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Special Effects

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3271 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Special Effects can be defined as a science and an art, which studies and applies the tools to fool human audio-visual sensory system, which perceive the events around us. Special effects focuses on making the unreal look alike real, or creating a non-existing event through a systematic approach.

Motion film and television industry have undergone a lot of vigorous development stages during the past few decades. Out of them Special Effects and Visual effects are to name a few. But the impact of special effects in both areas is tremendous and outstanding. They played a very crucial role in making these two entertainment mediums more popular and amusing than the others. The very recent term, -“Virtual Reality” was first introduced in Motion picture, when they portrayed scenes and characters which are impossible to exist in the real world. For example the Gorilla in the movie King Kong, and the robot transforming to a human being in the Terminator 1st part etc. They were very amusing at the time of these movies. Normal people could not imagine a scene where a Gorilla and a Dinosaur fighting. The first ever movement was Steven Spielberg”„¢s Jurassic Park, in which hundreds of Dinosaurs were made artificially and animated.

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There are various arguments and concepts about the special effects in the motion picture and television industry. As a source for my thesis, I have studied various journals, magazines and books. The Journal called Elastic Cinema, raises few questions about the special effects and its application in the cinema and television. The recent developments in cinema show that the industry is not going to slow down in terms of special effects and virtual reality. The amount of special effects we use in the cinema today is increasing everyday and becoming more and more complex in nature. Whether these developments are economically affordable? Are they going to help the industry in a positive way? Can they still contribute to the society in a good way as how the classic films did? These are the questions raised by the movie buffs and the movie lovers. But, as the technology and the science grow bigger, their responsibility towards the society also gets bigger. After all cinema and television is an entertainment medium, the questions which are raised above become less relevant. Cinema”„¢s primary objective is to entertain its audience. They some times amuse people in different ways. Special effects are considered to be the tool for creating this amusement.

The literatures which I have gone through clearly state the different stages and the development phases of Special effects/Special Effects (VFX/SFX). They also discuss how the invention and the rapid development of Special effects changed the face of the cinema and television. The way cinema and television programs were developed and created have been changed by the invention and implementation of SFX. SFX has actually helped them to produce the -“real” effect in the cinema. My study about the Special effects not only investigates the origin, development and the future of special effects, but also, its implementation in the industry and the software used in the production and development.

Special effects have always helped the film and television industry to achieve what they have always desired for. They were in fact the cutting edge tool for perfection. They have helped the film makers to portray the future reality. We can now see what the future holds for the Special Effects. SFX has been through vigorous development for more than 60 years now. Its history is written in golden scripts. SFX acts as tool to bridge the present and the future reality in film making. SFX has changed the movies”„¢ vision of making reality even more powerful. SFX has been successfully implemented in Science-Fiction cinemas. Their scope not only involves Sci-Fi movies but every areas of film production. Even the most normal and common movie or a television program we watch today involves a great deal of SFX implementation. Not every scene can be shot in real and SFX comes handy in these sorts of situations.

There are two key concepts in SFX. One is Visual effect and the later one is Physical Effect. Visual effects are -“any visual manipulation of motion picture frames, whether accomplished in cameras, projectors, optical printers, aerial image printers, front and rear screen systems” (Smith, 1986, p. 270). On the other hand Physical effects can be defined as -“mechanical effects or practical effects that take place on the set during filming, such as explosions, wire tricks, bullet hits, etc.” (p. 264). Apart from these there is one more term which is very commonly used in order to indicate the -“cinematic-illusion-of-reality”, which is -“reality effect” These are created by visual effects.

The effect of Visual effect on the audients is different. They actually artificially produce events which are impossible in reality. The possibilities are even more. The point is that, they are very successful in convincing the audience about what they are seeing. Special effects involve more expertise and skills than the physical effects like a car explosion or a train derailment, which are actually shot in a protected physical space. On the other hand the visual effects create something that never happened in the actual world, like the auto bots transforming in to automobiles, or the massive war in the movie -“Lord of the rings”, which portrays more than a million artificial soldiers with out even leaving an animation feel in the audients”„¢ mind.

Visual effects in the early ages, for example, Superman (1978) has used a mixture of both physical and visual effects, they have used pre-filmed backgrounds with live action. However, in today”„¢s world, visual effects can not only produce non existent illusions but also enhance the real-life-scenes. They help the film makers to reproduce or enhance the movie or a project with more detail. For example the latest version of Adobe After Effects and Adobe Premier Pro come with a lot of goodies in it like motion tracking and 3d layer editing etc.(www.adobe.com)

Computer graphics in motion film and television is becoming more and more complex day by day. -“Looking at effects films over the past few years, one could say that visual effects are following a kind of Moore’s Law, doubling in quality and quantity nearly every year”. (Phil LoPiccolo (Editor-in-Chief), Computer Graphics World, January 2005, in the editorial note) What we see in the screen will become outdated in the next day when next movie come out. A great deal of enthusiasm and skill is required to do the special effects in the way the director and the author visualize it in their mind. As Phil LoPiccolo states, SFX is following the Moore”„¢s law. The complexity and techniques keep doubling every day. The movie Lord of the Rings for example, casts nearly 70000 animated soldiers in a battle in the first part. The complexity and the number of effects has quadrupled by the third part in which they portrayed nearly 225000 animated characters and more than 1800 effects featured.

Computer graphics and 3D imaging has become more common and complex and also helped the movie to become more popular. The invention and the implementation of 3D imaging have revolutionized the Special effects and the movie industry. These days, movies with out special effects are very less and are considered odd. They are fuelling mechanism for commercial cinema. As we all know, not every scene is practically possible to shoot live, even in controlled environments. Special effects come handy in such cases. After the 1980s, digital imaging and special effects have started revolving around three major area, they are digital characters, digital world and digital events.

Technical experts in the early years had predicted that the technological advancement in the motion picture will replace the use of photographic techniques and the use of film eventually, but as of now, their enthusiasm seems very immature and inappropriate.

History of Special Effects

There are various methods to create a special effect. They can be generated through animation, miniatures or matte shots. Cartoons are a very good example of animations, they can either be computer generated or shot by a stop motion camera. The -“illusions-of-reality” in the early stages were generated by using paintings, miniatures, and false back grounds. Miniatures are used everywhere. Whether it is a small scale production or a large scale one, they are a very important factor of special effects. In early ages of special effects, film makers used live action combined with a false background or another play-back-scenery, which is done by another rear-projector. This technique is called -“rear projection”. But as the era of colour film began, these systems showed instability in terms of the light and shadows, they were difficult to achieve in the same amount. So the system called -“front projection” was implemented, where the camera is placed in the same place as the projector is placed.

Then came the technique of fast and slow motion. These effects are achieved by adjusting the frames per second aspect of the film shot. Normally a film is shot in 24 frames per second, anything grater than this will slow down the motion in the screen and vice versa. We can clearly see that these above mentioned techniques are achieved by manual operation, in other words they are camera techniques.

Computer aided film development and special effects were invented in a later stage. The combination of both computer and the film technology has given the film makers the advantage of -“illusion-of-reality”. They could easily manipulate and enhance the movie by using computer technology. A new era of sci-fi movie has begun with the invention of this technology. The technology brought them the ability to create physically impossible events in the silver screen and in the television.

Graphics and animation can be easily created with the help of a computer. These computer generated graphics are then combined with live footage with the technique called -“Analogue Image Synthesis”. Film is once scanned and exported to computer graphics, they are then manipulated by graphics and motion authoring software like After effects, combustion, 3DS Max, Maya etc, also they can include more animated and non animated objects in this computer generated film. Once the editing and compositing is completed, they are then exported to film again.

Another process include in the digital manipulation include -“Digital Compositing”. It is used to render the non-live objects into the film like dragons, fire etc. They uses miniatures and then capture its movements and converts them into actual movements in a computer software. Such innovations have fuelled the computer aided special effects in motion pictures.

George Mêlées, a Parisian magician is known as the inventor of many techniques in special effects until the date. Many of his techniques are still use such as motion stop camera, substitution shot, double exposure etc. He has also agreed that some of these techniques are accidentally happened. For example, the substitution technique has happened when he was shooting a moving mob. He stopped the camera for some time and restarted it from the last point. When he projected the final film, he was astonished to see that people disappearing from the screen. Later he used this technique in many films. This incident is considered as the first special effect ever.

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During the early years, films were only few minutes long, especially in between 1890 and 1910. They were 10 to 15 minutes long. They included simple common scenes like people moving or a market place, a town centre, a train station etc. Audients only wanted to see the moving pictures at that time; they were very much satisfied with the idea. Sooner movie makers started telling stories. These stories included real characters and film sets etc. During the First World War, they started making feature length movies (90 minutes long), which is forefather of today”„¢s motion picture.

A movie called -“The Great Train Robbery” which came out in 1903 directed by Edwin Porter. The movie used a matte painting effect in order to make the train passing cast through a window. They shot the train passing in the first sequence and they rewind it and recast the window matte. Everything was blacked out except the window. When the final film was projected people could see the train trough the window. This effect is said to be the first ever special effect using matte.

As the time passed by special effects become more complex and they started creating more and more realistic as the audients become more sophisticated. Since the 1926, the special effects were called as trick shots. During the 1920s European Film studios have started equipping special departments for special effects. Special effects had become a very important element of any motion picture by that time. As the time passed by and the audients have become more sophisticated, it had become almost impossible for film makers to fool audients with the normal techniques therefore they had to come up with more ideas. Then they invented the technique of the travel matte.

In the middle of the 20th century, with the invention of digital techniques and computer technologies, special effects have become more sophisticate and powerful. It has reached a level that even the whole movie could be produced with out any exterior exposure or shooting. This era of movies contains more than thousands of special effects and shots in a single movie.

Special effects have a rich and a vast history which is dated to the early 17th century, where magicians have become a part of the society. They used to use many techniques to fool the public; they used to do optical illusions to entertain their audients. Their techniques are said to be the base of special effects. One of the earliest effects is said to be the -“summoning of the dead”, where the magicians used the semitransparent sheets of historic people to project a ghostly type of motion. The equipments which they used to do this optical illusion have become very famous in the late 1970s. The first motion picture ever was made in 1985, sound have become a part of the movie only after 32 years. Motion picture had to travel through a lot of revolutionary changes until it reached midst of the 20th century, only then special effects have found its way to the movies and television.

In 1896, Robert W. Paul has developed a commercial film projector with Thomas Edison”„¢s Kinetoscope. He has built Europe”„¢s first film studio with all the necessary equipments like Dolly track and trap doors etc and produced his first motion film with few special effects in 1905.

20th century has seen many of the revolutionary developments in the special effects world. With the computers involved in the editing and the manipulation a new era has begun for the motion pictures and television. They could create virtually anything with the help of computers; let it be a building or people, or even a sequence of actions or events. Special effects have finally found its extreme heights with the help of computers.

Digital Technology

The computer aided designing, sound editing and authoring, special effects etc have revolutionized the motion film industry in the late 1990s. One of such movies which have implemented the extensive use of computer technology ever is Forrest Gump (1994), which cast an actor whose legs are blown off in a battle. They used the computer technology to erase his legs after the footage was shot. This movie is said to be the first movie which has successfully combined both the blue screen technique and computer graphics.

Role of Software in Special Effects

Software like Maya, Adobe after effects, Avid and 3DS Max etc have revolutionized the special effects galore in movies and television industry. They helped special effects creators to create, manipulate and animate the 3D models and create virtual scenes to create the virtual reality. Software like After effects and Combustion Studio have helped the creators to modify and blend the shots with the virtually created scenes, while maya and 3DS max stood for creating the backgrounds and miniature models and giving them the 3D aspect. These softwares being the industrial standard for special effects and 3D authoring, there are many more tools emerging day by day. As a successor to all these visual editing and creation tools, sound editing and authoring has also become a part of industry and also a part of the special effects. They could be both combined and used together in a successful way. Now, live-shots and editing could be done side-by-side using adobe after effects and such tools using the new timeline feature which they provide.


As an MSc student, my objectives are to narrate the history and the development of Special effects and stating its influences, motivations and advancements in different stages of its development. Also, identify the current scenarios and predict the futuristic developments and depict some of the techniques used in today”„¢s world. The software which I mainly use to depict the techniques in this dissertation are 3DS Max and Adobe after effects. I use 3DS max for creating 3d objects and giving them movements and creating the environment.


For most of the part, television is not considered as real, all that we could see fit in that tiny little box. It is a small little world what we see and the audients believe it. Televisions simulate the ideas; they do not shoot real events like the motion picture. In fact they can manipulate them to real-like events because the frame is very small. Being so unreal, television also will have to deal with the real world as well. It can be said as the combination of both real and unreal.


The visual effects which we see today are mostly generated from a combination of both modern and traditional methods. Getting the right effect on the right time requires more planning and organizing. Visual effects people’s job starts right before the actual production of the movie or a TV commercial. They have to plan things and shots. They also discuss the possibilities and the credibility of the particular shot and the special effect to be used. The techniques range from reproduction of sequences to compositing multiple frames and creating miniature digital models and motion tracking the machines etc. There are certain problems though, creating special effects with the moving camera is not an easy task, it is unless we use a locked off camera, but once the camera starts moving, the special effect crew will have to track the camera movements too, and then only they could actually recreate or manipulate the specific action or the event. Such problems and obstacles should be discussed prior to the production of the film or the feature.


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