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Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) was arguably Ray Harryhausen’s breakthrough as a stop motion special effects artist; he had worked on Mighty Joe Young (1949) and other films as an assistant under Willis O’ Brien, the creator of King Kong (1933), but with this film, he stepped out in front with a dazzling display of special effects wizardry which was, at the time of the film’s production, state of the art. What’s even more amazing is that the entire film, except for Harryhausen’s special effects, which took months to complete, was shot in just six days – a stunning feat, made possible only by director Fred F. Sears‘ expertise and grace under pressure. Indeed, while much of the film was shot on the Columbia back lot, Sears dispatched a second unit to Washington DC to shoot process plates for the special effects, and also footage of the film’s stars, Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor, dodging laser blast rays on the steps of the capitol building.

Another thing that’s remarkable is how much of the film was shot on location, and how quickly, without all the security that would make such an enterprise impossible today. Although Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is manifestly a union film, Sears and producer Sam Katzman pushed both the crew and the actors to the limits of their endurance to get the film in the can, while Sears worked feverishly with Harryhausen’s production designs to make sure that the live action material dovetailed perfectly with Harryhausen’s miniature work. Such a pace would be impossible today, when everything takes forever to shoot — Sears moved fast, and his co-workers moved with him, to make a convincing film on a minuscule budget.

In this age of CGI, anything is possible, but in the 1950s, the only way you could get something convincing on the screen was through the use of stop-motion animation, painstakingly moving the saucers frame, by frame, by frame, by frame, shooting one frame after another, with 24 changes of position per second, to achieve what then passed for realism. This isn’t a film which revels in plot, or in any degree of subtlety, complete with a stentorian narrator providing a “voice of doom” commentary throughout the film; the invaders simply show up and start blasting everyone in sight with a disintegrator ray, with but one objective; to take over the earth and colonize it for the members of their dying race. It’s one of the 1950s’ best, and most compact, science fiction films, moving along swiftly to its suitably violent conclusion. There’s a colorized DVD available, actually supervised by Harryhausen himself, but don’t fall for it; get the black and white original. The film looks and plays like a brutal newsreel of an alien invasion, and once seen, is never forgotten.

If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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