Special Effects March 18, 2002
The Early Days
Moviegoers marveled the first time Superman soared across the sky in his quest to defeat evil. But what was state-of-the-art in 1978 is no longer as convincing. Today's moviegoers have come to expect amazing effects that put them right in the middle of the action: a fishing boat battling ninety-foot waves in The Perfect Storm; giant, life-like dinosaurs devouring their prey in Jurassic Park; a terrifying plane crash in Cast Away. Special effects have come a long way since they first appeared.

Have you ever seen the 1933 movie King Kong? It is one of the most memorable examples of early experiments with special effects. King Kong himself was an animated model, brought to life on screen using stop-motion filming. It is a very labor-intensive method: models have to be moved a fraction of an inch, their facial expressions changed, and then shot, with 24 different shots being taken for just one second of film.

  • See how to make your own flipbook animation, which mimics the effect of stop-motion filming, at Cosmikanga. Here's a more advanced version, making flipbook animations with photographs, from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

King Kong's costar in the movie was the actress Fay Wray. If Kong was an animated model, how did the early filmmakers make it look as though he was interacting with an actress? The answer lies in a technique known as "optical printing." The producers filmed Kong and Fay Wray separately. They then projected the two films together and used another camera to record the information on a third reel of film. The result: on film, it looks as though Fay Wray is right there with Kong. The separate elements — animation, scenery, and human characters — were merged to appear as though they all existed together during filming. The scene appears real. This blending of shots is now known as compositing. It's still done today, but using different methods.

  • Read a biography of Linwood G. Dunn and find out about his role in designing the first manufactured optical printer.
  • You can also visit the masters of stop-motion animation, Aardman Studios. They created Wallace and Gromit and will soon release 12 new one-minute episodes exclusively on the Web.
Modern Movies
These days, instead of a jerky King Kong, you'll see humans walking with authentic-looking dinosaurs in a lush forest. The old technique of optical printing has been replaced with digital compositing.

One important tool in digital compositing is the "blue screen." Movie stars perform a scene in a studio, in front of a blue screen. Later, computer programs are used to replace the blue background with a real background, such as an ocean scene. So, even though the actor was filmed in a studio, it will look like he was filmed out at sea.

The blue screen was used several times in the movie Forrest Gump. In one of the most memorable scenes, actor Tom Hanks appears to shake hands with President John F. Kennedy — who in reality passed away over 35 years before the movie was made. The movie producers filmed Hanks in front of a blue screen, pretending he was interacting with the President. They then used computer technology to isolate Hanks and insert him into an old film clip featuring President Kennedy.

  • Create your own blue screen special effects with step-by-step instruction from the Cyber Film School.
  • Learn more about the history and terminology of special effects at the Nova Web site on special effects and the HowStuffWorks Web site.
  • Consider the last three "great" movies you saw. How important do you think special effects were to your enjoyment of those movies?

The Nickelodeon movie Clockstoppers, which will be released on March 29th, uses the technique known as "time-slicing." It was important for the Clockstoppers plot that objects appear to be frozen in time. In the movie, the camera seems to rotate around objects, giving you a three-dimensional view of them as they stand still. In fact, a ring of cameras is positioned around the object, and the cameras all take a still image at the same time. When the images are played together, it looks as though there is one camera moving around the object, caught in one moment of time.

Off with Her Head!
According to The American Film Industry: A Historical Dictionary, the 1895 film Execution Of Mary Stuart, The Queen of Scotland is thought to be the first film that incorporated special effects. In this movie, freeze frame was used to create the appearance that Queen Mary's head was chopped off. In reality, shooting was stopped, Mary was removed, and a dummy was put in her place. When the separate takes were run together, it looked as though Mary's head had really been chopped off.

Stop Motion
Stop-motion filming is still used today. Recent examples include the movie Chicken Run (which used Claymation puppets), MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and parts of Monkeybone. According to the Movie School Encyclopedia, Steven Spielberg originally wanted to use stop-motion to film Jurassic Park, but in the end he decided to use digital models instead.

In the Limelight
Early in the 1600s, when theater productions moved indoors, candles were used to light the stage. Candles offered very little control of the stage lighting. In 1816, Thomas Drummond applied an oxyhydrogen flame to a block of lime to create a bright light that he then directed with mirrors. This new spotlight was used to follow performers and create special effects, such as sunshine and moonlight. Thus the phrase "in the limelight" was born.

One of the most important inventions in theater lighting effects was Thomas Edison's electric light. Read more about Thomas Edison's inventions. Which invention do you think had the most dramatic impact on society?

Computer power has opened up new doors for filmmakers. The dramatic realism of James Cameron's Titanic (1999) would not have been possible without "CGI," or Computer-Generated Imaging. Computer graphics were used to fill in details and build scenes that could not be filmed, such as the ship sinking in the distance. In Gladiator (2001), a skeletal version of the Colosseum was used as the set; the vivid details you see in the movie were filled in using computer graphics.

Computer animation has taken on a life of its own, too. Sometimes, animated characters interact with real scenes and humans on screen: in The Lord of the Rings, many of the creatures Frodo and Samwise encountered — such as the Cave Troll in the Mines of Moria — were computer-animated. Flubber starred computer-animated goo alongside actor Robin Williams. In another Williams movie, Jumanji, the jungle animals that trampled through town — destroying everything in their path — weren't real.

The biggest news in computer animation is this year's new Oscar category of "Animated Feature Film." The three contenders are Monsters Inc., Shrek, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. The much-admired detail of these movies (think of Sulley's furry coat in Monsters Inc.) would have been painstaking to create in old hand-drawn animations, but today's powerful computers make it possible to make animated characters seem very real.

  • Visit the official Web site of the new computer-animated movie, Ice Age, which is doing well at the box office right now.
  • Learn more about special effects used in the movie Flubber from the Visual Effects Headquarters.
  • How is computer animation affecting workers in the movie making industry? Find out in "21st Century Movies" on PBS' OnlineNewsHour.
  • Read a review of The Perfect Storm by famous film critic Roger Ebert. Do you agree with his take on the movie? Why or why not?
  • Consider the last movie you saw which had special effects. Write a review of the movie based on the realism and impact of the special effects. Support your claims with specific examples from the movie. Here are some questions to consider:
    • Were the special effects believable?
    • Did the special effects enhance the movie?
    • How could the special effects have been improved?

The Price of Effects
Movie budgets continue to rise as movie producers create more impressive visual effects to lure you to the theater. If a movie is successful, it earns more money than it costs to produce, thus yielding a profit. However, in some cases, the cost of the movie outweighs the money it takes in at the box office.

  • Look at the data below figure out which movie earned the highest percentage profit and which movie had the largest percentage loss.

Title Year Released Budget Total Dollars Grossed
Titanic 1997 $200,000,000 $1,835,400,000
The Mummy Returns 2001 $100,000,000 $418,700,000
AI: Artificial Intelligence 2001 $100,000,000 $78,616,689
Mission to Mars 2000 $90,000,000 $60,874,615

More Links
Check out the official Web sites of some of the movies we've mentioned in this article:

Cast Away
Chicken Run
Ice Age
Jurassic Park
Lord of the Rings
Monsters, Inc.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Perfect Storm

Basketball and Cartoons
In the IMAX film, Michael Jordan to the Max, producers used both blue screen and special wide-angle IMAX film to create many of the extraordinary scenes. Jordan was filmed performing slam dunks and other impressive shots in front of a blue screen. These shots were then composited with animated cartoon characters.

Learn more about the special effects and see pictures of the process on the official Web site, Michael Jordan to the Max. (If you look through the photo gallery, you'll see that the filmmakers used a green screen instead of a blue one — but the basic principle is the same.)

In the end, the cost of producing a movie — including its special effects — is passed on to you. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, the average cost of producing and advertising a movie in 2000 was about $82,000,000. The average cost of a movie ticket that year was $5.40 (that number included discount rates such as matinees). However, many movie theaters now charge $7-8 per adult ticket. And that number doesn't even include the cost of candy and popcorn.

  • Are you willing to pay higher movie ticket prices to fund state-of-the-art movie theaters and more expensive special effects?

— by Zora Warren of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's "Technology in Education" program

Related Activities
Star Wars
Read about the effects used in The Phantom Menace in this Riverdeep archive article.
If you need help calculating the percentage problems in this article, try this tutorial from Destination Math.
All About Oscar
For Teachers: This Riverdeep article shows how you can teach your students math and chemistry using the Oscar statuette.