I recently wen and saw Oz the Greatand Powerful, and it got me thinking about the tornado. Both Oz from this movie and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz arrive in the land of Oz by travelling in a Tornado. The Wizard of Oz was always one of my favorite movies as a child and the tornado scene was one of the scenes that stood out the most because it just seemed so real. I knew, even as a kid that the movie was really old, but I didn’t understand how they actually did the filing until recently.
Most movies nowadays are done with CGI, or computer-generated imaging, where they use computer software to create special effects that used to actually be filmed. CGI is a very cool relatively new process, but it is not as inventive as the old way. In his book The Making of the Wizard of Oz, Aljean Harmetz gives a fascinating account of how the tornado was constructed.
Arnold Gillespie was the special effects coordinator and inventor for The Wizard of Oz. He began with a budget of 8,000 dollars to design, build, and photograph the first tornado. Which in 1938, when the movie was filmed, was a lot of money even though it is nothing by today’s standards. It was a thirty-five foot tall rubber cone, but the cone was too rigid and wouldn’t move. So, Gillespie just tore it down and tried again and in this case second time was the charm. Even though he didn’t known much about tornadoes and obviously couldn’t just go toKansas and wait for one to pick up a house, he relied on his background as a pilot for his next attempt. A windsock. He realized ow closely they resembled tornadoes and so he decided to make a tornado out of muslin which was flexible so it could bend and twist and move from side to side. He built the thirty-five foot tapered muslin sock and attached it to a steel gantry suspended from the top of the stage. The gantry alone cost $ 12,000, way over budget and an exorbitant amount for 1938, and was specifically built for the tornado by Bethlehem steel. The gantry was a mobile structure similar to ones used in warehouses to lift heavy stuff and could travel the length of the stage. The bottom of the sock disappeared into the floor where a rod came up through the base of the tornado to pull it from one side to the other. By moving the gantry and the rod in opposite directions, it made the tornado appear to be snaking back and forth. The first one tore because it moved to violently, but they mended it with music wire.
To make the illusion more real they used a product known as “fullers earth”, powdery brown dust, and sprayed it into the base and top of the wind sock. The result= the boiling mass of dirt or could seen on screen. Dense clouds of yellow-black smoke made from sulfur and carbon were also injected onto set from a catwalk above the gantry to make the storm seem more real. However the stage hands didn’t have respirators and stayed up there breathing in the smoke until they were coughing up black-yellow mucous for days after the tornado was filmed. They didn’t have OSHA back then…
After the tornado itself was filmed they had to use rear projection to transfer the previously shot tornado image onto a translucent screen while actors like Judy Garland were placed in front of it. Wind machines provided then wind and debris and leaves were thrown in to obscure the fake tornado. The entire farm was also scaled down to make the scene work. It was scaled to ¾ of an inch toa foot.
This one tornado scene cost more than any other scene in the entire movie.
It is incredible to me hoe much work went into creating a scene like this especially with virtually non of the technology we have now. They had to MacGyver their way through a movie, and still made incredible, believable film in 1938.
What would filmmakers do now if all ofa sudden they could reply on a computer to create their effects anymore? How would the actors and stagehands take having to work in those conditions?