Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

Petro Vlahos; special effects pioneer behind green screens

Tourists simulated walking on a tight rope over Niagara Falls before Nik Wallenda’s stunt.

Marcus Yam/New York Times/file 2012

Tourists simulated walking on a tight rope over Niagara Falls before Nik Wallenda’s stunt.

NEW YORK — Petro Vlahos, a special-effects pioneer who developed the blue-screen and green-screen process that allowed Dick Van Dyke to dance with penguins in ‘‘Mary Poppins,’’ the blue-skinned Na’vi to live among floating mountains in ‘‘Avatar,’’ and TV weather reporters to point at sun and rain symbols that only their viewers can see, died Feb. 10 in Los Angeles. He was 96.

His death was announced by Ultimatte, the company that he and his son, Paul, founded in 1976.

Continue reading below

The technology Petro Vlahos perfected, earning him Oscar and Emmy awards, creates the illusion that actors and settings filmed separately are in the same place. It has made it possible for young actors to play their own twins and share scenes with them; for princesses in galaxies far, far away to send hologram messages; and for nonexistent, distant worlds and their wildlife to appear real in convincing detail.

‘‘His inventions made a whole genre of film possible — a genre that seems to make more money than any other,’’ said Bill Taylor, the Oscar-winning visual-effects supervisor, speaking at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences event the day before Mr. Vlahos died. ‘‘He created the whole of composite photography as we know it.’’

Alberto Rodriguez/Getty Images

Petro Vlahos was celebrated during a 2010 tribute in Hollywood, Calif.

In an interview with the BBC, Robin Shenfield, president of the Mill, a British visual-effects studio, summarized Mr. Vlahos’s contribution and talent as ‘‘that fundamental ability to take lots of elements from lots of places and seamlessly mesh them,’’ creating ‘‘a new convincing reality.’’

Mr. Vlahos did not come up with the original idea for the film industry’s blue-screen method; it had been used in Hollywood as early as ‘‘The Thief of Bagdad’’ (1940). But he overhauled the technology and developed a way to minimize the unfortunate side effects of earlier methods, such as the strange, unwanted glow that might surround objects. Glassware, cigarette smoke, and hair blowing in the wind had been particular problems.

Mr. Vlahos’s breakthrough was a complex laboratory process that separated blues, greens, and reds before recombining them. He called it ‘‘the color difference traveling matte scheme.’’ (Whether filmmakers choose to use a blue screen or a green one is sometimes a simple matter of choosing the color that no actor in the scene is wearing.)

An early use of the technology was in the 1959 film ‘‘Ben-Hur,’’ a multiple Oscar winner perhaps best known now for its chariot-race scene, which could not have been done so vividly and convincingly without Mr. Vlahos’ contributions.

It was his method as well in ‘‘The Birds,’’ Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie in which Tippi Hedren is almost pecked to death by the angry title characters.

His technology was also used in the first ‘‘Star Wars’’ trilogy, in Warren Beatty’s ‘‘Dick Tracy,’’ in Ang Lee’s ‘‘Life of Pi,’’ and in the science-fiction series ‘‘Doctor Who.’’

But a complete list of his handiwork would be almost impossible to compile. Mr. Vlahos held at least 35 movie-related patents, and as they expired others in the industry put his discoveries to their own uses. As The Hollywood Reporter wrote last week, ‘‘every green- or blue-screen shot today employs variants of the Vlahos technique.’’

Petro Vlahos was born on Aug. 20, 1916, in Raton, N.M., a small town near Colorado.

He received an engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1941 and worked for the Douglas Aircraft Co. and Bell Laboratories before joining the Motion Picture Research Council after World War II, having been recommended by a contact at MGM.

In addition to his son, Mr. Vlahos leaves his wife, Virginia; a daughter, Jennie Vlahos Gadwa; a stepson, James Bentley; and a stepdaughter, Sandra Bentley King.

Mr. Vlahos received a special Emmy Award in 1978 for the Ultimatte video-matting device and five special Academy Awards: in 1961, 1965, 1993, 1994 and 1995.

Sometimes those were shared with colleagues. (He shared the 1995 award with his son.)

Later in life, he was outspoken about his belief that he had received less than his fair share of the credit for his special-effects work, particularly regarding the 1965 prize. That Oscar, for ‘‘the conception and perfection of techniques for color traveling matte composite cinematography,’’ also went to Ub Iwerks and Wadsworth E. Pohl.

‘‘All three of us got the same Oscar,’’ Mr. Vlahos said in a 2009 video interview with Jeff Foster, author of ‘‘The Green Screen Handbook,’’ although ‘‘they didn’t invent anything.’’

‘‘Today I would have handled it differently,’’ Mr. Vlahos said. ‘‘You get older. You get tougher.’’

Subscriber Log In

You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com