THE DEVIL’S INFLUENCE: Linwood G. Dunn and The Exorcist

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Date: 
Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - 10:30

Special effects pioneer Linwood G. Dunn was drawn to the moving image from an early age, as is evident from the meticulous list he compiled at age 14 while growing up in New York City (below). Frequenting a variety of theaters, he took in everything from offbeat Westerns such as Branding Broadway (1918) to comedies such as String Beans (1918) and classics such as Little Women (1919). Rating them from fair to great, only The Greatest Thing in Life (1918) starring Lillian Gish received a rating of “great” with an exclamation point.

By 1923, he was showing films as a projectionist before moving on to serve as an assistant cameraman for his uncle, director Spencer Gordon Bennet, on Pathé serials. Dunn’s work on King Kong (1933), Citizen Kane (1941) and The Thing from Another World (1951) were notable efforts in his special effects career. In 1946, he founded Film Effects of Hollywood, which provided special effects and laboratory work for West Side Story (1961), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and numerous other films.

In 1972, Linwood Dunn was hired as a special effects consultant on The Exorcist (1973). Neither Dunn nor his company received credit, but extensive correspondence and production material in the Linwood G. Dunn papers in Margaret Herrick Library Special Collections document his work on the film. A letter from Dunn to Frank McGeary, an executive with Motion Picture Laboratories in Memphis, shows that Dunn was involved early on in the production and eager to work again with director William Friedkin, who had recently earned an Academy Award for The French Connection (1971).



Below are Dunn’s handwritten notes for the facial effects for Linda Blair’s character, Regan, in the scenes in which her face transforms into Burke Dennings, Father Karras’s mother and the demon.

 



Although today’s special and visual effects are often associated with post-production work involving computer-generated imagery (CGI), Dunn makes clear in this memo to Friedkin that optimal results will be achieved through planning ahead and preliminary testing during pre-production and production, in order to determine the best optical devices for the facial changes.



Dunn was also heavily involved in the optical effects for the scenes of Regan acting “possessed” in her bedroom, which included facial contortions, muscle spasms and vomiting. The breakdown of special effects in a memo dated November 22, 1972, highlights memorable sequences such as the transformation from demon to derelict, the shaking of the bed and Regan’s levitation. 

Further correspondence also notes the decision to have Regan’s face change to red rather than blue to better reflect “the devil’s influence.” Dunn’s innovative work helped make The Exorcist one of the most terrifying films ever produced.

The Academy recognized Linwood Dunn’s exceptional achievements over the course of his career with a number of Scientific and Technical Awards. He received his first award in 1944 for the invention of the Acme-Dunn Optical Printer, and other accolades included a Medal of Commendation in 1978 and the Gordon E. Sawyer Award in 1984.

The 2014 Scientific and Technical Awards will be presented on February 7, 2015.