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A Universe of Effects


By Scott Essman
Universal Home Video will release The Monster Legacy DVD Gift Set this month, featuring three classic monster films from the ’30s and ’40s: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. In each DVD set is the original film, and its sequels.
Among the craftspeople at Universal who brought the films and their characters to life were legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce, costume designer Vera West and visual effects pioneer John P. Fulton. The trio worked on every one of the films in the series, from Dracula, in 1931, to House of Dracula, the last film in the cycle, in 1945. Their consistency in styling and attention to detail was what gave those films their hallmark. With Pierce and West attending to the specific characters in the films, Fulton’s role was more obscure: he developed the technology to realize the films’ memorable “transformation” sequences and distinctive imagery.
Fulton began his career as an assistant cameraman at Universal before moving through the ranks to become a full-fledged cinematographer. When, in 1931, Universal’s head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. wanted to produce film versions of the acclaimed horror novels, Fulton personally established the special effects department at the studio. His first task was to create a believable matte shot for Dracula. At the beginning of the film, when the coach carrying Renfield to Dracula’s castle pulls up and we see the castle atop a hill, the effect is a “glass shot” that Fulton expertly blended into the production. No real castle actually existed: the image of the castle is actually a painting on glass that Fulton filmed in such a way that it appeared to dwarf the actors.
Later that year Fulton worked on Frankenstein, and the following year on The Mummy. Fulton’s use of opticals caused Boris Karloff’s eyes to glow with a deathly white in an extreme closeup. His groundbreaking work on 1933’s The Invisible Man earned him the industry nickname “The Doctor.”
Fulton’s insistence on formulating realistic effects was put to use in 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein. The comically twisted use of “miniature” people in the first sequences with Dr. Pretorius offered a chance to again use mattes and opticals to help suspend disbelief. Fulton also worked with the miniature department for the film’s finale in which the Frankenstein castle is destroyed.
By 1937, the Laemmle reign at the studio had ended and the rest of the decade wasn’t as exciting a period for classic horror. In the 1940s, Fulton faced new challenges in visual effects. As well as creating effects for Man Made Monster and four Invisible Man sequels, he worked as a “special photographic effects” craftsman on all of the various monster sequels of the time.
It was The Wolf Man, a film originally planned in the early 1930s that resurfaced in 1941, that cemented Fulton’s reputation as one of cinema’s greatest visual effects artists.
The Wolf Man was planned as a B-film, but the result was very different after all of the talent, both in front of and behind the camera, submerged themselves in the project. Working with Jack Pierce and director George Waggoner, Fulton mastered the “lap dissolves” that changed man to wolf (and back again) in the transformation sequences. The technique had been done before on film, notably in 1932’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but Fulton’s use of matching his dissolve from one stage of Pierce’s makeup to the next worked seamlessly. Fulton replicated his dissolve technique in The Wolf Man sequels.
Though he was never recognized by the Motion Picture Academy for his work on those classic Universal horror films, he would eventually be awarded Oscars for his work on Samuel Goldwyn Studio’s Wonder Man; then two more for his work on Paramount’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Ten Commandments. Fulton was arguably one of the pioneers of the visual effects field; helping to bring those classic monsters and their counterparts to life for generations of audiences to enjoy.

Tom Weaver helped research this story.

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