Gillespie, Arnold

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Special Effects Technician and Art Director. Nationality: American. Born: A. Arnold Gillespie in El Paso, Texas, 14 October 1899. Education: Attended Columbia University, New York; Art Students League, New York. Career: 1922–24—assistant art director at Paramount; 1924–36—art director, MGM; 1936–65—head of MGM's special effects department, working on some 600 films. Awards: Academy Award for Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, 1944; Green Dolphin Street, 1947; Plymouth Adventure, 1952; Ben-Hur 1959; Technical Award, 1963. Died: 3 May 1978.

Films as Art Director (selected list):


Manslaughter (De Mille) (asst)


Adam's Rib (De Mille) (asst)


Ben-Hur (Niblo); The Black Bird (Browning); Brown of Harvard (Conway); Lovey Mary (Baggot); The Road to Mandalay (Browning); Upstage (Bell); There You Are! (Sedgwick); Valencia (Buchowetzki); Tell It to the Marines (Hill); La Bohème (K. Vidor)


Altars of Desire (Cabanne); Women Love Diamonds (Goulding); The Demi-Bride (Leonard); Heaven on Earth (Rosen); Body and Soul (Barker); The Fair Co-Ed (Wood); London after Midnight (Browning); Buttons (Hill)


The Latest from Paris (Wood); The Divine Woman (Sjöström); The Crowd (Hill); Tarzan the Ape Man (Van Dyke)


Turn Back the Clock (Selwyn); Tarzan and His Mate (Gibbons); Operator 13 (Boleslawsky); Laughing Boy (Van Dyke); The Girl from Missouri (Conway); Eskimo (Van Dyke)


Fugitive Lovers (Boleslawsky)


Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd); The Last of the Pagans (Thorpe); Exclusive Story (Seitz); Small Town Girl (Wellman); Speed (Marin)

Films as Special Effects Technician (selected list):


San Francisco (Van Dyke)


The Good Earth (Franklin); Captains Courageous (Fleming)


Test Pilot (Fleming)


The Wizard of Oz (Fleming)


Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy); Boom Town (Conway); Comrade X (K. Vidor)


Flight Command (Borzage)


Mrs. Miniver (Wyler)


Bataan (Garnett); The Heavenly Body (Hall)


Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (LeRoy); The White Cliffs of Dover (Brown)


The Clock (Minnelli); Yolanda and the Thief (Minnelli); Valley of Decision (Garnett)


The Green Years (Saville)


Green Dolphin Street (Saville); The Beginning of the End (Taurog)


Command Decision (Wood)


The Secret Garden (Wilcox)


Quo Vadis? (LeRoy)


Plymouth Adventure (Brown)


Green Fire (Marton); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Donen)


Forbidden Planet (Wilcox)


Torpedo Run (Pevney)


Ben-Hur (Wyler); North by Northwest (Hitchcock)


Cimarron (A. Mann)


Atlantis, the Lost Continent (Pal)


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Minnelli); The Horizontal Lieutenant (Thorpe); Jumbo (Billy Rose's Jumbo) (Walters); Mutiny on the Bounty (Reed and Milestone)


How the West Was Won (Ford, Hathaway, and Marshall); The Prize (Robson); A Ticklish Affair (Sidney)


The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Walters)


The Greatest Story Ever Told (Stevens)


By GILLESPIE: articles—

In Hollywood Speaks! An Oral History, by Mike Steen, New York, 1974.

The Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Spring 1978.

Film Comment (New York), May-June 1978.

* * *

The complete filmography of Arnold Gillespie is one of the largest in Hollywood, reaching nearly 600 films and almost evenly divided between art direction and special visual effects. He worked on both versions of Ben-Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty, created the visceral quality of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in San Francisco, the alien beauty of Forbidden Planet, and the maleficent nightmare of The Wizard of Oz. Gillespie's work in The Wizard of Oz demonstrated the imagination, ingenuity, and patience that became his trademark. To produce the witch's skywriting of "surrender Dorothy," he used a mixture of sheep dip and nigrosine dye released through a stylus into milk in a glass tank. The attack of the flying monkeys required the hanging of 2,200 piano wires from the sound stage's ceiling.

When Gillespie began special effects work for MGM, the studio was an efficient organization, all facets of production departmentalized. He was head of the Special Effects Department under the titular guidance of Cedric Gibbons' Art Department and in charge of the crews who worked with miniatures, rear-screen projection, and full-scale mechanical effects. The other aspects of visual effects fell under two other main departments; the Optical Department (matte paintings and optical printing) and the Animation Department. Gillespie seemed particularly intrigued with miniatures (Circus Maximus in the original Ben-Hur, the sea battle in the 1959 remake, the tank chase in Comrade X, the ships in Torpedo Run, and the raft sequence in How the West Was Won) and full-scale mechanicals (Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet and the four Bountys used for the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty). But his forte lay in designing solutions for odd effects never before photographed. As in the skywriting effect described above, he usually employed liquids in a glass tank. To create the plague of locusts in The Good Earth, Gillespie dumped coffee grounds into a water tank, filmed their dispersal upside-down, and then superimposed the image with shots of the crops. For the atomic explosion in The Beginning of the End, he visualized a mushroom cloud before photographs and information were declassified by the government. By releasing blood bags under water and superimposing the image with a background shot, Gillespie manufactured an effect so believable and accurate that government officials thought he had access to secret materials. The footage was later used by the United States Air Corps in their instructional films.

Gillespie had the talent and a studio system to make the remarkable, the unexperienced, the fantastic, and the cataclysmic very believable and authentic. As he described his profession in a FilmComment interview, "The whole physical end of movies, in my opinion, was so interesting because whether the picture was modern, whether it was in the future, whether it was a dream world like The Wizard of Oz or in Outer Space like Forbidden Planet, it was illusion made real."

—Greg S. Faller

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Gillespie, Arnold

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