Earlier this summer, The Criterion Channel premiered a series of newly-created short documentaries titled Secrets of the Hollywood Archives that was produced by Visual Effects Artist Craig Barron and Sound Designer Ben Burtt, both of whom are Oscar winners.
Secrets of the Hollywood Archives explores the movie magic and technical tricks employed by artisans of the past, utilizing the vaults of major movie studios. The five-minute shorts offer a deep dive into one particular shot in a classic film, complimented with modern computer effects to show how the illusion was achieved. The producers know all the tricks of the trade, as they’re among the industry’s most knowledgeable minds in terms of filmmaking.
Barron is a wizard of Matte Painting (he even wrote a book about it) and a specialist in visual effects, starting his career at Industrial Light & Magic before forming his own company, Matte World. He has worked on some of the most popular films of the past 40 years, including Titanic and four Star Trek movies.
Meanwhile, Burtt is a writer, director, editor, sound effects artist, and sound mixer who during his time at ILM and Skywalker Sound (formerly Sprocket Systems) also worked on many blockbuster films, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies as well as Pixar’s Wall-E.
The two of them met over 30 years ago and formed a lifelong friendship, bonding over their mutual love of classic films such as the work of the late stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen. Years later, they began to do lectures together, including one in 2010 about the 1939 film The Rains Came, which was the first movie to win the Oscar for Best Effects (a category that encapsulated both visual and sound effects at that time).
Since then, the duo has done dozens of events together as well as multiple talks for the Academy of Motion Pictures. They also did some amazing work for the Academy Museum on the interesting and groundbreaking effects in Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, which you can find on the museum’s website.
They’re also involved with the TCM Festival and have been featured on many Criterion Collection bonus features. In fact, their work on the Criterion discs led to them being approached to do work for the company’s relatively new streaming platform.
“They had initially approached us to do supplements for their restorations, and I’ve done a lot of larger format documentaries with them. When they started their Criterion Channel, which is a streaming service, they wanted to find something with us that would be not so involved, just take one shot and pare it down so it would be more appropriate for the streaming channel,” explained Barron.
In the mini-docs, Barron and Burtt use clips, outtakes, stock shots, sound effects, and other assorted tools to illustrate how effects were once achieved. Since many original elements are often hard to come by or missing altogether, these docs provide valuable insight into a disappearing world.
“Our angle on this is not to make the normal sort of Hollywood PR stories, we want to talk shop about the films and appreciate what we think is interesting and artistic and special about [them], and share our love of [them] with others to encourage them to take a second look at what was achieved from the people in the trenches who never really had a voice to talk about what they do [such as] matte paintings, miniatures, sound effects — things that are not readily discussed as part of history,” said Barron.
“We always [had] this goal to find something to show or hear that hasn’t been uncovered before. That’s why we’ve been interested in outtakes of movies [that] studios may have retained by accident, which reveal something about the process and [the] illusion in the film,” added Burtt, whose years of expertise and numerous industry relationships have afforded him significant access to studio vaults.
“We’ve been pretty lucky to get something for many of our projects. That’s our secret, our archeology of [old] presentations. We had the simple idea to find a shot that reveals a trick [or] an illusion. It’s something that hasn’t been seen before,” boasted Burtt.
The first three episodes of the series explore the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956), which features an iconic flying saucer landing, as well as the war films Action in the North Atlantic (1943) starring Humphrey Bogart and 12 O’Clock High (1949), which features some of the best flying sequences ever filmed. The seamlessness of these illusions is a testament to the craftspeople of the past.
“Lynwood Dunn said invisible effects are the unsung heroes of movie making. Visual effects are very instrumental to the success of all films, but not talked about much or really known,” lamented Barron.
With filmmaking advancing by leaps and bounds in all aspects of production, it is vital for film history to look back at the masters who paved the way and, in many ways, are just as vital as ever.
“It’s a bit like Antiques Roadshow,” Burtt says of his show. “People find it interesting because they never realized in the pre-digital era that things would be mechanical and people had to create illusions with smoke and mirrors.”
With services like The Criterion Channel and The Criterion Collection, young filmmakers and film fans of all ages can catch up with the classics and learn how they were made.
“These are the films that inspired us to get into the business of filmmaking and we think will continue to inspire others as well,” said Barron, who added that he and Burtt are hard at work on additional episodes, so stay tuned.
You can find all the available episodes of Secrets of the Hollywood Archives exclusively on The Criterion Channel.