Special Effects


Special Effects Essay, Research Paper

Special Effects

Written by: Brett Amato

Special effects in motion pictures has evolved over the years into an

involved science of illusion and visual magic. The following is a comprehensive

perspective depicting the rapidly expanding realm of cinematography.

In times of old, special effects in movies was limited to an individual’s

creativity and the constrictive limits of the tools available. However the

results of early special effects masters astounded audiences in their age in the

same manner that modern artists do today. The ability to create an effect that

was brand new was, and still is, the key to the industry.

Techniques range from the expected to the bizarre in order to achieve a

certain image or illusion. Cinematographers in the early fifties would use a

black cloth backdrop with white paint splattered off of toothpicks to simulate a

space scene in the many science-fiction movies made in that era. There is also

stories of a common plate being thrown across a “space” backdrop to emulate a

flying saucer in mid-flight.

Although the special effects persons of old were strapped with limits, one

of these was not make-up. They relied heavily on this prop to portray the many

monsters and aliens in their films. “Nosferatu” a German film about the vampire

with the same name was a huge success even in America, where thousands marveled

at the intricate detailing of the blood-sucker’s razor-like teeth, bulging eyes

and a pointed nose and ears. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” used a

somewhat new technique of a body suit that the actor wore along with a mask made

of latex rubber and foam. Using cooking oil or butter spread on the body and

mask gave an enhancement of sliminess added to the monster image. A fairly

recent film using heavy make-up effects is “An American Werewolf in London” done

by the master make-up artist Rick Baker who shows what can be done with a steady

hand and a lot of patience.

Another popular trick used was strings to manipulate miniature objects.

Often used in the science fiction era to show spacecraft or other objects in

flight was thin strings attached to miniatures. Audiences did notice the

obvious strings but it did not matter at the time because it was state of the


The next major breakthrough in the effects world was stop-motion animation.

A process by which objects were filmed for a very short period (3 or 4 frames)

being altered or moved very slightly at each interval of “cuts”. “King Kong”

and “I was a teenage werewolf” popularized this time-consuming process but was

worth the results. The teenage werewolf program used it to show the unfortunate

boy transforming into a raging beast. At each cut interval the special effects

“crew” (usually the producer and a make-up specialist) would add a little bit

more hair to the actor’s face. When finished, the illusion of growing hair was

achieved, although it was choppy. The reason for the choppy result is that when

using stop-motion the actor and camera must be kept as still as possible. If

not, when recording resumes the actor is not in the same place as when recording

was halted earlier. The result when viewing are “jumps” where the actor or

object moves instantly taking away from the image attempted. “King Kong” the

story of the giant ape in the Big Apple was revolutionary in that it used an

early form of stop-motion animation using clay models (claymation) as well as a

new procedure called super imposing which would change special effects forever.

Super imposing in King Kong was created with two physical tapes that were

cut apart under magnification. One half (the bottom) containing real actors and

actresses while the other top half contained Kong and the stop-motion animation.

When specially glued together their was an entire audience gasping at the huge

ape on stage. This was only done in a brief segment of the movie due to the

difficulty. All later films incorporating super imposure used the more common

blue-screen that can take two filmstrips and set one as a background while the

other containing the person/object is filmed in front of a blue-screen that is

the canvas for editing the background film over it using a simple computer

program. “Star Trek” the popular sci-fi television show of the 60’s and 70’s

used mostly super imposure in it’s special effects.

George Lucas’ “Star Wars” trilogy of motion pictures was a cinematic

masterpiece that set the benchmark for special effects in movies. About ten

years ahead of it’s time, “Star Wars” did not introduce anything new to

cinematography and was uncanny at how popular it became as a visual effects film.

Industrial Light & Magic led and owned by Lucas took existing techniques,

analyzed them thoroughly and fine-tuned them in any way possible. His films use

stop-motion, super imposing, masks, make-up, intricately detailed model

miniatures, animatronics and lighting/pyrotechnic effects. Lucas works have

gone down in history and said to be the best special effects movies ever.

Gaining huge popularity worldwide for it’s visual effects, it has attracted a

huge cult following largely due to this.

An unorthodox method of visual imagery is a method called animatronics

where steel and plastic “skeletons” are made to imitate animals, usually. Tiny

motors or “servos” are then attached to imitate the animals muscles to move the

skeleton and make it walk. Next, many hollow rubber tubes are attached to

different parts of the skeleton. At the ends of these tubes are either hinges

or pegs that respond to pressure. When the operator squeezes the bulb, the pegs

or hinges respond by opening or extending. When attached to certain parts of

the skeleton, the face for instance, many variations in motion can be achieved

depending on how many their are. Finally the skeleton is covered with fur and

padding to attempt at the shape of a particular animal. Although the results

are quite impressive, the drawbacks of this method are that it is outrageously

expensive, and two skilled operators are needed to function it to capacity. One

does body motion while the other focuses on facial expressions. The movies

“Jaws”, “Babe” and “Jumanji” used animatronics.

The final revolution in special effects has come. The computer age has

touched the movie world and made a huge impact. Literally anything is possible

with the assistance of computers. Using software and hardware costing in the

hundreds of thousands of dollars, 3D mesh object renderings are leaving all

other techniques in the past. CGI, which stands for Computer Generated Imaging,

is the latest way to get exactly what movie companies want in their films.

Flawless in appearance and challenging actual objects the viewer is often left

flustered as to if what they are seeing is real or computer generated. Industry

giants in this latest technique include Lucas’ ILM as well as Pacific Data

Images. Movies using mainly CGI include, “Independence Day”, “Terminator 2″ and,

of course, “Jurassic Park”.

Special effects have played an essential role in the motion picture

experience for over 70 years and with good reason. Whether it be a plate being

thrown across the screen or a computer generated Star Destroyer, a clay ape on a

cardboard Empire State Building or a T-Rex smacking his head on the side of your

jeep, the art of movie illusion will only cease to grow when our minds do.

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