Special Effects

Written by: Brett Amato

Special effects in motion pictures has evolved over the years into an
involved science of illusion and visual magic. The following is a comprehensive
perspective depicting the rapidly expanding realm of cinematography.
In times of old, special effects in movies was limited to an individual's
creativity and the constrictive limits of the tools available. However the
results of early special effects masters astounded audiences in their age in the
same manner that modern artists do today. The ability to create an effect that
was brand new was, and still is, the key to the industry.
Techniques range from the expected to the bizarre in order to achieve a
certain image or illusion. Cinematographers in the early fifties would use a
black cloth backdrop with white paint splattered off of toothpicks to simulate a
space scene in the many science-fiction movies made in that era. There is also
stories of a common plate being thrown across a "space" backdrop to emulate a
flying saucer in mid-flight.
Although the special effects persons of old were strapped with limits, one
of these was not make-up. They relied heavily on this prop to portray the many
monsters and aliens in their films. "Nosferatu" a German film about the vampire
with the same name was a huge success even in America, where thousands marveled
at the intricate detailing of the blood-sucker's razor-like teeth, bulging eyes
and a pointed nose and ears. "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" used a
somewhat new technique of a body suit that the actor wore along with a mask made
of latex rubber and foam. Using cooking oil or butter spread on the body and
mask gave an enhancement of sliminess added to the monster image. A fairly
recent film using heavy make-up effects is "An American Werewolf in London" done
by the master make-up artist Rick Baker who shows what can be done with a steady
hand and a lot of patience.
Another popular trick used was strings to manipulate miniature objects.
Often used in the science fiction era to show spacecraft or other objects in
flight was thin strings attached to miniatures. Audiences did notice the
obvious strings but it did not matter at the time because it was state of the
The next major breakthrough in the effects world was stop-motion animation.
A process by which objects were filmed for a very short period (3 or 4 frames)
being altered or moved very slightly at each interval of "cuts". "King Kong"
and "I was a teenage werewolf" popularized this time-consuming process but was
worth the results. The teenage werewolf program used it to show the unfortunate
boy transforming into a raging beast. At each cut interval the special effects
"crew" (usually the producer and a make-up specialist) would add a little bit
more hair to the actor's face. When finished, the illusion of growing hair was
achieved, although it was choppy. The reason for the choppy result is that when
using stop-motion the actor and camera must be kept as still as possible. If
not, when recording resumes the actor is not in the same place as when recording
was halted earlier. The result when viewing are "jumps" where the actor or
object moves instantly taking away from the image attempted. "King Kong" the
story of the giant ape in the Big Apple was revolutionary in that it used an
early form of stop-motion animation using clay models (claymation) as well as a
new procedure called super imposing which would change special effects forever.

Super imposing in King Kong was created with two physical tapes that were
cut apart under magnification. One half (the bottom) containing real actors and
actresses while the other top half contained Kong and the stop-motion animation.
When specially glued together their was an entire audience gasping at the huge
ape on stage. This was only done in a brief segment of the movie due to the
difficulty. All later films incorporating super imposure used the more common
blue-screen that can take two filmstrips and set one as a background while the
other containing the person/object is filmed in front of a blue-screen that is
the canvas for editing the background film over it using a simple computer
program. "Star Trek" the popular sci-fi television show of the 60's and 70's
used mostly super imposure in it's special effects.
George Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy of motion pictures was a cinematic
masterpiece that set the benchmark for special effects in movies. About ten
years ahead of it's time, "Star Wars" did not introduce anything