Decades before companies like Industrial Light & Magic were even imagined, John P. Fulton was writing the book on movie special effects, creating visuals that still dazzle viewers several decades later. Among other remarkable feats in the course of a career that spanned almost 40 years, he allowed Moses to part the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments and made millions of filmgoers believe that they had "seen" an invisible man.
Fulton was born in Nebraska, the son of artist Fitch Fulton, an expert in painting theatrical backdrops who later became a mainstay of movie art departments. The younger Fulton was trained as an electric engineer and a surveyor, but gravitated to the movie business in the early '20s as a camera assistant. He briefly served as a cinematographer on Edward Sloman's 1928 feature The Foreign Legion and Henry King's 1930 thriller Hell Harbor, but it was as a special-effects photographer that he distinguished himself on pictures that included Frank Capra's Submarine (1928) at Columbia. Universal recognized the value of his work and put him in charge of its new special effects department starting at the end of 1930. Fulton's early credits included James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932), and Whale's The Old Dark House (1932), but it was on Whale's The Invisible Man in 1933 that he got to utilize his skills across virtually an entire feature film. Indeed, the movie is a visual symphony devised by Fulton (utilizing such processes as blue-screen photography), and it still seems an astounding feat. Fulton's art also played a role in the creation of such movies as Dracula's Daughter, The Invisible Ray, and Show Boat (all 1936), and as time went on and technology advanced, he was able to generate even more sophisticated and complex effects shots in Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and Invisible Agent (1942). The latter, an otherwise ridiculous film with an absurd story, was literally carried by Fulton's effects, which created some startling shots and scenes.
Even in the movies to which he did not contribute directly, Fulton played important roles. Universal's serials were produced on too small a budget to allow any new work to be done on them by his department, but chapter-plays such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers drew from existing footage and effects created by Fulton, and looked infinitely more expensive (and more convincing) for their presence. Fulton's work was also strongly in evidence in the most successful of the Universal Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, The Scarlet Claw (1944), and the Abbott and Costello vehicle Here Come the Co-Eds (1945). During this period, in addition to working with such established techniques as blue-screen photography, matte paintings, miniatures, and lap-dissolves, Fulton devised a method for using matte shots in sequence, greatly extending the range of visual effects that could be created and resulting in effects that were decades ahead of their time. In late 1944, Samuel Goldwyn was preparing Wonder Man, a movie that would require some of the most ambitious special optical effects ever seen. Danny Kaye was to play the dual role of identical twins, one of them a ghost, who were often onscreen at the same time. Goldwyn persuaded Universal to let him borrow Fulton for the project (for a very high fee to the studio), which had the added allure and challenge of being shot in Technicolor. The results of Fulton's work were astoundingly good, earning him his first Academy Award.
In the process of working for Goldwyn, Fulton was also persuaded to leave Universal upon the expiration of his contract in late 1945 and to sign with the independent producer. His relationship with Goldwyn was a stormy one, however, partly owing to a conflict over his career goals. Fulton had long desired to direct and produce movies, and to create effects for his own films, something that Universal had never permitted him to do. Goldwyn had offered the prospect of Fulton directing for him, but once he was signed to a contract, the mogul balked at following through. This was understandable, as Fulton's real talent lay in designing special effects. He wasn't suited by temperament or experience to command an entire film crew or work with a cast. In addition, Goldwyn seldom (if ever) had more than one movie in production at a time and had no shortage of experienced hands, from the workman-like Mark Robson on up to the renowned William Wyler (on whose The Best Years of Our Lives Fulton worked). Goldwyn gave him what work he could, assigning Fulton second-unit work on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Bishop's Wife, but it wasn't enough; nor were the projects he worked on for other producers through Goldwyn's facilities, such as the special effects on Tulsa. When his contract was up for renewal in 1949, Fulton finally forced the issue by raising his proposed fee so high that Goldwyn would have to use him as a director; instead, the mogul decided not to renew the contract.
Fulton left Goldwyn and never got close to directing a movie again. In 1953, however, he became the head of the special effects department at Paramount, which led to his work on The Naked Jungle, Elephant Walk, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, Billy Wilder's Sabrina, and The Bridges at Toko-Ri (all 1954). The mid-'50s science fiction boom drew Fulton's attention and talent to the astronautical adventure movie Conquest of Space, the airborne drama Strategic Air Command, and Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief and The Trouble With Harry (all 1955). It was Fulton who made possible the climactic parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), earning him a second Academy Award. In addition, he helped create the fanciful musical/Parisian background for Stanley Donen's Funny Face in 1957. Alas, at this point, Fulton began working on lower-budgeted movies, as the number of major features produced in Hollywood plummeted. At the lowest budgetary end of the spectrum, his effects on I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) had a hauntingly (even grisly) realistic quality that fit well with the low-key direction of Gene Fowler Jr. Fulton was also responsible for what visual virtues exist in Eugene Lourie's The Colossus of New York (which must have been a slightly bitter experience, as Lourie was a former art director who had successfully made the jump to the director's chair) andJack Arnold's The Space Children. At a slightly higher level of filmmaking, Fulton contributed substantially to Elvis Presley's best film, King Creole. He also worked with Jerry Lewis on Don't Give Up the Ship, Visit to a Small Planet, and The Disorderly Orderly, and, in between them, contributed to Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Howard Hawks' Hatari! (1962).
When Paramount dissolved its special effects department, Fulton found himself once again working on a freelance basis, and for the first time overseas on British and European productions. He died in London of a heart attack in 1965, following his work on that year's The Heroes of Telemark.