Ever since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have resorted to special effects when they needed obtain impossible scenes. In as early as 1893, an archaic version of VFX (visual effects) was already being used. In the movie “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” the queen was decapitated by using a sort of stop-motion technique. They stopped recording when the queen was in position, about to become headless, and in the next frame, they put a doll in her place and continued recording.
Meanwhile, other techniques started being used. For example, miniatures were used to recreate situations and characters: King Kong, a 12 meter tall gorilla, was actually just 45 centimeters tall. After that, the Blue Screen (or Chroma Key) was invented, an effect that to this day is heavily used and accessible to anyone.
The industry changed with the birth of digital dinosaurs
The big jump into the world of special effects happened with “Jurassic Park”. Dinosaurs were computer generated (CGI – Computer-Generated Imagery), a technology that already existed, but had never been used to such an extent, and with as much realism.
It was also because of this big jump in special effects techniques that the movie had such a big impact. Back in 1993 everyone wanted to see that one movie where dinosaurs looked real. Everyone wanted to understand how the movie was made. The ones involved in the project had doubts about whether the use of special effects would be a succeed or not. The initial idea was actually to animate the dinosaurs as scale models and use stop motion, but that idea was dropped when the team realized that 3D had potential.
More than a turning point, from a technical point of view, “Jurassic Park” changed the industry’s way of thinking. Suddenly, there were no longer limits to creativity: everything became possible. The video “Moments that Changed the Movies: Jurassic Park” gathers testimonials from the team responsible for the movie’s production.
And nowadays everything is possible!
Those who claim they can always spot special effects are seriously mistaken. It’s easy to assume that a movie like “Godzilla” is full of VFX… But there are other movies where the effects go unnoticed, because they’re used in scenes that could’ve been originally recorded like that, in the real world. For example, in “The Wolf of Wall Street” there are countless locations that were altered and digitally created, as well as a dock that is actually nothing but a chroma key studio.
A curious example from this movie is the lion that strolls through the office. The lion is real and the scene was shot with the animal on location. The VFX of this scene are in the insertion of the employees, that weren’t there at the same time as the lion. One would think the opposite would have happened.
Seeing the video of the previous excerpts in its entirety, we’re left with a few questions. At first, we might not understand why the production opted to fabricate a 3D space, when they could’ve recorded scenes in a real set.
The answer is simple: even though special effects are expensive and involve many hours of work, they end up being cheaper than moving a whole team to a certain location to shoot a scene. On top of that, recording scenes outside of a studio implies being vulnerable to meteorological conditions, when it comes to scenes set outdoors. Indoors, sometimes it’s not easy to obtain permissions to record in a certain location, or it’s just simply too expensive. This way, special effects thrive and become common, not only in cinema, but also in television shows.
“The Great Gatsby”’s special effects involved 7 companies, that put in their best work in about 1500 shots. But VFX aren’t just about changing the background of shots and adding objects to them…
Motion Capture: The Present and the future of special effects
The technique allows the recording of movement, even facial expressions. These movements are applied to digitally created creatures or objects. An outstanding example of this is the movie “Avatar”. It was digitally created in its entirety, based on the actors’ performance. We can assume a new type of movie was created. It’s not an animation, because the emotions and the movements featured in it belong to actors, but it’s not a “regular” movie either. This video shows a little bit of the Motion Capture applied in “Avatar”.
It’s interesting to realize how this technology was inspired by the Rotoscoping technique: the real movement of a video is also used in order to be replicated digitally. In this case, the task is easier because of the existence of motion sensors.
More and more, cinema and VFX go hand in hand
Nowadays we see movies that couldn’t exist in the same way without resorting to special effects. And it’s impressive to see all the work that professionals in this area do. On this channel from MPC Creative Studio, we can see multiple VFX Breakdowns that show us many movies, before and after going through the magic of special effects. Sometimes it ends up being a disappointment, since we realize that those inspiring places are nothing but computer fabricated sceneries.
The scary thing about this technological advance is that it becomes impossible to tell what’s real and what isn’t. From a creative and economical standpoint, having these technologies at hand is an asset. But… special effects are becoming more and more accessible to anyone with a “simple” computer and 3D software. We can all manipulate the content we produce. Is this banalization of special effects something positive or negative?