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Jim Danforth, Special Effects Master

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

A Jim Danforth matte painting from George Romero’s Day of the Dead.

Jim and Karen Danforth are two of the last great artists of the pre-digital era of cinema in the area of special effects work, especially matte paintings and stop-motion animation, both of which have been essentially rendered obsolete by CGI imagery. Matte paintings essentially fill in background or foreground areas when set would prove too costly to build, or too time consuming; stop motion animation of models, pioneered by the great Willis O’Brien in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) are now also a thing of the past.

While CGI work is often extremely convincing, as times goes by, there also seems to be a certain ephemerality about it; you know it’s not there, it has no physical solidity, and somehow it seems less “real” as a result. The great pioneers of motion picture special effects — people like Albert Whitlock, Bill Brace, David Stipes, Gene Warren, Harry Walton, Jim Danforth, Mark Sullivan, Peter Ellenshaw, Ray Caple, and Ray Harryhausen — all of whom are discussed in this interview, are some of the people who created the original magic of the movies, and their story is both fascinating and instructive for contemporary filmmakers, film historians, and students of the cinema.

In this remarkably detailed interview by a blogger known only as NZ Pete, Danforth talks about his many, many films assignments over the years, his early influences as a special effects artist, changing trends in the film production business, and looks back on the numerous assignments that he’s tackled, some of which worked out to his satisfaction, and others which he’s not enamored of.

The numerous stills in this interview are exceptional, and as NZ Pete notes, many of them appear here for the first time. Danforth is also refreshingly honest about his work, and his legacy, and more than happy to tip his hat to the many pioneers who came before him. He’s also extremely articulate about the incredible amount of work that goes into matte paintings and stop motion work; it’s about as time consuming a job as one can possibly imagine. So I’m happy to pass this along, as someone who also admired Danforth’s work over the years, in a variety of genres; it’s a fascinatingly rich discussion, and serves as a a real education on this aspect of cinema history.

Read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this page.

About the Author

Headshot of 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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