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VFX Pioneer Petro Vlahos Dies at 96

Petro Vlahos, the visual effects pioneer who developed the blue-screen and green-screen process, died on February 10 in Los Angeles at the age of 89.

Petro Vlahos

Petro Vlahos

LOS ANGELES -- Petro Vlahos, the visual effects pioneer who developed the blue-screen and green-screen process that allowed Dick Van Dyke to dance with penguins in Mary Poppins, the blue-skinned Na’vi to live among floating mountains in Avatar, and TV weather reporters to point at sun and rain symbols that only their viewers can see, died on February 10 in Los Angeles, according to a report by The New York Times. He was 96.

His death was announced by Ultimatte, the company that he and his son, Paul, founded in 1976.

The technology that 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.”

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.

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.”

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 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.”

Petro Vlahos was born on August 20, 1916, in Raton, NM, 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, Vlahos’s survivors include his wife, Virginia; a daughter, Jennie Vlahos Gadwa; a stepson, James Bentley; and a stepdaughter, Sandra Bentley King.

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. 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.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.