The Green Screen concept was first used for “Ben Hur,” back in 1959, and won Petro Vlahos an Oscar for “Mary Poppins,” five years later.
The man who introduced blue and green-screen technology to Hollywood is dead. Petro Vlahos pioneered the concept, which lets directors superimpose live action over a pre-recorded background, over five decades ago. “All visual effects professionals and movie fans owe him a debt of gratitude,” said Everett Burrell, senior visual effects supervisor at Look Effects. “It’s hard to even conceive of how we would do what we do without the amazing number of processes and techniques he pioneered.”
Although the technology was not new when Vlahos started to use it, (It had been seen before in The Thief of Baghdad and The Ten Commandments) his firm, Ultimatte, made the process much more realistic. Vlahos, who was 96 when he died, was awarded many patents for the techniques he invented in his laboratory, including the one which won him an Oscar, teaming up live action with cartoons on Mary Poppins.
His death was announced by Ultimatte, the company that he and his son, Paul, founded in 1976.
The technology Mr. Vlahos perfected, earning him Oscar and Emmy awards, creates the illusion that actors or settings filmed separately are in the same place. It has made it possible for young actors to play their own twins and share scenes with them; for princesses in galaxies far, far away to send hologram messages, and for nonexistent, distant worlds and their wildlife to appear real in convincing detail.
“His inventions made a whole genre of film possible — a genre that seems to make more money than any other”, said Bill Taylor, the Oscar-winning visual-effects supervisor, speaking at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences event the day before Mr. Vlahos died. “He created the whole of composite photography as we know it.”
In an interview with the BBC, Robin Shenfield, president of the Mill, a British visual-effects studio, summarized Mr. Vlahos’s contribution and talent as “that fundamental ability to take lots of elements from lots of places and seamlessly mesh them,” creating “a new convincing reality.”
Mr. Vlahos did not come up with the original idea for the film industry’s blue-screen method; it had been used in Hollywood as early as “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940). But, he refined it and developed a way to minimize the unfortunate side effects of earlier methods, like the strange, unwanted glow that might surround objects. Glassware, cigarette smoke and hair blowing in the wind had been particular problems.
Mr. Vlahos’s breakthrough was a complex laboratory process that separated blues, greens and reds before recombining them. He called it “the color difference traveling matte scheme.” Whether filmmakers choose to use a blue screen or a green one is sometimes a simple matter of choosing the color that no actor in the scene is wearing.
An early use of the technology was in the 1959 film “Ben-Hur,” a multiple Oscar winner perhaps best known now for its chariot-race scene, which could not have been done so vividly and convincingly without Mr. Vlahos’s contributions. It was his method as well in “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie in which Tippi Hedren is almost pecked to death by the angry title characters.
His technology was also used in the first “Star Wars” trilogy, in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy,” in Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” and in the science-fiction series “Doctor Who.”
But a complete list of his handiwork would be almost impossible to compile. Mr. Vlahos held at least 35 movie-related patents, and as they expired, others in the industry put his discoveries to their own uses. As The Hollywood Reporter wrote last week, “every green or blue-screen shot today employs variants of the Vlahos technique.”
Petro Vlahos was born on Aug. 20, 1916, in Raton, N.M., a small town near the Colorado border. He received an engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1941 and worked for the Douglas Aircraft Company and Bell Laboratories before joining the Motion Picture Research Council after World War II, having been recommended by a contact at MGM.
In addition to his son, Mr. Vlahos’ survivors include his wife, Virginia, a daughter, Jennie Vlahos Gadwa, a stepson, James Bentley and a stepdaughter, Sandra Bentley King.
Mr. Vlahos received a special Emmy Award in 1978 for the Ultimatte video-matting device and five special Academy Awards: in 1961, 1965, 1993, 1994 and 1995. Sometimes those were shared with colleagues. (He shared the 1995 award with his son.)
Later in life he was outspoken about his belief that he had gotten less than his fair share of the credit for his special-effects work, particularly regarding the 1965 prize. That Oscar, for “the conception and perfection of techniques for color traveling matte composite cinematography,” also went to Ub Iwerks and Wadsworth E. Pohl.
“All three of us got the same Oscar,” Mr. Vlahos said in a 2009 video interview with Jeff Foster, author of “The Green Screen Handbook,” “although they didn’t invent anything.”
“Today I would have handled it differently,” Mr. Vlahos said. “You get older. You get tougher.”