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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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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.
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.
June 17, 2020 at 6:20 am
I live in Gillies old house, when we moved in in 2005 after his children had emptied it, we discovered from neighbours about his profession. We found out that The reason he had 3 sheds (one large one fitted as a workshop) in the garden Next to the house was to work on his special effects and models. The workshop shed has a coat hook on the door and hanging on it (it is there to this day) is Gillies old fabric work apron. His name tag is sewn into the collar – Ronald Potter. There were also a few small bottles of shell lubricant for the frog mkv. At the bottom of the garden was another shed with a huge lean to structure. More workshop space.The neighbours told us about his Malaysian wife who had a dream to open a Malaysian restaurant in the village – sadly she never did and she died over a decade before Gillie. It’s incredible to think that someone at the top of his game which today would make him immensely rich lived in a modest 3 bed house (albeit on a large plot with big garden) With just one family bathroom and that his daughters shared a bedroom – the son had his own. Gillie had the house built in the late 1950’s. They were truly different times.
June 17, 2020 at 8:27 am
Thankyou for this information. If you don’t mind, I’ll pass this on to Gillie’s family.
Hassan bin Abd Muthalib
June 19, 2020 at 1:25 am
Hi Julian. Is it the house at Burnham Bucks? I visited Gillie & his family there after meeting him at his studio, Gillie Potter Productions, at High Holborn in 1979 when I came to the UK for the first time. His wife, Marjorie, was the cousin of one of the staff at the Malayan Film Unit. They met at a party there, I think. Gillie left Malaya in 1957.
June 18, 2020 at 2:43 pm
HI Hassan, it’s Ashley, Gillie’s son. Great to read some more info on my Dad and particularly from the Malaysian connections. Did you get to publish your book? Hope you’re doing well?
Hassan bin Abd Muthalib
June 19, 2020 at 1:18 am
Hi Ashley. I’m fine, thanks. Yes,my book was published in 2016 but has not been distributed by the publishers, a local university. It’s only for sale there but I have been seelling it on my own at lectures & through the post. If you’re still having the same email address, I could send you the soft copy of the manuscript. The title is FROM MOUSEDEER TO MOUSE: 70 YEARS OF MALAYSIAN ANIMATION. It has been reviewed by Peter Schavemaker of Zippy Frames. This is the link. http://zippyframes.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2662%3A70-years-of-malaysian-animation-interview-with-hassan-abd-muthalib-&catid=97%3Ainterviews&Itemid=100010
The book is the only one on Malaysia’s animation history. Together with my 2013 book on Malaysian cinema,it is a standard text at universities & colleges, both in Malaysia & some countries. I’m working on another book on the history of the Malayan Film Unit. There will be more details on your father in the area of documentary film production & of how, together with H W Govan, trained the locals in film production. I’m glad that some of your father’s TV commercials are now on YouTube. I have the Pinewood DVD. I visited them & when they found out I had known Gillie, they gave it to me for free!
Hope things are going well with you.
May 4, 2021 at 5:57 pm
Great to find some articles on Gillie Potter finally. I recall watching a short video many years back called The Special Effects Secrets of Gillie Potter (I think?). It must have been during a Broadcast Show in London, I’m guessing.
I remember a rotating model which was a sculpt of two different items that morphed in real-time: one was a bottle if memory serves me right. There was also a jet landing on the avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris! All physical models.
I’ve been trying to track down the DVD ever since. Never seen anything on Gillie Potter on YouTube even!
Any idea where I can get hold of a copy, even if it has to be on video tape, please? I’d love to show it to people who think digital effects have been so revolutionary!
June 5, 2021 at 12:55 pm
I may be able to find a copy – where are you based?
Hassan bin Abd Muthalib
June 6, 2021 at 4:20 pm
The video was being sold at an office at Pinewood Studios outside London. Perhaps they are still there. I’m based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I’ve written a book on Malaysian animation. Gillie figures prominently in it as he was the one who first taught animation to the locals.
January 29, 2021 at 2:31 pm
I have just read with interest the above article and comments with regard to your father, Gillie Potter. I have been undertaking extensive research on my own family, mainly my father, Derek Saunders, who was a good friend of your father’s, and went to stay with him and your mother, Marjorie often! I wondered if you had heard of my father and mother; Derek and Ann Saunders? Dad was born and lived in Ealing, and most of his family were involved in the GWR, and British Rail. He moved down to Sussex with his parents, William and Jessie Saunders and myself (Alison) and lived in Patcham, and met Ann, his wife. We lived in Lindfield, West Sussex, for many years. They then had two children, Christopher being one, who I keep in contact with frequently. He has recently given me a photograph of himself and Dad, as they did many operatic society shows together. I think this has followed down the family, as I belong to EQUITY, and have been a TV / Film extra for quite a while! If you do recognise my parents names, and have additional information on them, I would be very pleased, as I know they were very fond of your father and the family. Thank you so much.