The cinematography in 1927 film ‘Wings’ puts 2015’s to shame

'I saw a couple of bodies fly up in the air, and they weren’t dummies.'

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While there are still plenty of directors and DPs creating stunning cinematography using practical effects, the word is increasingly used to praise films awash with CGI-laden vistas.

Back in the 1920s however, directors like William A. Wellman and Howard Hughes were creating scenes that can still take your breath away to this day, and required a lot more danger and patience than clicking away at an iMac.

Wings, the first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1927, was a silent war film acclaimed for its technical prowess, with decadent scenes like this that aesthetically rival Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby:

It was its dogfights that were most spectacular however. Cameras were mounted to the front and backs of planes' fuselages, with actors actually flying the aircraft as they were filmed.

The scenes were so dangerous, that in Hell’s Angels (1930) several pilots died after crashing their planes trying to achieve the shots fearsome auteur Hughes demanded.

The intensity of such shoots can be felt in this shot from Wings:

It wasn’t just pilots that risked their lives for the film however, it was pretty dicey being an extra too:

Real explosions were used for the movie, as seen in this bombing shot:

For ground explosions, Welman directed from a 100-foot platform holding a board with 18 buttons - each attached to an explosive charge that was to go off at a certain point during filming.

“I had a board that I pressed buttons on so I keep the barrage ahead of the troops,” Welman recalled. 

Buttons one through 12 were pressed on cue, but then someone interrupted him.

"Someone came up and spoke to me in the middle of the thing and I pushed the wrong button and saw a couple of bodies fly up in the air, and they weren’t dummies.

"I turned and I said ‘you son of a bitch get off this thing whoever you are or I’ll kill you.'"

The director managed to hit button 18 on time however, and his 5-minute sequence was completed as hoped.


More info on the shoot here