Special effects have been around as long as film has been created.  It comes with many different areas; sounds, photography, scenery, props, and makeup.  They were first used in photography, and later in film animation and radio, using various objects, musical instruments, and devices to make certain sounds that sounded like other sounds.  Special effects include makeup, mechanized props, scenery, scale models, pyrotechnics, animatronics, and atmospheric effects, such as wind, rain, or fog.


In 1856, Oscar Rejander created the first trick photograph by combining thirty negatives into a single image.  In 1895, the first actual moving picture was developed.  The first animated films were created in the early 1900’s, using popular comic strips of the time.  They used single frames that moved a high volume of frames per second.  Optical effects are achieved by the use of techniques where images on a film frames are created by multiple exposure or mattes.


Most early films used sets with painted backdrops, and took advantage of using creative scenery, smoke, costumes and props.  The twister in The Wizard of Oz(1939), was produced by using a huge stocking twisted and coiled by a blowing fan, and farther distance pictures used actual tornado footage.  And who can forget the witch’s arrival and departure in an explosion and a cloud of smoke.  Fritz Lory’s Metropolis was an early special effects masterpiece, using simple methods, such as miniatures, and trick photography.

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In King Kong and The Lost World, clay stop-animation and models were used, as well as miniature airplanes and building models. Special effects masters such as Ray Harryhausen, created Jason and The Argonauts, and his last film, Clash of The Titans(1981), which was one of the best stop-animation films ever made.  Even movies as late as The terminator have used this method.


The introduction of color required special effects technicians to become more inventive.  Such movies like Forbidden Planet(1956), combined a blend of painted backdrops, animation and miniatures to create spectacular alien environment.  Robby the Robot,one of the most expensive props of the time, costing a whopping $125,000 to make.  He was later used in the sci-fi television series Lost In Space. 


Gimmicks such as Cinemascope, Technicolor, Arromavision, and Ssmellavision were introduced to draw in audiences to give them a full effect at what they were watching.  House of Wax(1953), starring Vincent Price was the first movie to be shown in 3D.


In Cecile B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments,  extras were used as a composite to create the illusion of an enormous crowd of people, water tanks were used to create the parting of the Red Sea, the burning bush was made using pyrotechnics and trick photography, and even the voice of God was enhanced to cover the actor’s real voice, which is also Moses, Charlton Heston.

Tomorrow, we will look at how makeup has changed movies, from the beginning until now.  Until then, here are today’s links:







Actor’s makeup had been around as long as there has been actors.  Certain powders and paints were used in the beginning, in theatrical plays, musicals, and operas.  Early makeup in motion pictures had limited color range sensitivity, and reacted to red pigmentation, darkening white skin, and nullifying solid reds.  Actors in early films applied their own makeup, which often led to inconsistency in application.


Max Factor(1877-1988), was one of the pioneer makeup artists, as well as George Westmore, who both started out as wigmakers, and also share the claim of the invention of false eyelashes.  Factor was first to use makeup for a screentest during the filming of silent film, Cleopatra(1912).


Westmore’s sons went on to do makeup in movies such as Gone With The Wind(1939),  done by Monte, The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1939), done by Verc, Dr. Jeckell & Mr. Hyde(1931), by Wally, and Bud with The Creature From The Black Lagoon(1954).  Bud’s sons later went on to create unusual makeup, like that in Bladerunner.  Lon Chaney did his own makeup for The Phantom of The Opera(1923), using greasepaint, putty, mortician’s wax, fish skin, natural resin, liquid elastic, and crepe hair.  Some of the early horror flicks, such as vampire or ghost movies used simple makeup to achieve terrifying results.  Nosferato and Bela Logosi’s Dracula are classics.

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Latex was developed from the sap of rubber trees  and used to enhance movies by creating somewhat realistic results.  Some people were and still are allergic to it, and it is sometimes painful when removed.  Liquid latex was a revolution in the industry, making masks and layers to be easily made and applied, and acrylic paints can be used for desired colors.  Scars and dashes can be made using cotton and tissue paper to build up an are and applying latex to the skin.  Rowdy McDowell, of The Planet of the Apes series of films once said that the pain staking process of makeup took most of his waking day to apply, and he only was on the set a couple of hours.  He sometimes left it on overnight, if he had an early day.


The Japanese creature feature Godzilla was being developed by the Japanese, using a guy in a latex suit.  It was a common practice in 50’s horror flicks for men to be in rubber suits for at least some of the scenes to make them more realistic.  Creature was rather innovative because it allowed the user to move somewhat freely.

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As the process, got more advanced, so did the realism.  Movies  such as The Island of Dr. Morreau, and Night of The Living Dead were done on minimum budgets to produce interesting and realistic creatures.  Zombies have also become a mainstay in the movies, and are created in much the same way.  Latex  helped create creatures that normally couldn’t be visualized, such as Alien, and The Fly.  Who could forget the bad-ass alien of Predator, with his mandible jaws, and large crustacean type head?  Mystique of The X-Men series is one of the coolest and sexiest makeup jobs in the movies.  Also, when makeup comes to mind, one thinks of the infamous Joker from Batman fame.


THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection
THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection


Tomorrow, we will explore the world of scenery, and how it affects the outcome of a film.  Until then, here are today’s links:








Next to the story plot, setting is the most important part of any piece of fiction.  In order for the characters to be realistic, the setting must be realistic as well.  The first scenery was developed by Greek and Roman acting troupe, who often performed Tragic comedies, using the rear wall of the theater as the scenery.  The three major trends during the 19th century were creating historically correct settings, the development of the realistic box set, and the revolt against the 2 dimensional world of painted canvases.  Scene artists first painted backdrops, murals, and other elements on sets.


20th century American designs began with the work of Robert Edmund James(1887-1954), who created many of MGM’s fantastic colorful sets, such as Singing In The Rain, The Wizard of Oz,  and Showboat.  Donald Onalager(1902-1975) introduced the first college level course in scene design at Yale University.


The movie industry changed when location filming became a mainstay.  Location filming consisted of filming at an actual setting, and no longer had to be done on a back lot or stage. Most movies today to a little of both.  The many advantages to this include cheaper film costs, realism, and using non-union workers.  disadvantages include lack of control of the environment; such as lighting, aircraft, traffic, bad weather, and city regulations, and finding a real world that matches the script.


Several recent movies have revered for the spectacular scenery and settings in them.  In Batman Begins, Wayne Manor is really Mentmore Towers, in Buckinghamshire, London, England. Other parts were filmed in Chicago.   The newest Bond film Skyfall was filmed in Scotland.  The fictional planet of Tatooine of Star Wars films is really set in Onk Jmel, Tunisia, and the ice planet scenes in Interstellar were filmed at Simafellsjokill glacier in Iceland.  Promethus and then Alien series also have stunning visual scenes, making them appear to be not of this Earth.  Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit entirely on location in New Zealand, right down to building the sets there as well.


CGI’s and blue screen has also had a profound effect on scenery.  Although blue screens aren’t new, they can now be used by placing actual moving  images behind them, making a person appear to be flying.  In early days, this effect was cheezy and fake, as you can see when you watch people in a car that’s supposed to be in motion.  With CGI, only the producer’s imagination is the limitation, putting the actors anywhere they want them to be.


Tomorrow, we will look at the world of props, mechanical devices, and animontronics.   Until then, here are today’s links:







Props are essential to make a movie look realistic; and the more realistic, the more elaborate the prop.  The word “prop” is short for property, meaning it belonged to all the actors.  It is any object used on stage or screen by actors during performance or filming, and also includes clothing and electrical equipment.  The earliest reference to props dates back to 1425 CE in a Morality play entitled, The Castle of Perseverance.  The first props were masks, and were what we know as the “Comedy and Tragedy” masks.

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The person in charge of props is called the Prop Master/Mistress.  In recent years, prop memorabilia has become extremely popular and valuable, and can fetch thousands or even millions of dollars at auction.  The sale of Bond’s Austin Martin used in Goldfinger  in  2010 fetched a whopping $4.1 million.

Bond with Austin Martin

Props must look real to the audience, even if it is just a play on stage.  In theater, weapons are almost always fake, but convincing replicas.  Guns fire caps or blanks, swords are dull, and knives are either rubber or plastic.  In movies, real weapons are used, but with special smoke blanks.  Any real weapons used with real ammunition are carefully monitored by the authorities.  Breakaway walls and furniture for stunts are made using thin balsam wood, and for glass they used a substance known as sugar glass, which breaks easily and does not cause injury.  Hero’s props, such as phasers and communicators like those on Star Trek, sometimes have moving parts in them to make them more realistic.  The transporter is a device which uses lights, trick photography, and several moving parts on the panel.


Other props include small models called miniatures to give us the illusion that they are full scale objects.  This has been used in many movies, including 2001, Star Wars, and The Poseidon Adventure.  This is also sometimes done with actual animals or people to make one or the other look larger than they are, such as lizards in The World That Time Forgot, Food of The Gods, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man.

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Mechanical devices are sometimes used in place of humans or to help with the filming.  A dolly shot is any shot taken while in a moving vehicle.  This can be done in a number of ways, using a boom camera while moving, on a dolly cart, or from an automobile or truck.

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Mechanical arms have been used in several early horror and sci-fi films, and large mechanical creatures were designed as well.  Movies such as Them, King Kong and Tarantula  all used mechanical props to achieve the effect of gigantic proportions.  Jaws was almost entirely mechanical, and only a few shots were underwater with real sharks.  Robby the robot was basically what it says he was, an actual robot, and could perform simple functions that it was directed to do.


Animatronics has also become a big resource in the film industry, which are robotic devices used to emulate humans or animals, making them appear lifelike.  Robots that mimick humans are more often called androids.

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Walt Disney was the pioneer in this area, creating animatronics for the entertainment and film industry.  His first human figure was Abraham Lincoln, and he also went on to create Walt Disney World Theme Park, and later Walt Disney Land, which his animatronic characters dominated throughout.


Animatronic characters are created using steel, aluminum, plastic, or wood for the skeleton, acrylic for the eyes and teeth, and latex, silicone, or plaster for the skin, and special fibers or genuine hair for hair or fur.  Examples of animatronic devices are the T-Rex in Jurrasiac Park, the robot arms of Doc Ock in Spiderman 2, and the terminators in Terminator 2.


Tomorrow, we will end the series with a bang, when we’ll explore the world of pyrotechnics, Computer Generated Imagery, and atmospheric effects.  Until then, here are today’s links:







Ever wonder how they blew up the White House in Independence Day, or how the building in Terminator 2 or The Dark Knight explodes?  The secret is they don’t really use that much explosives, and what they blow up is really is a model.  The way they make it so real is the real magic, using special filming to achieve their effect.  Pyrotechnics have been used in movies all the way since the beginning of the film industry, and only gets better through the years.  But what exactly do they use to achieve such realistic effects?


Pyrotechnics is the science of fire and explosive materials.  Items often used are blasting supplies, such as fuses and detonators, smoke effects, fireworks, explosives, fuel, or anything else used to start a fire or explosion.  Special training and licensing from local authorities is required to legally prepare and use them.  Many musical groups, such as Pink Floyd, The Who, Kiss, Queen, and Green Day all have used pyrotechnics in their stage acts.


Actors wear special flame retardant clothing or liquid that protects them from getting burned, and there is always medical attention available if anything goes wrong.  This has not always been the case, however.  In the 1939 Wizard of Oz, Margarette Hamilton was burned during her explosion in Munchkinland, and had to be hospitalized, delaying production.   Sometimes, Hollywood screws up in other way on explosions as well.  In the above Star Wars explosion, the sound of the explosion is heard in space.  This wouldn’t happen because space is a vacuum, and there isn’t sound in a vacuum, but in the movies this happens often, and is generally accepted.  In reality, it would just be a tremendous flash of light that would travel at the speed of light.


Technology in the late 80’s brought us Computer Generated Imagery, which is the application of graphics to create images in art, media, video games, films, television, videos, and simulators.  CGI in the movies is usually 3D graphics, in which a simulated camera isn’t constrained by the laws of physics.  CGI images give the actor the ability to fly, jump over buildings, transform into different shapes, and look completely different from himself.  In the new Planet of The Apes series, Andy Serkis plays Cesar, the head chimpanzee,but never once actually appears as himself.  He also did this as Gollum in The Lord of The Rings trilogy.  CGI is also used in medical technology, architecture, and 3D printing.


Weather effects have also been used for years in the film industry.  Giant fans, rain, snow and fog machines have been around since the early 20’s.  Nowadays, however, the sky is truly the limit, as we’ve seen in such movies as Twister, The Perfect Storm, and Into The Storm.


Sometimes real life footage is used to enhance the effect, and sometimes fans, machines, or CGI are used.  The River was based on real floods that occurred, and some film footage was used from the actual events.


Effects are what make movies believable and memorable to us.  Without them, a movie would be dull and unimaginative.  Silent films didn’t catch on very quickly because of the transition of the words in between the action.  This changed with sound, and the start of a new world of action which had changed the movie industry even today.

Next week, I’m taking a week off to work on production of my next novel, and promoting my current novel.  I will return in two weeks with a brand new series.  Until then, here are today’s links:







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