Special-effects wizard Petro Vlahos enabled early blockbusters
In the 1950s, special-effects pioneer Petro Vlahos laid the groundwork that made a modern movie genre possible — the blockbuster.
He did it by vastly improving a composite-image process commonly known as the “blue-screen effect” for the 1959 epic film “Ben-Hur.” And he did it again when he created a related technique that made Dick Van Dyke appear to dance among the penguins in the 1964 movie “Mary Poppins.”
Vlahos, who received multiple Oscars for technological achievements, died Feb. 10, his family announced. He was 96. No other details were released.
By devising new ways to combine separately shot footage of actors and backgrounds into a single scene, he opened the door to such special-effect spectaculars as “Star Wars” and “Titanic.” Scenes that had been too dangerous, expensive or difficult to film were suddenly possible.
Every film since that has employed a form of the technique owes a debt to Vlahos, industry experts said.
“It's hard to emphasize the import of his inventions,” Bill Taylor, a visual effects supervisor, said at the Scientific and Technical awards ceremony held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the night before Vlahos died. “He created the whole of composite photography as we know it.”
While serving as an assistant manager at the academy's Motion Picture Research Center, Vlahos spent six months thinking up his patented “color-difference system traveling matte scheme” for “Ben-Hur” and its spectacular chariot race, he later said.
He advanced the blue-screen effect in a major way by minimizing a strange side effect — halos that appeared around actors and objects when footage shot against a blank screen was fused with action shots. The process would eventually include green screens.
Vlahos held a patent for a similar technique called sodium vapor composite photography. His work involved a complex process that resulted in a more realistic blending of animation and live action.
The innovation was used in “Mary Poppins” and many other Disney films, including “The Love Bug” (1969) and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971). Alfred Hitchcock borrowed the technology for his 1963 film “The Birds.”
As an inventor of movie-related gadgets, Vlahos held more than 35 patents. They included low-cost screen-brightness meters, camera-crane motor controls and a method for detecting distortion in soundtracks.
“Petro kept refining his ideas. That's what distinguishes him in a lot of ways,” Harrison Ellenshaw, a visual-effects artist who worked on the “Star Wars” films, told the Los Angeles Times.
“It's one thing to invent the steam engine; it's another to keep bringing it forward, to keep making those steps and those advancements,” Ellenshaw said. “And that was his genius.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Apple Hill Playhouse takes on an updated ‘Snow White’
- Kittanning’s Keibler, Freeport’s Kelley named Leader Times Baseball, Softball Players of the Year
- Daily Courier roundup: Connellsville all-stars advance
- McKeesport-raised golfer maintains pro dream in Arizona
- Springdale counters despair with ‘HOPE’
- Pirates get journeyman Ishikawa off waivers; outfielder Marte injured
- Woman shot at Kennywood Park in ‘freak accident’
- PennDOT team decides what spells trouble on vehicle license plates
- Whitaker celebration to bring in field funds
- Don’t remove history’s lessons
- Alvarez homer triggers winning outburst for Pirates