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Special effects

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Lasers were used in the 2005 Classical Spectacular concert Lasers were used in the 2005 Classical Spectacular concert

Special effects (abbreviated SPFX or SFX) are used in the film, television, and entertainment industry to visualize scenes that cannot be achieved by normal means, such as space travel. They are also used when creating the effect by normal means is prohibitively expensive, such as an enormous explosion. They are also used to enhance previously filmed elements, by adding, removing or enhancing objects within the scene.

Many different visual special effects techniques exist, ranging from traditional theater effects or elaborately staged as in the "machine plays" of the Restoration spectacular, through classic film techniques invented in the early 20th century, such as aerial image photography and optical printers, to modern computer graphics techniques (CGI). Often several different techniques are used together in a single scene or shot to achieve the desired effect.

Special effects are often "invisible." That is to say that the audience is unaware that what they are seeing is a special effect. This is often the case in historical movies, where the architecture and other surroundings of previous eras is created using special effects.


Developmental history

In 1895, when the film industry was just starting out, Alfred Clarke created what is commonly accepted as the first-ever special effect. While filming a reenactment of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, Clarke instructed an actor to step up to the block in Mary's costume. As the executioner brought the axe above his head, Clarke stopped the camera, had all of the actors freeze, and had the person playing Mary step off the set. He placed a Mary dummy in the actor's place, rolled the tape, and allowed the executioner to bring the axe down, severing the dummy's head. “Such… techniques would remain at the heart of special effects production for the next century” (Rickitt, 10). This was the first time an effect was used in film to make the audience believe that something that wasn't happening was. Clarke tricked his audience into believing what they saw was real, and from that moment on, nothing shown in film could be believed to have happened. In 1935, RKO studios produced Becky Sharp, the first commercial film to use Technicolor. The ability to produce color films added to the look of reality of film. During World War II, black and white films were the most common in the new popular war movies, but a new phenomenon had reached filmmakers; the use of miniatures.

To create complex shots of airplanes leaving a ship, or a fleet of aircraft carriers moving across the ocean, the producers of the movie used a large tank of water with model boats and planes and filmed the shot. Using special machines to produce waves, the filmmakers were able to create realistic shots of boats and airplanes. “Films such as Ships with Wings (1942) relied on model ships, planes, and miniature pyrotechnics for their portrayal of war” (Rickitt, 23). This posed a question to audiences; how do we know what is real and what is unreal?

Then, in 1977, a new blockbuster movie hit the market: Star Wars, directed by George Lucas. What made Star Wars unique was that it created so many of its own original effects. The lightsabers that the actors fought with got their glowing effect by drawing directly on the film stock, and the same technique was later applied to the laser beams the Tie-fighters shot at the X-wings. Lucas' effects shop's biggest innovatios were to use the outdated VistaVision cameras that used larger film cells so that when the effects were composited and transferred to standard film stock the effects looked as clean as the non-effects shots (previously when such bluescreen effects were composited they appeared grainy and blurry compared to the rest of the film). A variety of techniques to shoot the ships in space included running the models down wires and having the models stand still and the camera move. Another big innovation was the perfection of the motion control system enabling a camera to make multiple identical passes. Following success of Star Wars and planning a sequel, Lucas turned the effects shop created for one movie into Industrial Light and Magic for The Empire Strikes Back.

In 1993, Lucas' close friend, Steven Spielberg, directed Jurassic Park. This film used computer generated imagery (CGI) to create realistic monsters without the use of stop motion, which was not always successful. What Spielberg did was to film the scene with the actors acting as though their dinosaur counterparts were there, then he scanned the film into a computer, and added the dinosaurs in afterwards. This new technology really pushed special effects to new heights. Two years later, entire films could be made on a computer such as Toy Story (1995). Audiences had lost all sense of reality in film, if indeed there had been any since 1896, with the new CGI. Everything on screen now looked so real that it was almost impossible to tell what was a backlot set, or an actor in costume, or what was entirely or mostly produced on a computer. Many fear that we have lost the comfort of knowing that what we see isn't real, due to the ever-changing effect industry.

Special effects animation

Also known as simply effects animation, special effects animation is a specialization of the traditional animation and computer animation processes. Anything that moves in an animated film and is not a character (who are handled by character animators) is considered a special effect, and is left up to the special effects animators to create. Effects animation tasks can include animating cars, trains, rain, snow, fire, magic, shadows, or other non-character entities, objects, and phenomena.

Sometimes, special processes are used to produce effects animation instead of drawing or rendering. Rain, for example, has been created in Disney films since the late-1930s by filming slow-motion footage of water in front of a black background, with the resulting film superimposed over the animation.

Among the most notable effects animators in history are A.C. Gamer from Termite Terrace/Warner Bros.; and Joshua Meador, Cy Young, Mark Dindal, and Randy Fullmer from the Walt Disney animation studio.

Special effects animation is also common in live-action films to create certain images that cannot be traditionally filmed. In that respect, special effects animation is more commonplace than character animation, since special effects of many different types and varieties have been used in film for a century.

Visual special effects techniques in rough order of invention

  • practical effects
    in-camera effects
    miniature effects
    Schüfftan process
    matte paintings
  • rotoscoping
  • Dolly zoom
    optical effects
    travelling matte
    prosthetic makeup effects
    motion control photography
    Audio-Animatronic models
    digital compositing
    wire removal
  • computer-generated imagery
  • match moving
    Virtual cinematography

CGI versus SFX

Effects that are created via computers, or during editing are known as CGI (Computer generated Imagery) Effects, or Visual effects — not Special Effects. Special Effects are those effects which are created during filming on-set, such as bullet hits, fire, flame, and explosions, wind, rain, etc. AI refers to "Artificial Intelligence." It is the creation of a computer generated character who has the ability to think and make decisions for itself.

Landmark movies

  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Created Massive Software, prosthetic work, digital effects)
  • The Day After Tomorrow (prolonged digital shots, playing with "weather effects")
  • Star Wars (Creation of original, practical effects)
  • Tron (Digital Animation)
  • The Terminator (digital effects)
  • Independence Day (Digital effects combined with small-scale models)
  • Jurassic Park (Large animatronics, creating creatures from scratch)
  • Amadeus (Old age stipple, era effects)
  • The Birds (Male/Female Matte developments)
  • Titanic (Model work, scaling water)
  • Toy Story (Computer Animation)
  • Buddy (Anamatronics)
  • The Matrix Trilogy (Digital effects)
  • King Kong (2005) (Motion Capture)
  • Final Fantasy (2001) (Full Human Actors Animation)

Special effect software

  • Inferno
  • Final Cut Pro
  • trukor (mac guff)
  • symbor (mac guff)
  • Shake
  • Motion
  • Nuke
  • Avid
  • Sony Vegas
  • Pinnacle
  • Avid Liquid
  • Adobe After Effects
  • Combustion


  • Special Effects: The History and Technique by Richard Rickitt

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Movies, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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