If You Like Epic Films, Thank The Italians.

Per E.M.A. Un artista di talento e amica.


L’Inferno  (1911)

Original Poster for the film

Original Poster for the film

The American director D.W. Griffith is often credited as being the creator of the feature-length film. It was actually the Australians who made the first feature film in 1906 which was called The Story Of The Kelly Gang.

But in 1911 with the release of L’Inferno, the Italian industry created not only the first epic film but the first international blockbuster as well.

Taking over three years to make, the film took in over 2 million dollars in the United States alone. As its extended length meant there could be less screenings per day, it gave the theater owners an excuse to raise the normal prices of admission. It remains the oldest feature film to still exist.


L'Inferno - 1911 - Blasphemers - Balls of Fire













Credited to three different directors, the film is a live action adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sets and visuals were closely based on Gustave Dorè’s engravings from his 1857 edition of the poets work which was, and still is, the most iconic representation of the title. Using fantastical, extravagant sets and special effects, the film must have been as terrifying to audiences in 1911 as any horror film of present day. Winged devils, brimstone hail, choking fires, it’s likely there were at least a few trips to the hospital by cast members who spent much time on the production. L’Inferno  remains the oldest feature film to still exist.

the-inferno-canto-22winged devils




Left, one of Dorè's illustrations, on the right, Lucifer's depiction in the film.

Left, one of Dorè’s illustrations, on the right, Lucifer’s depiction in the film.


Cabiria  (1916)


It would be the feature Cabiria five years later that would be the most influential silent Italian film of the period. Directed by Giovanne Pastrone, the film was shot in Torino (Turin) and featured massive period sets as well as elaborate and imaginative miniatures which recreated the eruptions of Mt Etna in Sicily. It follows the story of a young girl, Cabiria, who is saved from the disaster caused by the eruption only to be captured by Phoenicians and  sold into slavery in Carthage.

Foreground miniature of the eruption of Mt. Etna

Foreground miniature of the eruption of Mt. Etna

The sets include a massive exterior and interior of the Temple of Moloch which includes a huge bronze statue of the god. During the sacrifice scene, the chest of the statue opens and dozens of children are thrown into its fiery belly one at a time, it’s mouth belching fire as the door swings shut on each sacrifice.


The exterior set of the Temple of Moloch

The exterior set of the Temple of Moloch


In one scene, the Roman navy assaults the city of Syracuse, a massive set and staged battle that would presage the scenes of the siege of Babylon years later in D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance. While Pastrone’s film doesn’t have the same intercutting as Griffith’s, many of the lighting effects are much more dramatic than Grifffith’s.

Syracuse set walls


scene from Cabiria


Pastrone would be the first to put a camera on a dolly and execute the long, slow tracking shots throughout the film that would be so influential to every feature afterwards. In fact for many years any dolly shot or one involving movement was known as a ‘Cabiria shot’. The film was also the first to incorporate flashbacks as a story device.

cabiria set

The film’s elephants made a huge visual impact on Griffith, and he would insist there be plaster elephant sculptures in the Babylon sets for Intolerance, despite the art department’s insistence that elephants did not exist in ancient Babylonia.

French poster for the film

French poster for the film

Cabiria would be the first film to be screened at the White House by then President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.


While the films may be be very dated to our 21st century eyes, you can’t help but be impressed with the scale of the sets of these pre-computer age features.





The Original Pre-Viz Tool – A DIY Lens Angle Calculator


Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.

Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.



Pre-vis Before Previs

Before the term “Pre-visualization” ever existed, there was the lens angle template. These were a staple of any Hollywood studio Art Department and were used when laying out a set to determine camera angles, backing sizes needed, rear projection screens and planning back-projected set illustrations for the producer and director to approve sets long before there were 3D computer programs.

There was a time when a basic knowledge of optics and lenses was considered mandatory and was necessary not only because the Art Director would design the sets to be shot in a specific way but this information was needed when designing effects shots such as forced perspective sets, glass shots and the like.

Todd AO template

A template for a 100mm to 300mm zoom lens in the Todd AO format. Todd AO was an early 70mm film format with an aspect ratio of 2.20.

The templates were for a single lens, usually a prime lens, and were made using 1/8″ or 1/4″ thick plexiglas. The projection lines were scratched or engraved into the acrylic, sometimes by a Set Designer but other times they were made by the studio sign shop. Some of my examples are obviously done with a hand held engraving tool while others have been done with a lettering template and have inked letters.

Todd AO lens template

Each template had two sets of projection lines, one set for the horizontal plane (for use with a plan view) and another for the vertical plane, for use with scale room elevations. Most are made for use with 1/4″ scale drawings but they are accurate for any orthographic drawing because the angle is unaffected by the scale. Most will have markings to note the distances from the lens entrance pupil in 1/4″ scale.

angle of view

The “Quick View”

By the 1990’s, there were so many different formats and lens combinations most of us in the Art Department in Hollywood carried thick manila envelopes of acetates of the various focal lengths, but I always seemed to be missing one that I needed and I found some were inaccurate from being cloned so many times. In 1998 I designed a device that had all the available formats and prime lenses  so you could just dial up the one you needed. I redesigned it in 2008 to include the digital formats but sold out of them a year ago.

I stopped having them made since they were expensive but hated to see them become obsolete since they are still so useful. For a director, they are the perfect way to see if a shot is possible at a location or see the limitations of a particular lens on a set when you can’t rely on wild walls.

Making A Quick View

Yours won’t be on Lexan like the originals were but will be sturdy enough plus cheap enough to replace if it’s damaged or lost. Download the files below and take them to your nearest copy center and have both the dial and the nomen printed on clear acetate. They don’t have to be printed at exactly 100% but they should be at the same scale to each other. Then you just line up the center marks and use a compass point or push pin to pierce the centers, creating a pivot point in place of the brass rivet as in the photo above.

The diagrams from the original instruction manual will explain how to use them. You’ll note that I’ve added a feature that wasn’t on the originals, a protractor which will tell you the angle of a selected lens.

Quick View II User Manual_2

Quick View II User Manual_3



New Bookshelf And Toolbox Pages

When I created a post several years ago on doing metric to imperial conversions, and vice – versa, I added a PDF of a set of scales I made for converting 1/4″ to metric 1:50 thinking someone might find it useful. Well, it’s now been downloaded over 9,000 times so I’m glad I included it.

Some people have had trouble finding a particular link to a book or diagram I’ve included in a past post so I’ve included two new pages in the header above with lists of the digital books I’ve mentioned and links to the various tools I’ve created to make it easier to find them.

And in case you want that set of conversion scales, here’s the link again below:


Calculating Reflections – No Computer Required

It doesn’t happen often, but you occasionally have to calculate reflections.  A scene will be staged in a way that the camera is seeing the action in a mirror and it’s immediately clear that the shot will determine how the set is staged and dressing placed.

On one production I was asked how long it would take me to render a digital model with true reflections so they could determine whether the character would be able to see the other person from where he was seated.

I told them it would probably take about  an hour to texture the model and do the render they wanted, or I could figure it out with a pencil and it would only take about 2 minutes. They thought I was kidding.


You’ll want to have the plan view and an elevation. Line them up so that the plane of the mirror is along an identical line. It doesn’t have to be in any certain scale as long as they are both the same size. It can be a printout or just a quick drawing on grid paper, as long as the mirror is correctly placed and sized.


Cover the drawing with trace, being sure to extend it twice as far over the line of the mirror plane.



Now draw lines from the vantage point through the edges of the mirror on both the plan and elevation.


Draw a heavy vertical line through the mirror plane. Then fold the trace along this line.


Since the angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence, the reflected view is easily seen once the trace is folded back over the drawing, and it’s clear the person in the chair would have no way to see the person standing at the door.











You can now pivot the ‘mirror plane’ down until the person is in view, although it will be clear that in plan the mirror would be at a strange angle from the wall.


The Digital Bookshelf – Furniture Mouldings

“There is a tendency among those accustomed to the large-scale of moulding detail on exterior work in wood or stone to make their mouldings on furniture and interior woodwork too large. The full-size furniture moulding so carefully drawn by Mr. Warne should be of the utmost service not only to furniture designers but to students of architecture and interior decoration.”

plate 21_warne


plate 4_warne


“This book covers many different types of English furniture; bedsteads, bookcases, bureaus, cabinets, chests, cupboards, chairs and others. This book illustrates cover this book covers molding details on English furniture from about 1574 to 1820 molding is the method adopted by the cabinetmaker to give definition to the lines of his work and the sections of molded detail very very much as one style has succeeded another through the oak, walnut, mahogany and satinwood periods of English furniture the workings of moldings was then so laborious that the craftsman use them with greater restraint and obtained more pleasing effects by their use than is frequently the case today when profusion often eliminates interest.”

H. P. Shapland, 1923


E.j. Warne’s book, Furniture Mouldings, is still one of the best resources on 16th to 19th century British furniture. Almost never out of print, copies can be had for as little as $1.

Until you get a print copy, you can download a digital scan of the book below. Scanned from an ex library copy, there are a number of damaged pages but you can get a good idea of the scope of the book.



– R.D. Wilkins


3 Methods Of Scaling From Photographs


photo-6In February I posted an article about using your hand in photographs as a scale reference but didn’t go into how you extract that information once you have a copy of your photos. Here are three methods, two analog and one digital, that you can use to figure out hard dimensions from objects in photos.

Equal Space Dividers

Once you have had some practice, this is the fastest method of the three, even faster that the digital method and you can use them right off a photo from a book or even a smart table screen. If you don’t have a set of equal dividers, also called 10 point dividers, you can get a new pair here for about $125. They often show up on Ebay but plan to pay around $75 for a used set.

In this photo of a 1840’s Greek revival casing, we’ll scale the actual size using the hand in the photo as a reference nomen.

IMG_6890The first thing you’ll want to do is draw lines outlining the sides and edges of the moulding details, then you’ll draw a centerline through your scale, whether it’s a hand or tape measure. Then draw a line parallel to this at the top of the picture crossing the outlines. Now continue the lines perpendicular to this new datum line so that they are parallel which eliminates the perspective/foreshortening effect of the photo. Then mark a known distance on the original centerline, in this case it’s the distance from the tip of the middle finger to the end crease which is 3 3/4″.

IMG_6886Now transfer these two points to the new datum line at the top of the photo. With the dividers, open them along this datum line allowing the distance between each point to equal 1/2″. They can represent any distance you want them to, but 1/2″ works best for this example. This means that 7 1/2 spaces will equal 3 3/4″ scale inches along the new datum.


IMG_6887Once you have these marks set, carefully move down to the bottom of the page and mark the distance at the first and last point. As each space represents 1/2″, the distance over the width of the dividers is a scale 5″ along the nomen line. For accuracy you’ll want to continuously check the spacing of the dividers against this ‘master’ to be sure you haven’t changed the setting. Most dividers are manufactured with fairly ‘tight’ joints but you can easily bump them while you’re working and throw off the setting.


IMG_6891Now we have a scale to measure the spacing between each of the line extensions above the top nomen line. You can mark the distance at the middle point and reduce the spacing of the dividers to equal 1/4″ in scale and so forth. I came up with an 8″ width, which when I checked the casing with an actual measuring tape, found it to be in reality 7 7/8″ to 7 15/16″. Not bad, well within the accuracy of most applications.


Digital Calipers

mutoh digital calipersThis method is not only more accurate than the equal space dividers but is a cheaper method as well, just not as fast at first. I have a set of Mutoh digital calipers which run about $180, but you don’t need anything that accurate. You’re going to be dealing with nothing finer than a thou of an inch and even that’s pushing it. A $12 pair like these are more than adequate, in fact this $9 cheap plastic pair are even better as the sharp points on the jaws of the better calipers will rip the crap out of the surface of the page of a book or the emulsion of an enlargement. They’re a lot safer to use when you’re scaling off a computer screen as well! They all have the ability to be set for decimal inches or metric.

IMG_7157The nomen in this photo is a Keson Pocket Rod, a retractable builder’s survey pole, ( don’t know if it comes in a metric version) if you don’t have one, get one right now. You’ll wonder how you got by without it. With a graduated scale in the photo it’s easy to find a correct scale. Turn the calipers on, squeeze the jaws together and zero out the reading. then you just set the jaws between a one foot increment and record the reading.

IMG_7158In this example 1 foot equals 2.665 inches. Divide this number by 12 and you come up with .222 inches equaling 1″ in the photo. Record these numbers for reference at the top of the photo. Remember that this equivalent will only be accurate over the whole area of the photo if you have been careful to make sure your camera was perpendicular to your subject matter.



I could go into allowing for foreshortening and lens distortion calculations but that would take an entire chapter of a book.





IMG_7161There are other options to the survey pole or tape measure. Richard Mays introduced me to graduated adhesive tape on a movie several years ago and it’s a great tool. You can put several pieces within the frame and you’ll quickly see if you have  foreshortening issues. Art Director Jim Wallis has provided a manufacturer and source for ordering some for your kit. Or this one, Or this source for both imperial and metric with story pole writing space.

Photo Scaling With Sketchup

I know there are a number of ways to scale from photos digitally but if you pla
n to do any 3D modeling with them, Sketchup is a good place to start.Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 4.36.35 PM

In Sketchup you’ll create a horizontal face and import your photo using file/import. Be sure to import the image as a texture. Stretch the image to fill the face and click. The image will tile itself over the face, so just trim  the excess repeated images.


Create a Group and double-click to open it for editing. This is an especially important stepScreen Shot 2015-04-09 at 4.38.50 PM if you already have other object or images in your model file. With the Pencil tool you’ll draw a line along your nomen marking out a specific distance, in this case 12″. the longer the line the more accurate your scaling will be.



With the ruler tool, measure this line from one end to the other. Ignore what it tells you theScreen Shot 2015-04-09 at 4.38.50 PM length is. Type the length you want it to be which will appear in the Value Control Box in the lower right corner of the window. When you hit return , a box will appear asking you if you want to resize the object. Click ‘Yes’ and the object will shrink/grow to the correct size and your photo image will now be at full size scale.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 4.39.50 PM






Now you can trace any area you like and the tape tool will give you a correct length, Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 4.42.54 PMproviding you are measuring in the same focal plane as the nomen. Obviously if you are measuring something in the foreground or background the measurement will be off, which is why you need lots of survey photos  if your subject is complicated,



–  R.D. Wilkins


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Superdome To Be Converted To World’s Largest Soundstage

Superdome-world's biggest stage_rdwilkins

With film production reaching ever larger numbers in Louisiana, adequate stage space has been a constant complaint from film companies looking to shoot in New Orleans. Now that the New Orleans Saints have moved to their new state-of-the-art sports facility in Metarie, the Superdome’s future looked dim.

The city has announced today that the facility will be remodeled as a soundstage and will by 2017 be reopened as the largest film production stage in the world.

Plans call for up to 12 films to be able to be shot simultaneously with new sliding curtain walls to divide the space as required. As a single stage, the dome will be large enough to conduct aerial dogfights inside. The film Apollo 11 is scheduled to be the first production shot here as the new floor will now retract to expose a deep tank for a 800 foot floor-to-perms height which will allow the rocket launch footage to be shot without worrying about bad weather.

Ernest Fuertmann, the projects manager, has announced that filmmakers can certainly take advantage of the bad weather when they need it as the dome’s roof will be configured to open for full sky exposure. The dome will also have the ability to become a giant water tank and will be completely filled with water for the 2018 remake of Red October.

During the news conference, Fuertmann said future plans include numerous subterranean levels which will house blocks of 3-story facades of every major city in Europe.