History of Special Effects

         When normal filming or recording means cannot realize an idea, directors turn to special effects to make the impossible possible. Special effects are also used when creating the event in real life is outrageously expensive, such as rebuilding ancient Rome or destroying an entire city. With the invention of computer graphic imaging, it is now possible to enhance a filmed scene by adding, removing, or enhancing objects within the scene.

         Special effects are divided into two types. The first type of special effects is optical effects (also know as visual or photographic effects). These effects involve manipulating a photographed image either through photographic (optical printer) or visual (Computer Generated Imagery) technology. An example of the optical effect is in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon is depicted flying through space. The second type of special effects is mechanical effects (also know as practical of physical effects). This is completed during live action filming through mechanical props, scenery, and pyrotechnics like the ejector seat of James Bond’s Aston Martin.

         In 1867, Oscar Gustave Rejlander created the world’s first “trick photograph” by combining sections of 32 different photographs into one single image. Alfred Clark is credited with the first special effect on film in 1895. He filmed a recreation of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots by having all the actors freeze along with the camera just before the beheading. While they were motionless, the actor playing Mary was replaced with a dummy. Filming resumed, the other actors began moving again, and they cut off her head. This type of photographic trickery was not only the first in cinema; it could only be created in motion picture known as the “stop trick.” The “stop trick” technique would remain at the heart of special effects throughout the next century.

         French magician Georges Méliès accidentally discovered this same trick in 1896 because his camera jammed while filming a street scene in Paris. Upon viewing the film, he discovered that a truck turned into a hearse, pedestrians changed direction, and men turned into women. With this knowledge, he developed a series of over 500 short films between 1896 and 1914. During this time, Méliès developed techniques such as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand painted color. Multiple exposure is an exposure in which the sensitivity to light is reduced and then increased at least once during the total exposure time. Time-lapse photography is the technique where each frame is captured at a rate much slower than it will be played back and when it is replayed at normal speed, time appears to be moving faster and thus lapsing. Dissolves are a gradual transition from one image to another by controlling double exposure from frame to frame.

         During the 1920s and 30s, these special effects techniques were improved and modified. Several techniques were taken from theatrical illusions such as Pepper’s Ghost and rear projection. Pepper’s Ghost uses a plate glass and special lighting techniques, making objects seem to appear, disappear, or morph into another object. Rear projection combines foreground performances with pre-filmed backgrounds.

         Soon, new special effects techniques were originally invented like the “stop trick.” Animation was one of these inventions. It creates the illusion of motion with the rapid sequence display of images. These images can be drawn like Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur or three-dimensional models like Willis O’Brien’s 1933 King Kong.

         From the challenge of simulating spectacle in motion, developed the wide use of miniatures. Miniatures allowed naval battles to be filmed in studio tanks and airplanes to be flown and crashed without the risk of life or the waste of money. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis demonstrated how miniatures could create a massive city that has never existed.

         Another vitally important invention is the optical printer developed to make copies of films for distribution. Linwood Dunn expanded on this device by demonstrating it could create effects such as fade outs and fade ins, dissolves, slow motion, fast motion, and matte work. One of his early and famous uses of the optical printer is Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane, where the optical printer created locations such as Xanadu.

         As color film was introduced, new special effects techniques were introduced like green screen and the sodium vapor process. Green screen, or “chroma key,” is the removal of a color from one image to reveal another image behind it and the removed color become transparent. The sodium vapor process is similar to green screen, but it allows for full range of colors to be worn of screen and the Walt Disney Company developed it.

         One film that establish a line for incredible special effects is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The miniatures used in the film were highly detailed to achieve a depth of field. The front projection technique was used in the film to project the background image on both the performer and the background screen. In the final scene, there is a voyage through hallucinogenic scenery created by Douglas Trumbull with slit-scan. It is where a moveable slide, into which a slit has been cut, is inserted between the camera and the photographed subject.

         1977 was a highlight year with two blockbuster films that relied on expensive and impressive special effects. These two films are George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For Star Wars, effects supervisor, John Dykstra, developed a computer-controlled camera rig called the “Dykstraflex,” allowing camera motion to be precisely repeated in every shot. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Douglas Trumbull created intentional “lens flares” to provide the film’s undefinable shapes of flying saucers by having light reflecting in camera lenses.

         The greatest special effects invention of recent years is computer-generated imagery (CGI). James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a vastly impressive early use of CGI. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece Jurassic Park used CGI to create realistic dinosaurs. After the success of these special effects, many older techniques would be rendered obsolete. This movie showed that digital imagery enabled technicians to create detailed matte painting, miniatures, and even crowds of completely computer-generated people. By 1995, films like Toy Story were completely created by the computer. Computers could now create any object and make it look realistic to the audience).

Brent Bauscher

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