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The Special Effects Secrets of Gillie Potter

02 Feb

Gillie Potter 1923 - 2004

Gillie Potter was one of the world’s leading special effects animators and became known as the man who could ‘do the impossible’. His revolutionary work in British commercials advanced the use of special effects in television advertising. He elevated the boring ‘pack shot’ to an art form and invented the device of having live action sequences taking place on a moving product pack.

His commercial work started in the mid 1950s. This work earned him more than 40 international awards, including a Golden Lion at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival and was involved in the production of more than 2,000 ads, including classic commercials for Rolo, Vicks Vapour Rub, Quaker Oats, Nesquick and Shredded Wheat. His special effects work can also be seen in feature films ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.

Gillie Potter was a living legend, still working because he loved it, right up until his death in 2004 at the age of 80. He was the magician of advertisements during the early years of commercial television. In those days, trick film work was a novelty and, at the morning coffee breaks across the land, last night’s TV ads would be a hot topic of discussion …. ‘just how did they do that?‘. Indeed, when we look at some of his early show-reels today it is difficult to see exactly how he did it – in fact, they often look digital when digital technology was at least 20 years in the future.

The predominant brief at that time for commercials was that they should contain something which was very different from anything that had ever been seen before. Once this challenge had been faced and some sort of presentation devised, the vital next step was to select the most appropriate method to achieve it. This usually turned out to be the simplest way of doing it and that, in turn, often proved to be the cheapest – or at least the most cost-effective.  The budgets for special effects commercials in those early days were actually quite small compared with those of live action shoots.  

Usually, the main sections of special effects shoots were made ‘in camera’ – sometimes using multiple exposure but more often shooting a free-standing optical illusion that Gillie’s small team had created. The final work might be embellished by optical composites but in-camera methods kept overall control in the hands of the production company. This was often the cheapest and usually the quickest method. They had the further, very positive, advantage of keeping down the number of generations, as film stock was more primitive in those days and generation-free digital copying was not yet even a dream.

Gillie had invented a particular device – the groundbreaking technique of putting a moving picture onto a moving pack. He always tried to obey one very important rule – keeping the product identity – which most often means the product pack itself right there in the shot. How many commercials we see today leave no lasting impression of what they were about!  Gillie’s ingenious idea was to build on this important principle by showing a movie of the product being used on the surfaces of a moving (usually rotating) pack of that very product. This seems easy now, particularly with all the digital systems available but at that time, it was something that had never been seen before in a television commercial. Camera people guessed that he must have used a rotating projector but they were puzzled as to why it didn’t appear in the shot at some point. The crucial item here was a small mirror, which enabled the rotating projector to be positioned below the field of view of the camera.

A cigarette advert which had cigarettes, packets and disembodied titles built up into an increasingly impossible pyramid before the whole structure collapsed, with the cigarettes all landing neatly in their packets. Few viewers ever guessed that the sequence was shot by laying the packet and the cigarettes on a glass table and shooting upwards, from below. The text pieces were to be stop-motion animated onto the film afterwards, so it was vital that the artist’s hand should maintain the correct separation throughout the main shoot. Particularly delightful is a move in which the text of the word ‘tipped’ goes off balance and the letters are meticulously animated to take up a sloping format and then corrected, when the hand goes in to make the line level again.  

This might well have been the very first use of video assist in a commercial shoot, as the cameraman and the director were able to co-ordinate the whole procedure with an improvised form of closed circuit television from a video camera strapped alongside the 35mm film camera.        

This article is published with the kind permission of the Potter family. There is a DVD of this interview, which outlines Gillie’s techniques in detail, particularly useful to course leaders and students who would like to experiment with their own in-camera effects. For more information on purchasing the DVD Network Nine News info@network-nine.com

 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 2, 2012 in Special Effects

 

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4 responses to “The Special Effects Secrets of Gillie Potter

  1. decades vintage

    April 25, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    Excellent blog post. I absolutely love this website.

    Keep writing!

     
  2. Envelope A3

    October 23, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    Greetings from Los angeles! I’m bored too tears at work so I
    decided to check out your bpog on my iphone during lunch break.
    I enjoy the knowledge you present here and can’t wait to take a loolk
    when I geet home. I’m amazed at hhow fast yojr blog loaded on my cell phone ..
    I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, great blog!

     
  3. Hassan Abd. Muthalib

    October 31, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Potter was in Malaya from 1946-1957 as an Art Director with the Malayan Film Unit. He taught the locals graphics titling for films as well as animation. He did a lot of experimenting with the Neilsen-Hordell animation camera that had been brought in from Ceylon. He credits his later success to his time in Malaya. He told me he had to leave as he had to be with people who were better than he was. And he succeeded!. He did the effects of the 3 prisoners floating away in the mirror for Superman 1 & 2 with the same system he used for ads. He did the lightning effects for The Highlander as well as the ripple & 50 language versions of the Jurassic Park trailer. Every time I came to London, I would call him up & he would come all the way from his house with some of the artwork he was working on, happy that someone was interested in what he was doing. I have a chapter on him & his work in Malaya in my forthcoming book on the history of Malaysian animation.

     
    • networkninenews

      October 31, 2014 at 12:11 pm

      Thank you for this message – Gillie was a dear friend and a warm and generous person who was more than happy to share his ideas and give advice to anyone who was enthusiastic about creating effects. I’d be glad to add your book to my ‘recommended reading’ lists in my e-books for students when it is published.

       

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