The Most Famous Special Effects in Filmdom
Movie magic is amazing. Through tricks with camera angles, mirrors, backdrops, and more, filmmakers can convince you that the characters can sail through space, work magic, and move mountains. If you’ve ever wondered how they made someone fly, throw lighting, run at superspeed, or what have you, here’s a selection of the most famous special effects in filmdom. It’s not all CGI—honest!
“The Stop Trick”
The first-ever special effect in film was the stop trick, and it involved nothing more than filming a scene, stopping the camera, telling the actors to freeze in place, adding some new person or prop, and restarting the camera. Through this technique, people and things could magically appear and disappear. Groundbreaking French filmmaker Georges Méliès relied on this quite frequently after discovering it by accident. Filming a Parisian Street in the late 1890s, Méliès’ camera jammed. When he developed the film, he was amused to see how the jam made it appear as if men had turned into women and a bus into a hearse. Méliès incorporated the trick into many of his films and developed other special effects used to this day.
Green Screen and Blue Screen
Painted backdrops have created fake backgrounds since the earliest days of theater, and their use had continued in films in the early days of cinema. Sometime in the 1940s, the blue screen technique was invented. An actor performed in front of a blue screen, and later, filmmakers filmed a background scene with the actor’s part masked out. Then with the films combined into a composite image, it allowed all sorts of illusions. Editing software now permits chroma key effects. With chroma key effects, an actor acts in front of a bright green screen. The software then replaces the green with other footage. Your favorite films often took place on a bright green soundstage!
Forced perspective is handy if you need giants and fairies in your film but don’t have access to 50-foot or six-inch-tall actors. Forced perspective is an optical illusion wherein an actor or object stands closer to the camera while something else stays farther away. When done properly, the closer actor looks larger than the more distant one. You can also enhance the effect by over or undersized props. The Lord of the Rings movies used the technique, making normal-sized actors look like hobbits beside actors playing humans. The technique can also make a small set look much larger and longer than it is.
One of the most famous special effects in filmdom used in horror films is the fog machine. Need to create a spooky mood in your movie? Running a fog machine off-camera can provide a set replicating a cemetery, old castle, or moor. You can fill your film with an extra creepy ambiance by creating fog with a heated water and glycol solution. When the solution interacts with the air, it turns the moisture into fog, which rests thick and heavy around the actors’ legs.