Visual Effects Innovator Petro Vlahos Dies at 96

Petro Vlahos Headshot - P 2013
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Petro Vlahos Headshot - P 2013

His scientific work with blue- and green-screen compositing systems can be seen in such classic films as “Ben-Hur,” “The Birds” and “Mary Poppins.”

Special effects inventor and engineer Petro Vlahos, whose industry contributions made possible such iconic film moments as Julie Andrews dancing with penguins in the 1964 classic Mary Poppins, died Sunday. He was 96.

A member of the Academy’s original Motion Picture Research Council, Vlahos was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences many times, starting with a Scientific and Technical Award in 1960 for a camera flicker indicating device. He earned an Oscar statuette in 1964 for color traveling matte composite cinematography and another in 1994 for the Ultimatte electronic blue-screen compositing process, the first of its kind. He received the Medal of Commendation in 1992 and the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an Oscar statuette, in 1993.

Ultimatte announced the news of his death on Wednesday.

Vlahos had more than 35 patents for camera crane motor controls, screen brightness meters, safe squib systems, cabling designs and junction boxes, projection screens, optical sound tracks and even sonar. He created analog and digital hardware and software versions of Ultimatte.

As the original patents ran out, many other present-day digital blue- and green-screen compositing systems were derived from Ultimatte and entered the marketplace. As a result, every green- or blue-screen shot today employs variants of the Vlahos technique.

Vlahos’ achievements also include his work on sodium and color difference traveling matte systems. His version of the sodium system was used on dozens of Disney films, including Mary Poppins, The Love Bug (1969) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and was borrowed by Alfred Hitchcock for The Birds (1963) and by Warren Beatty for Dick Tracy (1990).

Vlahos developed the color difference system (the perfected blue-screen system) for Ben-Hur (1959) and such scenes as its legendary chariot race. It was used in hundreds of films, including the first Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones films.

Vlahos was also recognized with an Emmy in 1978 for Ultimatte and the Life Fellowship and Herbert T. Kalmus awards from the Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). An evening in his honor, “A Conversation With Petro Vlahos" was held at the Academy in July 2010.

Visual effects supervisor Bill Taylor paid tribute to Vlahos during the Academy's Feb. 9 Scientific and Technical Awards presentation, where Taylor received the John Bonner Medal of Commendation, the same honor that his mentor had received.

“It hard to emphasize the import of his inventions,” Taylor said. “His inventions made a whole genre of film possible — a genre that seems to make more money than any other. He created the whole of composite photography as we know it — blue screen, green screen, an important contribution to the sodium vapor system.

“He leaves no unfinished business. He lived a life full of achievement and honor and the love of his family.”

Born Aug. 20, 1916, in Raton, N.M., Vlahos showed an early aptitude for electronics and ham radio. He received his engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1941, and during World War II, he worked as a designer at Douglas Aircraft and later as a radar engineer at Bell Laboratories.

After the war, Vlahos moved to California armed with an introduction from the head of Bell Labs to Douglas Shearer, sound director and the de facto head of R&D at MGM. Shearer steered Vlahos to the Motion Picture Research Council, which he joined as assistant manager.

The council was dissolved in 1960 and re-formed in 1968 as the Motion Picture Research Center with Vlahos as chief scientist. He also served the industry as a design engineer, field engineer and systems engineer.

Survivors include his wife, Virginia; a son, Paul (a second-generation Oscar winner); a daughter, Jennie Vlahos Gadwa; stepchildren Sandra Bentley King and James Bentley; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.