27.3.1910 – 30.8.1965
Photo caption: Tom Howard BSC with the film transport from a 65mm camera during 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
THOMAS HOWARD BSC
Tom Howard was an esteemed British special effects artist who gained especial prestige for his work in the 40’s – 60’s, in what is considered the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking.
Initially starting out as a theatre-projectionist, Howard would transition to Denham Studios, working under the tutelage of Alexander Korda, a Hungarian film director who would have a profound impact on the evolution of Howard’s career. Howard would become a key player in the production of many of Korda’s films, dreaming up (alongside Lawrence Butler) the earliest innovations of impressive photographic effects that would eventually net him an Oscar for his visual effects on David Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945) photographed by Ronald Neame BSC.
By 1945, his prestigious innovations would come to the attention of MGM, who would end up appointing him as Director of Visual Effects for their British Studios division, located in Borehamwood, a town in Southern Hertfordshire, UK. There, he would be responsible for many effects that are still celebrated as some of the most memorable work in the business today, demonstrating a pioneering eye for practical effects, use of space, and iconic visual imagery. One of his notable works includes the burning of Rome in Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1951) photographed by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall, and in 1958, Howard would win his second Academy Award for his involvement with George Pal’s Tom Thumb (1958) photographed by Georges Périnal BSC.
Tom Howard was known to have a consistent working relationship with the legendary Stanley Kubrick, regarded by many as one of the greatest original filmmakers of all time. He would serve as special effects advisor on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) photographed by Geoff Unsworth OBE BSC, combining optical and mechanical effects alongside Wally Veevers BSC. The special effects that Howard, Kubrick, and other experts refined and collaborated on included the intensive use of front projection for the landscapes in "The Dawn of Man" or the invention of stepping motors servo-controlled by computer for moving the spaceships."
A quiet, unassuming man, he made his home near the MGM studios in the village of Bushey where he and his wife, Dorothy, brought up their children, and the only sign of his illustrious film reputation were the doorstops to his study and the dining room which, on closer inspection, turned out to be his Oscars. By the time of his retirement, Howard would have touched as many as 150 motion pictures, and have accomplished work on 85 of them. Howard died in his home in Bushey, Hertfordshire, from a stroke on 30 August 1985, at the age of 75.
As an individual who was always behind the camera, Howard rarely gave televised interviews. However, in the late 1970’s, he was featured in an extended two-part interview on the program Clapperboard, hosted by Chris Kelly, where he discussed his experiences in Hollywood and the magic of visual effects. Otherwise, the only other times he could be persuaded to talk about his work were to cine film clubs or to local youth groups; when speaking to the latter he would usually begin by saying "I'm very old so you probably won't have heard of any of the people I've worked with" before going on to name people like Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, etc. At the end of such talks he might show off one of his Oscars, usually transported in a tea towel.
Tom Howard was also a "founding member of the British Society of Cinematographers and a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and Britain’s Cinematograph, Sound and Television Society." In 1967, he would invent a variation on Front Projection Composite Cinematography. This patent would be widely influential on the process of filmmaking.