Monday, January 18, 2016

Eustace Lycett - Special Effects Artist

Eustace Lycett is another one of those names that all Disney fans will recognize in a flash. His name has appeared on the credits, preceded with "Special Effects By", in over 44 different films released by the Walt Disney Studios. 

Lycett once described the era of pre-computer special effects in this manner: "A special effect in a motion picture is any technique or device that is used to create an illusion of reality in a situation where it is not possible, economical, or safe to use the real thing." 

What he neglected to state was that special effects artists are the magicians behind creating the illusions that bring that extra sparkle to the films we watch. Without this talented man's contributions many of the Disney films that we love would not have had that special "magic" that he brought to them. 

Lycett was born on December 21, 1914 in Staffordshire, England. His father, a mining engineer, regularly moved his family wherever he could find work. After spending years in Chile, they came to America where, as a young lad, Eustace attended Cal-Tech studying for, and receiving, a degree in mechanical engineering in 1937. 

Eustace found work at Walt Disney Studios just three days after his graduation. Under the wing of Ub Iwerks, a pioneer in animation and head of the studio's process laboratory, Eustace and other technicians worked together to develop a more advanced version of one of Iwerks' inventions - the multiplane camera. The improved camera was immediately put to use in Disney's first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 

Eustace worked in the background at the studio on many projects throughout the 1940s, eventually becoming head of the Special Processes Department at Disney in 1953. He helped work on special filming processes for Grand Canyon ( 1958 ), Disney's Oscar-nominated live-action short; Sleeping Beauty; and The Shaggy Dog ( 1959 ). One extremely good special effect - forced perspective - was employed in Darby O'Gill and the Little People ( 1959 ) to make King O'Brien, king of the leprechauns, appear to be only 1-2ft high. And who can forget the glowing-green banshee? These effects deserved an Academy Award, but Lycett was overlooked. However, the flying car effects he created for The Absent-Minded Professor ( 1961 ) earned him his first Oscar nomination. 

Lycett specialized in travelling mattes and optical reductions and also frequently employed the sodium vapor process, commonly known as the "yellowscreen". This photochemical film technique originated in England in the 1950s and the Walt Disney Studios used the method extensively in the 1960s and 1970s as an alternative to the common "bluescreen" process. When handled with care it can produce lovely results without the common glow around heads that the bluescreen process produced. 

A special sodium vapor camera had to be used in order to capture actors performing in front of the yellowscreen and Disney reportedly had only one such camera made. In this example from Mary Poppins ( 1965 ), Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews are performing the Jolly Holiday sequence in a soundstage in front of a yellowscreen. Eustace took this footage and re-exposed it onto the film of the moving background art ( created by Al Dempsey and Art Riley ) and created one fresh negative from these two sequences. 'Ave you ever seen the grass so green as it appeared in yellowscreen? 

Lycett's work on Mary Poppins earned him his first Academy Award ( shared with Peter Ellenshaw and Hamilton Luske ). The 1960s was a busy decade for the Disney special effects department and Lycett had a hand in practically all of the Disney live-action films released at this time: Moon Pilot ( 1962 ), Bon Voyage ( 1962 ), Summer Magic ( 1962 ), That Darn Cat! ( 1965 ), Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N ( 1966 ), and The Love Bug ( 1968 ) to name but a few. 

For The Gnome-Mobile ( 1967 ), he employed audio animatronics to make the forest animals speak and re-used the forced perspective technique, this time to make the dwarfs appear to be pint-sized. Audio animatronics were also used in The Happiest Millionaire ( 1967 ) for the alligator sequences. 

A highlight of Eustace's career was the marvelous marching knights-in-armor sequence that he helped create in Bedknobs and Broomsticks ( 1971 ). While Eglantine Price's maneuvers on her flying broomstick were enjoyable to watch, it was these marching soldiers at the finale that made the most memorable impression on theatre-goers. For this film he earned his second special effects Oscar. 

During the 1970s, Lycett worked on such films as Snowball Express ( 1972 ), Treasure of Matacumbe ( 1976 ), Freaky Friday ( 1976 ), Pete's Dragon ( 1977 ), Return from Witch Mountain ( 1978 ), and The Cat from Outer Space ( 1978 ). 

Eustace Lycett retired from the Walt Disney Studios in 1980. His last film, The Black Hole, earned him his last Academy Award nomination for special effects. Lycett's career was not limited to the silver screen...during the 1960s he helped create Rocket to the Moon, a major Disneyland attraction, and "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln", a human-animatronic. 

Lycett passed away in 2007 at the age of 91. A 43-year career in the field of movie magic gave us a plethora of great film scenes to marvel at, and we still ask "How did they do that?" when we see the special effects used in these Disney classics. 


  1. I greatly admire Mr. Lycett's work and enjoyed getting to know a little bit about him and put his wonderful career in perspective. Thank you.

    1. I enjoyed learning more about him too as I wrote this article. It's amazing how often we take these "names" on the credits for granted.

  2. I'm continually fascinated by behind-the-scenes movie making -- thanks for this illuminating post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Hamlette. We'll have many many more "Behind the Scenes" profiles written in the year to come.