Linwood Dunn - Writer

Special Effects Technician. Nationality: American. Born: Linwood Gale Dunn in Brooklyn, New York, 27 December 1904. Education: Attended Manual Training High School, Brooklyn. Career: Trainee projectionist; also played in band; 1925—assistant cameraman on Pathé serials, New York, then in Hollywood with Pathé, 1926–29; 1929–56—director of special effects, RKO: co-designer, Acme-Dunn Optical Printer; 1946—founder, Film Effects of Hollywood; President, American Society of Cinematographers. Awards: Academy Technical Award, 1946, 1980; Gordon E. Sawyer Award, 1984. Died: 15 May 1998, in Los Angeles, California, of cancer.

Films as Special Effects Technician (selected list):


Danger Lights (Seitz); Cimarron (Ruggles)


The Most Dangerous Game (Schoedsack and Pichel); Bird of Paradise (K. Vidor)


Flying Down to Rio (Freeland); King Kong (Cooper and Schoedsack)


Down to Their Last Yacht (Sloane)


She (Pichel and Holden); The Last Days of Pompeii (Cooper and Schoedsack)


Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)


Gunga Din (Stevens); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Dieterle)


The Swiss Family Robinson (Ludwig)


Citizen Kane (Welles)


The Navy Comes Through (Sutherland); Cat People (J. Tourneur)


Bombardier (Wallace)


Days of Glory (J. Tourneur); Experiment Perilous (J. Tourneur)


A Game of Death (Wise)


Mighty Joe Young (Schoedsack)


The Thing (Nyby)


Androcles and the Lion (Erskine)


The French Line (Bacon)


West Side Story (Wise and Robbins)


It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer) (co)


The Great Race (Edwards) (co); La Bibbia ( The Bible . . . in the Beginning ) (Huston)


Hawaii (Hill) (co); What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (Edwards) (co)


Airport (Seaton)


Darling Lili (Edwards) (co)


King Kong (Guillermin)


By DUNN: book—

With George E. Turner, The ASC Treasury of Visual Effects , Hollywood, 1983.

By DUNN: articles—

"Effects and Titles for West Side Story ," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1961.

"The 'Mad, Mad' World of Special Effects," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1965.

Journal of University Film Association (Carbondale, Illinois), vol. 26, no. 4, 1974.

Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 1, no. 1 (revised), 1979.

Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), December 1982.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1985.

On DUNN: articles—

Brosnan, John, in Movie Magic , New York, 1974.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1985.

Eyman, Scott, in Five American Cinematographers , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1987.

Turner, George, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1990.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 1 June 1998.

* * *

The name of Linwood Dunn is almost synonymous with the art of special effects: he created effects for several hundred motion pictures. Dunn was a production assistant cameraman with a Pathé serial unit in Astoria, Long Island, went to Hollywood in 1926, and in 1929 joined RKO Radio Pictures where he created all types of visual effects while working in their photographic effects department. Dunn developed highly creative uses for the optical printer, which he first used in 1928. The printer consisted of a modified motion picture camera set up on a solid base with a special precision motion picture projector—both driven in synchronization while the camera photographed the film carried in the projector. Through this film-copying process, the image in the projector could be modified in unlimited ways: superimposition of one or more images; various types of transitional effects from scene-to-scene; changes in size, screen quality, action speed; conversion from one screen format to another; and the introduction of many other modifications limited only by the imagination and skill of the operating cameraperson. The optical effects printer is truly the heart of the motion picture visual effects techniques. Its facilities have been utilized by practically every movie subsequently made. Dunn also carried on the development of complex traveling mattes, rear projection, and many other types of special photographic effects.

While he was at RKO, Dunn's work included effects for many major productions. He assisted the noted special effects expert Willis H. O'Brien on the classic King Kong after he convinced O'Brien that the optical printer could do certain complicated animation composites effectively (and speedily) and thus relieve O'Brien from occasional retakes of the animation. Dunn was then assigned to the optical effects for the entire production. In Citizen Kane , he used matte paintings, optical printing, rear projection, and miniatures to compensate for the minimal use of sets, and for the need to modify scenes during editing.

With the United States at war in 1942, Eastman Kodak commissioned Dunn to develop an effects optical printer for the armed forces motion picture units in various locations throughout the world, for which he received an Academy citation in 1946. When World War II ended, Dunn founded his own special effects studio and laboratory, Film Effects of Hollywood, while still continuing his work with RKO until the studio ceased operations in 1956. Film Effects pioneered the expansion of 16mm film into the production field, being the first to create sophisticated optical effects for the wider use of this medium. Also it became one of the first visual effects companies to offer a variety of effects to the growing number of independent production companies, effects that had previously been available primarily to those major studios that could afford their own elaborate special effects departments. The company handled the special effects for the NBC-TV series Star Trek , and was a consultant to Twentieth Century-Fox on Star Wars in 1977.

Towards the end of his life, Dunn was in great demand as a speaker and gave his comprehensive special effects film lecture at more than 100 institutions. In this presentation, he demonstrated how he used three separate filmed images of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and a leopard—optically combining them by split screen for Bringing Up Baby —and also described the methods of a variety of other sophisticated special effects from major films.

—James Limbacher

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