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See How Special Effects Were Done in the Silent Film Era

Michele Debczak
Buster Keaton in a promotional still for 'The Cameraman.'
Buster Keaton in a promotional still for 'The Cameraman.' / Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images
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Special effects in film predate animatronics, green screens, and CGI. Before filmmakers had figured out how to include sound in movies, they were coming up with creative ways to capture incredible shots on camera. To see how the most memorable silent film tricks were accomplished, check out the video below.

YouTuber Pedro Cinemaxunga breaks down the early special effects techniques used in a handful of classic movies from the 1920s and '30s. As the video illustrates, many scenes that seemed to put the actors in peril used tricks of perspective. When Harold Lloyd is dangling off a clock tower in Safety Last (1923), he's actually just a few feet off the top of a roof. The shot where Charlie Chaplin nearly roller-skates off a ledge in Modern Times (1936) was accomplished by painting a scene showing the lower floors of a building onto a piece of glass and placing it in front of the camera. Chaplin was actually skating on a level plane the entire time.

Clever camerawork explains many of the death-defying sequences in old movies, but not all of them. In Sherlock Jr. (1924), Buster Keaton really did ride a bike over a collapsing bridge.

After getting a behind-the-scenes look at silent movie effects, treat yourself to these bloopers from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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