Special effects

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Lasers were used in the 2005 Classical Spectacular concert.

Special effects (abbreviated SPFX or SFX) are used by the film, television, and entertainment industries to realize scenes, such as space travel, that cannot be achieved by live action or normal means.

They are also used when creating the effect by normal means is prohibitively expensive; for example, it would be extremely expensive to construct a sixteenth-century castle or to sink a twentieth-century ocean liner, but these can be simulated with special effects. With the advent of computer graphics imaging, special effects are also used to enhance previously-filmed elements, by adding, removing or enhancing objects within the scene.

Someday, special effects may go beyond visual. Already, there are attractions that use special effects in a simulator environment. These rides include the use of moving chairs and added scents to enhance the experience. As people become more creative and wanting different experiences, multi-sensual items may become attainable in the average home. As it is now, people can buy a home theater that will literally shake their house using a sub-woofer. This adds to the experience of movies with such things as explosions or any loud scenes.

Many different 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 twentieth century, such as aerial image photography and optical printers, to modern computer-generated imagery (CGI). Often several different techniques are used together in a single scene or shot to achieve the desired effect.

Special effects are traditionally divided into two types. The first type is optical effects (also called visual or photographic effects), which rely on manipulation of a photographed image. Optical effects can be produced with either photographic (that is, optical printer) or visual (that is, CGI) technology. A good example of an optical effect would be a scene in Star Trek depicting the USS Enterprise flying through space.

The second type is mechanical effects (also called practical or physical effects), which are accomplished during the live-action shooting. These include mechanized props, scenery, and pyrotechnics. Examples include the ejector seat of James Bond's Aston Martin, R2D2 in the Star Wars films, or the zero-gravity effects employed in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

History of development

In 1895, 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, restarted filming, 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 2000, 10).

This was not only the first use of trickery in the cinema, it was the first type of photographic trickery that could only be done in a motion picture (i.e., the "stop trick").

In 1896, French magician Georges Melies accidentally discovered the same "stop trick." According to Melies, his camera jammed while filming a street scene in Paris. When he screened the film, he found that the "stop trick" had caused a truck to turn into a hearse, pedestrians to change direction, and men turn into women. Melies, the stage manager at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, was inspired to develop a series of more than 500 short films, between 1896 and 1914, in the process developing or inventing such techniques as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand painted color. Because of his ability to seemingly manipulate and transform reality with the cinematography, the prolific Méliès is sometimes referred to as the "Cinemagician." He used this trick when shooting his eight-and-a-half minute famous Nickelodeon based on Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. This video featured a combination of live action and animation, and also incorporated extensive miniature and matte painting work.

During the 1920s and 1930s, special effects techniques were improved and refined by the motion picture industry. Many techniques were modifications of illusions from the theater (such as Pepper's Ghost) and still photography (such as double exposure and matte compositing). Rear projection was a refinement of the use of painted backgrounds in the theater—only substituting moving pictures to create moving backgrounds.

But several techniques soon developed that, like the "stop trick," were wholly original to motion pictures. Animation, creating the illusion of motion, was accomplished with drawings (most notably by Winsor McCay in Gertie the Dinosaur) and with three-dimensional models (most notably by Willis O'Brien in The Lost World and King Kong).

Also, the challenge of simulating spectacle in motion encouraged the development of the use of miniatures. Naval battles could be depicted with models in studio tanks, and airplanes could be flown (and crashed) without risk of life and limb. Most impressively, miniatures and matte paintings could be used to depict worlds that never existed, such as the massive city of Fritz Lang's film Metropolis.

An important innovation in special-effects photography was the development of the optical printer. Essentially, an optical printer is a projector aiming into a camera lens, and it was developed to make copies of films for distribution. Until its refinement by Linwood Dunn, A.S.C., effects shots were accomplished as an in-camera effect, but Dunn expanded on the device, demonstrating that it could be used to combine images in novel ways and create new illusions. One early showcase for Dunn was Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, where such locations as Xanadu (and some of Gregg Toland's famous 'deep focus' shots) were essentially created by Dunn's optical printer.

As the industry progressed, special effects techniques kept pace. The development of color photography required greater refinement of effects techniques. Also, color enabled the development of such travelling matte techniques as bluescreen and the sodium vapor process. Many films include landmark scenes in special-effects accomplishments: Forbidden Planet used matte paintings, animation, and miniature work to create spectacular alien worlds. In The Ten Commandments, Paramount's John P. Fulton, A.S.C., multiplied the crowds of extras in the Exodus scenes, depicted the massive constructions of Rameses, and split the Red Sea in a still-impressive combination of travelling mattes and water tanks.

If one film could be said to have established the high-water mark for special effects, it would be 1968's 2001:A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. In this film, the spaceship miniatures were highly detailed and carefully photographed for a realistic depth of field. The shots of spaceships were combined through hand-drawn rotocscopes and careful motion-control work, ensuring that the elements were combined in the camera—a surprising throwback to the silent era, but with spectacular results. Backgrounds of the African vistas in the Dawn of Man sequence were created with the then-new front projection technique. The finale, a voyage through hallucinogenic scenery, was created by Douglas Trumbull using a new technique termed slit-scan. Even today, the effects scenes remain impressive, realistic, and awe-inspiring.

The year, 1977, was a watershed year in the special effects industry, because of two blockbuster films. George Lucas's film Star Wars ushered in an era of fantasy films with expensive and impressive special-effects. Effects supervisor John Dykstra and crew developed many improvements in existing effects technology. They developed a computer-controlled camera rig called the "Dykstraflex" that allowed precise repeatability of camera motion, greatly facilitating travelling-matte compositing. Degradation of film images after compositing was minimized by other innovations: the Dykstraflex used VistaVision cameras that photographed widescreen images horizontally along stock, using far more of the film per frame, and thinner-emulsion filmstocks were used in the compositing process.

That same year, Steven Spielberg's film Close Encounters of the Third Kind boasted a finale with impressive special effects by 2001 veteran Douglas Trumbull. In addition to developing his own motion-control system, Trumbull also developed techniques for creating intentional "lens flare" (the shapes created by light reflecting in camera lenses to provide the film's undefinable shapes of flying saucers.

These two films reflected a new sensibility among special effects technicians. Previously, studios were content to use the old techniques to achieve serviceable illusions. But a generation of technicians who weren't fooled by the old techniques now had the means (i.e., massive studio investment in effects-heavy films) to improve every tool in the special effects arsenal. Lucas, after the success of Star Wars, founded an innovative effects house called Industrial Light and Magic, which has spearheaded most effects innovations over the last few decades.

The single greatest recent innovation in special effects was the development of CGI, noted below. Although it had been used to striking effect in such films as Young Sherlock Holmes, its most impressive early use has come in films by James Cameron (The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day).

In 1993, Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park used CGI to create realistic dinosaurs—an indication that many of the older effects techniques would be changed radically if not rendered obsolete. Stop-motion animators working on the film were quickly retrained in the use of computer input devices. Digital compositing avoided the inherent graininess of optical compositing. Digital imagery enabled technicians to create detailed matte "paintings," miniatures, and even crowds of computer-generated people.

By 1995, films such as Toy Story underscored that the distinction between live-action films and animated films was no longer clear. Images could be created in a computer using the techniques of animated cartoons. It is now possible to create any image entirely inside a computer and have it look completely realistic to an audience.

Special effects animation

Also known as 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 (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. A classic case of this would be the lightsabres and laser-bolts in the original Star Wars, or the Monster from the ID from Forbidden Planet, both of which were created by rotoscopy.

Sometimes, special processes are used to produce effects animation instead of drawing or rendering. Rain, for example, has been created in Walt Disney Feature Animation/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.

Optical printer

An optical printer with two projector heads, used in producing special effects in movies. On the left, a light shines from the lamp house. At A is the first projector's film gate, and at B is a lens that projects the film in A onto the second projector's gate C. The camera lens is at D, the camera's finder is at E, and the adjustable shutter control, at F. All the electronics needed for controlling the printer are located in the heavy base, G.

An optical printer is a device consisting of one or more film projectors mechanically linked to a movie camera. It allows filmmakers to re-photograph one or more strips of film. The optical printer is used for making special effects for motion pictures, or for copying and restoring old film material.

Common optical effects include fade-outs and fade-ins, dissolves, slow motion, fast motion, and matte work. More complicated work can involve dozens of elements, all combined into a single scene. Ideally, the audience in a theater should not be able to notice any optical printers work, but this is not always the case. For economical reasons, especially in the 1950s, and later in TV series produced on film, printer work was limited to only the actual parts of a scene needing the effect, so there is a clear change in the image quality when the transition occurs.

The first, simple optical printers were constructed early in the 1920s. Linwood G. Dunn expanded the concept in the 1930s, and the development continued well into the 1980s, when the printers were controlled with minicomputers.

In the late 1980s, digital compositing began to supplant optical effects. Since the mid nineties the conversion to digital effects has been virtually total. Consequently, optical printing today is used most widely by individual artists working exclusively with film. As a technique, it proves particularly useful for making copies of hand painted or physically manipulated film.

Computer-generated imagery

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is the application of the field of computer graphics (or more specifically, 3D computer graphics) to special effects.[1] CGI is used in films, television programs and commercials, and print media. Video games most often use real-time computer graphics (rarely referred to as CGI), but may also include pre-rendered "cut scenes" and intro movies that would be typical CGI applications. These are referred to as FMV.

CGI is used for visual effects because the quality is often higher and effects are more controllable than other more physically based processes, such as constructing miniatures for effects shots or hiring extras for crowd scenes, and because it allows the creation of images that would not be feasible using any other technology. It can also allow a single artist to produce content without the use of actors, expensive set pieces, or props.

Recent accessibility of CGI software and increased computer speeds has allowed individual artists and small companies to produce professional grade films, games, and fine art from their home computers. This has brought about an Internet subculture with its own set of global celebrities, clichés, and technical vocabulary.

Between 1995 and 2005, the average effects budget for a wide-release feature film skyrocketed from $5 million to $40 million. According to one studio executive, as of 2005, more than half of feature films have significant effects.[2]

History of CGI

2D CGI was first used in movies in 1973's Westworld, though the first use of 3D imagery was in its sequel, Futureworld (1976), which featured a computer-generated hand and face created by then University of Utah graduate students Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke. The second movie to use this technology was Star Wars (1977) for the scenes with the Death Star plans. The first two films to make heavy investments in CGI, Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984), were commercial failures, causing most directors to relegate CGI to images that were supposed to look like they were created by a computer. The first real CGI character was created by Pixar for the film Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985 (not counting the simple polyhedron character Bit in Tron). It took the form of a knight composed of elements from a stained glass window. Photorealistic CGI did not win over the motion picture industry until 1989, when The Abyss won the Academy Award for Visual Effects. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) produced photorealistic CGI visual effects, most notably a seawater creature dubbed the pseudopod, featuring in one scene of the film. CGI then took a central role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), when the T-1000 Terminator villain wowed audiences with liquid metal and morphing effects fully integrated into action sequences throughout the film. Terminator 2 also won ILM an Oscar for its effects.

It was the 1993 film Jurassic Park, however, where the dinosaurs appeared so life-like and the movie integrated CGI and live-action so flawlessly, that revolutionized the movie industry. It marked Hollywood’s transition from stop-motion animation and conventional optical effects to digital techniques.

The following year, CGI was used to create the special effects for Forrest Gump. The most noteworthy effects shots were the digital removal of actor Gary Sinise's legs. Other effects included a napalm strike, fast-moving Ping-Pong balls and the feather in the title sequence.

2D CGI increasingly appeared in traditionally animated films, where it supplemented the use of hand-illustrated cels. Its uses ranged from digital tweening motion between frames, to eye-catching quasi-3D effects such as the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast.

In 1995, the first fully computer-generated feature film, Pixar's (The Walt Disney Company) Toy Story, was a resounding commercial success. Additional digital animation studios such as Blue Sky Studios (Fox), DNA Productions (Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.), Onation Studios (Paramount Pictures), Sony Pictures Animation (Columbia Pictures), Vanguard Animation (Walt Disney Pictures, Lions Gate Films and 20th Century Fox), Big Idea Productions (Universal Pictures and FHE Pictures) and Pacific Data Images (Dreamworks SKG) went into production, and existing animation companies such as The Walt Disney Company began to make a transition from traditional animation to CGI.

In 1999, Star Wars—Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the first movie to integrate CGI characters and setting into a live-action film.

In the early 2000s, computer-generated imagery became the dominant form of special effects. The technology progressed to the point that it became possible to include virtual stunt doubles that were nearly indistinguishable from the actors they replaced. Camera tracking software was refined to allow increasingly complex visual effects developments that were previously impossible. Computer-generated extras also became used extensively in crowd scenes with advanced flocking and crowd simulation software. The timeline of CGI in movies shows a detailed list of pioneering uses of computer-generated imagery in film and television.

CGI for films is usually rendered at about 1.4–6 megapixels (MP). Toy Story, for example, was rendered at 1536 × 922 (1.42MP). The time to render one frame is typically around 2–3 hours, with ten times that for the most complex scenes. This time hasn't changed much in the last decade, as image quality has progressed at the same rate as improvements in hardware, since with faster machines, more and more complexity becomes feasible. Exponential increases in GPUs processing power, as well as massive increases in parallel CPU power, storage and memory speed and size have greatly increased CGI's potential.

In 2001, Square Pictures created the CGI film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which featured highly detailed and photographic-quality graphics. The film was not a box-office success. Some commentators have suggested this may be partly because the lead CGI characters had facial features which fell into the uncanny valley. After creating one more film using a similar visual style (Final Flight of the Osiris, a short film which served as a prologue to The Matrix Reloaded), Square Pictures closed down.

However, as the newly-merged SquareEnix, they released another purely-CGI-done film in fall 2006 titled Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. It has been since credited as a breakthrough in CGI performance

Developments in CGI technologies are reported each year at SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group for Computer GRAPHics), an annual conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques, attended each year by tens of thousands of computer professionals.

Developers of computer games and 3D video cards strive to achieve the same visual quality on personal computers in real-time as is possible for CGI films and animation. With the rapid advancement of real-time rendering quality, artists began to use game engines to render non-interactive movies. This art form is called machinima.

Creating characters and objects on a computer

3D computer animation combines 3D modeling with programmed movement. Models are constructed out of geometrical vertices, faces, and edges in a true 3D coordinate system. Objects are sculpted much like real clay or plaster, working from general forms to specific details with various sculpting tools. A bone/joint system is set up to deform the 3d mesh (i.e. to make a humanoid model walk). In a process called rigging, the virtual marionette is given various controllers and handles for an animator to manipulate. The character "Woody" in Pixar's movie Toy Story, for example, uses 700 specialized animation controllers. In the 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, designers had to completely create forces of extreme weather with only the help of video references and accurate meteorological fact.

For the 2005 remake of King Kong, actor Andy Serkis was used to help designers pinpoint the gorilla's prime location in the shots and used his expressions to model "human" characteristics onto the creature.

Digital grading

One of the less obvious CGI effects in movies is digital grading. This is a computer process in which sections of the original image are color corrected using special processing software. A detail that was too dark in the original shot can be lit and enhanced in this post-production process. For example, in Star Trek: First Contact, digital grading was used to turn Picard's face blue as his Borg assimilation is shown, and in The Lord of the Rings digital grading was used to drain the color from Sean Bean's face as his character died.

Visual effects

Visual effects (vfx) is the term given to a sub-category of special effects in which images or film frames are created or manipulated for film and video. Visual effects usually involve the integration of live-action footage with CGI or other elements (such as pyrotechnics or model work) in order to create environments or scenarios which look realistic, but would be dangerous, costly, or simply impossible to capture on film. They have become increasingly common in big-budget films, and have also recently become accessible to the amateur filmmaker with the introduction of affordable animation and compositing software.

Visual effects are frequently integral to a movie's story and appeal. Although most visual-effects work is completed during post-production, it usually must be carefully planned and choreographed in pre-production and production.

Visual effects may be divided into at least four categories:

  • Models: miniature sets and models, animatronics
  • Matte paintings and stills: digital or traditional paintings or photographs which serve as background plates for keyed or rotoscoped elements
  • Live-action effects: keying actors or models through bluescreening and greenscreening
  • Digital animation: modeling, Computer graphics lighting, texturing, rigging, animating, and rendering computer generated 3D characters, particle effects, digital sets, backgrounds, etc.

Physical effects

Physical effects is the term given to a sub-category of special effects in which mechanical or physical effects are recorded. Physical effects are usually planned in preproduction and created in production.

Physical effects may be divided into at least four categories:

  • Explosions
  • Special mechanical rigs
  • Support systems: wires supporting actors
  • Stunts

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
  • aerial image effects
  • optical printing
  • bluescreen
  • prosthetic makeup effects
  • motion control photography
  • Audio-Animatronic models
  • digital compositing
  • wire removal
  • morphing
  • match moving
  • Virtual cinematography

Landmark movies

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Pioneer in spaceships models)
  • Amadeus (Old age stipple, era effects)
  • The Birds (Male/Female Matte developments)
  • Buddy (Animatronics)
  • The Day After Tomorrow (Prolonged digital shots, playing with "weather effects")
  • Independence Day (Digital effects combined with small-scale models)
  • Jurassic Park (Large animatronics, creating creatures from scratch)
  • King Kong (2005) (Motion Capture)
  • The Lord of the Rings film Trilogy (Created Massive Software, prosthetic work, digital effects, motion capture)
  • The Matrix Trilogy (Bullet Time)
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Motion capture from a 2D image)
  • Star Wars (Creation of original, practical effects, "destruction" effects, pioneer in spaceships models)
  • Superman (Human flight)
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day (3-Dimensional Morphing and 3D Human Body)
  • The Terminator (Digital effects)
  • Titanic (Model work, computer generated water, motion capture)
  • Toy Story (Complete Computer Animation)
  • Tron (Computer animation, virtual sets)


  1. Effects created via computers are known as computer-generated imagery (CGI). They fit into the category of optical effects—a subset of SFX—because they involve altering a photographic image. Some people claim that because CGI effects are not produced during filming on-set (as in bullet hits, fire, flame, explosions, wind, rain, and so forth) that they are not SFX at all. However, as discussed above, effects produced during filming on-set form a different subset of SFX known as mechanical or practical effects. Other categories of SFX do exist, and CGI effects are still SFX.
  2. F/X Gods, CondéNet Inc., 2008. Retrieved April 9, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Rickitt, Richard. 2000. Special Effects: The History and Technique. New York, NY: Watson-Guptill Publications. ISBN 0823077330
  • Brinkmann, Ron. 1999. The Art and Science of Digital Compositing. San Fransisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann. ISBN 0121339602)
  • Mitchell, Mitch. 2004. Visual Effects for Film and Television. Woburn, MA: Focal Press. ISBN 0240516753

External links

All links retrieved February 7, 2023.


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