Friday, July 15, 2016

Camouflaged Hollywood Special Effects WWI

Above In accounts of World War I US Army camouflage, most credit is given to artists, usually painters and sculptors. But in fact, recruits who served as camoufleurs came from a wide range of career backgrounds, with calls for volunteers among architects, house painters, sign painters, carpenters and theatrical set designers. As these photos confirm, even Hollywood film set designers contributed to the development of duplicitous battlefield special effects. (This is not a genuine functioning cannon—it's a dummy theatre prop. The firing of the gun is simulated, and the buildings are scenery settings.) National Archives and Records Administration (c1918).


C.C. Lyon, PERSHING NEEDS ARTISTS TO MAKE SOLDIERS LOOK LIKE TREES AND ROCKS in Waterloo Times-Tribune (Waterloo IA), June 13, 1918, p, 6—

The "Camouflage" section of our army has been developed until it is now a most important adjunct.

We need men who can create costumes that will make soldiers look like straw stacks; snipers look like old tree trunks; and railroad trains like babbling books.

…The other day I met a famous American sculptor dressed in the uniform of an American private.

"I've joined the camouflage section," he laughed. "…it was about time I turned my talents to the good of my country.

I put in my days making odd things that will fool the Germans. The easiest things to make with clay and plaster are huge shells that, when properly painted and treated with substances resembling moss, will look like old rocks embedded in the hillsides. Our snipers can get inside and spot German heads when they show over the tops of their trenches."…

"The other day," he said, "another sculptor in the camouflage section completed a figure of a soldier and dressed it in an American uniform. At the front, the figure was used to draw the enemy's fire and thereby locate the positions of his snipers.

"He laid the figure in a dark corner of our workshop, and it looked like one of our camouflagers had sneaked off to take a little nap.

"Pretty soon the captain came along and discovered this soldier snoozing in the corner. He shook him none too gently. 'Get out of here and get to work; what do you think this is, a hotel?' he bellowed.

"When the sleeper refused to move, the captain took him my the collar and assisted him to his feet—and looked him squarely in the eye.

"Then he laid him gently down again and looked around to see if anybody had witnessed the performance."…

[These camoufleurs] are adept in figuring out costumes that will fool the Germans.

With them, hay, straw, grass, moss and mud are much used materials. They're able to make a covering for a sniper that will make him look like a pile of muddy rocks along the roadside. And it's a good idea for all concerned—allied as well as the Germans—to carefully examine hay and straw stacks, wheat shocks and even wood piles, because in the world of camouflage nothing is what it seems to be.

I saw an ordinary looking woodpile one day last winter, and lamented the fact that so much valuable fuel should be going to waste with the thermometer below zero. On closer inspection it proved to be a bullet-proof barricade behind which allied machine gunners could command a very important road.


There is more information on the contribution to wartime camouflage of theatrical designers in an earlier post.