“Special visual effects have added to the allure of motion pictures since the early days of cinema. French director Georges Melies is considered the most influential pioneer of special effects. His film “A Trip to the Moon” combined live action with animation, demonstrating to audiences that cinema could create worlds, objects, and events that did not exist in real life” (Tanis par. 1). Through examples of the new techniques and the movies where they were presented, this paper will detail the changes that special effects have seen over the last twenty-five years.
Special effects have been used ever since the film industry became popular. Three-dimensional film technology became popular in the1950s, when it enjoyed a brief period of use (Sklar par. 3). Although motion-picture film, like still photography, normally yields two-dimensional images, the illusion of a third dimension can be achieved by projecting two separate movies. Members of the audience wear 3-D eyeglasses so that the right eye sees one picture and the left eye sees the other, producing the effect of three dimensions.
Three-dimensional film technology is still being used today at Universal Studios in Florida. When my family visited the amusement park there was a feature 3D film that was rendition of “The Terminator.” Three-dimensional film has changed, because now the members of the audience no longer have to wear glasses with one red and one blue lens. Now the glasses are clear, but still allow the user to get the same three-dimensional effect that they would the red and blue glasses.
Another example of the lasting power of early techniques is stop-motion photography. The original “King Kong” used this technique, in which the King Kong figurine was repeatedly filmed for very brief segments and then moved, so that when the film was projected at normal speed, King Kong appeared to move. The same technique animated the figures in “James and the Giant Peach” (“Nova” par. 2).
After World War II there was a lull in the development and use of special effects. Technical advances in the design and manufacture of motion-picture cameras made it easier to film on actual locations, and the trend in cinematic storytelling tended toward realism, resulting in less call for fantastic illusions. Then in 1968 the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, in which astronauts appear to float weightlessly in outer space, led to a renewed interest in special effects.
In his article published in Encarta in 2000 Nicholas Tanis said, “In making Star Wars, Lucas used computers to control camera movement. In this technique, called motion-control cinematograph, the computer’s precise control allows a camera shooting live action in one studio to move at the same speed as a camera shooting a model in a second studio that serves as background for the live action” (par. 2). “Star Wars” revolutionized the way special effects were created and proved them to be a potential box-office gold mine. George Lucas, who directed “Star Wars,” created his own special-effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic, which became a leading innovator and was responsible for a series of groundbreaking special-effects techniques.
Filmmakers draw upon many other special effects to create illusions in the cinema. Sometimes a film calls for an actor to appear in a place it will be difficult to film, or doing something that is impossible, such as flying. In these cases, the filmmaker uses the so-called blue-screen process, filming the actor in front of a screen that is either painted or lit to match a particular shade of blue. During printing the filmmakers then replace this blue background with a completely different image, creating the illusion that the actors are moving through that setting. According to Hayes 1979’s “Superman” won and Oscar for the special effects, which included blue-screen processing, that were used in the production of the movie (229). A blue-screen was used to depict the hero’s flight. The actor, Christopher Reeve, was filmed with his arms outstretched against a blue screen in a studio, acting as if he were flying. After images of the city were substituted for the blue background, Superman appeared to be flying over tall buildings. Blue-screen processing is still used today, but now computer-generated backgrounds are often inserted making the effects even more realistic.
“Throughout the technological history of film making during the last quarter of this century, it has been increasingly difficult to overestimate the significance of traveling matte in film production” (Erland par. 1). Another way to place actors in settings that do not actually exist is through matte photography. This technique involves a realistic painting with an area blacked out. The painting is filmed and then, separately, an action sequence that has been carefully framed to fit the perspective and scale of the blacked-out area is inserted. The combination of the two images creates the illusion that the action is happening in the environment of the painting. The paintings used in matte photography range widely in size, and many matte photographers are now using computers to generate the paintings. One use of matte photography occurs in the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” produce in 1981. The scene shows a worker pushing a crate through a huge warehouse stocked with all kinds of government-owned objects. Except for the worker and the path he takes, the warehouse is actually a painting.
In the late 20th century, the techniques used in creating effects entered a new era, that of digitization. According to Robert La Franco in his article “Digital Dreamin’,” “Right now they now they are giving Hollywood what it craves: pulse-raising special effects” (par. 7). In digitization, sounds and images are stored as electronic files and viewed and edited on a computer. Creating a digital version of a filmed image takes a huge amount of data-storage capacity. To approximate the look of the 35-millimeter film, the computer must break each frame into millions of pixels. The computer assigns a number value to each pixel that corresponds to a color and brightness level. By renumbering the pixels so that the colors change, the image can be altered.
Digitizing images allows them to be manipulated in almost any conceivable manner, and the computer can also be used to generate its own images. An example of combined imagery is a scene from “Jurassic Park” where computer-generated dinosaurs are seen charging toward and then leaping over a filmed man and two children. “We still need to specify a viewpoint, to select objects and to position them in space” (Thalmann 101). In 1994 the title character in “Forrest Gump” seems to meet historical figures such as President John F. Kennedy and singer Elvis Presley. This was done by digitally merging images of lead actor Tom Hanks with films of Kennedy, Presley, and other figures, which were taken from a specific viewpoint.
Many advances have also been made in the way that weather is produced onscreen. “Location shooting in the Oklahoma heartland ended months ago. But the real stars – those roiling, raging tornadoes – still need their final touchups” (par. 1). This is how writer David Kaplan describes the tornadoes that are seen in the movie “Twister.” Special effects team used to have to create materials that agreed with the actors and still look real enough onscreen. Today’s special effects artists employ high-tech computer-aided three-dimensional graphics to create much of the weather in movies. Most of the meteorological stars of “Twister,” for example, were created with the aid of supercomputer technology developed by special effects engineers. They digitally incorporated computer generated killer tornadoes into the movie’s live-action sequences. This allowed the movie to flow seamlessly and appear photo-realistic without ever putting anyone in harms way.
The Wachowski brothers conceived “The Matrix” and used special effects to put their ideas to film. They contacted John Gaeta who in turn developed Bullet Time Photography to make the 360-degree shots. This was an entirely new concept that was developed especially for the movie and has definitely had an impact on the motion picture industry. “Hundreds of still cameras are placed around the object to be filmed, with movie cameras being placed at strategic points along the line to enable full motion to suddenly turn in to dead time or even super slow motion when the still cameras shutters are slightly staggered. Amazingly when the camera rotates around these scenes in arcs of over 360 degrees, all the backgrounds are completely computer generated from real world data” (“howstuffworks” par. 3).
“The Matrix” is a computer-generated world that humans are lead to believe is actually reality. In scenes where the Bullet Time Photography was used computer generated worlds made the shot look perfect. The entire subway set used for one of the fight locations was completely computer generated. In Thalmann’s book, New Trends in Animation and Visualization there is a chapter dedicated to virtual environments. Thalmann says, “The simulated world does not necessarily have to obey natural laws of behavior. Such a statement makes nearly every area of human activity, a candidate for a VR (Virtual Reality) application” (92). The fact that the simulated world does not obey natural laws of behavior is what allows the actors to freeze in mid air and jump hundreds of feet.
“Special visual effects have added to the allure of motion pictures since the early days of cinema. French director Georges Melies is considered the most influential pioneer of special effects. His film “A Trip to the Moon” combined live action with animation, demonstrating to audiences that cinema could create worlds, objects, and events that did not exist in real life” (Tanis par. 1). Through examples of the new techniques and the movies where they were presented, this paper has detailed the changes that special effects have seen over the last twenty-five years. Special effects have gone from a small part of the movie to one of the largest, most time consuming, and expensive parts of the production of the movies that we see everyday.
Tanis, Nicholas. “Motion Picture,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000 October 12, 2000 <http://encarta.msn.com>.
Sklar, Robert. ” History of Motion Pictures, ” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000 October 24, 2000 <http://encarta.msn.com>.
Nova Online. “The Grand Illusion: A Century of Special Effects,” Nova Online 1996. October 12, 2000 < http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/specialfx/effects/history.html>.
Hayes, R.M. Trick Cinematography: The Oscar Special-Effects Movies. North Carolina: McFarland, 1986.
Erland, Jonathan, and Kay Erland. “The Digital Series Traveling Matte Backings” Composition Components Company October 12, 2000 <http://www.digitalgreenscreen.com/NoFrame/ tmatte.html>.
Thalmann, Nadia, and Daniel Thalmann, eds. New Trends in Animation and Visualization. New York: Wiley, 1991.
La Franco, Robert. “Digital Dreamin’.” Forbes Sept. 1998: 223.
Kaplan, David A. “Grand Illusions.” Newsweek Online 1996: October 12, 2000 <http://www.newsweek.com>.
Howstuffworks Online. “Developing The Matrix,” Howstuffworks Online. 1999. October 14, 2000 <http://howstuffworks.com/framed.htm?parent=Matrix>.