Movies have the power to whisk us away to new and grand places. Whether it’s a fantastic space station or the vastness of an ancient empire, there is always a spectacle in such epic motion pictures.
While marveling at the scale of armies or the huge space of a futuristic setting, you may find yourself asking how such feats were accomplished. Did they really stage a whole slew of extras? Did they actually build that huge set?
It may come as little surprise that the answer to such a question is movie magic and for some that simple declaration may be enough. That answer may be fine if you’re watching the movie but your mind may wonder about the specifics of how such marvels were accomplished.
Here are five techniques used to make films feel larger in space, scale, and depth.
Long before computer graphics made it possible to generate large crowds of dozens or hundreds, filmmakers had gotten a little creative with trying to pose bigger groups of people. Thankfully, the use of depth can obscure faces and features enough that one can easily fake a crowd. Mannequins, when dressed up and shot from a distance with a certain amount of blur, can easily fake the presence of plenty of people. This technique has been a classic one that was used to portray a large gathering of troops in classic war films but also in more recent films such as 2010’s “The King’s Speech”, where mannequins were placed in the background to depict a gathered group to listen to the speech. With some clever methods of shooting, you can easily convince an audience that those dummies in department stores are really a smattering of random people filling out the background.
- Matte Paintings
It is perhaps one of the oldest techniques in terms of transporting the viewer to another world. A matte painting is intended to act as a believable background for your actors to occupy. Sometimes the matte paintings are presented on their own for establishing shots but the more unique examples of this concept are the scenes were matte paintings and live-action merge. One of the most notable is the scene from 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz”, where the protagonists trot down the yellow-brick road with the Emerald City just in the distance, existing as a painting. Matte paintings can also be used for faking crowds, as in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”. Not only was the Death Star interior a matte painting but so was the shuttlecraft and a few rows of Stormtroopers for the scene where the arrival of the Emperor.
If you can’t make something big, simply so small and make it look big. This has been a common special effects technique for crafting wildly imaginative and exciting scenes. 1927’s “Metropolis” is a great example of how miniatures were used to create a towering future of massive skyscrapers with trains and planes zooming around a busy city. Another key example is that of the Godzilla movies, where an actor in a rubber suit loomed over cities, making the creature appear as a towering force. Of course, these dated examples look a bit comical now since you can see all the strings and zippers that break the illusion. More notable aspects of convincing miniatures can be seen with the Tyrel building in 1982’s “Blade Runner” and the sinking ship of 1997’s “Titanic”.
- Trick Photography
This is an oldie but a goodie when shooting complex shots. Trick photography essentially involves setting up your shots in a clever way to create the illusion of depth. This trick is fascinating because it holds up rather well for tricking the eye. In 1936’s “Modern Times”, Charlie Chaplin can be seen skating far too close to a dangerous drop in the floor. The scene seems frightening for the drop clearly visible but a slew of handy trick effects with the camera manipulates the eye to make viewers believe the character is in great danger. Similar techniques of trick photography can also be seen in such films as 1986’s “Flight of the Navigator”, which you may have to peer at closely since that film already uses a lot of computer graphics, blue screen, stop-motion, and practical effects.
- Computer Graphics
It is perhaps the most common solution to modern movies about how to stage the most awe-inspiring of grand shots. The advent of computer technology composing photorealistic graphics has made 21st-century cinema abundant with the usage of computer graphics. Of course, one can easily spot the obvious usage of such tech in the fantastic features of “Captain Marvel” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, where vastness of space with armadas of starships flood the screen. But you may be surprised by how cunning computer graphics have become at enlarging less fantastical productions. Remember the wealthy household from “Parasite” and how it was two levels? Well, the exterior shots were that of a one-level home. The top floor is entirely crafted with computer graphics for the outdoor shots.