Film has the ability to take us to new places and show us things that only the wildest of imaginations can dream of. Getting that vision to the screen, however, often requires a few tricks to showcase something spectacular. Whether it’s a shifting of the landscape or a fantasy creature coming to life, filmmakers are constantly trying to find new and exciting ways to bring something jaw-dropping to the big screen.
Special effects have been around since the very inception of cinema to not only create the illusion of life but illusions of so much more. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a mere change in somebody’s face looking differently. Sometimes it’s something as subtle as portraying a character driving. And sometimes it’s too take the viewer to a whole new world, beyond that of even what “Aladdin” was alluding towards.
Here are five special effects movie tricks that have become crucial components to making cinema all the more imaginative.
Before computer graphics became an easier means of altering characters, the old-fashioned method of prosthetics became a common yet time-consuming method for crafting intricately designed characters. Prosthetics are most commonly used in science fiction to make characters appear more alien. The Star Trek films feature Spock, a Vulcan with pointy ear prosthetics.
Star Wars features a number of characters who appear with various masks and prosthetics to craft a universe of varying alien races. Characters meant to look like robots after having patches of skin that are meant to look metal, as seen in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” were Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character appears with his face battered to reveal his metallic interior underneath the skin suit.
Before computer animation became the go-to technique for crafting robots, aliens, and all manner of fantastic displays, stop-motion was the key tool for bringing imaginative fantasies to life in live-action. The most iconic usage of this technique can be seen in 1963’s “Jason and the Argonauts”, where the hero battles an army of skeletons with swords. The skeletons were animated with stop-motion, thanks to legendary animator Ray Harryhousen, and placed upon live-action footage of the actors interacting with the skeletons.
It’s hard to imagine such a scene playing out any other way, where the detail in moving skeletons still looks pretty exciting today. Another unique example is “The Terminator”, where the pursuing robot removes his skin and turns into a menacing metallic monster that was animated in stop-motion.
3. Green Screen
Green screen, or blue screen if you want to be retro, has often been used for placing actors in different settings. It’s commonly used for driving scenes where actors occupy a car but the world outside the window is composited in post. 2005’s “Sin City” took place entirely on green-screen sets to create that extra comic book feel of a noir setting.
But green screen will work for crafting different characters as well. If a character needs to be seen with a cybernetic organ or missing a certain limb, green-screen effects will be utilized to make this character believable. Advancements in technology have made this compositing of character components easier to the point where only a handful of motion trackers are required to create an entirely unique visualization.
Puppets have spanned for more than just the simple sock-based entertainers of another era. As technology improves, so have puppets to the point where they have become far more elaborate in crafting compelling characters. Nowhere is this more present than at the Jim Henson Workshop. While most recognize the puppetry work of Jim Henson for the works of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show”, far more elaborate puppets have been developed to interact better in more human stories.
2009’s “Where The Wild Things Are” used full-body puppets with elaborate expressions and construction to convey the monsters from the popular children’s book with both wonder and emotion. Puppets continue to be an aspect of science fiction as well, given that puppet characters can be found ambling about in the background of the last few Star Wars movies, portraying characters big and small.
Suppose you want to showcase something as otherworldly as day quickly transitioning into night. Well, you could just leave the camera on all day and watch as the sun descends and the moon rises. But if you don’t have that much tape, lighting can be your best friend in manipulating your set. Just look at a scene from “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” where one character is transported from the daytime setting to a flashback of a nighttime setting.
No computer effects or a long day of shooting was required for this shot. The scene was shot at night from above with a giant light to make it seem as though it was daytime. When the camera shifts down, the light moves and the scene changes into night. The whole scene was shot at night with a giant light source to duplicate the look of day.