Special Effects by Emily Gett

From the moment cinema was created, special effects began to be introduced. As photography had previously done, cinema began developing new ways of layering the image to create illusionistic effects. Early films such as Tarantula (dir. Jack Arnold, 1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (dir. Jack Arnold, 1957) used travelling mattes, a way of combining a foreground and background image to produce their special effects. [1] Many jobs were created for artists within the practical effects industry, and the possibilities of cinema widened thanks to it. As technology advances and computer generated images (CGI) begin to take charge, will we lose the practical effects of the past? And is it necessarily a bad thing, or are we just making way for bigger and better things in the future?

 

Horror and Sci-Fi in particular are known for their use of practical effects. From the early B-Movie monster epics of 1950’s Hollywood such as Creature from The Black Lagoon (dir. Jack Arnold, 1954) to George Lucas’ revolutionary Star Wars saga (1977), practical effects have been the method of bringing ideas to the screen. However, as they are staples of these genres, the look of these effects are repeated, only achieving the ‘allure’ of the truly novel in the brief moment before the techniques used to bring them to the cinema become too familiar. [2]

 

John Dykstra was a special effects designer for the original Star Wars and was chosen to head Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. Together Lucas and Dykstra worked out how to bring Lucas’ ideas to life, using a groundbreaking combination of highly detailed miniatures, animation and computer-controlled motion photography. For example the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope was destroyed using nothing but a cardboard box and titanium shavings.[3] Industrial Light & Magic started to pave the way for the use of practical effects in cinema, and later on with technical advancements in CGI.

 

When it came to Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, he decided to take the digital effects route and develop this technology to his needs. CGI was a way of allowing filmmakers to manipulate all elements of the film to their will, without the constraints of reshooting or rebuilding everything in real life. In Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (dir. George Lucas, 1999), they introduced cinemas first fully CGI character, Jar Jar Binks, confident that this would take off with cinemagoers. However, they didn’t connect with him. The weightlessness and lack of ‘reality’ caused the character to be a flop. [4]

 

As technology advanced however, other fully CGI characters proved to be extremely popular and loved by fans, such as Gollum in The Lord of The Rings trilogy (dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), and Dobby in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (dir. Chris Columbus, 2002). Another defining moment in CGI history is ILM’s creation of T1000, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991), a fully reflective character, seemingly made out of molten metal. It was “…the moment that effects fans who went to see the cinema in 1991 had been waiting for, the moment when the imaging capabilities – and aesthetic possibilities – of the digital technologies they had heard and read so much about took centre screen.”[5]

 

When it comes to realism in CGI characters, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) was the turning point. The CGI dinosaurs were so realistic that Phil Tippett (Dinosaur Supervisor/Practical model maker) famously said “I think I’m extinct.” Practical effects artists began to fear for the necessity of their profession, after seeing, in essence, how well computers could do their job. Visual Effects artist Eddie Yang quoted that, “The big make-up effects shops have seen more periods where there’s not a lot of work coming in,” he continues, “People have had to adapt, and I saw the transition, but I don’t blame them at all because the freedom with CG is incredible. If I were directing a film, I’d want that freedom too.”[6]

 

Although technological advances may be suppressing the needs for practical effects artists, it is creating thousands of jobs within a brand new sector, with six of the eight top companies based in London.[7] Recently cinema has seen “…advances in computer graphics and editing, stereoscopic imaging or 3D, motion capture and sound recording, mixing and design.” CGI is advancing cinema in accordance to the needs of specific film productions and audience expectations.[8]

 

So the real question is, can CGI replace the need for practical effects? Or does it lose the realism and creativity of traditional methods? “Audiences have come to expect the spectacular stunts and pyrotechnics featured in action cinema, and to insist too on the makeup and prosthetics that give the gore effects in horror films their special visceralness and viscosity.”[9] It seems that a healthy balance of the two techniques is what the audience really wants, and it does depend on the needs of the specific film. J.J Abrams got the balance just right in the immensely successful Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). He went back to the franchises roots, using a lot of practical effects alongside CGI. A mix of new technology to achieve the projects ambitions, alongside the traditional effects that the audience really connects with.

 

As with any change, technology has affected the special effects industry both positively and negatively. CGI has moved the industry forward and has allowed many cinematic achievements, such as the special effects Oscar award winning Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013), which pioneered the creation of the weightless environment of space. CGI couldn’t exist however without its predecessor practical effects, in many cases practical models are still used as a base that is scanned in to create CGI models. Practical effects offer a more tactile, interactive experience for the actors, leading to more convincing performances. As time goes on technology will inevitably push the practical to the side further and further, but I do hope that the two will work in harmony, together creating the best effects possible for each individual project.

[1] Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 110.

[2] Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 102.

[3] Lobo, Rita. “How Star Wars changed the special effects industry.” theneweconomy.com. http://www.theneweconomy.com/home/how-star-wars-changed-the-special-effects-industry (retrieved 28. Apr. 2016).

[4] Lobo, Rita. “How Star Wars changed the special effects industry.” theneweconomy.com. http://www.theneweconomy.com/home/how-star-wars-changed-the-special-effects-industry (retrieved 28. Apr. 2016).

 

[5] Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 125.

[6] Konow, David. “Practical Effects Masters on the Pros and Cons of CGI.” tested.com. http://www.tested.com/art/makers/459394-practical-effects-masters-pros-and-cons-cgi/ (retrieved 28. Apr. 2016).

[7] Lobo, Rita. “How Star Wars changed the special effects industry.” theneweconomy.com. http://www.theneweconomy.com/home/how-star-wars-changed-the-special-effects-industry (retrieved 28. Apr. 2016).

[8] Nicholls, Bill. Introduction to Film Studies, ed. Jill Nelmes, 5th ed. (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011), p. 42.

[9] Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 102.

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