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The Digital Age of Fantasy: The Evolution of Special Effects in Hollywood

Updated on July 2, 2013
A production still from the popular film, "The Matrix"
A production still from the popular film, "The Matrix"

Matrix Subway Fight Scene

Green Screen, CGI, Computers...Oh My!

In 1876 the invention of film was introduced to the world. Since that time, film has evolved to become a medium that has transformed the landscape of entertainment and news around the globe. Along with its ability to provide information, film also transformed itself into a spectacle, which allowed filmmakers everywhere to alter the reality they were recording. Fast-forward to the digital revolution in the twenty first century, and now the entertainment industry has become one dominated by computer manipulated imagery and cgi (computer generated imagery). The goal of this article is to analyze the evolution of image manipulation, starting from the birth of film, up to the digital age of the twenty first century in the United States.

Before the invention of the modern computer was even thought of, filmmakers of the 19th and early 20th century had to be creative in making their films seem fantastical and special. In order to accomplish such a feat, they turned to in-camera special effects. This allowed them to mess with the exposure of the film they were shooting with, and at the same time, distort the audience’s perception of reality. During shooting, filmmakers would take the film camera they had and would tweak some of the aspects of the camera before shooting, during shooting, and after shooting. When the shoot was done, filmmaker’s would send their film to be processed, unaware at that point how the effect would turn out. When a film was done being processed, (and assuming exposure and in camera effects were performed correctly) the footage would come back with interesting special effects that the filmmakers would then integrate into their films.

Between the creation of film and the eventual rise of computers, filmmakers had a lot of time on their hands to come up with creative effects to integrate into their films. All of these effects, we still use to this day, however they are now completely computer generated. These effects include fade to black, fade to white, cross dissolve, super imposition and the idea of speeding and slowing down time. One popular effect back in the golden age of cinema was the film crop. This effect was performed by using mattes on the camera to cover up portions of the lens. The filmmaker would then expose the part that wasn’t covered up by shooting the scene. After the scene was shot, the film would be re-wound and the part that was first exposed to light would be covered, while the part that was previously masked would be opened up. An example of how the film matte crop could be used, would be in phone conversations between two characters. In the top corner of the screen, a character would be on the phone with another character that was shown on the bottom portion of the screen. Unlike cutting between the two characters in a film, this intricate and dynamic shot provided one element that common editing couldn’t solve: it allowed the audience to see both reactions of the characters simultaneously, while also drawing attention to how amazing the shot was itself. Other examples of mattes (as well as a slew of other in camera effects) can be found in films like Citizen Kane (1941), where dynamic masking is used for transitions between the reporter and the interviews about the protagonist Kane. In some ways, these “old school effects” acted like the special effects of today by providing a wow factor, but all of that uniqueness has now become just common practice, as many filmmakers look onward to using more complicated effects.

Watch the opening scene to almost any modern Hollywood blockbuster and audiences will find a rich visual experience. One filled with special effects crafted by computer graphic engineers. Unlike the past, where camera effects were done when the shooting was actually taking place, the effects of today are performed by computer after the shooting has already occurred. Using a variety of high tech computer programs and carefully choreographed scenes, the use of special effects in films now take much more precision and time to achieve then the effects of the past. The tradeoff, however, is that the effects that are generated tend to add so much more to the film. Popular films, such as the comic book inspired Iron Man (2008), would not have been made because elements within the film, like his iron suit, are not reality based and need to be constructed. Without the help of computers to accomplish this task, films like Iron Man would not turn out as entertaining and believable, and would ultimately lead to filmmakers being restricted in the types of films they could produce.

Two of the most popular ways to incorporate effects that are used by today’s filmmakers are green screen and compositing/3d construction software. With green screen, filmmakers are able to isolate a specific color in a shot and replace it with any computer-generated image they want. A typical example would be replacing a green screen with footage of a background that is either computer generated or filmed from an off site location. Returning back to the film Iron Man, Director Jon Favreau used green screen to isolate portions of his set where he would want explosions to occur when Iron Man was fighting. This approach not only allowed Favreau to control the scenes more effectively, but it also allowed him to not worry about going through extra safety procedures and wasting his budget on multiple real explosions if the take he needed was messed up during shooting. An exciting new development to special effects because of computers has been the birth of the a completely new type of animated film that is entirely created in a 3d virtual environment 3d environment films like Toy Story (1995) and, more recently, Wreck-it Ralph (2012) are examples of films created entirely by the computer without any sort of physical camera and instead being filmed with a virtual camera.

Entire worlds can be created and rendered through use of CGI, demonstrated, in James Camerons, Avatar.
Entire worlds can be created and rendered through use of CGI, demonstrated, in James Camerons, Avatar.
Films can be both artistically and realistically recreated without the use of physical cameras and actors now. Evidence of this can be seen in films like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
Films can be both artistically and realistically recreated without the use of physical cameras and actors now. Evidence of this can be seen in films like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

All of the special effects that have been talked about in this paper seem impressive, but their entertainment value is not the only contribution they make when a film is made. Stanley Kubrick sums it up best when he said, “A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”. Kubrick describes film, at its base, as a consumable emotional experience that can evoke feelings much like music can. However, in order to plunge into the reality of the film, audiences have to establish a connection that the world exists, even if it is completely fantasy based. That is the main reason special effects have snuck their way into every film, because whether the filmmaker likes it or not, they provide a way for the audience to engage in the moving pictures that flicker across the screen. Even looking at the medium itself, it is hard to picture film being anything else but a special effect because it is merely a string of still pictures being rapidly moved across light. This fundamental reason is a key to the explanation and the continued justification of using special effects in film.

While it is clear that special effects are not going to be leaving the entertainment industry anytime soon, it is important to look at the other changes that have been imposed on the film industry. One of the biggest changes is the economics behind creating computer-generated effects as opposed to the in-camera effects. Unlike the films of the past, the average Hollywood blockbuster now costs anywhere between 90 million to upwards of 500 million (Avatar’s budget) to produce. Compare that to the modest budget of 15,000 to 35,000 for older films and adjust for inflation and it still ends up being a divide of millions of dollars. The massive spending not only affects the number of people working on a film now, but it also radically changes the amount that people have to pay for tickets to watch that film.

Besides the Hollywood mega industry, other smaller films in the United States have begun to catch up with the special effects offered by computer programs. With the right set of skills and a small budget, low budget and amateur filmmakers have begun to make films that include high quality special effects to take over the in-camera special effects of the past. Professional programs are even now starting to become cheaper and with other technological advances such as the mass video distribution, like the popular site youtube, more and more filmmakers continue to get discovered each day. The education to accomplish these effects is also abundant with such sites as and lending advice and tutorials to help any filmmaker with the right determination.

As of writing this, the future of special effects in films seems to be geared towards one of total audience immersion. Movies like Avatar, Alice and Wonderland, and several more are looking to employ 3d glasses to try to give audience members a 3rd dimensional experience. However, this technology has been met with challenges, as it seems to hurt some users eyes (and other things like nausea and disorientation). On top of that, the technology is also more expensive to produce, therefore costing consumers more in an industry that already has high-ticket prices. Other films, like Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within (2001), have even attempted to go so far as creating a reality that mimics our own, completely cutting out the need for a physical crew and cast. In an industry that is constantly changing and looking for the best way to make a profit there is one thing that can be certain: As long as computers continue to become more powerful, industries like Hollywood will continue to utilize the full power of that technology, so that they can stay cutting edge in providing entertainment to a world full of hungry consumers waiting for the next big special effect to be screened.

Showing the process of visual effect transformation from human to ape, in the film, "Plannet of the Apes"
Showing the process of visual effect transformation from human to ape, in the film, "Plannet of the Apes"


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