Studio is best known for animation. What a lot of Disney
fans might not know is that the studio, especially
during Walt's day, was one of the premiere visual
effects houses in the film industry.
"Mary Poppins" rightly receives a lot of praise for its ingenious blend of animation, live action and visual effects. Before Mary flew onto movie screens in 1964, the Disney studio produced a charming visual effects spectacular that has audiences stumped on "how'd they do that?" today. "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" was released in 1959 and though it wasn't a tremendously successful film for the studio, it has many admirers.
A rare screening of "Darby" was held at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, CA on October 26, 2008. The Art Director's Guild sponsored the event which was moderated by production designer John Muto. Visual effects supervisors Harrison Ellenshaw ("TRON") and Mike Fink ("The Golden Compass") were invited to share their memories and expertise on "Darby."
Ellenshaw's father, Peter, was the visual effects supervisor on the film. Peter had already made his talent known on many of Disney's live action films including "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954). Harrison was quick to point out that his father was a man of many talents. He's perhaps best known for his extraordinary matte painting. But the elder Ellenshaw was also very talented in visual effects magic.
Harrison mentioned that moviemakers in that era could be talented in numerous fields. To paraphrase, "Today a director walks on the set and doesn't know about cameras, lenses or how to work with a visual effects team. When my father worked at the Disney Studio, many of the artists didn't just paint. They could shoot photographs. They knew how film emulsions were affected by light and lenses. They knew how to compose and stage a scene. Today, a director says he wants a spectacular visual effects. He says this without knowing how that's going to cause the visual effects department many expensive headaches!"
Almost anything is possible to do in visual effects today. Both Ellenshaw and Fink emphasized, however, that digital visual effects can be done with too much detail. Visual effects, if not used in service of the story, can overwhelm a movie. They also noted that some of the most elaborate looking effects in movies made prior to the digital revolution were actually simple in concept. Sometimes simpler is better and more effective on how audiences respond to visual effects.
"Darby" is a film that's old fashioned in its honesty and charm. This film is perhaps overlooked by Disney fans, but it's a shame if it is. I had seen bits and pieces of the film, but never in its entirety. My loss, because this is one of Walt Disney's best. Seeing it on the big screen with an audience showed how charming this film was.
Veteran actor Albert Steele plays Darby O'Gill, an old man who tells what are seemingly tall tales to the townsfolk. He tells them stories of leprechauns and their gold. One night, he follows his horse to the castle ruins and falls into the leprechaun's kingdom underground. This sets up a scene filled with visual effects that still fools the eye. This is an amazing scene that incorporates a number of visual effects, including trick photography, miniatures, gigantic props and matte shots. What I find so fascinating about Disney's magic here is that I believed that O'Gill mingled with leprechauns!
The movie might not be everyone's cup-of-tea today. It's old-fashioned in style, yet once you get past the first 15-minutes or so, it's quite charming. Most of the cast is very good. It was a little difficult getting past seeing a young Sean Connery as someone other than James Bond. One almost expects Connery, who sings in the movie, to break out one of his top secret gadgets to thwart Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore)!
If you've never seen "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," buy the DVD. Before you know it, you're entranced by the innocence of the story, and those amazing visual effects by Peter Ellenshaw and Eustace Lycett. If expert visual effects supervisors like Harrison Ellenshaw and Mike Fink can't quite figure out some of the effects magic in "Darby," then audiences of today will be even more stumped. Or to say it another way, just sit back and enjoy the movie. Never mind how they did it!
Special thanks to Harrison Ellenshaw, Mike Fink, Mike Ellenshaw and the American Cinematheque
Photos: © William Kallay. All rights reserved.
Photos of "Darby O'Gill and the Little People:" © Disney. All rights reserved.