Special effects are those techniques employed in moving image technologies to provide images other than those recorded by simply opening the camera’s shutter and recording. In some cases the entire image may be produced using non-camera techniques. Alternatively, events may be staged or images altered to produce special effects. Special effects (hereafter “effects”) may usefully be divided between (1) physical effects produced in front of the camera; (2) effects produced in the camera; (3) effects produced during printing; and (4) effects produced during editing. A fifth, relatively rare category of effects is produced at the point of reception.
Christian Metz (1974) identified five codes of cinema: photography, music, dialogue, sound effects, and writing. He did not include a graphical code for animation, even for the ubiquitous rostrum camera animation of title sequences. And yet, since animation in its various forms is the earliest of all special effects (in the work of J. Stuart Blackton, Emile Cohl, and Georges Méliès) and ubiquitous in contemporary effects work, it should be understood not only as a code, but perhaps the code of the moving image. The cartoon employs “cel animation,” in which individual drawings are photographed frame by frame. In many studio-produced animations, these drawings are created on transparent cels, which can be laid over and moved in relation to one another. Stopmotion animation places physical models in front of the camera, performing small movements of the model between the exposure of successive frames. Both techniques can be combined with live action (as in the 1933 King Kong), as can the many experimental techniques developed over the last century. Manovich (2001) asserts that the very principle of cinematography – animated photographs – is only a subset of the wider field of animation.
Effects Produced In Front Of The Camera
Effects produced in front of the camera are not restricted to cels and models. Set design draws on the history of theatrical technique to produce illusionistic effects, such as forced perspective, in which the appearance of depth is increased by making props further from the camera considerably smaller than those close to it. Even locations are usually dressed before a shoot: props physically removed or added, for example to secure a period look. More clearly “effects” than set construction or dressing, stunts are typically carried out by doubles or extras, and by trained animals, whose wranglers can be major participants in films like Babe. Horse-mounted actors have been shot on trailers being pulled through locations from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky to Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Virtual aviators have flown earthbound mock-ups of planes for more than half a century, and more than one plane crash has been staged by dropping a mocked-up aircraft into a studio tank. Squibs full of blood have exploded on actors’ bodies for decades; their weapons have fired powder charges; fisherfolk have withstood dump tanks full of water, and some have died as their cardboard temples crashed to the ground.
Pro-filmic devices (events constructed in order to be filmed) include pyrotechnics and miniatures (and miniature pyrotechnics). Many events (the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, for example, which involved setting fire to the old King Kong set) are too expensive to stage more than once, requiring multiple cameras to ensure adequate footage is recorded. Others pose challenges of scale: water notoriously acts very differently at miniature scales, and often requires chemical additives in order to move and reflect light appropriately. Smashable sugar-crystal bottles, fly-away sets and self-dismantling furniture for fight scenes, and the kind of costuming made notorious by Howard Hughes’s obsessive construction of a brassière for Jane Russell in The Outlaw, indicate the degree to which props, makeup, costume, and hairstyling construct performers as effects for the camera; while we should not forget that acting too is a mode of illusionism that might well be included in the category. This is the more apparent when we consider motion-capture technologies used to produce virtual actors or “synthespians” like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.
Special Effects Cameras
Cameras themselves have been developed to shoot underwater, from the air, dangled from ropes, or tied to stampeding cattle. The development of steadicam in the 1980s permitted the fluidity of hand-held camerawork with the stability of a tripod. In addition to stop-motion, cameras can also be adjusted to shoot faster or slower than the standard 24 (film) or 25 (television) frames per second to produce, respectively, slowed-down or speeded-up imagery. Film stocks sensitive to nonvisible light (used in motion capture, but also for night-vision sequences) have found a place in a number of action series and films, as have micro-photographic devices capable of recording even the interior of living bodies.
Matte painting, in which elements of a scene, such as the sky, that otherwise might not be photographable are painted onto glass sheets in front of the camera, are used, for example, in the long shots of Tara in Gone with the Wind. Unpainted areas are photographed as they are (with the addition of lighting), and the camera adjusted so that both painted glass sheet and the scene beyond it are in focus. Back projection, of the kind used extensively by Hitchcock, involves careful adjustment of projection onto a glass-bead screen, in front of which actors play out, for example, the action of driving, while the rear-projected scenery recedes behind them. Matching actions, color, shadows, and focus in mattes and rear-projection requires extreme precision, even now that they are largely digitized.
Printing And Editing Of Film
Printing is one of the stages of film production least discussed in the literature, yet one that has retained its importance during the change to digital. The key device is an optical printer, through which pass one exposed and one unexposed strip simultaneously, transferring the image from one onto the other. Interventions in this process include grading, the matching of color and tonality from one shot to the next, and superimposition, involving the printing of two images onto a single strip. Variants on superimposition include a variety of editing effects, such as dissolves, fades, wipes, and irises. Especially important is the related technique of masking off segments of the film strip so that different areas of the resulting image, printed during separate passes through the optical printer, appear to occur at the same time and place, as in the climactic steadicam race through the forest in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
With the move to digital editing, many techniques that were the province of the other moments of production have moved to the cutting room. Some new effects have become available, such as the shot transitions afforded by morphing software (Sobchack 2000), and digital grading, which allows changes to parts of images as well as the whole frame. Specialized and therefore expensive techniques like mattes and rearprojection are combined with in-camera, editing, and printing effects in digital compositing for economic as well as aesthetic reasons. For The Return of the King, location stills of mountains were combined to produce a massive range, over which elements from several location shoots of clouds and weather were blended digitally to create a digital cyclorama as backdrop to the final battle. Into this were added live actors, many wearing prosthetics and all equipped with lavishly detailed costumes and props, their stunt doubles, extras, and horses, digitally created 3D animals, and an army of virtual soldiers engineered to exhibit different kinds of behavior. In all, over 40 layers of miscellaneous footage from different sources were combined into the final shots. This process, known as compositing, is today the apogee of the craft hierarchy in moving image production.
Effects Produced In Reception
A final category of effects belongs more properly to reception. These include such effects as 3D, which uses either separate red and blue (or red and green) projections or polarized light that, when viewed through the appropriate eyeglasses, produces illusion that objects on the screen project outward into the auditorium. Other effects include the use of tiny electric shocks to selected seats in the auditorium for the eponymous The Tingler, and the highly regarded scratch-and-sniff cards provided by John Waters for Polyester.
Many projection technologies have presented themselves as special effects, starting with those of the Lumière Brothers themselves (inventors not only of cine projection but of the massive widescreen Domitor system), passing through Cinemascope, to arrive at IMAX and theme-park movie rides. Similarly, advertising for domestic technologies, including home movie theaters, high-definition TV, plasma screens, and digital light programming (DLP) projectors, indicate the persistent persuasive allure of spectacle and verisimilitude.
Special effects are no longer special. The economic efficiency of digital editing allows film and program makers the option of “fixing it in post,” leaving flaws that would once have been physically removed, or sets that would once have been built or visited, to be painted out or constructed digitally in even the lowest-budget films. Tricks such as Warner’s use Special Effects
of limited numbers of key lights to hide shoddy sets have become stylistic tropes in films like Sin City. As Michelle Pierson (2002) observes, many effects have ceased to be marvelous, and vanished into the fabric of the narrative world. To this extent, as Metz (1977, 657) noted, “to some extent, all cinema is a special effect,” and the same can be said of television.
Even documentary can be seen as “special” when it shows us events that we would otherwise never witness, be they war-torn villages or spectacular wildlife. As domestic footage of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami evidenced, even amateurs produce footage at which we can only marvel. Simultaneously, however, contemporary audiences are now not only willing dupes but also critical connoisseurs of special effects. Films frequently address this double spectatorship in narratives whose culmination lies in the dispersal of illusion, the end of magic, or the destruction of the marvelous monster (LaValley 1985).
As special effects migrate from science fiction to the mundane world of police procedural TV series, and as the tools for producing digital animations and composites migrate to domestic technologies, it appears that the demands of viewers have moved increasingly toward films and, especially, television programs that promise authenticity. But with reality TV, perhaps, we witness the effect of this upsurge of interest: the industrial production of authenticity as a system of melodramatic signs. These contradictions indicate that the purpose of special effects, and of the moving image in general, is not, or not only, or no longer, to represent the world aright. Introducing technology as a partner in communication rather than an obstacle to be surmounted, effects techniques and technologies now indicate that the purpose of media is to mediate.
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- Bukatman, S. (2003). Matters of gravity: Special effects and supermen in the 20th century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Klein, N. M. (2004). The Vatican to Vegas: A history of special effects. New York: New Press.
- La Valley, A. J. (1985). Traditions of trickery: The role of special effects in the science fiction film. In G. Slusser & E. S. Rabkin (eds.), Shadows of the magic lantern: Fantasy and the science fiction film. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 141–158.
- Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Metz, C. (1974). Film language: A semiotics of the cinema (trans. M. Taylor). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Metz, C. (1977). Trucage and the film. Critical Inquiry, 3(4), 657–675.
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- Pierson, M. (2002). Special effects: Still in search of wonder. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Sobchack, V. (ed.) (2000). Meta-morphing: Visual transformation and the culture of quick-change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.