Friday, October 5, 2007


Fritz Lang’s masterpiece,
Metropolis was a landmark film in the history of visual effects not only for pionerring then state-of-the art film techniques but for its visual style as well. The purpose of this case study will be to demonstrate how Metropolis utilized techniques far ahead of its time to envision a dystopic industrial future in ways later borrowed by such films as Blade Runner and Dark City.

The Expressionist Movement and its Influence on Metropolis

Metropolis was heavily influenced by a number of styles and trends occurring in Germany in the mid-1920s, although its visual themes and style can be traced back further. The film is largely credited as being the last true German Expressionist film, while simultaneously being hailed as the first example of German New Objectivity film.

German Expressionism was a movement in the arts and, later, cinema that began in 1905 with the formation of a group of artists who called themselves Die Brucke (The Bridge). Prominent members of this group include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Otto Mueller. Expressionist art explored the distortion of reality for an emotional effect on the viewer.

Following World War I, a time of great economic hardship for Germany, Expressionism entered the relatively new medium of film, incorporating the same ideas that it had in painting and skewing it to reflect the attitudes of the time. Although the German film industry was booming, the hard economic times meant that filmmakers found it difficult to create movies that could compare to the high-budget Hollywood productions in America. To compensate, filmmakers of the German UFA studio experimented heavily to alter the mood of the audience in new and previously unexplored ways.

German Expressionist Film

German Expressionist film is known for generally being dark in theme and oftentimes deals with the supernatural or the occult. The use of shadow in such films is intense, with high contrasting light areas as focal points. German filmmakers relied on symbolism and mise en scene to create the moody feel of their works and to infer them with deeper meaning.

Cinematographers explored wildly with different camera angles to achieve various effects, such as a high or low angle shots, in a manner that would latter be famously applied in American cinema in Welles’ Citizen Kane. Set designs were also done in an avant garde style, and were heavily influenced by expressionism in painting. Prominent examples of German Expressionist film include Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Der Golem (1915).

New Objectivity

As a reaction to German Expressionism, a new movement arose in the early 1920s called the New Objectivity or Neue Sachlichkeit. It represented everything that Expressionism rejected, favoring plain objects, an emphasis on secularism, and the rational as opposed to the supernatural. Artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz were also heavily influenced by the Art Deco movement in art and design in both Europe and America. Art Deco complemented this style because of its emphasis on industry, geometry and balance. Other influences in this movement can be seen in the works of Fernand Leger and the Italian Futurists, who also preferred the cold precision of machines and industry to emotion and nature. Leger’s Ballet Mechanique (1924), with its "dance" of mechanical objects rather than human figures and its percussive, industrial score can clearly be seen as influential in the underground scenes in Metropolis depicting the rhythmic, steaming machines and their robotic workers.

Metropolis can be seen as a film incorporating both elements of Expressionism and New Objectivity. Thematically, the film aligns closest to expressionist film, however it is a visual blend between the two. Scenes depicting Rotwang’s Lab and the chapel underground are directly drawn from expressionist styles, whereas the cityscapes and the machines are derived from Art Deco and the New Objectivity. Lang claimed to have been inspired by the skyscrapers of New York when he envisioned Metropolis, but a number of paintings by George Grosz depict buildings extremely similar to those found in Metropolis.

Early Science Fiction Film

Metropolis is often regarded as being the first major sci-fi film. Science Fiction as a genre had existed in film prior to Metropolis, and certainly in literature going back to the classic works of Jules Verne. Notable earlier science fiction works, including Georges Melies’ groundbreaking A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Lost World (1925), employed techniques that would later be used in Metropolis such as matte painting, use of glass shots, miniatures and stop motion animation.

An Enormous Undertaking

Going from Lang’s vision to the actual production of the film required innovative techniques in visual effects- as well as a lot of money. The film was budgeted for 1.1 million marks, but ended up costing at least six million marks.The film broke all previous records for money spent, and very nearly bankrupted UFA in the process. The film’s cast of nearly 25,000 extras, as a result, were paid very little for their work- all in a time when many people in Germany could not even afford to eat. Filming began May 22nd, 1925, and continued until the end of October in 1926, consisting of 310 shooting days and 60 nights and took place in UFA studios, although some shots were done in massive sets in warehouses- and even one scene was shot inside of a zeppelin hull near Berlin.


Cinematographers Karl Freund and Gunther Rittau relied heavily on traditional German Expressionistic techniques in shooting the film. One particular technique involved slowly focusing in on a key character’s face or a part of their body, such as a hand, to emphasize the character’s emotions or intentions. To create the panoramic shot of the Eternal Garden, Freund employed a so-called debris camera. Because the model in the foreground had to be shot from very close up, the camera would have had to remain absolutely motionless. To solve this problem, Freund moved the model in front of the camera instead. Gunther Rittau photographed animated mechanical models for the film’s title sequence, closely mimicking Leger’s "Ballet Mechanique"

Set Design and Models

The city shots of Metropolis were a combination of both two and three dimensional elements, consisting of matte drawings and paintings, flat wooden relief models, and three dimensional models scaled to 1/16th of the simulated heights. All matte drawings of the cityscape were scaled to a height of 1/100. The man responsible for most of the film’s models was Walter Schuzle-Mittendorf. The set designers- Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht- first created a number of concept drawings for the imagined city of Metropolis, following Lang’s plan for the city to be divided into several sections. The emphasis was on the verticality of the structures, intersected by roadway systems and aircraft. The dominating architectural feature is the so-called New Tower of Babel, the largest building located centrally in the city. The building, like most of the buildings in the film, is a model.

Costume Design

Mittendorf was also repsonsible for much of the makeup and some costuming in the film. The figures of the Seven Deadly Sins, including Death- which was played by Brigette Helms- were actors wearing masks made from a new malleable wood material that had just been developed. The material could be sawed, grated, filed or planed. The same material was used for the construction of the robot, Futura, also played by Helms.The actress had to be able to sit, stand and walk in the costume. A plaster mold of the helmet was constructed, onto which the body was directly attached, which had several jointed, moveable segments as in knight’s armor. Much like a knight’s armor, however, the costume was very uncomfortable and Helms suffered greatly during the filming, enduring cuts and bruises from the edges. Mittendorf, who is one of the few remaining Metropolis crew members still living, continues to own the copyright for the robot’s design.

Kettelhut's Matte Paintings and Drawings

Kettelhut’s matte paintings- or, more accurately matte drawings as the majority were 60 X 40 cm drawings done on heavy cardboard- were used frequently in the film to simulate the background, usually with models in the foreground. These drawings and paintings can be seen in the background cityscape shots of the city as well as in the lush backdrop for the Eternal Gardens scene. Amazingly, to create the effect of beams of light traveling over the pencil drawn buildings in the background, Kettelhut painstakingly erased millimeter by millimeter the same amount of pencil shading from one side onto the other. The picture would then be exposed and the process repeated frame by frame for the duration of the beam’s effect. This required roughly 1000 individual images- 25 for each second of the film. The same technique was used in the animated sequence at the beginning of the film with another drawing- the "city-mounds", showing daybreak pouring over the architectural features.

Use of Stop Motion in Metropolis

Frame-by-frame shooting was one of the three major special effects processes used in the making of Metropolis. Traditional animation techqniues were employed throughout the film to achieve effects not otherwise possible for the time. Some of the electrical charges in the heart machine and in Rotwang’s lab are both examples of traditional animation, as are a number of brief sequences in between shots for emotive effect for depicting explosions or bursts. Additionally, the film’s abstract title sequence was animated, depicting lines and surfaces in an art deco fashion. Stop-motion animation was employed for filming shots of traffic moving on the suspended roadways in the city, using a total of three hundred tiny model cars, each of which had to be moved forwards a few milimeters for each frame.

The Schufftan Process

The Schufftan mirror trick process is the second major special effects technique used in the film. It was invented and implemented by Eugen Schufftan in collaboration with Ernst Kunstmann, and was a form of compositing miniatures into the full-scale shot using mirrors.

Schufftan was not originally involved in filmmaking, and had a background as a painter and architect, but he found himself fascinated by the medium of moving pictures. One of things he found disappointing was the lack of a sense of depth in most of the films of his time, and so he devised the mirror trick to achieve this sense of deep perspective by compositing models and real scenery.

The Schufftan process enabled a range of complex shots never before possible in film. In the scene where the mob is chasing the evil Maria, we see a shot of the crowd running on a roadway between two seemingly enormous buildings. In another shot, we see a group of workers crossing the roadway while overhead the stop-motion animated model cars appear to drive overhead. To achieve these effect, a mirror was mounted at 45 degrees in front of the camera lens. This mirror reflected the image of the miniature model, positioned directly behind the camera. Parts of the mirrored surface were scratched away to correspond to areas where the real-life footage would be composited to give the camera an unrestricted view of the real scenery.

This process was also used to create a sense of vast scales without having to create even larger sets than the production alrady demanded. The lower floors of the buildings in the so-called "worker’s city", for example, were constructed full-scale in one of the film’s massize sets. The upper floors were mirror image models.The same technique can be seen in the track scene in the "Stadium of the Sons", in which the track and lower portion of the wall were shot full-scale with people running in the foreground. The wall itself was over 10 metres tall (or nearly 33 feet). The upper portion of the wall and the dome in the background were a mirror image of the model, scaled to 1/20th of the simulated size.

Scene Breakdown, pt. 1

To give the statue of Hel in Rotwang’s lab its massive appearance, a mirror image of the 60 cm model was projected above the full-scale headless pedestal. A reverse-angle shot of Rotwang was then taken, with the film crew actually using the pedestal to stand on so they could shoot him from a high angle.

In another visually impressive scene is that of the transformation of the Moloch machine. Using a combination of the Schufftan process and sliding mirrors, the sculpted head of the demonic Moloch, positioned opposite to the machine, was blended into the shot and appears to superimpose the footage of the steaming machine.

Scene Breakdown, pt. 2

One of the more remarkable scenes in the film portrays a telephone with a sort of television screen in Joh Freder’s office, far predating any such actual technology- including the television itself! The effect was created by projecting the footage of the workman shown on the screen backwards onto the screen using a projector before filming this with the camera positioned in front of it. The projector and camera were phase connected to ensure they worked at the same speed.

Multiple exposures of the film were the third major technique used in the film. This wasn’t done by copying one exposure on top of the other in post-production, but during the actual shooting in the camera, using the same reel of film rewound several times. This was done by Gunther Rittau and his assistant H. O. Schulze. This technique can be seen in the scene of the multiple eyes and male faces gazing on the dancing evil Maria in the Yoshiwara district.

Constructing the Scene: The Transformation Scene

The scene that continues to fascinate audiences the most to this day, however, is that of the transformation of Maria’s likeness onto the robot’s in Rotwang’s lab, and it has become the one of the most imitated scenes in cinema. It was achieved through a combination of all three major techniques, but particularly that of multiple exposures. The same piece of negative was exposed up to thirty times for every single component of the shot. First, there was the shot of Brigette Helms in the robot costume on the pedestal. The figure was then replaced by a black silhouette. Around this figure, two circular neon lights in tubes made from sandwich paper were repeatedly moved up and down by a type of elevator. This was filmed through a glass plate which was smeared with a thin layer of grease. Finally, the electrical discharges were filmed without this glass plate.

The Film's Release

At long last, Metropolis, the film that took nearly a year to shoot, premiered in Berlin on January 10, 1927. Lang’s original version of Metropolis, at its intended frame rate, ran over three hours long. Before release, however, Metropolis went through a number of cuts and was re-edited to change many key elements before screening to satisfy the studio heads at UFA. Secondly, the film was hurt by the fact that threatre managers showed the film at a highly accelerated speed. The actual frame rate of the film has been disputed (although it was most likely the standard of the day, 16 frames per second), but in most theatres the film was shown at an incredible 26 frames per second to further shorten the film to 153 minutes. This disrupted the pacing of the film and the end result was a butchered and oftentimes illogical film that was received with only moderate enthusiasm.

The audiences at Berlin, however, saw the version that was closest to Lang’s intention. When the film debuted in the United States, threatre managers were generally unwilling to show films longer than ninety minutes in length, as they felt that most audience members would not want to see a movie that long. American playwright Channing Pollock re-edited the film once more, almost completely obscuring the original plot as it was considered to be too controversial by the American distributors and the film was shortened further, to its current length of 90 minutes.

A quarter of the film is believed to have been lost forever.

Metropolis's Influence

Although at the time Metropolis was not considered to be an important film, the test of time has revealed it to be otherwise. Critics felt the film’s storyline was too simplistic and few outside of the filmmaking community truly appreciated the innovative techniques and visual effects used in the film. The film, however, has left an indelible mark on the genre of the science fiction film and on visual effects in general. The visual style of the city has become the inspiration for any number of films set in the dystopic future.

The list of films that can owe some stylistic debt to Metropolis is staggering.The cityscapes of Blade Runner (1982) are unmistakably inspired by Metropolis, with a central building that looks quite remarkably like the New Tower of Babel from the 1927 film. Dark City’s (1998) subterranean realm inhabited by The Strangers is quite similar in appearance to the worker’s underground world, and the city itself has derived elements from Metropolis. The famous scene in Rotwang’s lab has been imitated countless times in many films, and has served as the archetype for the so-called "Mad Scientist’s lab" with its beakers and huge electrical coils and arcane devices, as seen in the 1931 version of Frankenstein. Even Star Wars’ C-3PO looks quite similar to the robot Futura from Metropolis. These are only a few examples out of surely hundreds of films made worldwide.

Realizing the Potential of Visual Effects

Metropolis can be seen as a film that helped filmmakers realize the potential of visual effects in cinema. Although it was not the first film to employ innovative means of visual effects, it was the first major feature length film to rely heavily on these means to create a world that could not be filmed in reality. The Schufftan process, perhaps Metropolis’ greatest visual effects contribution, was employed by many film makers in the following decades, including Hitchcock. Although it has since been largely replaced by matte shots, the method has been used as recently as The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003).

As important as Star Wars was in the 70s to the field of special effects, Metropolis broadened people’s horizons as to what could be achieved in film. Stop-motion animation, advanced compositing effects and the use of models became the standard of analog visual effects for roughly fifty years before the advent of CGI and digital means of compositing. All of these were methods employed in Metropolis, the great-granddaddy of films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, 300, or any other of the visual effects extravaganzas that we readily consume today.