How they created the tornado in the Wizard of Oz (video)

Speaking of tornados, with all the news focused on Oklahoma, a reader sent in a fascinating video, and story, about how the tornado was created  for the beginning of the Wizard of Oz.

There’s also a great original video of them testing the tornado, below.  It doesn’t have audio, but it’s still amazing how real-life it looks, especially now that everyone is familiar with tornado videos the past few days.

Here’s the test tornado versus the actual final movie.  Test tornado:

Wizard-of-Oz-tornado

And final clip of the movie:

dorothy-wizard-of-oz2

There’s also a great article from Tim Marshall about how the tornado was created, and what struck me was that it’s not dust and wind.  Or at least not most of it. The tornado is a thirty-five foot long muslin sock, inspired by those wind socks they have (or had) at airports.  And then they threw a lot of wind and dirt at it.  I’m stunned it’s cloth.  And keep in mind, this film was made in 1938, so special effects were nothing like they are today. It’s incredibly well done for it’s time.

Check out the video of the test of the tornado, it’s great:

And here’s the actual clip from the film of the twister as Dorothy tries to get home.  God it looks real:

The other neat thing that I learned, via Marshall’s article, is that in a number of the tornado scenes, you see Dorothy running around with her house in the backyard, the house and the fields are in miniature.

Once the tornado had been filmed, there was still plenty of work to be done. Rear- projection was used to transfer the previously shot tornado image onto a translucent screen while actors such as Dorothy were placed in front of it. Wind machines provided the big blow while stage hands threw dried leaves and other debris in the air. When the tornado came real close to the house at the end of the scene, more debris and dirt were added in the foreground to obscure the fake tornado while providing more realism. The tornado scene in the Wizard of Oz ended up costing more money than any other special effect in the movie.

Remember the first scene where Dorothy was running home to Aunty Em after visiting the traveling medicine man? There was a fence in the foreground and she hurries to open it as the tornado appears in the background. Dorothy’s house can be seen in the background with the barn to the right. These structures were actually minatures scaled at three quarter of an inch to the foot. The house was not more than three feet high and adjacent cornfields were about three inches tall! The tornado swayed back and forth as fullers earth, carbon, and sulfer drift downward appearing like bursts of rain. Of course, the loud wind sound really makes this scene too!

As Dorothy ran to the tornado cellar at the back of the house, the tornado bent and swept to the right over the three inch tall corn stalks. Fullers earth was shot up the base of the tornado making it appear that the ground was being dug up.

Pretty neat stuff.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Tony T

    Actually found the book at my local library. Hadn’t been there in ages. Man. They have a lot of cool books there and I don’t have to buy them. ::-)

  • Phil

    But did anyone else notice that when the window blew in and conked Dorothy on the head, the small table directly in front of the window had papers and other items on it that were completely undisturbed?

  • ComradeRutherford

    Another great gag was the switch from B+W Dorothy to Color Dorothy. They had the interior of the house and front door painted to look B+W, and Judy Garland’s stand in was in a B+W costume. It is the stand-in that runs to the door and pulls it open revealing the color world of Oz. Watch closely as the stand-in backs all the way out of frame as the camera pushes in. Finally the real Judy Garland in the color dress steps in front of the camera and walks into Oz. All in one shot.

  • cole3244

    thats a scary scene even now, and i appreciate it even more now.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis
  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Oh that would be interesting to see the book – let us know if it’s got anything interesting in it, probably does. And thank you for sending in the tip :)

  • Tony T

    John – great job of putting this together! After reading the article from Tim Marshall I decided to purchase the book he got his info from on Amazon. The Making of the Wizard of Oz written by Aljean Harmetz

    Also, digital effect may be way better but only on the high end stuff. I see a lot of fake looking stuff on TV shows now where you can tell the went to a cheap digital version. Especially explosions.

    Tony T from GE

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    All I can say is awesome. I love learning how clever people figured out how to do extremely clever things.

  • jomicur

    As John notes in his comments, the effects in WIZARD OF OZ looked (and still look) REAL. And they were real–not a real tornado, of course, but a real, tangible object. And Ray Harryhausen’s creatures also looked real, for the excellent reason that they WERE real–real three-dimensional models animated by Harryhausen’s artistry. With very rare exceptions, today’s CGI stuff looks like cartoons, and frequently not very convincing cartoons at that. Compare that tornado in the above clip to the tornado in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, for instance; one is real looking, the other isn’t even remotely convincing. Hollywood has confused technical ability for artistic ability. But I don’t go to the movies to see what new tricks computer nerds have figured out how to do. That just isn’t part of the experience, in my mind.

    One bit of nitpicking: KING KONG, with those landmark special effects by Willis O’Brien, was made by RKO, not Universal.

  • http://twitter.com/Scytherius Jonas Grumby

    This is just so awesome I can’t wax poetic. In other words, this is just cool as shit!

  • emjayay

    Of course this isn’t up to the standards of more modern effects, even pre-cgi. There must have been a documentary on PBS at some time about the Wizard of Oz effects because I knew about the muslin tornado. I seem to remember more documentary footage about the actual construction and hanging etc. of the thing. Anyway, the whole movie is still great. I know one still-young woman who was completely enamored with it as a child, and maybe getting kids enamored with imagination and art and acting and performance and wit and emotion is the best thing about its continuing legacy. Maybe some get a bit of the idea of seeing behind the curtain as well.

    I know I’ve been fooled many times by CGI effects, but probably mostly the more subtle ones. The big ones are somehow often totally obvious even when glancing at a few seconds of some film commercial on TV. It’s often easy to spot their what I guess is too much mathematical precision while at the same time slightly violating the laws of physics, even though all that is understood and a lot of work and computer power goes into getting it right.

  • UncleBucky

    Who are the stars of some recent CGI effects-laden movies?

    ;o)

  • http://kcnightfire.blogspot.com/ Katie

    Ahh, so maybe this also explains Alex Jones’ tornado weapon.

  • S1AMER

    Modern CGI effects are, of course, technically superior. But I still prefer the hands-on, human-made SFX of the great era of movies.

    Computer monsters may be slicker, but you can’t beat Ray Harryhausen for old monsters, and you can’t beat the effects people who worked on “Oz” at MGM or on other great movies at other studios. 1927′s “Wings” recently came out on Blu-ray, with its wonderful aerial combat scenes (all filmed live with real pilots in real planes), and it’s still thrilling to watch. Universal monsters like King Kong and others? Still wonderful!

    Yep, computers have taken over from artists and craftsmen in movies as in so many other areas. We’ve gained a lot, visually speaking, but we’ve lost as much or more.

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