SFX Evolution: How Special Effects Have Changed, and Not Changed

It’s interesting to consider that many of the special effects invented by Melies during the dawn of filmmaking were not only still in use half a century later, but even into the present century. Take, for example, the 1960 version of The Time Machine. The use of bluescreens, miniatures, stop-motion, time-lapse photography, and matte backgrounds earned The Time Machine an Academy Award for special effects. But stop-motion, time-lapse, matte backgrounds, and miniatures had been around a while by then. Before bluescreening, the rather more clunky looking method of back-projection (also called rear-projection) was used. When the protagonist is using the time machine to travel forward through time, for example, time lapse photography is used to show the accelerated opening and closing of flowers in his garden and stop motion animation is used to portray the rapid movement of a snail across the floor. During shots of the street outside of his house, each side of the street and the sky above are all composited together in a very rough and visually obvious way. Although the set design, props, and costumes used in The Time Machine would still pose a strain on the budget of any amateur filmmaker today, the special effects used in this film could easily be mimicked by any modern filmmaker with some knowledge of time lapse photography, a passing familiarity with stop-motion animation, and the use of editing software that comes with a chroma Key (blue screen) filter. Remembering that filmmaking had only been around for a short time, however, The Time Machine was using the most innovative, high-tech methods available for creating visual effects. Nonetheless, these methods can still be seen in the science fiction and fantasy movies of today.

In Jurassic Park, for example, a combination of life-sized mechanical model dinosaurs, the combined use of stop-motion and CGI techniques, and the occasional use of matte painting conveyed a level of unprecedented realism that far exceeded the efforts of previous special effects creators like Ray Harryhausen. Even Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, which is famous for its use of digital video and computer graphics, combined images of miniature models with computer graphics and live action footage of volcanoes to create one of the more famous battle sequences movie history. In contrast to the aforementioned use of rear-projection, which always looks really cheesy, it’s worth mentioning that the method of front-projection (which was used for the ape sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968) seems to give results that are as good as, or sometimes better than, those of the bluescreen technique.

Although, as stated, most or all of these techniques are still being used in the making of modern science fiction and fantasy movies, the use of computers to further manipulate and enhance these techniques –  in addition to the use of CGI (computer-generated imagery) –  in movies like Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith add new levels of realism, visual beauty, and aspects of storytelling that could not previously have been achieved in so great a degree.

So, is there something beyond CGI? Some new innovations in visual effects will arise from future generations of filmmakers? Well. . . that remains to be seen. Even now, CGI still looks pretty cartoony in most movies – and I have yet to see a significant improvement over the likes of Terminator II and Jurassic Park. With the recent cross-pollination between the film and computer/video game industries, the focus on good graphics should become more pointed in the immediate future – even if the quality of the screenwriting continues to suffer horribly as a result.

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