Special effects are everywhere in films these days. Movies made now have the advantage of all the developments in technology that weren’t around decades ago. It can make older films seem poor in comparison, but you have to remember that at the time, what they were offering was pretty cutting edge stuff. If you’re not familiar with the history of special effects, here’s a brief tour.
Before filmmakers could destroy buildings using special effects, they had to resort to more physical means. That didn’t mean blowing things up, but rather creating miniature models. If the cameras were positioned correctly, they could convince the audience that the models were actually true to scale. They made it easier if you had huge monsters rampaging through a city in your film.
Painting a background
How do you create a fantasy landscape without using CGI? You paint it. That’s what many filmmakers did throughout the 20th century. Intricate paintings were created which blended in with everything in the foreground. If done right, it would create the effect of depth, despite literally being a wall of paint. You were restricted in how you could use these backgrounds, because they would never change by themselves, but they made for great landscape shots.
In the second half of the 20th century, digital trickery made great strides to be more like what we’re familiar with now. It started with things like stop-motion, which is still utilized by some filmmakers today. Although an incredibly slow and arduous process, this allowed anthropomorphic characters to come alive without dressing actors up in costumes.
Have you ever wondered how an actor could play multiple roles despite not having a twin in real life? It may seem like a relatively new technique, but it’s actually been around since the ‘60s. Filmmakers were able to create it by keeping the camera in one position and then filming the same scene twice. In the first scene, the actor plays one part, and then in the next, they play the other. The necessary halves of each shot are then layered together to create the desired effect.
Green screen origins
Green screen is something that you’re probably familiar with. It’s been used in thousands of films as a way to project actors into digitally created or pre-filmed scenes. Despite its modern use, the technique has actually been around since the turn of the 20th century, although not in the same format. Director Georges Méliès blocked areas of a camera’s lens when filming a scene. He then superimposed those blank spaces onto the same scene that had been filmed without anything in the lens. This created the desired illusion.
Blue to green
Green screens didn’t use to be green. Instead, they were blue, a color that was utilized for a large part of the 20th century. It wasn’t until technology developed that filmmakers realized green might be more suitable, especially as the technique was becoming increasingly popular. Newer cameras were able to project images onto green a lot easier than they were blue, so it made sense to make the change.
Humans to animals
Quite a few films nowadays have animals and other creatures portrayed by actors. It’s no longer people in costumes, though. Instead, motion capture is used. This is where a suit with various sensors on it can be manipulated with CGI to impose another body on top of the actor. While the actor does all the talking and legwork, the final product looks a lot different. Think Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings franchise.
Specials effects have made incredible strides over the years and will continue to do so for a long time. Fantasy elements of a film are no longer restricted by what we can make with our own two hands, because we have the technology now to bring it all to life.