The Schüfftan process: From Metropolis to The Lord of The Rings, and the triumphs of Roberto Rossellini’s History Films

On the smallest and grandest scale it is always the fate of filmmakers to work around the limitations their budget places on their ability to realize the things they imagine so vividly. How do you film now ruined historic buildings and cities in their old splendor? How do you turn less than a hundred extras into multitudes? How do you film a monster destroying cities? Before CGI, these limitations were met in many ingenious and creative ways, from stop motion animation to rear projection to traveling mattes.

The Schüfftan process involves the using of mirrors to portray an extremely large subject by bending its image and scaling it through a mirror. The most seminal use of the Schüfftan process occurred in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The technique got its name from one of the technicians involved in the making of the film, Eugen Schüfftan.

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Metropolis

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Metropolis

Metropolis was Lang and UFA’s (Universum Film AG) super film, the most elaborate and expensive film made in Germany up to that date and one which was to signal Germany’s challenge to Hollywood as an international producer of films. However, Metropolis so overspent its budget that it drove UFA into debt and financial dependence on Hollywood corporations (Gunning). Hollywood technicians used the Schüfftan process en masse well into 1950s when it was largely replaced by matte and early bluescreen effects.

The most popular recent use of the Schüfftan process that I know of occurs in The Lord of The Rings film trilogy. It wouldn’t be presumptuous to assume that production costs were not a limit or worry for Peter Jackson and his crew after the box-office success of the first installment. Considering the best of CGI technology that Peter Jackson probably had at his disposal, it has to be considered that his use of the Schüfftan process may have been a nod to old techniques if not a display of personal preference:

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

For me, the greatest and most innovative use of the Schüfftan process happened under the direction of Roberto Rossellini. Known mostly for his Italian-Neorealist phase, the technique would serve Roberto frequently in his later historical recreations, which film critics and historians have come to label as Rossellini’s “History Films.” They include The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966), Acts of The Apostles (1969), Socrates (1971), Augustine of Hippo (1972), Blaise Pascal (1972), The Age of The Medici (1973), Cartesius (1974), Year One (1974), The Messiah (1976).

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The Taking of Power by Louis XIV – (Construction of Versailles – Schüfftan background)

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The Age of The Medici – (Florence in 15th Century – Schüfftan background)

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Socrates – (The Acropolis of Athens – Schüfftan background)

Like a great artist would, Rossellini added his touch to the technique. Rossellini’s modification, developed with Mario Fioretti, was to reflect the paintings (the models) onto the part of the glass that had been turned into a mirror. This permitted camera movements.

Example (0:41 to 1:54):

The fact that Rossellini was able to make these films at all, so ambitious in their scope, was a triumph of ingenuity over minuscule budgets (relative to his peers). They were made possible by his Pancinor zoom (of his own making), a device to synchronize strobe lights with the camera, the Schüfftan process, and other inventions. I conclude this blog entry with Rossellini’s own words, which should be inspiring to any filmmaker who feels limited by their budget:

“I’m always doing technical research because I’m trying to make the easiest possible instrument to use. I’m always trying to make it like a pencil. To get to that point it’s necessary to get free of contraptions, production needs, capital. One of the first things is to reduce the costs of production. To reduce costs, you have to speed up the time of production, you have to spend less time on many, many things. For example, do less construction, use non-actors. People say (and I swear to you it’s totally untrue) that at the time of Rome Open City it was because nothing was available that we had to adapt to what was available and that neo-realism was born, that is, reality: real walls, real people, real dirt, etc., etc. No, on the contrary, it was a perfectly clear and deliberate choice, because what I did I had been trying to do and had done before Rome Open City. The real truth is this: the rite of cinema was celebrated in the temple of the studio. And the studio was in the hands of the studio owner who, to let you in, made you pay what he wanted. And then there was a mania for absolutely perfect photography and deep focus and a million little things, etc., etc. I despised all that. The most important thing for me was to say what I wanted to say. So…all the little technical inventions had a fundamental importance to free myself from the system.” (Gallagher)

Sources
Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: British Film Instute, 2000, p. 53.
Gallagher, Tag. The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1998, pp. 734-735.

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2 Responses to The Schüfftan process: From Metropolis to The Lord of The Rings, and the triumphs of Roberto Rossellini’s History Films

  1. Daniel Marquez says:

    Do you have any more information on the use of the Schufttan Process in LOTR: The Return of The King?

    Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Metropolis special effects: Schüfftlan process | strike-through

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