Special Effects: The Then and The Now – How Technology Changed Cinema

Movies have come a long way from the days of blurry screens, cutting reels of magnetic tape and exaggerated makeup made for the camera. There have always been some methods that cinematographers tried to manipulate film in order to create an illusion or affect the final product while telling the story.

History: The Beginning of Stop-Motion Videos

The first example of a special effects film in the history of cinematography was when pioneer cameraman and director Alfred Clark was filming ‘The Execution of Mary Stuart’, which depicted the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. With what can only be called an imaginative move at the time, he invented the stop-trick. You can watch the scene here.

He instructed the entire cast to stay still as he paused the camera and the actress playing Mary was replaced by a dummy. It may seem so obvious to viewers in the 20th century, but the effect was so impressive at the time, many were convinced that an actress was sacrificed for a movie. 

That was how the stop-trick was invented. Stop-Motion videos are a method of making videos by repeatedly pausing the camera in order to adjust the set slightly and then continuing the recording. You may be familiar with children’s shows where clay models appear to move, often in a jittery motion. An example of this method still used today is the British children’s animated series ‘Shaun the Sheep’. Creating videos of this type is extremely simple yet time consuming. For detailed instructions on how to create these videos, watch this video. 

Green Screens and Computer Generated Images

Perhaps one of the most famous movies of the 90’s is the 1997 Romance/Drama Movie ‘Titanic’. How many people do you know that haven’t watched it? The scenes of the movie required a lot of special effects, costing the financing studios a lot of money. In fact, at the time of its release, ‘Titanic’ was the most expensive movie ever made. Most complex were the scenes of sinking – it was a combination of scale models, green screens and computer generated imagery (CGI). This video shows a summary of different aspects of the making of Titanic.

Both green screens and CGI became possible due to the great technological advances that computers have brought about in the past decades. As with any technology, there is more to come. In fact l, CGI has evolved so much that animations can be made to be realistic enough to fool the viewer into thinking it’s real. Sound familiar? Yes, that’s what people said about the first special effects used in a movie. Producers often add disclaimers to clarify that the images seen are not real. 

As wonderful as the green screen is, there are many drawbacks to the technology. Of course, given the time – technological advances came up with something new. Hollywood tech has started using a set of LED screens using video game technology. Basically, it’s like a responsive screen that is behind the actor instead of the green screen. The advantage of this technology is that it is fast and does not cast a green shadow on the actors. Most importantly, the actors can see what the end result of the scene is going to be – better enabling them to perform their art. This YouTube video by an American news website Vox briefly explains how the technology works.

Over the years, special effects have come a long way. It makes for an interesting topic for cinephiles all over the world. The videos above are just a starting point, and the internet is full of tutorials and behind the scenes videos. There are still more advances expected to come in this field.


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