Haskin, Byron

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Cinematographer, Director, and Special Effects Photographer. Nationality: American. Born: Portland, Oregon, 22 April 1899. Education: Attended University of California at Berkeley. Career: Worked in advertising, and as cartoonist for the San Francisco News; 1919—assistant cameraman to Louis J. Selznick; 1927–32—worked in Britain; 1932—returned to the States, joined Warners as special effects photographer; 1937–45—head of special effects department at Warners; television work (as director) includes Meet McGraw. Awards: Academy Technical Award. Died: In California, 16 April 1984.

Films as Cinematographer:


Hurricane's Pal (Holubar) (co); The World's a Stage (Campbell) (co); Broken Chains (Holubar)


Slander the Woman (Holubar)


On Thin Ice (St. Clair); Bobbed Hair (Crosland)


The Sea Beast (Webb); The Golden Cocoon (Webb); His Majesty, Bunker Bean (Beaumont); Where the Worst Begins (McDermott)


Don Juan (Crosland); Across the Pacific (Del Ruth); Millionaires (Raymaker); When a Man Loves (Crosland)


Wolf's Clothing (Del Ruth)


Caught in the Fog (Bretherton); On Trial (Mayo); The Singing Fool (Bacon)


The Redeeming Sin (Bretherton); The Madonna of Avenue A (Curtiz); The Glad Rag Doll (Curtiz)


Deadline (Hillyer)


The Guilty Generation(Lee)


As the Earth Turns (Green)


Side Streets (Woman in Her Thirties); Black Fury (Curtiz); Personal Maid's Secret (Collins)


Colleen (Green); I Married a Doctor (Mayo); Stage Struck (Berkeley); Green Light (Borzage)

Films as Special Effects Photographer:


20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Curtiz)


A Midsummer's Nights Dream (Reinhardt and Dieterle)


The Perfect Specimen (Curtiz); Submarine D-1 (Bacon) (co)


Dodge City (Curtiz) (co); Dust Be My Destiny (Seiler); The Roaring Twenties (Walsh) (co); The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Curtiz) (co); We Are Not Alone (Goulding) (co); Invisible Stripes (Bacon)


The Fighting 69th (Keighley) (co); Brother Orchid (Bacon) (co); Castle on the Hudson (Years without Days) (Litvak) (co); It All Came True (Seiler) (co); 'Till We Meet Again (Goulding); Torrid Zone (Keighley) (co); Flight Angels (Seiler); All This and Heaven Too (Litvak) (co); They Drive by Night (The Road to Frisco) (Walsh) (co); City for Conquest (Litvak) (co); The Sea Hawk (Curtiz) (co); Santa Fe Trail (Curtiz) (co); Knute Rockne—All American (A Modern Hero); Virginia City (Curtiz)


High Sierra (Walsh); Dive Bomber (Curtiz) (co); Manpower (Walsh) (co); The Sea Wolf (Curtiz) (co); The Wagons Roll at Night (Enright) (co); The Bride Came C.O.D. (Keighley) (co)


Captains of the Clouds(Curtiz) (co); In This Our Life (Huston) (co); Wings for the Eagle (Bacon) (co); Across the Pacific (Huston) (co)


Truck Busters (Eason); Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra) (co); Mission to Moscow (Curtiz); Action in the North Atlantic (Bacon)


Air Force (Hawks)

Films as Director:


Matinee Ladies; Irish Hearts; Ginsberg the Great (The Broadway Kid); The Siren


I Walk Alone


Man Eater of Kumaon


Too Late for Tears


Treasure Island; Warpath


Tarzan and the Jungle Queen (Tarzan's Peril); Silver City (High Vermilion)


War of the Worlds


His Majesty O'Keefe; The Naked Jungle


Long John Silver; Sword of Vengeance (—for TV); Ship o' the Doom (—for TV); Conquest of Space


The Boss; The First Texan


From the Earth to the Moon


Jet Over the Atlantic; The Little Savage


September Storm


Armored Command


Captain Sinbad


Robinson Crusoe on Mars


The Power


By HASKIN: book—

Byron Haskin: Interviewed by Joe Adamson, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984, 1997.

By HASKIN: article—

Cinema Papers (Melbourne), no. 5, March-April 1975.

On HASKIN: articles—

Obituary in Variety (New York), 25 April 1984.

Obituary in Hollywood Reporter, vol. 281, no. 33, 23 April 1984.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 65, no. 6, June 1984.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 65, no. 10, October 1984.

Cineforum (Bergamo), vol. 31, no. 304, May 1991.

Nosferatu (San Sebastian), February 1994.

Reid's Film Index (Wyong, New South Wales), no. 24, 1996.

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Although probably best known as the director of War of the Worlds, Byron Haskin made his greatest contributions to cinema as head of the special effects department at Warner Bros. from 1937 to 1945. He had joined Warners in 1932 as a special effects process photographer after a varied early career which included a stint as a newsreel cameraman for Pathé, and working as an assistant cameraman for Louis J. Selznick; he then progressed through the Metro and Goldwyn studios to become a leading cameraman at Warners, where John Barrymore requested him to work on films such as Don Juan, The Sea Beast, and When a Man Loves. He made his directorial debut in 1927 with the comedy drama Matinee Ladies, and shortly thereafter left for London to work for Herbert Wilcox as a production executive; in particular Wilcox wanted his help in introducing multiple-camera sound. Haskin found himself working on unlikely material such as adaptations of Aldwych farces and his recollections of the period suggest that he found English filmmaking methods almost impossibly crude and backward. Not surprisingly, he returned to the United States and to Warners in 1932.

Prior to his 1937 appointment Haskin worked on the special effects for Curtiz's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and the Reinhardt/Dieterle A Midsummer Night's Dream. As department head he supervised the special effects for virtually every Warner Bros. production for eight years, winning one technical Oscar and several nominations along the way. He worked on numerous films with Michael Curtiz, including Dodge City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Virginia City, The Sea Hawk, The Sea Wolf, and Mission to Moscow (in which he blended miniature trains, full-scale people, and glass shots in order to recreate Hamburg station), and also contributed to several films by Raoul Walsh, such as The Roaring Twenties, They Drive by Night, High Sierra, and Manpower. Other notable directors with whom he worked were Edmund Goulding (We Are Not Alone, 'Till We Meet Again), John Huston (In This Our Life, Across the Pacific), and Frank Capra (Arsenic and Old Lace). Ever the innovator, Haskin invented and built a triple background projector which enabled him to film against anything up to a 5.4m screen (as opposed to the usual 1.82m one); meanwhile in Hawks's Air Force and Lloyd Bacon's Action in the North Atlantic he moved up from the conventional miniatures built on a scale of 1/4 inch to a foot to a one inch scale, abandoning the studio tank and shooting instead in Santa Barbara harbor.

In 1945 Hal Wallis, who had been in charge of production since the early thirties at Warners, left to set up in independent production and Haskin went with him as his production assistant. In 1947 Haskin returned to directing after a 20-year gap with I Walk Alone, an atmospheric and moody thriller starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Wendell Cory. It would be impossible (and unnecessary) to seek out common themes in the films directed by Haskin over the next 20 years, given that he is much more a "metteur en scène" than a fully blown "auteur." However, without stretching a point, it is certainly possible to discern a markedly pictorial visual sense and a certain taste for the exotic—witness Man Eater of Kumaon, Tarzan and the Jungle Queen, Treasure Island, Long John Silver, His Majesty O'Keefe, September Storm (which tried to marry CinemaScope and 3-D), Captain Sinbad, and, of course, the famous The Naked Jungle, in which Charlton Heston's plantation is destroyed by soldier ants before eventually being wiped out in an apocalyptic flood.

This taste for the bizarre and the out-of-the-ordinary finds its fullest expression in Haskin's science-fiction films. In War of the Worlds (one of several very successful collaborations with George Pal) he consciously borrowed from Orson Welles's adaptation and transposed the story to a modern American setting in order to make it more frightening to a contemporary American audience. As he put it, the original is set "in the 1890s, out in the country, with vicars and old British gardener characters. The threat to humanity is an antiquated machine looking like a water tank tottering around the coutry on creaky legs, blowing whiffs of smoke and frightening a cast directly out of Agatha Christie." Unfortunately Haskin's latterday Americans are themselves barely credible, but nonetheless the film does conjure the sense of a terrifying and all-pervasive threat to normal daily life, and for the scenes of mass destruction Haskin drew quite consciously on his childhood memories of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Conquest of Space contains a curiously Oedipal subtext, while Robinson Crusoe on Mars remains one of the finest versions of this particular myth, the only problem being the silly title (Haskin wanted to call it GPI Mars, GPI standing for "Gravity Pull One.") The film, the director's personal favourite, was shot on the upper slopes of Death Valley with the skies matted in an orange-red colour, and engenders a convincing feeling of loneliness and isolation in a dead and inhospitable landscape. Conquest of Space has some impressive special effects but overall it is not a patch on The Power, Haskin's last feature film and one of his very best works which has a disturbing ability to communicate "the terror of a man who, step by inevitable step, has his own identity ripped from under him until finally he begins to doubt who the hell he is." Like Hitchcock or Lang, Haskin succeeds in creating here a wholly malign environment where everything mysteriously conspires to threaten the central character. As an evocation of imminent danger and sanity-shattering anomie The Power takes some beating and the overall effect is greatly enhanced by Miklos Rozsa's marvellous score which makes most atmospheric use of the cymbalon.

Some of Haskin's finest work in the science-fiction genre is to be found in his contributions to the TV series The Outer Limits. He directed six episodes in all, one of which, the Harlan Ellison-scripted Demon with a Glass Hand, is one of the high points of the whole series, although the other five are all noteworthy. He was also uncredited associate producer in charge of special effects for the series, and worked as an adviser on the pilot episode of Star Trek.

Byron Haskin's contribution to the cinema is probably best summed up by the obituary which appeared in L'Ecran Fantastique which stated that "he was not an auteur but a brilliant illustrator with the skills of a peerless technician, one of those self made men who have lifted the American cinema to an incomparable peak of technical achievement which has enabled it to take on subjects which would seem at first sight unrealisable."

—Julian Petley