The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933), a Universal Horror Classic

The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933), a Universal Horror Classic

Invisibility certainly did not start with Harry Porter’s invisible cloak. Using simple opticals and wires, Pathé attempted the effect as early as 1916 in the serial The Shielding Window, though the flaws were said to be “painfully obvious” by Ron Fry and Pamela Fourzon in the book The Saga of Special Effects. Two decades later, The Invisible Man solved this mystery in special effects.

Originally an H.G. Wells fantasy horror tale, The Invisible Man introduces us to chemist Jack Griffin, who succeeded in making himself invisible yet was not able to find an antidote that would bring him back to flesh and blood. The film depicts Griffin’s way of becoming a ghostly man of terror with almost flawless scenes of an invisible but well-clothed or partially clothed man. Made in 1933, no digital editing was done to the film, only optical tricks. John Fulson made the magic work with a “travelling matte,” a moving “mask” that changes from frame to frame used to cover part of an image in order to be substituted with another, and an optical printer, a combination of a process camera and projectors. Claude Rains, cast as the invisible one, was dressed entirely in black velvet (tights, gloves and masks) that did not reflect light. He then wore a second set of clothes, those that Griffin was meant to wear, of lighter colors. Rains’ acting was recorded onto the film negative in reverse to create a travelling matte; once the matte is made, the optical printer would combine it with a background scene and develop it to the final film. The same masking trick is still highly relied on, except computers now take on the job of detecting the matte and combing the digital recordings together.

In The Invisible Man, the challenge was not only in depicting an invisible character, but also on Rains to make his film debut in heavy bandages. In some more complex scenes that required close-up shots, the actor had to work blind and breathe through a tube since no holes for eyes and air could be left for the man. In an interview featuring Claude Rains in The New York Times Dec 3, 1993, Rains revealed the secret of Frank Williams’s film laboratory, where the magic of The Invisible Man was made:

“The laboratory had an odd look. There were all sorts of casts about, in papier-mâché, clay and plaster… They made a cast and nailed me in. Just my head stuck out. They smeared me with Vaseline and then stood off and threw plaster at my head. I though I was going to die. It was a most alarming operation. Really, I’m afraid I behaved rather badly. I went back again the next day and saw masks and half-masks of my head all over the place.”


The Invisible Man came out in the same year as King Kong. Throughout all these years, it is constantly praised for its stunning, timeless special effects, yet is also said to be harmed by its relatively unsuccessful narration. Even though it receives less attention than King Kong does nowadays, it started the invisible film trend (The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, The Invisible Man’s Revenge) and is undeniably a Universal horror classic, just like The Mummy and Frankenstein. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be showing The Invisible Man at Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles next month as part of “Universal’s Legacy of Horror” screening series, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Universal Pictures.


  • A wonderful tribute blog to Matte Shots, John P. Fulton and his assistant David Stanley Horsley, made by a blogger from New Zealand.
  • 19 seconds of director James Whale’s humor from a memorable scene in The Invisible Man.