Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they shot the parting of the Red Sea effect in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments.
With very few competitors, Cecil B. DeMille’s color version of The Ten Commandments remains one of the single greatest “effects pictures” of all time.
Costly and ambitious, even by DeMille’s standards, the 1956 film was an appropriately epic undertaking considering the subject matter. At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made. In fact, the on-location shoot was so intensive that DeMille suffered a heart attack during production, a well-known “secret” that secured the picture’s status as the director’s final cinematic hurrah.
But that said, what a hurrah: who else but DeMille could produce three hours of top-of-the-line camp masquerading as Biblical paratext? They just don’t make ’em like they used to. (No, really, it’s wild how much of this movie is just Anne Baxter gnawing on the scenery and everyone being comically lusty for Moses, far and away the least charismatic character in the film).
However, amidst all of its iconic performances and jaw-dropping set-pieces, the parting of the Red Sea sequence trounces the competition. You could even say it’s … one in DeMilleion.
Wait, why are you booing?
The parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments
After three hours of Technicolor melodrama, we finally arrive at one of the most enduring scenes in special effects history.
With the mocking words of Nefertiri (Anne Baxter) still ringing in his ears, Rameses (Yul Brynner) rides out to kill Moses (Charlton Heston). With their backs up against impassable waters and the approaching stampede of chariots closing in, Moses’ followers’ desperation sours into rebellion. He brought them into the wilderness to die, hisses the treacherous Dathan (Edward G. Robinson). He is a false prophet. A magician. A Charlatan (Heston). Why are you booing again?
Then, a miracle: a miraculous pillar of fire silences the frightened mob. And, more importantly, it buys the fleeing Hebrews some time.
Leaning deep into the opera required for the spectacle at hand, DeMille abandons any pretense of historical realism in favor of something much more expressionistic. Dark clouds churn overhead as awe-struck Jews strike emotion-filled poses that would make Romantic painters blush. From the sky, a stormy finger descends into the churning sea, cleaving a path through the ocean.
And so, Pharaoh be damned, the Exodus continues as the overjoyed crowd passes between the towering wet walls to safety. Rameses’ armies — short-sightedly sent in hot pursuit to drown beneath the waves — are not so lucky.
To say that few scenes have achieved the status of DeMille’s most iconic sequence is an understatement. It would be an essential and expected inclusion in any montage about Golden Age Hollywood or the history of special effects for that matter. So, how’d they do it?
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
Partially shot on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles, the parting of the Red Sea effect was created by dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water into massive “dump tanks,” which created the illusion of a parting sea when the footage was reversed.
Long story long:
The parting of the Red Sea effect in The Ten Commandments was overseen by John P. Fulton, the incumbent SFX head honcho at Paramount whose efforts secured the film its only Oscar win. Meanwhile, Paul Lerpae contributed his talents with optical photography. As you’ll see, the biggest challenge of the effect was uniting various components and visual ideas that were created in different parts of the world by different craftsmen, often years apart.
Per an article by Paul Mandell published by CineMagic in the mid-80s, numerous pre-production experiments (including a 20-foot high hydraulic ramp) failed before the team finally found the winning combination of Golden Age visual effects. Other key aspects of pre-production include Fulton’s location scouting in the Spring of 1954 and the art department’s ingenious idea to ink the outline of the to-be composited water walls on viewfinder-friendly celluloid frames. As a result, strips of terrain, as far as 30 miles apart, were able to be photographed separately and married in the finder, preemptively alleviating considerable headaches for the optical department down the road.
Broadly speaking, the effect we see on-screen can be broken down into three movements: the parting, the crossing, and the closing. Because the “parting” effect is just the “closing” effect played in reverse, the easiest way to explain the overall effect is to start at the end, with the ocean gushing back into the chasm, drowning Pharaoh’s armies.
When the sea is closing back up, we are looking at (at least) four layers of compositing: (1) live-action Moses and company in the foreground; (2) the clouds; (3) the walls of water on either side of the pathway, and (4) the gushing water re-filling up the trench.
To create the “opening and closing sea” effect a giant, U-shaped water trough was built on the Paramount backlot. When thousands of gallons of water were released from the elevated tanks (helped along by some hard-working wind machines), the water rushed to fill the artificial canyon. Playing the footage in reverse created the effect of a path being cleaved straight through the body of water. When you see water “spilling in” or “pulling out” in the Red Sea effect, this is what you’re seeing. Shooting all the water effects on VistaVision was crucial since optical effects don’t take kindly to the warped nature of the anamorphic format.
Creating the “walls of water” required a different set-up, namely, an 80 x 32-foot concrete slide. Water fed through valves created sheets of water while a network of wooden riffles broke up the current and created an undertow. The result was a massive backwash that, when filmed on its side, appears as a cascading palisade reaching skywards. This process was repeated for the other “side” of the wall. If you’re having a hard time visualizing things, check out these behind-the-scenes photos. The 2011 making-of documentary The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles also features in-motion archival footage that is super helpful.
During the “crossing” part of the sequence, the traveling mattes of the fleeing Hebrews were composited using Lerpae’s optical printer. These were filmed on two merged sound stages (at Paramount and the neighboring RKO) flanked by two blue screens. Despite the enormous cast, there was a desire to increase the scale. As the people went through,” Lerpae recalled to CineMagic, “We ran a matte following them, which left that part unexposed. Then I took the beginning of the scene and had them follow the tail end of their own group. Finally, it looked as though 1800 people were marching toward the horizon. It was one heck of a thing to do.”
As for the clouds, while later films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist created similar effects by injecting paint into a glass tank filled with a salt-water inversion, the clouds in The Ten Commandments were created by pouring grey paint into clear water. A special, graduated, neutral-density filter allowed the filmmakers to hide the fact that the live-action shots of the extras were shot in either broad daylight or intense studio lights. Likewise, filters and scrims were employed to unite the added storm effects.
While the larger elements of the effect definitely steal the show, a number of smaller details go a long way to “sell” the parting of the Red Sea. Medium shots of actors interacting with the water make the scene feel more integrated as does using real elements instead of animation (see: the pillar of fire). Jan Domela’s matte paintings work overtime to conceal the borders of the composite; a heroic effort that has been largely undone by the image quality of the 2021 4K release, which has been equally unkind to much of the compositing work.
The precedent for the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments
Like Robin Hood or A Christmas Carol, the Book of Exodus is reproduced on-screen time and time again. As long as we have movie cameras, there’s a good chance we’ll keep making films about Moses’ pilgrimage out of Egypt.
One of the earliest Exodus adaptations is 1909’s The Life of Moses, directed by J. Stuart Blackton, the founder of Vitagraph Studios. While 50 minutes might seem breezy compared to the four-hour runtime of DeMille’s classic, movie theater owners at the time were frustrated with Blackton’s five-reel picture, which diminished audience turnover.
Another early example comes from France in 1905, with La Vie de Moïse, which, unlike Blackton’s film, doesn’t require an in-person visit to the Library of Congress to watch. Here, the parting of the Red Sea effect is very simple but does the job: a painted backdrop depicting the dramatic scene. Embellishing details like real water on the floor and a fluttering wave (most likely manipulated silk or some other semi-translucent fabric) make the scene feel a little less flat.
As far as direct precedents go, the call is coming from inside the house, so to speak. Indeed, 1956’s The Ten Commandments represents one of the rare instances of a filmmaker re-making (or re-adapting) their own film. In 1923, DeMille’s first stab at The Ten Commandments kicked off what would become a biblical trilogy (rounded out by 1927’s The King of Kings and 1932’s The Sign of the Cross). Unlike its laser-focused 1956 sibling, DeMille’s 1927 film splits its time between the biblical tale and a modern story of two brothers who disagree in matters of scripture.
Thirty minutes into the 1923 adaptation, Moses does this thing and splits the sea to clear a path to safety. The sequence is totally serviceable but suffers from one of the more unfortunate side effects of using water with miniatures. Namely, that water cannot be miniaturized. If you’re watching, say, a big Toho monster movie, and you can clearly see tiny water droplets spraying off the supposedly enormous Godzilla, your brain instinctually clocks that something goofy is going on with the scale of things. That said, the black-and-white cinematography does the scene a lot of favors in the realism department.
The effect was accomplished by dumping water into a U-shaped tank and playing the footage in reverse. For the composited shots of the live-action Israelites crossing the sea floor, DeMille used enormous slabs of Jell-O to hold the water in place. This is why — if you can find a good enough quality print — you can see the “walls” of water jiggling.
It’s worth noting that a competing Exodus adaptation — the Austrian-made The Moon of Israel — was shot around the same time as DeMille’s 1923 film. The Moon of Israel was so successful that it single-handedly secured its director, Michael Curtiz, a ticket to Hollywood, where he would direct another Biblical epic (1928’s Noah’s Ark) before cranking out certified bangers like Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Depending on who you ask (and how good the film prints are), The Moon of Israel’s Red Sea sequence is the superior effect. Shot in Laaer Berg Park in Vienna, the Austrian production pumped over 2.5 thousand gallons of water into a three-foot-deep wooden trough lined with plaster walls.
Given that The Moon of Israel also made use of compositing and reverse photography, the key difference seems to be one of scale: they did it bigger … and as a result, the scene looks more realistic. Another important difference was that Curtiz and company didn’t go the Jell-O route but rather ran water down the plaster, creating the illusion of two massive walls of water facing one another. It’s not always true that bigger is better. But when it comes to practical water effects like splitting the Red Sea in half, it’s better not to, uh, half-ass things.