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The History of Special Effects

The Motion Picture Industry has been a part of American society since the early part of the 20th century. And through the ages filmmakers have always tried to do their best to wow their audiences, and make them wonder how its done. Who could forget the towering ape holding Fay Wray in King Kong, or Stanley Kubricks impressive space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Both of these movies were real giants of their times, and left audiences wondering How did they do it? Also as impressive were the works of Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered the technique of stop motion effects.

His works included Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Later George Lucas made Star Wars. He took a small $11 million budget and made one of the most impressive movies of all time, both by means of special effects and storyline. Of course its sequels were even more impressive, with bigger budgets and more elaborate special effects than the original. The most recent movies to break the mold of special effects, were Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings trilogy. He and his team at Weta used the most advanced technologies to bring Tolkiens classic to life.

Not all movies made displayed good use of special effects. Movies like The Screaming Skull, The Phantom Planet, and Track of the Moon Beast absolutely obliterate the meaning of special effect. They, as well as many other bad movies, have appropriately been named B-Movies. Special effects have contributed huge amounts of money to the movie business over the last 70 years. This paper explores the good, the bad, and the ugly of those landmark movies in each category. In the early 1930s the times were poor and so were the people.

Until then the movie industry had relied upon magician type illusions rather than true special effects. Everything changed when special effects guru Willis OBrien released his soon to be masterpiece King Kong in 1933. King Kong was momentous both on screen and off. OBrien had to utilize his knowledge from previous movies to bring the giant ape to life through the use of stop motion and animatronics. He built a life size bust, hand, and foot for the giant ape. The hand was to scoop up Fay Wray while the foot was to trample island natives.

To give the illusion of a full size Kong interacting with small people OBrien first filmed all of the Apes movements through stop motion then added in Wrays performance using a rear-screen projection. This in effect made the viewers think that Wray was actually on screen with King Kong. Audiences loved it. (Willis OBrien Special Effects Pioneer. Online. Netdoor. com. 4/13/04) King Kong set the standard for stop motion animation in films. Special effects of the 30s, 40s, and 50s relied heavily on makeup, camera tricks, and stop motion.

In the 1950s Ray Harryhausen, a protg of Willis OBrien, released a film that surpassed all previous efforts including his own. The film was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He used knowledge from previous projects to make his newest concoction. This time around he had more than one creature to animate, in contrast to his other films which only had one. His creatures included a Cyclops, a serpent woman, a dragon, the two-headed rocs, and the skeleton. Although stop-motion remained a tool of Harryhausen other directors embraced newer techniques. (The Seventh

Voyage of Sinbad: Behind the Scenes. Online. Fortunecity. com. 13/04) Barely a decade later Stanley Kubrick released his brain child 2001: A Space Odyssey. His unique design of the movie left many audiences confused, yet the younger generation loved it. Kubrick made the science fiction movie from a different angle, in comparison previous attempts. He made the film as technically credible as possible, where as prior efforts tried to make science fiction streamlined and futuristic. He used $6. 5 million (out of $10. 5 million) to use on special affects alone. The end result was amazing and even today it still holds up as a great technical achievement. (George C. Demet.

The Special Effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Online. Palantir. net. 3/04) Yet another leap in the area of special effects was Star Wars in 1977. George Lucas produced a film that raised the bar yet again for special effects and spawned Industrial Light and Magic Company, two sequels, two prequels, and a cult following. Audiences were amazed at how well Lucas used miniatures and pyrotechnics. Instead of a hospital sterile setting, Lucas focused on a gritty realism by using futuristic space vehicles that were grimy and dirty from battle and space travel as well as elaborately costumed characters from the seamier side of the universe.

As technically sound as his masterpieces were Lucas screwed them up by trying to fix them in the 1997 Star Wars: Special Edition Trilogy by addin crummy looking c. g. creatures and redoing famous scenes. The most recent phenomena was Peter Jacksons The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He and his team at Weta and Weta digital brought J. R. R. Tolkiens world to life almost seamlessly. Among the traditional techniques Jackson used were: A forced perspective (to make the actors playing the hobbits look short), huge miniatures called bigatures (one of which was scale) and also some animatronics.

Jackson also relied heavily on the use of computer graphics. The Weta Digital team created a totally lifelike creature Gollum, a new program to automatically fight major battles (called massive) and digitally filled in all the gaps that couldnt be captured on film. The end result was 3 films that captured audiences and critics attention, and won 17 Oscars collectively. (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Elijah Wood, Ian Mckellan, Viggo Mortenson, and Liv Tyler. New Line Cinema. 2001. and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Elijah Wood, Ian Mckellan, Viggo Mortenson, Liv Tyler, and Andy Serkis. New Line Cinema. 2002. )

All of the previous movies were examples of excellent special effects. Some films however attempted to wow people and ended up becoming labeled B-Movies. In the 1958 film The Screaming Skull the horrifying skull that is supposed to be haunting a man is so obviously on a string its not even funny. The special effects of 1976s Track of the Moon Beast are sorry and pitiful, especially in the final scene in which Johnny Longbow shoots the beast. It looks more like an 80s music video than a beast being tortured.

The endeavors in making a sci-fi classic of the film The Phantom Planet came off as obvious and corny. The take off from the moon is a poor excuse for a miniature. None of these movies are worth seeing, and have become a part of the late late picture show circuit and Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which Mike Nelson and his robot friends heckle these types of movie. What will the future hold in the area of special effects? Computers are doing everything nowadays and in the future they will be used more and more. As for the movies named here, they are classics and can be enjoyed by anyone for their landmark special effects.

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