Centennial Special Effects

31-Aug-09 2:39 PM by
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Relatively new to YouTube is this review of the evolution of special effects. Though I once interviewed ILM's John Knoll on this very topic, our discussion went back only as far as 1982 and the release of TRON. The following montage includes that film, but it more ambitiously covers not just the last quarter, but the entire century:

It's stupefying to consider the mechanics behind what accounted for "special effects" at the dawn of the cinematic medium. I was 24 when I first saw Claude Rains as The Invisible Man, which impressed me immensely. As I wrote in the Showbits of that era: "What baffles my young mind is, how did they do special effects like that before the advent of computers? There were scenes that showed uninhabited apparel moving about a room, beds making themselves, etc. A couple of theories involving dummies or strings played through my mind, but ultimately, none seemed feasible. What sort of 'tricks of the camera' existed back then?"

Eric Shepherd responded: "Back then, effects like that were done by retouching each frame of film by hand. Generally it would be done by painting over the stuff you're not supposed to see to blend into the background. These days, of course, it's done by painting the 'invisible' person blue or green, and/or putting them in a skintight body suit of those colors, and then replacing those colors using the background from a still or from video shot without the actor present in the frame."

Although technology has greatly redefined studios' workflows and options, I would say the greatest change that audiences can see in special effects is not in complexity, but in subtlety. It used to be easy and obvious to distinguish authentic from accentuated; now we can see entire sequences and characters without realizing any of it has been fabricated.

I won't debate whether or not such effects are a deception that precludes legitimate acting, but I do wonder about their limited application. Judging from the above video, it seems the genre that makes the most extensive use of special effects are science fiction and fantasy. That's not altogether surprising, but I wonder why we don't see it more often in, say, comedies. Is there something inherently unfunny about CGI?

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