Magazine article American Cinematographer

Parting the Red Sea (and Other Miracles)

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Parting the Red Sea (and Other Miracles)

Article excerpt

In a 1978 issue of Film Comment, director Martin Scorcese listed THE TEN COMMANDMENTS as one of his guilty pleasures. "I like DeMille, his images, his theatricality. I've seen the film 40 or 50 times. Forget the script-you've got to concentrate on the special effects, the texture, the color. The Angel of Death killing the firstborn children in green smoke. The Red Sea, the lamb's blood of the Passover, the parting of the waters. DeMille presented a fantasy, dreamlike quality on film that was so real, it excited me as a child and stuck with me for life."

Scorcese wasn't alone. At age eleven, I was taken to the Criterion Theater in midtown Manhattan to see what the newspapers were ballyhooing as "the single most spectacular scene ever filmed." Sitting in front-row balcony with the wide screen seemingly within reach, billowing clouds turned dark green, Elmer Bernstein's score soared with the ebullation of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, gusts of wind roused the hair of three women posed against a process background worthy of El Greco, and Charlton Heston split the Red Sea in half. The experience was totally surreal, one that etches the subconscious. At some indefinable point, I realized that this was not an act of God but a trick of the greatest magnitude, engineered by a bunch of screen magicians who dabbled in an arcane thing called special effects. Knowing this, however, could not puncture the illusion or dilute its visceral impact.

To this day, the Red Sea sequence in DeMille's 1956 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is still lauded as the paragon of "spectacle" special effects. Few sequences in movie history could boast such a distinction. For sheer scope, it remains peerless, and its legacy can be seen and felt in such works as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Historically, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was Paramount's first big effects production in Technicolor and Vista Vision, and despite the great stumbling block the new format created for blue screen matte work, the film is a whopping example of the state of the art in the fifties. Its intriguing use of opticals, miniatures, matte paintings and color give it a picture-book elan sadly lacking in the zip-zap trend of today's sword & sorcery. Ironically, and perhaps inevitably, the very format that plagued the production was rediscovered with the advent of STAR WARS: Vista Vision has virtually become a staple of modern special effects. It seems only fitting that the same rotoscope units used to part the Red Sea were revamped by Industrial Light & Magic to put laser explosions on the planet Alderran, one generation later.

DeMille had the guts to part the Red Sea twice in his career. Back in 1923, he had Fred Moran and Roy Pomeroy, then head of Paramount's special effects department, dump thousands of gallons of water down both sides of a U-shaped tank. When the film recording this was run in reverse, the effect was that of a large body of water splitting apart. The separated walls of the Red Sea, somewhat less miraculous looking, were two large banks of quivering gelatin. Pomeroy, it is told, set up a large gelatin mold on a table, divided it down the middle, and matted a shot of the fleeing actors into the middleground area. For the closing of the Sea, the water shot was simply run forward and superimposed over the Egyptians, cutting to a scene of submerged dummies photographed through the glass wall of a tank.

DeMiIIe had something more than Jello in mind when he began planning his second version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1951. Using the Paramount effects team helmed by Gordon Jennings, ASC, DeMiIIe set his on creating a film that would dazzle the world. Even while directing THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, DeMiIIe was preparing the storyboards for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS with the art department. DeMiIIe had already locked in Charlton Heston to play the part of Moses, and Wally Westmore began sketching Heston's face for ten incredible makeups.

Much to the grief of DeMiIIe and Paramount, Gordon Jennings died after completing George Pal's WAR OF THE WORLDS-ironically a film that DeMiIIe had once planned to produce. …

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