Date of Degree
Access restricted until 02/23/2021
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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This dissertation excavates the work of early special effects cinematographer Norman O. Dawn in order to explore film spectatorship, the ephemerality of the cinematic image, and motion picture preservation and archival practices. Best known for his innovations of glass and matte shot techniques, Dawn produced 861 composite images while working in the U.S. film industry between 1906 and 1954. Although technological film historians acknowledge the importance of Dawn’s innovations to the development of motion picture special effects, the composite images themselves as well as the films for which they were produced remain in relative obscurity. Rather than attempting to recover these objects for inclusion in an existing film canon, my research interrogates their obscurity by analyzing Dawn’s special effects processes against the broader economic concerns that inform the dominant practices of the US film industry during the first half of the twentieth-century.
My research begins with the Norman O. Dawn collection housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, which is the most comprehensive historical record of Dawn’s work in the film industry. Constructed by Dawn himself between 1962 and 1974, this collection consists of 164 poster-sized collages of archival ephemera that illustrate the special effects processes employed in the production of 235 composite images for eighty-five films. While these eighty-five film titles constitute a tentative corpus upon which to base my research, seventy of these films are lost, which raises questions concerning the relationship between motion picture preservation and film history, specifically why these films have not been preserved while others have and to what extent the economic imperatives of the film industry have determined these conditions.
I address these questions in my analysis of archival material related to these films, finding that they traverse several distinct domains of film practice—including early scenic footage for newsreels and the amusement park ride Hale’s Tours of the World, early one-reel travel films, silent-era studio shorts, serials, and B features, and poverty row and independently-produced silent and sound feature-length films—thereby situating Dawn’s special effects at the intersection of the early and contemporary cinematic modes often aligned in studies of cinematic special effects. I argue that this heterogeneous corpus points to a studio-era Hollywood cinema alternative to the classical model, largely forgotten because it is dominated by low-budget product intended to supplement more costly feature films. In contrast to the classical model, this alternate cinematic mode emphasizes the scenic and thrilling elements that characterize both early exhibitionist films and contemporary effects-driven blockbusters. In this context, Dawn’s special effects processes constitute a historically marginalized practice precisely because they are non-routine techniques that provide cost-effective means to produce otherwise economically infeasible scenes, and, as such, operate on the periphery of conventional film production.
This dissertation focuses on the work of special effects cinematographer Norman O. Dawn, who is best known for his early innovations of glass and matte shot techniques. Although Dawn produced 861 composite images while working in the U.S. film industry between 1906 and 1954, his work remains in relative obscurity, largely because seventy out of the eighty-five known films for which he produced effects are lost. To better understand the significance of early special effects in film history, my research examines the existing archival material related to Dawn’s composite images and the films for which he produced these effects. From my analysis of material related to Dawn in the Norman O. Dawn collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia collection, and the magazine collections of the Media History Digital Library, I have found the greater part of the films for which Dawn produced effects and, in many cases, directed, are low-budget films intended to supplement the Hollywood studio-era double feature program with cost-effective product. These films focus less on narrative continuity, emphasizing more easily exploitable elements such as scenery and thrills. I argue that these films point to a forgotten Hollywood cinematic mode distinct from the classical model, a low-budget, effects-driven cinema that constitutes a through-line from early exhibitionist cinema to contemporary blockbuster films.
Australian film, nineteenth-century visual culture, Norman O. Dawn, special effects, thrill ride cinema, tourism and scenic film
x, 205 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 184-205).
Copyright © 2016 Leslie Marie DeLassus
DeLassus, Leslie Marie. "Salvage historiography: viewing, special effects, and Norman O. Dawn's unpreserved archive." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2016.
Available for download on Tuesday, February 23, 2021