Special effect

Special effects (often abbreviated as SFX, SPFX, or simply FX) are illusions or visual tricks used in the film, television, theatre, video game and simulator industries to simulate the imagined events in a story or virtual world.

Special effects are traditionally divided into the categories of mechanical effects and optical effects. With the emergence of digital film-making a distinction between special effects and visual effects has grown, with the latter referring to digital post-production while "special effects" referring to mechanical and optical effects.

Mechanical effects (also called practical or physical effects) are usually accomplished during the live-action shooting. This includes the use of mechanized props, scenery, scale models, animatronics, pyrotechnics and atmospheric effects: creating physical wind, rain, fog, snow, clouds, making a car appear to drive by itself and blowing up a building, etc. Mechanical effects are also often incorporated into set design and makeup. For example, a set may be built with break-away doors or walls to enhance a fight scene, or prosthetic makeup can be used to make an actor look like a non-human creature.

Optical effects (also called photographic effects) are techniques in which images or film frames are created photographically, either "in-camera" using multiple exposure, mattes or the Schüfftan process or in post-production using an optical printer. An optical effect might be used to place actors or sets against a different background.

Since the 1990s, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has come to the forefront of special effects technologies. It gives filmmakers greater control, and allows many effects to be accomplished more safely and convincingly and—as technology improves—at lower costs. As a result, many optical and mechanical effects techniques have been superseded by CGI.

Madame Nobel - film set at the Embassy of France in Vienna May 2014 08
A period drama set in Vienna uses a green screen as a backdrop, to allow a background to be added during post-production.
Bluebox im Heureka 01
Bluescreens are commonly used in chroma key special effects.

Developmental history

Early development

In 1857, Oscar Rejlander created the world's first "special effects" image by combining different sections of 32 negatives into a single image, making a montaged combination print. In 1895, Alfred Clark created what is commonly accepted as the first-ever motion picture special effect. While filming a reenactment of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, Clark instructed an actor to step up to the block in Mary's costume. As the executioner brought the axe above his head, Clark stopped the camera, had all of the actors freeze, and had the person playing Mary step off the set. He placed a Mary dummy in the actor's place, restarted filming, and allowed the executioner to bring the axe down, severing the dummy's head. Techniques like these would dominate the production of special effects for a century.[1]

It wasn't only the first use of trickery in cinema, it was also the first type of photographic trickery that was only possible in a motion picture, and referred to as the "stop trick". Georges Méliès, an early motion picture pioneer, accidentally discovered the same "stop trick." According to Méliès, his camera jammed while filming a street scene in Paris. When he screened the film, he found that the "stop trick" had caused a truck to turn into a hearse, pedestrians to change direction, and men to turn into women. Méliès, the stage manager at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, was inspired to develop a series of more than 500 short films, between 1914, in the process developing or inventing such techniques as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand painted color. Because of his ability to seemingly manipulate and transform reality with the cinematograph, the prolific Méliès is sometimes referred to as the "Cinemagician." His most famous film, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), a whimsical parody of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, featured a combination of live action and animation, and also incorporated extensive miniature and matte painting work.

From 1910 to 1920, the main innovations in special effects were the improvements on the matte shot by Norman Dawn. With the original matte shot, pieces of cardboard were placed to block the exposure of the film, which would be exposed later. Dawn combined this technique with the "glass shot." Rather than using cardboard to block certain areas of the film exposure, Dawn simply painted certain areas black to prevent any light from exposing the film. From the partially exposed film, a single frame is then projected onto an easel, where the matte is then drawn. By creating the matte from an image directly from the film, it became incredibly easy to paint an image with proper respect to scale and perspective (the main flaw of the glass shot). Dawn's technique became the textbook for matte shots due to the natural images it created.[2]

During the 1920s and 1930s, special effects techniques were improved and refined by the motion picture industry. Many techniques—such as the Schüfftan process—were modifications of illusions from the theater (such as pepper's ghost) and still photography (such as double exposure and matte compositing). Rear projection was a refinement of the use of painted backgrounds in the theater, substituting moving pictures to create moving backgrounds. Lifecasting of faces was imported from traditional maskmaking. Along with makeup advances, fantastic masks could be created which fit the actor perfectly. As material science advanced, horror film maskmaking followed closely.

Many studios established in-house "special effects" departments, which were responsible for nearly all optical and mechanical aspects of motion-picture trickery. Also, the challenge of simulating spectacle in motion encouraged the development of the use of miniatures. Animation, creating the illusion of motion, was accomplished with drawings (most notably by Winsor McCay in Gertie the Dinosaur) and with three-dimensional models (most notably by Willis O'Brien in The Lost World and King Kong). Naval battles could be depicted with models in studio. Tanks and airplanes could be flown (and crashed) without risk of life and limb. Most impressively, miniatures and matte paintings could be used to depict worlds that never existed. Fritz Lang's film Metropolis was an early special effects spectacular, with innovative use of miniatures, matte paintings, the Schüfftan process, and complex compositing.

An important innovation in special-effects photography was the development of the optical printer. Essentially, an optical printer is a projector aiming into a camera lens, and it was developed to make copies of films for distribution. Until Linwood G. Dunn refined the design and use of the optical printer, effects shots were accomplished as in-camera effects. Dunn demonstrating that it could be used to combine images in novel ways and create new illusions. One early showcase for Dunn was Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, where such locations as Xanadu (and some of Gregg Toland's famous 'deep focus' shots) were essentially created by Dunn's optical printer.

Color Era

The development of color photography required greater refinement of effects techniques. Color enabled the development of such travelling matte techniques as bluescreen and the sodium vapour process. Many films became landmarks in special-effects accomplishments: Forbidden Planet used matte paintings, animation, and miniature work to create spectacular alien environments. In The Ten Commandments, Paramount's John P. Fulton, A.S.C., multiplied the crowds of extras in the Exodus scenes with careful compositing, depicted the massive constructions of Rameses with models, and split the Red Sea in a still-impressive combination of travelling mattes and water tanks. Ray Harryhausen extended the art of stop-motion animation with his special techniques of compositing to create spectacular fantasy adventures such as Jason and the Argonauts (whose climax, a sword battle with seven animated skeletons, is considered a landmark in special effects).

The science fiction boom

Eventhough the 1950s and 1960s numerous new special effects were developed which would dramatically increase the level of realism achievable in science fiction films.

If one film could be said to have established a new high-bench mark for special effects, it would be 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, who assembled his own effects team (Douglas Trumbull, Tom Howard, Con Pederson and Wally Veevers) rather than use an in-house effects unit. In this film, the spaceship miniatures were highly detailed and carefully photographed for a realistic depth of field. The shots of spaceships were combined through hand-drawn rotoscoping and careful motion-control work, ensuring that the elements were precisely combined in the camera – a surprising throwback to the silent era, but with spectacular results. Backgrounds of the African vistas in the "Dawn of Man" sequence were combined with soundstage photography via the then-new front projection technique. Scenes set in zero-gravity environments were staged with hidden wires, mirror shots, and large-scale rotating sets. The finale, a voyage through hallucinogenic scenery, was created by Douglas Trumbull using a new technique termed slit-scan.

The 1970s provided two profound changes in the special effects trade. The first was economic: during the industry's recession in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many studios closed down their in-house effects houses. Many technicians became freelancers or founded their own effects companies, sometimes specializing on particular techniques (opticals, animation, etc.).

The second was precipitated by the blockbuster success of two science fiction and fantasy films in 1977. George Lucas's Star Wars ushered in an era of science-fiction films with expensive and impressive special-effects. Effects supervisor John Dykstra, A.S.C. and crew developed many improvements in existing effects technology. They developed a computer-controlled camera rig called the "Dykstraflex" that allowed precise repeatability of camera motion, greatly facilitating travelling-matte compositing. Degradation of film images during compositing was minimized by other innovations: the Dykstraflex used VistaVision cameras that photographed widescreen images horizontally along stock, using far more of the film per frame, and thinner-emulsion filmstocks were used in the compositing process. The effects crew assembled by Lucas and Dykstra was dubbed Industrial Light & Magic, and since 1977 has spearheaded most effects innovations.

That same year, Steven Spielberg's film Close Encounters of the Third Kind boasted a finale with impressive special effects by 2001 veteran Douglas Trumbull. In addition to developing his own motion-control system, Trumbull also developed techniques for creating intentional "lens flare" (the shapes created by light reflecting in camera lenses) to provide the film's undefinable shapes of flying saucers.

The success of these films, and others since, has prompted massive studio investment in effects-heavy science-fiction films. This has fueled the establishment of many independent effects houses, a tremendous degree of refinement of existing techniques, and the development of new techniques such as CGI. It has also encouraged within the industry a greater distinction between special effects and visual effects; the latter is used to characterize post-production and optical work, while special effects refers more often to on-set and mechanical effects.

Introduction of computer generated imagery (CGI)

A recent and profound innovation in special effects has been the development of computer generated imagery, or CGI which has changed nearly every aspect of motion picture special effects. Digital compositing allows far more control and creative freedom than optical compositing, and does not degrade the image like analog (optical) processes. Digital imagery has enabled technicians to create detailed models, matte "paintings," and even fully realized characters with the malleability of computer software.

Arguably the biggest and most "spectacular" use of CGI is in the creation of photo-realistic images of science-fiction and fantasy characters, settings, and objects. Images can be created in a computer using the techniques of animated cartoons and model animation. The Last Starfighter (1984) used computer generated spaceships instead of physical scale models. In 1993, stop-motion animators working on the realistic dinosaurs of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park were retrained in the use of computer input devices. By 1995, films such as Toy Story underscored that the distinction between live-action films and animated films was no longer clear. Other landmark examples include a character made up of broken pieces of a stained-glass window in Young Sherlock Holmes, a shapeshifting character in Willow, a tentacle of water in The Abyss, the T-1000 Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, hordes of armies of robots and fantastic creatures in the Star Wars prequel trilogy and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the planet Pandora in Avatar.

Planning and use

Although most visual effects work is completed during post-production, it must be carefully planned and choreographed in pre-production and production. A visual effects supervisor is usually involved with the production from an early stage to work closely with the Director and all related personnel to achieve the desired effects.

Practical effects also require significant pre-planning and co-ordination with performers and production teams. The live nature of the effects can result in situations where resetting due to an error, mistake, or safety concern incurs significant expense, or is impossible due to the destructive nature of the effect.

Live special effects

Spinning fiery steel wool
Spinning fiery steel wool at night

Live special effects are effects that are used in front of a live audience, such as in theatre, sporting events, concerts and corporate shows. Types of effects that are commonly used include: flying effects, laser lighting, theatrical smoke and fog, CO2 effects, and pyrotechnics. Other atmospheric effects can include flame, confetti, bubbles, and snow.[3]

Mechanical effects

Mechanical effects encompass the use of mechanical engineering to a greater degree. Cars being flipped and hauled over buildings are usually an effect built on specialized rigs and gimbals such as in movies like Unknown. These features were made possible by the use of these rigs and gimbals. Usually a team of engineers or freelance film companies provide these services to movie producers. As the action event is being recorded against a green screen, camera men, stunt artists or doubles, directors and engineers who conceptualize and engineer these monumental mechanics, all collaborate at the same time to acquire the perfect angle and shot that provides the entertainment users enjoy. It is then edited and reviewed before final release to the public.

Rig & Gimbal Mechanical Special Effects
Rig & Gimbal Mechanical Special Effects

Visual special effects techniques

Notable special effects companies

Notable special effects directors


  1. ^ Rickitt, 10.
  2. ^ Baker, 101-4
  3. ^ Danielle S. Hammelef (2015). Explosive Scenes: Fireballs, Furious Storms, and More Live Special Effects. Capstone. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-4914-2003-4.


  • Cinefex magazine
  • American Cinematographer magazine
  • Richard Rickitt: Special Effects: The History and Technique, Billboard Books; 2nd edition, 2007; ISBN 0-8230-8408-6
  • Movie Magic: The History of Special Effects in the Cinema by John Brosnan (1974)
  • Techniques of Special Effects Cinematography by Raymond Fielding (For many years, the standard technical reference. Current edition 1985)
  • Special Effects: Titanic and Beyond The online companion site to the NOVA documentary (especially notable are the timeline and glossary)
  • T. Porter and T. Duff, "Compositing Digital Images", Proceedings of SIGGRAPH '84, 18 (1984).
  • The Art and Science of Digital Compositing (ISBN 0-12-133960-2)
  • McClean, Shilo T. (2007). Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-13465-9.
  • Mark Cotta Vaz; Craig Barron: The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting, Chronicle Books, 2004; ISBN 0-8118-4515-X
  • Larry Nile Baker, A History of Special Effects Cinematography in the United States, 1895–1914, Larry Nile Baker, 1969.

External links

American Society of Cinematographers

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), founded in Hollywood in 1919, is a cultural, educational, and professional organization that is neither a labor union nor a guild. The society was organized with a purpose to not only progress and advance the science and art of cinematography, but also gather a wide range of cinematographers together to collaboratively discuss and exchange techniques and ideas and to advocate for motion pictures as a type of art form. This mission is still ongoing. Currently, the president of the ASC is Kees van Oostrum.Members use the post-nominal letters "ASC". On the 1920 film titled Sand, cinematographer Joseph H. August, who was an original member of the ASC, became the first individual to have the "ASC" appear after his name on the onscreen credit.Only film cinematographers and special effect supervisors are allowed to invited to become an ASC member. Some basic requirements include being a director of photography for a minimum five out of the last eight years before applying, having a highly regarded reputation, and being recommended by three active or retired ASC members.However, a criticism of the ASC is the lack of women represented on the board. Out of the active members on the ASC, only 4% are women.

Fallen Hero

"Fallen Hero" is the twenty-third aired episode (production #123) of the television series Star Trek: Enterprise.

Captain Archer is ordered to transport Vulcan Ambassador V'Lar from a planet where her integrity has been called into question.

This episode also includes special effect sequences with a science fiction vessel, the 22nd century Vulcan Sh'Raan class.

False Profits

"False Profits" is the 47th episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the fifth episode of the third season. This is a science fiction television episode of the Star Trek franchise, that aired on UPN on October 2, 1996. This features special effect sequences of wormholes, shuttlecraft, and an inhabited exoplanet.

This has many guest stars that fill in as the inhabitants of the planet Voyager encounters.

Hanging miniature

Hanging miniature is an in-camera special effect similar to a matte shot where a model, rather than a painting, is placed in foreground and the action takes place in the background. It is thus a specific form of forced perspective.

Hollow Man

Hollow Man is a 2000 science fiction horror film directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue and Josh Brolin. It may have loose similarities with Telugu movie Sabash Satyam released in 1969 starring Krishna who goes invisible after drinking a test drug,and dresses similar to Hollow Man of 2000. Actor Bacon who portrays the titular character, a scientist who renders himself invisible, only to go on a killing spree after going violently insane, a story inspired by H. G. Wells' novel The Invisible Man. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 2001, losing to Gladiator.

A direct-to-video stand-alone sequel called Hollow Man 2, starring Christian Slater and Peter Facinelli, was released in 2006.

In-camera effect

An in-camera effect is any special effect in a video or movie that is created solely by using techniques in and on the camera and/or its parts. The in-camera effect is defined by the fact that the effect exists on the original camera negative or video recording before it is sent to a lab or modified. So effects that modify the original negative at the lab, such as skip bleach or flashing, are not included. Likewise effects that work with props, such as squibs, fire, and dustball guns are also not included. Some examples of in camera effects include:

Matte painting

Schüfftan process

Forced perspective

Dolly zoom

Lens flares

Lighting effects

Filtration such as using a fog filter to simulate fog, or a grad filter to simulate sunset.

Shutter effects.

Time-lapse, slow motion, fast motion, and speed ramping.



Infrared photography

Reverse motion

Front projection

Rear projection

Phonotrope a live animation technique that uses the frame-rate of a camera


Morphing is a special effect in motion pictures and animations that changes (or morphs) one image or shape into another through a seamless transition. morphing means stretching or as part of a fantasy or surreal sequence. Traditionally such a depiction would be achieved through cross-fading techniques on film. Since the early 1990s, this has been replaced by computer software to create more realistic transitions.

Nonsense word

A nonsense word, unlike a sememe, may have no definition. Nonsense words can be classified depending on their orthographic and phonetic similarity with (meaningful) words. If it can be pronounced according to a language's phonotactics, it is a pseudoword. Nonsense words are used in literature for poetic or humorous effect. Proper names of real or fictional entities are sometimes nonsense words.

A stunt word is a nonsense word used for a special effect, or to attract attention, as part of a performance. Such words are a feature of the work of Dr. Seuss ("Sometimes I am quite certain there's a Jertain in the curtain").The ability to infer the (hypothetical) meaning of a nonsense word from context is used to test for brain damage.


Pathet (Javanese spelling; also patet) is an organizing concept in Central Javanese gamelan music. It is a system of tonal hierarchies in which some notes are emphasized more than others. The word means '"to damp, or to restrain from" in Javanese. Pathet is "a limitation on the player's choice of variation, so that while in one pathet a certain note may be prominent, in another it must be avoided, or used only for special effect. Awareness of such limitations, and exploration of variation within them reflects a basic philosophical aim of gamelan music, and indeed all art in central Java, namely, the restraint and refinement of one's own behaviour." Javanese often give poetic explanations of pathet, such as "Pathet is the couch or bed of a melody." In essence, a pathet indicates which notes are stressed in the melody, especially at the end of phrases (seleh), as well as determines which elaborations (cengkok and sekaran) are appropriate. In many cases, however, pieces are seen as in a mixture of pathets, and the reality is often more complicated than the generalizations indicated here, and depend on the particular composition and style.

Practical effect

A practical effect is a special effect produced physically, without computer-generated imagery or other post production techniques. In some contexts, "special effect" is used as a synonym of "practical effect", in contrast to "visual effects" which are created in post-production through photographic manipulation or computer generation.

Many of the staples of action movies are practical effects. Gunfire, bullet wounds, rain, wind, fire, and explosions can all be produced on a movie set by someone skilled in practical effects. Non-human characters and creatures produced with make-up, prosthetics, masks, and puppets – in contrast to computer-generated images – are also examples of practical effects.

Reverse motion

Reverse motion (also known as reverse motion photography or reverse action) is a special effect in cinematography whereby the action that is filmed is shown backwards (i.e. time-reversed) on screen. It can either be an in-camera effect or an effect produced with the use of an optical printer. There are various reasons why this technique may be adopted, such as for comedy effect (destruction reversal) or for safety reasons (a car stopping just in time may be filmed starting at the stop point).

Schüfftan process

The Schüfftan process is a movie special effect named after its inventor, Eugen Schüfftan (1893–1977). It was widely used in the first half of the 20th century before being almost completely replaced by the travelling matte and bluescreen effects.

Sensational spelling

Sensational spelling is the deliberate spelling of a word in an incorrect or non-standard way for special effect.

Substitution splice

The substitution splice or stop trick is a cinematic special effect in which filmmakers achieve an appearance, disappearance, or transformation by altering one or more selected aspects of the mise-en-scène between two shots

while maintaining the same framing and other aspects of the scene in both shots. The effect is usually polished by careful editing to establish a seamless cut and optimal moment of change. It has also been referred to as stop motion substitution or stop-action.

The pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès claimed to have accidentally developed the stop trick, as he wrote in Les Vues Cinématographiques in 1907 (translated from French):

An obstruction of the apparatus that I used in the beginning (a rudimentary apparatus in which the film would often tear or get stuck and refuse to advance) produced an unexpected effect, one day when I was prosaically filming the Place de L'Opéra; I had to stop for a minute to free the film and to get the machine going again. During this time passersby, omnibuses, cars, had all changed places, of course. When I later projected the film, reattached at the point of the rupture, I suddenly saw the Madeleine-Bastille bus changed into a hearse, and men changed into women. The trick-by-substitution, called the stop trick, had been invented and two days later I performed the first metamorphosis of men into women and the first sudden disappearances that had, at the beginning, such a great success.

According to the film scholar Jacques Deslandes, it is more likely that Méliès discovered the trick by carefully examining a print of the Edison Manufacturing Company's 1895 film The Execution of Mary Stuart, in which a primitive version of the trick appears. And certainly the trick was used in the widely seen 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery, when a dummy is substituted for an actor in the coal car. In any case, the substitution splice was both the first special effect Méliès perfected, and the most important in his body of work.Film historians such as Richard Abel and Elizabeth Ezra established that much of the effect was the result of Méliès's careful frame matching during the editing process, creating a seamless match cut out of two separately staged shots. Indeed, Méliès often used substitution splicing not as an obvious special effect, but as an inconspicuous editing technique, matching and combining short takes into one apparently seamless longer shot. Substitution splicing could become even more seamless when the film was colored by hand, as many of Méliès's films were; the addition of painted color acts as a sleight of hand technique allowing the cuts to pass by unnoticed.The substitution splice was the most popular cinematic special effect in trick films and early film fantasies, especially those that evolved from the stage tradition of the féerie. Segundo de Chomón is among the other filmmakers who used substitution splicing to create elaborate fantasy effects. D.W. Griffith's 1909 film The Curtain Pole, starring Mack Sennett, used substitution splices for comedic effect. The transformations made possible by the substitution splice were so central to early fantasy films that, in France, such films were often described simply as scènes à transformation.This technique is different from the stop motion technique, in which the entire shot is created frame by frame.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945 film)

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a 1945 American horror-drama film based on Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel of the same name. Released in March 1945 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film is directed by Albert Lewin and stars George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton and Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray. Shot primarily in black-and-white, the film features four colour inserts in 3-strip Technicolor of Dorian's portrait; these are a special effect, the first two inserts are the original portrait and the second two after a major period of degeneration then recovery.

Theatrical smoke and fog

Theatrical Smoke and Fog, also known as special effect smoke, fog or haze, is a category of atmospheric effects used in the entertainment industry. The use of fogs can be found throughout motion picture and television productions, live theatre, concerts, at nightclubs and raves, amusement and theme parks and even in video arcades and similar venues. These atmospheric effects are used for creating special effects, to make lighting and lighting effects visible, and to create a specific sense of mood or atmosphere. If an individual is at an entertainment venue and beams of light are visible cutting across the room, that most likely means smoke or fog is being used. Theatrical smoke and fog are indispensable in creating visible mid-air laser effects to entertain audiences. Recently smaller, cheaper fog machines have become available to the general public, and fog effects are becoming more common in residential applications, from small house parties to Halloween and Christmas.

Theatrical fog and theatrical fog machines are also becoming more prevalent in industrial applications outside of the entertainment industry, due to their ease of use, inherent portability and ruggedness. Common popular applications for theatrical fog include environmental testing (such as HVAC inspections) as well as emergency personnel and disaster response training exercises.

Militaries have historically used smoke and fog to mask troop movements in training and combat, the techniques of which are technologically similar to those used in theatre and film.

Special effects

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