The origins of special effects.
A history lesson.
Arguably, the first instance of special effects is Oscar Rejlander’s photo montage that combined 32 different negatives into a single image. However, some of the earliest movie special effects can be credited to Georges Méliès, who pioneered the use of the “stop trick.” For this little bit of magic, the camera is shut off, all the performers freeze, the scenery or set dressing is changed, and filming is resumed. Many early films had characters disappear or scenes suddenly change with this effect.
Méliès, an artist as well as a filmmaker, created numerous other special effects in more than 500 short films, using multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, animation, and hand-painted color. From there, the world of film expanded into dozens if not hundreds of other methods of special effects wizardry, leading to the development of a second field: visual effects.
Visual effects vs. special effects.
Special effects: Creature features and composites.
Some of the most classic special effects appear in creature features and monster films from the early 20th century. Many of these films feature some truly incredible prosthetics and monster suits. And you might think that we’ve advanced dramatically, but in many ways, some of the principles remain he same. Willis H. O’Brien created clay models (later rubber over wire meshes) that were painstakingly stop-motion animated for early Hollywood-era films like King Kong.
Frame by frame, the models were manipulated and moved to give the impression of a massive ape rampaging through New York. In later films like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, a hybrid of animatronics and animator-powered CGI brought dinosaurs to life.
Compositing, where a scene is filmed with a green screen background (or, in the earlier days of filmmaking, an actual screen with footage playing on it), allows filmmakers to place actors in vivid landscapes and otherworldly locales in live-action films. The cockpit of an X-Wing is easy to create in George Lucas’s sci-fi Star Wars films with the help of green screens.
Digital compositing is one of the best tools in the modern special effects arsenal. You can see it deployed as a visual metaphor in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, where musical numbers are often backed by composites. Or see it in Peter Jackson’s blockbuster The Lord of the Rings series, where massive city models are composited with compelling cinematography and matte paintings to look and feel real.
Visual effects: Digital worlds and alien critters.
Green screens and blue screens are hybrid tools bridging special and visual effects. The screen, a physical object, becomes the medium for the creation of digital effects. In contemporary filmmaking, visual effects are everywhere, from superhero films to science fiction epics. You see entire digital worlds that are created entirely with high-end computing technology.
Bookending the trajectory of digital visual effects are James Cameron’s films. The 1989 film The Abyss features a CGI sea alien that wowed audiences at the time, even though by today’s standards, it might seem rudimentary. He followed it up with a metal monster in Terminator 2 that shows its age a bit. The same cannot be said for Avatar, which created an entirely CGI world and landscape for characters to inhabit, and required an animation team of more than 900 people to create, as well as a lot of motion capture suits.
Visual effects teams are often massive as well. “For even small scale visual effects, we’ve got lighters, we’ve got compositors, the visual effects artists. You’re often building entire simulations, and that requires a team,” says D’Anjou. The choice of whether to use special effects or visual effects is often a financial one, bound by constraints in funding or personnel.
When and where to use SFX.
Special effects and visual effects are tools for realizing the vision of a filmmaking team. It’s often easy to forget the “tool” part. Special and visual effects serve a particular purpose, which is immersing your audience in the story you are trying to tell. The choice can be high stakes too. “I’ve worked on projects where we used 23 cameras to get a scene just right, and we only had one or two tries to get it right,” says Bernstein.
A common refrain at a first-time film shoot or a student film shoot is the phrase “We’ll fix it in post.” Often, VFX are used to repair mistakes made during a shoot, and while that can be very useful, it gets away from the intentionality that good filmmaking needs. Going in with a shooting script and a visual effects plan will keep budding filmmakers on task and on target, and the dividends will pay out.
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