Covers techniques from pyrotechnics to digital composites
«Through the magic of motion pictures, someone who's never left Peoria knows the softness of a Paris spring, the color of a Nile sunset, the sorts of vegetation one will find along the upper Amazon and that Big Ben has not yet gone digital,» Vincent Canby once stated (Brainy). His statement teases about the rapidly changing industry of special effects and how it is revolutionizing the way we perceive things. The sight of a train passing by the camera flabbergasted and frightened early audiences, when motion pictures were jittery and lacked sound. Now, it has become increasingly difficult to decipher between what is reality and what a men tediously manipulated. The goal of visual effects artists, as magicians of the silver screen, is now to push our senses to their limits and create an illusion of reality without our knowing. George Lucas, one of the greats in film and special effects' and famed creator of Star Wars, said, «the secret to film is that it's an illusion (Brainy).» Assessing the milestone events through out the history of film reveals how far we have come.
A number of technologies and inventions related to motion and vision developed in the early to late 19th century foreran the birth of the motion picture industry. Early in 1893, Thomas Alva Edison built the world's first film production studio, the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater, on the grounds of his laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, for making filmstrips. A Frenchman, Georges Melies, developed his own camera, and then set up Europe's first film studio in 1897. An illusionist and stage magician, Melies exploited the new medium with a pioneering, 14-minute science fiction work, Le Voyage Dans la Lune - A Trip to the Moon. Melies introduced the elemental ideas of narrative storylines, plots,
character development, illusion, and fantasy into film, including trick photography or early special effects. He utilized hand-tinting, dissolves, wipes, «magical» super-impositions and double exposures, the use of mirrors, trick sets, stop motion, slow motion and fade-outs/fade-ins to go beyond the limitations of theatre. Melies's creativity and discovery of the fundamental techniques of special effects used today awarded him the title of the father of special effects.
The early pioneers of special effects also created illusions that relied on cinema's ability to make discontinuous motion appear continuous, achieved by stopping and then restarting the camera, or splicing the film, to make impossible transformations seem to occur. They also made liberal use of magicians' stage tricks. Another effect made people appear unnaturally large or small by exploiting perspective, an illusion familiar to anyone who has ever photographed a friend whose outstretched hand «holds» an enormous object in the distance. Similar tricks using forced perspective create some shots of the giant pillaging toddler in the movie Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.
One of the most common effects used around 1900 and well into the 1970's is stop motion. Stop motion is one of the most memorable examples of early experiments with special effects. King Kong himself was an animated model, brought to life on screen using stop-motion filming. It is a very labor-intensive method. Models have to be moved a fraction of an inch, their facial expressions changed, and then shot, with 24 different shots being taken for just one second of film (Special). A few of the many films that utilizes are Star Wars, James and the Giant Peach, Chicken Run, and The Rocketeer.
Sets also played a large roll in film and special effects. Huge, elaborate sets became almost an obsession in movies in the mid 20th century. The Wizard of Oz is a great example of exquisite set design. Many shots, however, made the audience think that they were viewing a huge castle where the Wicked Witch lived when in actuality they were paintings and backdrops strategically placed to create a visual supplement. Some sets, on the other hand, were not so large. The use of miniatures became increasingly common as well. Complex train wrecks, plain crashes, scenic views, and many other scenarios have been completely hand made at a fraction of their actual scale. The spaceships in Star Trek do not actually exist as we perceive them. They are hand made models shot against a chroma key.
The use of chroma keying is by far the most commonly used method to date. Chroma keying is the process that removes a background color, usually blue or green, behind actors, models, or objects and composites background footage with the footage taken of the subject on the chroma set. This creates the illusion that that person or object is actually somewhere it is not. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana and his father are fleeing a German fighter plane that has crashed into a tunnel during its pursuit of them skidding on its belly behind them (Vaz 180). This shot would nearly be physically impossible to achieve in actuality with out the aide of miniatures and chroma keying. Movies from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to The Matrix trilogy heavily rely on this process.
Pyrotechnics also play an important role in entertainment today. Large explosions and the like are now used attract moviegoers to watch a film. Audiences want bigger and better chase scenes and always, always more action. Pyrotechnics from Back Draft, the James Bond: 007 films, and many more make the movies what they are today.
The cost of these spectacular effects and sequences became increasingly costly.
However, not all explosions and natural disasters can be physically, or cheaply, created. Clint Eastwood commented on the cost of a movie he was in, «This film cost $31 million. With that kind of money I could have invaded some country (Brainy).» Film makers now heavily depend on computer generated images or CGI. The technology of special effects has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1890's because of the growing capabilities of CGI. The Abyss was an important pioneer of CGI, as well as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or T2. In T2, the evil T-1000 robot had the capability to transform from a solid state to a liquid one that gave the appearance of mercury that one would see in a traditional thermometer (Vaz 206) The impossible are now possible thanks to the every increasing ability of digital effects.
Moreover, digital compositing does for moviemaking what word processing does for writing: it provides an infinitely versatile editing tool. Different elements are added, altered and moved around endlessly and effortlessly inside a computer, as the movie artist searches for the perfect special effect.
The possibilities are now endless. Filmmakers have an infinite world of possibilities that is only limited by our own finite creativity. Woody Allen said, «If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.» The now graduated film students and independent filmmakers have quite a challenge of coming up with new and exciting ideas, concepts, and especially special effects.
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