superbman: The Other Movie.

Superbman was shot on 16mm film stock. The special effects were shot on 7242 reversal film stock and there was one roll of negative stock used for some flying shots that I will explain later. The camera I used was a spring wound H-16 Bolex that enabled me to do accurate single frame exposures, leave the shutter open as long as I wanted, back wind the film to any point for double exposures plus the lens changing capability made this camera the one to use.

As I explain how these effects were achieved, remember this is back in 1980, way before the digital effects that you can do on your home computer, today. I will start at the beginning of the film and cover everything as if you were watching it.

Smear Titles & Starfield

I still think to this day that the best title sequence in any movie ever is the opening titles to SUPERMAN.  Yes Bryan Singer redid it in Superman Returns with amazing visuals but the original concept was in Richard Donner’s version.

For a star field most people would say take a piece of black cardboard, poke some holes in it, back light it and you’re done.  I tried something different, since I needed multiple star fields to zoom in on.  I took black corduroy material (the very same stuff my General Zit costume was made out of) laid it flat on the floor with the camera on a tripod looking straight down on it and zoomed all the way out.  This is black space.  For the stars I used silver glitter, which I sprinkled on the black and lit it with one light.  The glitter falls on the black at different angles and when the light hits it, it reflects up at the camera as different size star s.  Before I shot, I zoomed all the way in and cleared any glitter that was in the frame, basically clearing a spot in the center of the star field.  I zoomed out and started filming as I slowly zoomed in all the way till all I could see was black and stopped filming.  This is one star field if watched by itself would look like a group of stars zooming by you till you saw black space.  For a new star field I tapped the cloth several times in different areas to shift the glitter thus creating a new star field.  This was shot the same way several times so that you would end up with lots of different star fields.  The film was processed and half was put on an “A” Roll, the other half on a “B” Roll and sent back to the lab.  This time each star field was given a Fade In.  The first star field on the “A” Roll Fades In, half way through the zoom the “B” Roll Fades In (as a double exposure/burn in), half way through the zoom the “A” Roll Fades In again.  “A” and “B” Rolls alternate until the sequence is done and you have your effect of traveling through space.

The titles were designed by our Director and Production Designer, Dave Teubner.  They were basically black letters printed on a white background.  A contact sheet (film negative) was made from this so that the letters were now white on black and could be backlit.  A backlit title was mounted vertically in front of the camera.  Now to make them smear.  This was done kind of stop motion animation style.  The titles come in from the top and the bottom of the screen.  The method is the same for both so lets say a title is coming from the top of the screen.  With the camera zoomed all the way in I made sure the title was just out of the top of frame so that if you zoomed out the title would come into frame.  I marked the zoom out in even increments.  The shutter of the camera was set so that as long as the cable released was pushed in the shutter would remain open.  For the first frame the shutter was opened and I zoomed out to the first mark on the zoom lens.  For the second frame I zoomed all the way in again opened the shutter and zoomed out to the seconded mark.  For the third frame I started all the way zoomed in, opened the shutter and zoomed out to the third mark.  This continued until the title was all the way zoomed out.  To center the title I continued to expose and zoom out on every frame plus crank up one turn on the tripod until the title was center.  I then reversed the zoom exposure process to finish the title smear.

The titles were edited together and then burned in over the star field effect to complete the title sequence.

Krapton Miniature

After the titles you see the planet Krapton, a planet made out of junk food.  The shot out in space was a plastic ball with lots of popcorn glued to it.  It was hung in front of black background and given a slight spin for a rotating effect.

This dissolves to the Krapton miniature on the planets surface.  This was built on a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood, so that we could cut into it for the later destruction.  The buildings were made out of upside down ice chests covered with drips of wax for texture, then covered with flour.   Twinkies, doughnuts, marshmallows and all other sorts of goodies, including the Pillsbury Doughboy filled in the landscape.  Windows were carved into the ice chest buildings and backlit to make it appear that someone was home.  A Boggle game was used as the toaster looking square dome at the top of the center building.  A fog machine was used a lot on this movie especially on Krapton for that atmospheric effect.

For the destruction of the Krapton city we did several things.  We cut a giant trench in the plywood and blew popcorn up through it with a fan.  We shook the camera and table.  We pre-scored the buildings, put them back together and actually stuck firecrackers in them to blow them up.  More smoke and shaking added with sound effects made the destruction of Krapton complete.  Most of this was shot at 64 frames per second (slow motion) to give it some scale.

The shot out in space where the ship flies away from Krapton was the plastic ball covered with popcorn again, cut to an animated flash, than cut to a hole cut in a piece of black cardboard hung above the camera as a bag of popcorn is dumped through it and the planet Krapton pops.

The Return of Zit

Rex Ruthor places a Krapton crystal into one of his devices.  The transporter booth lights up and balls of energy fly around the room as General Zit is freed from the O-Zone.

This was shot at the Orange Coast College computer center.  Everything is real except the transporter booth, which was designed and built by Dave Teubner.  Dave designed it so that it would blend right in with the corner of the room. There are two shots of the booth that needed effects. A wide and medium shot where Zit appears.  Single frames of each of these where mounted on a slide frame and projected onto black show card and outlined in pencil, just as was done for the Rex fireplace sequence.  For the wide shot the booth area, where Zit appears, was cut out.  A series of holes were also poked out for the animation sequence of the glowing balls of energy that bounce around the lab.  The camera was framed on the show card frame lines and the lights were turned off.  For each frame of the glowing booth the camera shutter was opened and a penlight was turned on and moved around behind the show card where the hole for the booth was cut out, for a few seconds, to create the glowing streaks.

This was done for enough frames to cover the sequence.  The film was back wound to the point where the glowing balls of e nergy where to start.  The penlight was placed in each hole for each frame of film shot in a designated order to create the moving animation glowing ball effect.  The penlight was angled every few frames toward the camera lens to make them flicker.  The medium shot of the transporter booth was done pretty much the same way with the penlight effect, plus some flicker frames were added and as an in joke I used the penlight to sign my first name on two different frames of this shot.  If you know where it is you will see it.  If not, you can step frame through the sequence to find it. “Hee hee.”

Follow Me into the Sky
if You Dare

Zit flies into the sky followed by Superbman.  The wide shots of the take offs where 8 x 10 photographs.  Two were taken.  One with Superbman/Zit in the shot and another without Superbman/Zit, just the background.  The figures and their shadows were cut out of one picture and placed on the picture of the corresponding background. The cut out figures were separated from their shadows and both were animated on the background photo.  The figure photo zooms up into the air as the shadow photo moves horizontally out of frame.

Superbman and General Zit zoom around the Earth to their final head on collision.  The medium shots of Superbman and Zit coming around the Earth are straight on animated cut out photos with glitter stars.

The close ups were shot in a garage.  The background was black cloth as was the covered platform we laid down on.  We stretched out our arms and with a little help of a fan and smoke machine we were zooming through space.

The long shot of the Earth with the light streaks around it was a photo of the Earth.  For the glowing streaks, I covered an 8 x 10 piece of glass with black electrical tape.  I traced the Earth pictures circumference in pencil onto the black tape covered glass.  With this outline I drew out where the streaks would appear around the Earth.  With a razor knife I cut out, on the tape, where I had marked out the streaks.  This tape was removed so now I have a piece of glass, covered in black electrical tape with lines cut out of the tape.  The Earth picture was placed on this and shot with one light.  The film in the camera was back wound to the beginning of the shot.  The Earth picture was removed and the glass was now backlit.  A piece of tracing paper was placed on the back of the glass so we would see a nice even glow where the cut out streaks were.  The entire streak sequence was covered with more pieces of black tape.  I removed a small piece of tape for each frame of film shot, basically animating the glowing streak around the Earth.  When the film came back from the lab we had nice glowing streaks zooming around the Earth.  KA-BOOM, white out, Superbman and General Zit collide.

Superbman vs Zit

Zit pops Superbman in the face and Superbman, pinball style, bounces off several trees.  This was done on set, stop motion style.  Frame by frame our actor Mark/Superbman was moved in-between the trees until he hits the last one.  Add pinball sound effects and the battle begins.

Big props are fun to use to.  The boulder I throw at Superbman was something I bought years earlier for another movie I shot.  It was foam covered with latex rubber and painted to look like granite.  I bought it from a guy who made them for the movie industry.  The only effect here is when I throw the rock at Superbman and he uses super breath to blow it back at me.  The shot of it sailing out over the city was another one of those matte shots done the same way as the flying matte shots explained earlier.

Superbman uses Zit as a punching bag.  This sure was a lot of fun for me, HA!  This was done on set stop motion animation style.  For every frame shot I fell backwards and would catch myself at the last second before I hit the ground.  Yes I was crazy but I like the finished effect.

Superbman and Zit punching each other was shot at 18 frames per second so it would be a little faster when played back at 24 frames per second to make the punches look a little more powerful and to give the crowd a little more zip.  The added sound effects top off the battle.  I really like the lion roar Zit gives to the crowd.

Zit flies through the air and hits the table.  This was just a picture of me in a crouching position cut out and animated on a painted sky background.  Real cheesy, I originally wanted to do this on a trampoline but none was available to do the shot.

Space Can

The space ship that brings Kid-O to earth was built and designed by Dave Teubner.  It was a metal trashcan with fins and lights and other fun stuff.  This prop is used in the Krapton scene and when it lands on Earth.

For the scenes of its journey through space I took a series of pictures of it at different angles, which I cut out.  These photos were shot on a black background via animation, a pan or a zoom in or zoom out.  The film would be back wound in the camera, then the background would be shot.

Photos of Jupiter, Mars and the Earth with more glitter star fields were used for the backgrounds and place d so they would not overlap the moving space can.  Clever editing and sound effects complete Kid-Os journey to Earth.

You'll Believe
a Man Can Fly

Making Superbman fly, well the close ups were easy.  We would find a high point over the city.  Our actor Mark/Superbman would bend over with his arms outstretched.  We would just frame his head and arms with the city below.  He would then pivot in place and the camera would follow, giving the illusion that the city was moving below him.  Very simple.

As for the wide shots, like the one of Superbman flying away from the Daily Comet, that’s a different story.  I wanted to do some sort of matte flying effect.  I started with taking several photos of Mark in the Superbman suit with the cape blowing in the wind so that it would be in a different position for each picture.  These were processed and cut out.  Each one of these cut out photos were traced onto heavy white paper and these were cut out so that each photo had an exact copy in solid white paper.  The photos were then placed in an order so when shot frame by frame the cape would move as it were blowing in the wind.  These pictures were shot on a black background.  The matching set of white cut outs were also shot on the same black background in the same order and position as the photos.  This would be my matte.

This was all shot on reversal film, which is like slide film.  In other words when processed you get back a positive print.  The background, which Superbman would be flying against, like the buildings at the Daily Comet, was shot on negative stock, so after processing you get back a negative image.  The background negative image was our “A” Roll and the white matte of Superbman on black was our “B” Roll.  This was sent to the lab where the white matte was burned into the negative film as it was printed on reversal film, so now you would have a negative background image with an animated white matte of Superbman on it.  A positive was made of this so that now we had a positive background of buildings going by with an animated black matte of Superbman on it.  This would be our new “A” Roll and the new “B” Roll is now the color-animated photos of Superbman, on a black background, flying.  These were sent to the lab and when printed together the black matte, against the buildings is replaced by the matching animated photos of Superbman flying and the finished product has Superbman flying across buildings and the sky.

Superbman Saves
Lois Lame

Outside the Daily Comet building a car races toward Lois Lame.  Clark Cant changes into Superbman, zooms down the street and catches the car on its end and lifts it into the air.

The shot where Superbman lifts the car was shot through glass.  We took a picture of the car, used in the movie, and cut it out.  The camera shot of Superbman and Lois is lined up.  A piece of glass was placed in front of the camera about a foot from the lens.  The picture of the car is stuck on the glass so that it matches in scale to the real car if it was there.  Our actor Mark/Superbman pretends to be holding the car and Trish/Lois remands frozen.  The car picture is moved one frame at a time up in the air as Superbman matches it frame by frame until it is over his head.

For the close up, Superbman holds a piece of cardboard over his head out of frame to create a car shadow until he tosses the car away.  Wow, special effects all done in the camera.

Spinning Newspaper

This was a simple idea that worked really well.  We had fake newspapers printed up at a novelty shop.  They were mounted on some heavy matte board, which was attached to a drill.  The drill was hidden behind more of that black cloth.  When you turn on the drill the paper spins. Where did we get that stuff, anyway? 

This was shot backwards so that the paper would stop where we wanted it.  To do this you shoot upside down with double perforated stock (sprocket holes on both sides).  We started zoomed in on an u pside down newspaper where we wanted it to stop, turned on the drill and zoomed out.

When you get the film back you turn it around so the image is right side up and it plays backward so now the paper is spinning as it zooms in and stops right where we wanted it to be.

Not sure whose idea this was but it worked great.

Rex's Lair

To get into Rex’s lair we needed a location with pipes and a tunnel.  We couldn’t find anything we really wanted or liked so Dave Teubner, being the artist he is, said hey why don’t I just do a matte painting and the entrance to Rex Ruthor’s lair was born.  It turned out to be everything we wanted and more.

Down in the lair, Rex pushes a button on the fireplace and the large stone mantelpiece above the fireplace rises and reveals scenes from the earlier part of the movie.

This was shot straight on, through a piece of glass.  A black card was stuck on the glass to block out the top part of the fireplace.  This would be our matte.  A picture of the top part of the fireplace was taken, processed and cut out.  A frame of film, with Rex pushing the fireplace button, was mounted in a slide frame.  This was projected onto a piece of black show card where I outlined the film frame and fireplace in pencil.  The top part of the fireplace that was blacked out was cut out of the show card and replaced with rear projection material.  The cut out photo of the top part of the fireplace was put over the cut out part of the show card where the rear projection material was. The camera was lined up to the frame lines drawn on the show card.  The photo of the top part of the fireplace was animated up then shot for several seconds more to give time for the rear projection movie pass. The film was rewound in the camera.  The early movie footage was projected onto the rear projection material and filmed in the same position.  This element now has the top of the fireplace opening and the earlier movie footage projection.  This was sent to the lab on an “A” Roll and the Rex pushing the fireplace button with the blacked out top of the fireplace footage was sent as the “B” Roll.  When printed together you get the final effect of Rex pushing the button on the fireplace and the top part opening up to reveal the early movie footage.

I really am surprised how well this all lined up.

And the rest is history

Superbman takes of into the sky from the desert and flies into outer space.  The desert shot was another 8x10 photograph background with another animated photo of Mark/Superbman flying into the air.
The outer space shot is composed of a photo of the Earth at the bottom of the frame and a shot of Mark/Superbman, who is actually laying on his back, in a blacked out set and shot upside down as the camera moved passed him to give the impression he was flying above us into view.  He goes into warp via more animation and light effects and as our narrator says “The rest is history, history, history.”

© 1981 / 2015 Vern Dietsche, Dave Teubner All rights reserved