This is how Disney’s ‘Mary Poppins’ stands out in the history of filmmaking!

Disney’s Mary Poppins is an American musical classic which was released in the year 1964, directed by Robert Stevenson. This movie won Oscar awards for 5 categories including ‘Best Visual Effects’. It was also nominated for ‘Best Film’ by The Academy.

In 1964, computers were in their infancy stage(not literally). The maximum storage capacity at that time was around 400 MB. Personal storage was limited to only 1 MB. Also the computer processing power was not that great because ‘Integrated Circuits’ were still in development at that time. Graphics and polygon rendering were new terms at that time. Computers were only used for calculations and were not highly used in filmmaking. But hey, you mentioned that the movie won ‘Best Visual Effects’ Academy Award in 1965, so how does it make sense?

Well, they did Visual Effects for this movie without using Computer Generated Imagery a.k.a CGI. What?

How did they make it possible?

A still from Disney’s ‘Mary Poppins’. Source:- Disney

Apart from the actors and some props, whole background in this scene above is virtual i.e. it was added afterwards. Disney hired an engineer named ‘Petro Vlahos’ for the work of visual effects in this movie. He did something different and unique in the history of visual effects and filmmaking.

First of all let us see what other artists were doing to achieve special effects. Generally, at that time Blue Screen was used in the background so that afterwards they could isolate the actors from the background by simply eliminating the blue colour of the Blue Screen and then combining it with a pre-shot footage with matte painting in the background which is also known as a ‘Clean Plate’. This technique is widely known today as ‘Chroma Key’. But this technique has it’s own limitations. If you want to know more about the limitations of Blue Screen, check it out here.

Source:- Disney

As you can see, in this scene of Mary Poppins, the actor is wearing a ‘blue-colored’ bow tie and blue colored socks. If blue screen was used in this particular scene, his bow tie would have disappeared from the scene as it was of the same color as that of a blue screen. So which technique was used?

Here comes the answer. They used a white background instead of a blue screen but that white background was lit by sodium vapor lights. The wavelength of the yellow light was 589 nanometers. This particular wavelength of yellow light is emitted by sodium gas.

Thenafter, they isolated the specific wavelength of 589 nanometers from rest of the wavelengths using a unique camera. In that camera there was a unique prism which was particularly built by Vlahos. The prism actually isolated the specific yellow color wavelength from remaining wavelengths, giving them a perfect and crisp silhouette. It was way more accurate than using a blue screen because there is a range of wavelengths that a blue screen emits, but in this case there was one and only one specific wavelength of yellow light which resulted into much more accuracy. Then they replaced the yellow hue with a specific matte painted background.

This technique is different from blue screen technique in many ways:

  • One specific wavelength to deal with, instead of a range of wavelengths of blue screen.
  • This is a completely in-camera process as the prism is involved in it.
  • It provides much better accuracy and transparency.

So why is this technology not used today?

Here comes the most ‘Interesting part’!

The prism which was used for this technique was ‘NEVER REPLICATED’! Vlahos was not able to create another prism which was used to isolate that specific wavelength. There was just one single prism which could do that! A gem! Haha.

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