The origins of special effects.
Filmmakers have used cameras to create trickery and delight audiences since the inception of the camera. Creating magic and illusions is one of the most exciting tools in the filmmaking arsenal, and special and visual effects (SFX and VFX) are the juice that powers the show.
“Special effects is an art. While many special effects artists never went to art school, usually they have a background in drawing, sculpting, and painting,” says director Darion D’Anjou. You can see that artistry on display in the history of the form.
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 and visual effects are often conflated, but they are different. While there are further subcategories, special effects are often practical, meaning that they are artificially created on set (for example, a controlled explosion in an action scene). Visual effects, on the other hand, are created in post-production or the editing bay. Early visual effects saw filmmakers toying with film stock, while modern visual effects deal in animation, computer generated imagery (CGI), and other post-production effects.
Each has its strengths and weaknesses. “Special effects can be preferable in many instances, because your actors can respond to the effects on set, and you get lighting effects and other features you would otherwise have to create digitally, often at great expense,” says director Steven Bernstein. However, special effects often require specialized equipment, trained professionals, and careful choreography, which can be challenging for many new filmmakers. Visual effects, on the other hand, open boundless visual possibilities to a filmmaker, the only limit being technical competence and creative vision.