Special effects (often abbreviated as SFX,SPFX, F/X or simply FX) are illusions or visual tricks used in the theatre, film, television, video game, and simulator industries to simulate the imagined events in a story or virtual world.
Special effects are traditionally divided into the categories of mechanical effects and optical effects. With the emergence of digital film-making a distinction between special effects and visual effects has grown, with the latter referring to digital post-production and optical effects, while "special effects" refers to mechanical effects.
Mechanical effects (also called practical or physical effects) are usually accomplished during the live-action shooting. This includes the use of mechanized props, scenery, scale models, animatronics, pyrotechnics and atmospheric effects: creating physical wind, rain, fog, snow, clouds, making a car appear to drive by itself and blowing up a building, etc. Mechanical effects are also often incorporated into set design and makeup. For example, prosthetic makeup can be used to make an actor look like a non-human creature.
Optical effects (also called photographic effects) are techniques in which images or film frames are created photographically, either "in-camera" using multiple exposure, mattes or the Schüfftan process or in post-production using an optical printer. An optical effect might be used to place actors or sets against a different background.
Since the 1990s, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has come to the forefront of special effects technologies. It gives filmmakers greater control, and allows many effects to be accomplished more safely and convincingly and—as technology improves—at lower costs. As a result, many optical and mechanical effects techniques have been superseded by CGI.
In 1857, Oscar Rejlander created the world's first "special effects" image by combining different sections of 32 negatives into a single image, making a montaged combination print. In 1895, Alfred Clark created what is commonly accepted as the first-ever motion picture special effect. While filming a reenactment of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, Clark instructed an actor to step up to the block in Mary's costume. As the executioner brought the axe above his head, Clark 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. Techniques like these would dominate the production of special effects for a century.
It wasn't only the first use of trickery in cinema, it was also the first type of photographic trickery that was only possible in a motion picture, and referred to as the "stop trick". Georges Méliès, an early motion picture pioneer, accidentally discovered the same "stop trick." According to Méliès, 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 to turn into women. Méliès, the stage manager at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, was inspired to develop a series of more than 500 short films, between 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 cinematograph, the prolific Méliès is sometimes referred to as the "Cinemagician." His most famous film, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), a whimsical parody of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon , featured a combination of live action and animation, and also incorporated extensive miniature and matte painting work.
From 1910 to 1920, the main innovations in special effects were the improvements on the matte shot by Norman Dawn. With the original matte shot, pieces of cardboard were placed to block the exposure of the film, which would be exposed later. Dawn combined this technique with the "glass shot." Rather than using cardboard to block certain areas of the film exposure, Dawn simply painted certain areas black to prevent any light from exposing the film. From the partially exposed film, a single frame is then projected onto an easel, where the matte is then drawn. By creating the matte from an image directly from the film, it became incredibly easy to paint an image with proper respect to scale and perspective (the main flaw of the glass shot). Dawn's technique became the textbook for matte shots due to the natural images it created.
During the 1920s and 1930s, special effects techniques were improved and refined by the motion picture industry. Many techniques—such as the Schüfftan process—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, substituting moving pictures to create moving backgrounds. Lifecasting of faces was imported from traditional maskmaking. Along with makeup advances, fantastic masks could be created which fit the actor perfectly. As material science advanced, horror film maskmaking followed closely.
Many studios established in-house "special effects" departments, which were responsible for nearly all optical and mechanical aspects of motion-picture trickery. Also, the challenge of simulating spectacle in motion encouraged the development of the use of miniatures. 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 ). 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. Fritz Lang's film Metropolis was an early special effects spectacular, with innovative use of miniatures, matte paintings, the Schüfftan process, and complex compositing.
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 Linwood G. Dunn refined the design and use of the optical printer, effects shots were accomplished as in-camera effects. Dunn 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.
The development of color photography required greater refinement of effects techniques. Color enabled the development of such travelling matte techniques as bluescreen and the sodium vapour process. Many films became landmarks in special-effects accomplishments: Forbidden Planet used matte paintings, animation, and miniature work to create spectacular alien environments. In The Ten Commandments , Paramount's John P. Fulton, A.S.C., multiplied the crowds of extras in the Exodus scenes with careful compositing, depicted the massive constructions of Rameses with models, and split the Red Sea in a still-impressive combination of travelling mattes and water tanks. Ray Harryhausen extended the art of stop-motion animation with his special techniques of compositing to create spectacular fantasy adventures such as Jason and the Argonauts (whose climax, a sword battle with seven animated skeletons, is considered a landmark in special effects).
During the 1950s and 1960s numerous new special effects were developed which would dramatically increase the level of realism achievable in science fiction films. Sci-fi special effects milestones in the 1950s included the Godzilla films, The Day the Earth Stood Still (featuring Klaatu), and 3-D films.
The tokusatsu genre of Japanese science fiction film and television, which include the kaiju sub-genre of monster films, rose to prominence in the 1950s. The special-effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya and the director Ishirō Honda became the driving forces behind the original Godzilla (1954). Taking inspiration from King Kong (1933), Tsuburaya formulated many of the techniques that would become staples of the tokusatsu genre, such as so-called suitmation—the use of a human actor in a costume to play a giant monster—combined with the use of miniatures and scaled-down city sets. Godzilla changed the landscape of Japanese cinema, science fiction and fantasy.Tokusatsu films, notably Warning from Space (1956), sparked Stanley Kubrick's interest in science fiction films; according to his biographer John Baxter, despite their "clumsy model sequences, the films were often well-photographed in colour ... and their dismal dialogue was delivered in well-designed and well-lit sets."
If one film could be said to have established a new benchmark for special effects, it would be 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey , directed by Stanley Kubrick, who assembled his own effects team (Douglas Trumbull, Tom Howard, Con Pederson and Wally Veevers) rather than use an in-house effects unit. 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 rotoscoping and careful motion-control work, ensuring that the elements were precisely 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 combined with soundstage photography via the then-new front projection technique. Scenes set in zero-gravity environments were staged with hidden wires, mirror shots, and large-scale rotating sets. The finale, a voyage through hallucinogenic scenery, was created by Douglas Trumbull using a new technique termed slit-scan.
The 1970s provided two profound changes in the special effects trade. The first was economic: during the industry's recession in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many studios closed down their in-house effects houses. Technicians became freelancers or founded their own effects companies, sometimes specializing on particular techniques (opticals, animation, etc.).
The second was precipitated by the blockbuster success of two science-fiction and fantasy films in 1977. George Lucas's Star Wars ushered in an era of science-fiction films with expensive and impressive special effects. Effects supervisor John Dykstra, A.S.C. and crew developed many improvements in existing effects technology. They created a computer-controlled camera rig called the "Dykstraflex" that allowed precise repetition of camera motion, greatly facilitating travelling-matte compositing. Degradation of film images during 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. The effects crew assembled by Lucas and Dykstra was dubbed Industrial Light & Magic, and since 1977 has spearheaded many effects innovations.
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.
The success of these films, and others since, has prompted massive studio investment in effects-heavy science-fiction films. This has fueled the establishment of many independent effects houses, a tremendous degree of refinement of existing techniques, and the development of new techniques such as computer-generated imagery (CGI). It has also encouraged within the industry a greater distinction between special effects and visual effects; the latter is used to characterize post-production and optical work, while "special effects" refers more often to on-set and mechanical effects.
The use of computer animation in film dates back to the early 1980s, with the films Tron (1982)and Golgo 13: The Professional (1983). Since the 1990s, a profound innovation in special effects has been the development of computer generated imagery (CGI), which has changed nearly every aspect of motion picture special effects. Digital compositing allows far more control and creative freedom than optical compositing, and does not degrade the image as with analog (optical) processes. Digital imagery has enabled technicians to create detailed models, matte "paintings," and even fully realized characters with the malleability of computer software.
Arguably the biggest and most "spectacular" use of CGI is in the creation of photo-realistic images of science-fiction/fantasy characters, settings and objects. Images can be created in a computer using the techniques of animated cartoons and model animation. The Last Starfighter (1984) used computer generated spaceships instead of physical scale models. In 1993, stop-motion animators working on the realistic dinosaurs of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park were retrained in the use of computer input devices. By 1995, films such as Toy Story underscored the fact that the distinction between live-action films and animated films was no longer clear. Other landmark examples include a character made up of broken pieces of a stained-glass window in Young Sherlock Holmes , a shape-shifting character in Willow , a tentacle formed from water in The Abyss , the T-1000 Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day , hordes and armies of robots and fantastic creatures in the Star Wars (prequel) and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, and the planet, Pandora, in Avatar .
Although most visual effects work is completed during post-production, it must be carefully planned and choreographed in pre-production and production. A visual effects supervisor is usually involved with the production from an early stage to work closely with the Director and all related personnel to achieve the desired effects.
Practical effects also require significant pre-planning and co-ordination with performers and production teams. The live nature of the effects can result in situations where resetting due to an error, mistake, or safety concern incurs significant expense, or is impossible due to the destructive nature of the effect.
Live special effects are effects that are used in front of a live audience, such as in theatre, sporting events, concerts and corporate shows. Types of effects that are commonly used include: flying effects, laser lighting, theatrical smoke and fog, CO2 effects, and pyrotechnics. Other atmospheric effects can include flame, confetti, bubbles, and snow.
Mechanical effects encompass the use of mechanical engineering to a greater degree. Cars being flipped and hauled over buildings are usually an effect built on specialized rigs and gimbals such as in movies like Unknown. These features were made possible by the use of these rigs and gimbals. Usually a team of engineers or freelance film companies provide these services to movie producers. As the action event is being recorded against a green screen, camera workers, stunt artists or doubles, directors and engineers who conceptualize and engineer these monumental mechanics, all collaborate at the same time to acquire the perfect angle and shot that provides the entertainment users enjoy. It is then edited and reviewed before final release to the public.
Chroma key compositing, or chroma keying, is a visual-effects and post-production technique for compositing (layering) two images or video streams together based on colour hues. The technique has been used in many fields to remove a background from the subject of a photo or video – particularly the newscasting, motion picture, and video game industries. A colour range in the foreground footage is made transparent, allowing separately filmed background footage or a static image to be inserted into the scene. The chroma keying technique is commonly used in video production and post-production. This technique is also referred to as colour keying, colour-separation overlay, or by various terms for specific colour-related variants such as green screen or blue screen; chroma keying can be done with backgrounds of any colour that are uniform and distinct, but green and blue backgrounds are more commonly used because they differ most distinctly in hue from any human skin colour. No part of the subject being filmed or photographed may duplicate the colour used as the backing, or the part may be erroneously identified as part of the backing.
Motion control photography is a technique used in still and motion photography that enables precise control of, and optionally also allows repetition of, camera movements. It can be used to facilitate special effects photography. The process can involve filming several elements using the same camera motion, and then compositing the elements into a single image. Other effects are often used along with motion control, such as chroma key to aid the compositing. Motion control camera rigs are also used in still photography with or without compositing; for example in long exposures of moving vehicles. Today's computer technology allows the programmed camera movement to be processed, such as having the move scaled up or down for different sized elements. Common applications of this process include shooting with miniatures, either to composite several miniatures or to composite miniatures with full-scale elements.
Visual effects is the process by which imagery is created or manipulated outside the context of a live action shot in filmmaking and video production. The integration of live action footage and other live action footage or CG elements to create realistic imagery is called VFX.
An in-camera effect is any special effect in a video or movie that is created solely by using techniques in and on the camera and/or its parts. The in-camera effect is defined by the fact that the effect exists on the original camera negative or video recording before it is sent to a lab or modified. So effects that modify the original negative at the lab, such as skip bleach or flashing, are not included. Some examples of in-camera effects include:
Traditional animation is an animation technique in which each frame is drawn by hand. The technique was the dominant form of animation in cinema until the advent of computer animation.
The Schüfftan process is a movie special effect named after its inventor, Eugen Schüfftan (1893–1977). It was widely used in the first half of the 20th century before being almost completely replaced by the travelling matte and bluescreen effects.
Computational photography refers to digital image capture and processing techniques that use digital computation instead of optical processes. Computational photography can improve the capabilities of a camera, or introduce features that were not possible at all with film based photography, or reduce the cost or size of camera elements. Examples of computational photography include in-camera computation of digital panoramas, high-dynamic-range images, and light field cameras. Light field cameras use novel optical elements to capture three dimensional scene information which can then be used to produce 3D images, enhanced depth-of-field, and selective de-focusing. Enhanced depth-of-field reduces the need for mechanical focusing systems. All of these features use computational imaging techniques.
Douglas Huntley Trumbull is an American film director, special effects supervisor, and inventor. He contributed to, or was responsible for, the special photographic effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner and The Tree of Life, and directed the movies Silent Running and Brainstorm.
Compositing is the process or technique of combining visual elements from separate sources into single images, often to create the illusion that all those elements are parts of the same scene. Live-action shooting for compositing is variously called "chroma key", "blue screen", "green screen" and other names. Today, most, though not all, compositing is achieved through digital image manipulation. Pre-digital compositing techniques, however, go back as far as the trick films of Georges Méliès in the late 19th century, and some are still in use.
A matte painting is a painted representation of a landscape, set, or distant location that allows filmmakers to create the illusion of an environment that is not present at the filming location. Historically, matte painters and film technicians have used various techniques to combine a matte-painted image with live-action footage (compositing). At its best, depending on the skill levels of the artists and technicians, the effect is "seamless" and creates environments that would otherwise be impossible or expensive to film. In the scenes the painting part is static and movements are integrated on it.
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.
Mattes are used in photography and special effects filmmaking to combine two or more image elements into a single, final image. Usually, mattes are used to combine a foreground image with a background image. In this case, the matte is the background painting. In film and stage, mattes can be physically huge sections of painted canvas, portraying large scenic expanses of landscapes.
A front projection effect is an in-camera visual effects process in film production for combining foreground performance with pre-filmed background footage. In contrast to rear projection, which projects footage onto a screen from behind the performers, front projection projects the pre-filmed material over the performers and onto a highly reflective background surface.
Rear projection is one of many in-camera effects cinematic techniques in film production for combining foreground performances with pre-filmed backgrounds. It was widely used for many years in driving scenes, or to show other forms of "distant" background motion.
Virtual cinematography is the set of cinematographic techniques performed in a computer graphics environment. It includes a wide variety of subjects like photographing real objects, often with stereo or multi-camera setup, for the purpose of recreating them as three-dimensional objects and algorithms for the automated creation of real and simulated camera angles. Virtual cinematography can be used to shoot scenes from otherwise impossible camera angles, create the photography of animated films, and manipulate the appearance of computer-generated effects.
Previsualization is the visualizing of complex scenes in a movie before filming. It is also a concept in still photography. Previsualization is used to describe techniques such as storyboarding, either in the form of charcoal sketches or in digital technology, in the planning and conceptualization of movie scenes.
Linwood G. Dunn, A.S.C. was an American pioneer of visual special effects in motion pictures and an inventor of related technology. Dunn worked on many films and television series, including the original 1933 King Kong (1933), Citizen Kane (1941), and Star Trek (1966–69).
In cinematography, bipacking, or a bipack, is the process of loading two reels of film into a camera, so that they both pass through the camera gate together. It was used both for in-camera effects and as an early subtractive colour process.
Craig Barron is an American visual effects artist, currently Creative Director at Magnopus, a Los Angeles media company that produces augmented and virtual-reality experiences.
The Williams process or Williams doublematting process is a matte creation technique patented by the American cinematographer Frank D. Williams in 1918. Unlike prior matte techniques, it allowed for the integration of the actors' movements with previously shot backgrounds.