The Schüfftan Process: Why Storytellers Need to Embrace Their Inner Magician

by ScreenCraft on July 20, 2017

For modern filmmakers, computer generated visual effects have become as much a blessing as a curse. On the one hand, CGI represents an important part of the modern filmmaking took-kit. One that has revolutionized the ability of cinema to depict impossible feats in a way that is reasonably believable and (more importantly) safe.

On the other hand,  films that rely too heavily on excessive, unnecessary computer-generated effects have become commonplace. Often this is done out of laziness or complacency, in an effort to save time or avoid logistical nightmares on set. Other times the over-abundance of CGI is used as a storytelling crutch. A distraction that compensates for a lack of craftsmanship and compelling drama.

Don’t get us wrong - many modern effects-driven blockbusters are breathtaking in their visual design. Still, it’s hard not to pine for the good old days when great filmmakers brought the same savvy, practical, and deconstructive spirit that great screenwriters bring to their scripts.

Illusion. Trickery. Deception.

It easy to romanticize the past, but the fact remains that the day-to-day craftsmanship of a filmmaker used to have a lot more in common with the work of a magician. This was by necessity if their vision was to remain untethered by the boundaries of reality.

Take the Schüfftan process, which was first used in the 1927 science fiction epic, Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang. The process, which relied on a combination of camera angles, forced-perspective, and physical trickery made shots like this one possible far before the advent of visual effects.

How exactly does the Schüfftan process work? It's complicated, but that's what Wikipedia is for:

“Schüfftan placed a plate of glass at a 45-degree angle between the camera and the miniature buildings. He used the camera's viewfinder to trace an outline of the area into which the actors would later be inserted onto the glass. This outline was transferred onto a mirror and all the reflective surface that fell outside the outline was removed, leaving transparent glass. When the mirror was placed in the same position as the original plate of glass, the reflective part blocked a portion of the miniature building behind it and also reflected the stage behind the camera. The actors were placed several meters away from the mirror so that when they were reflected in the mirror, they would appear at the right size.”

Or, if you’d prefer a visual explanation, take one last look at the shot above, then prepare to have your mind-blown:

These days, studio tent-poles built around practical effects have become something of an anomaly. Outside of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, for example, the Schüfftan process has mostly fallen by the wayside. The same is true for many of the forced-perspective techniques that used to dominate the special effects landscape.

In The Lord of the Rings, a combination of scale-actors and camera trickery made scenes between Gandalf and the hobbits feel tactile and believable. A decade later in his adaptation of The Hobbit, Jackson traded those techniques for a green screen, much to the frustration of his leading actor.

"It’s hard not pine for the old days when directors approached their craft with the same savvy, practical, and deconstructive spirit that great writers bring to their scripts."

While old-school filmmakers like Christopher Nolan try their best to carry the baton, the stakes of modern, blockbuster filmmaking are so high that the easier way is often favored, even when it cheapens the final product. It's a shame too, because CGI artists are incredibly talented individuals.It's just that their talents are best relied upon to enhance a moment, rather than to build one from the ground up. Done right, and CGI can elevate a sequence to stratospheric heights. Done wrong, and you blur the distinction between live-action and animation in a way that feels haphazard - both in execution and effect.

The take-away? While techniques like Schüfftan process have little to do with the craft of screenwriting, the impressiveness of its practical ingenuity over more-modern, computer-generated techniques should serve as a reminder to writers.

There’s something admirable in the old-fashioned approach of using clever craftsmanship to accomplish a specific storytelling purpose. That’s why, for writers, a mastery of their craft is essential. To be a great writer, you must experiment with each and every tool in the your toolkit. That includes formula, so long as it's used sparingly. As a container for your creativity rather than a hinderance to it.

Remember that as a storyteller, you are operating in the realm of illusion. To truly be successful, you can't be afraid to unleash your inner-magician. Take a step back, the way that Fritz Lang and his special effects wizards did on the set of Metropolis nearly a century ago, and reflect on the way you've chosen to tell your story. Remember: the most obvious approach might not be the best one.

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