Special Effects-What Makes Them Special
Ray Harryhausen, innovator of visual effects in film, passed away on May 7, 2013, at the age of 92. His work in films such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), were milestones of the development of special effects, or FX, in movies.
Special effects, or FX, are traditionally divided into the categories of optical effects and mechanical effects. Optical effects can include those created in the camera, such as multiple exposures or placing actors in front of mattes or blue screens. They can also be accomplished in post-production, using an optical printer.
Mechanical effects are usually accomplished during live-action filming, and include props, scenery, scale models, pyrotechnics and atmospheric effects. Mechanical effects also incorporate makeup and prosthetics.
Many of the techniques of optical and mechanical effects have been obviated by the development computer generated imagery (CGI) in the 1990s.
One of the earliest uses of FX in movies can be found in Le Voyage dans la Lune, (“Voyage to the Moon”) in 1902, which utilized many of the types of special effects discussed below.
The Academy of Motion Pictures did not include special effects awards until its 36th ceremony, honoring films released in 1963. Even then, the Special Effects Award was divided into Sound Effects and Special Visual Effects.
However, the Visual Effects Society (VES) is an organization—the only one in the entertainment industry— that represents the full breadth of practitioners of visual effects, including artists, animators, technologists, model makers, and educators, in all areas of entertainment from film, television and commercials to music videos and games. It began offering awards for “Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Motion Picture” in 2002.
What are some of the varieties of FX found in film?
Makeup is a traditional technique of special effects, most notably used to depict a vampire in
W. F. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Prosthetic and robotic limbs were used to show the metamorphosis of a man into a wolf in An American Werewolf in London (1981).
Miniatures or models were first used in Melies’ Voyage to the Moon.” Intricately detailed miniatures were used to create dystopian works of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Matte paintings or blue screens, placed behind foreground objects, were used to depict Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the Statue of Liberty, jutting from the sand, in Planet of the Apes (1986). Blue screening is one of the oldest special-effect techniques used in the industry. Originally it involved projected a motion picture behind the actors to change the scenery. More recently, the background is computer generated. In another process, known as optical compositing, two pieces of film are projected onto the third piece in a compositing machine that reduces the combination into a single frame at a time. The two pieces of film can also be digitized and combined frame by frame in a computer’s memory and then “written out” to a third piece of film using a film printer.
Animation utilized a single-frame method, beginning with Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). The first fully animated film, using CGI, was Toy Story, which involved 1,000 gigabytes of data and four years to create.
Pyrotechnics including fires and explosions, are one of the most familiar special effects. In Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), a high-speed camera was able to break down every detail of an IED explosion due to the camera’s 2,000-frames-per-second capability to create high definition footage.
Stop-motion photography (also called “Claymation”) used puppets or clay models that can be manipulated one frame at a time. It was one of the earliest animation effects, first used in the 1890s, and to depict King Kong in the movie of the same name (1933), as well as the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. It was the technique for which Ray Harryhausen was most famous. A stop-motion capture suit was worn by actor Any Serkis to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 13 cameras pointed at sensors attached to Gollum’s costume, animators utilized to create more realistic (though artificial) movements.
Split-screen technology was used in The Parent Trap (1961) to show Hayley Mills in duplicate. Filmmakers simply locked the camera in position and shot the scene twice, after which each half of the shot was laid upon a single negative. More recently, the technique was employed in The Social Network (2012) to create identical twins by placing Armie Hammer’s head onto Josh Pence’s body.
Time lapse photography has been used to accelerate motion or to show the gradual metamorphosis of man to werewolf, as in The Wolf Man (1941). The technology derives from the fact that film is usually projected at 24 frames per second. Using a camera to record more or less that number will result in faster or slower motion. The short film A Year along the Abandoned Road shows a whole year passing around a fjord in Norway town in just 12 minutes. The camera filmed at 50,000 times the normal speed. It was moved a slight bit each day, creating the effect of a seamless journey. Recent advances in slow-motion effects were developed in 1990s by films such as The Matrix 1990s.
Animatronics involves the use of mechanized puppets, as in The Lost World (1925). Animatronic models weighing up to several tons were featured in Jurassic Park (1993). The film, which also included men in rubber Velocirapter costumes.
Motion-controlled cameras were first used in George Lucas’s Star Wars, in which a computer issued a series of complicated movements to a camera. The motion-control system, involved a computer issuing a complicated series of movements to a camera.
CGI was first used to fully animate the “stained-glass man” in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985).
Digital effects integrate still photography and (CGI) in order to create realistic-looking environments.
Three-dimensional film filming two overlapping scenes, which human vision joins into one image. The double image is filtered out with the aid of spectacles, which are really nothing more than tinted plastic. 3-D came into popularity in the 1950s and continues to be refined, as more and more films are exhibited in 2-D and 3-D versions.
Despite the gradual inflation of budget of films over the years, the most expensive special effect in history was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which showed the parting of the Red Sea by Moses without digital effects. DeMille used matte paintings, rear projection, pyrotechnics, and miniatures. He also took footage of 300,000 gallons of water being poured into a tank and then played it backward.
Written By: Tom Ukinski