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Science of Special Effects
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SHOW 301: Science of Special Effects

A special kind of magic is created at George Lucas's hi-tech workshop in California, where science, art, storytelling and technology all come together. So when Nike, Inc. decided to stage a one-on-one basketball challenge between NBA player Charles Barkley and Japanese sci-fi monster Godzilla, the company naturally turned to Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic studio. In this rare glimpse behind the scenes at ILM, viewers watch the making of a television commercial, featuring the technology and craft of special effects.

Curriculum Links
Activity 1: Produce Your Own Animation
Math Connection
Notes & Discussion
Report From the Field: Jeff Mann, Special Effects Artist From Industrial Light and Magic







As you saw on SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN FRONTIERS, special effects are not only fun to watch, but they are also fun to make. However, as you probably also noticed, creating special effects for even a 30-second commercial requires the abilities and talents of an entire crew of people. In this activity, you'll use a movie camera to create examples of animated movement.

  • movie camera with frame-by-frame exposure*
  • tripod
  • shutter release cable
  • film
  • lights
  • pennies
  • graph paper
  • clay of different colors

*Although it is possible to create animations using camcorders, these devices are not designed to withstand such frequent use of the pause mode. Also, film cameras offer very precise control over frame-by-frame recording, which is essential to good animation.


  1. Set up your camera and tripod, with camera focused on the floor. Direct lights to the area of the floor where you will place items to be filmed. Make sure that the camera is steady since it must remain stationary for the entire activity.

  2. Create a title sheet that includes the names in your group.

  3. Place the title sheet on the ground and film it continuously for five seconds.

  4. Replace the title sheet with a sheet of graph paper. Place five pennies at any of the intersections of the lines.

  5. Film this arrangement for five seconds.

  6. After you have filmed the opening shot, move each of the pennies to an adjoining intersection.

  7. Use your shutter release cable and expose one frame.

  8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 until you have recorded at least 100 frames of movement.


Clay animation is a studio technique used to animate objects from dinosaurs to raisins. The effect is created by taking a single movie frame of a clay model. The model is then moved and another frame is taken. This pattern is repeated until the complete movement has been recorded onto film. When the movie film is played back, the illusion of smooth movement is created.

  1. Use several colors of clay to construct a familiar object, such as a face. Then, return to the setup described in Part 1 of this activity.

  2. Follow steps 2 and 3 from Part 1.

  3. Replace the title sheet with the clay subject.

  4. Film the subject for five seconds.

  5. After you have filmed the opening shot, slightly move or remold part of the clay subject.

  6. Use your shutter release cable and expose one frame.

  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you have recorded at least 100 frames of movement.

  • In this student activity, two simple methods of creating animation are presented. Students may prefer to write, direct and act in their own commercial. Challenge them to come up with a concept, create a storyboard such as that seen in FRONTIERS, write a script and perform. They don't even need a camera! They will find that much more than technological know-how is required to produce a commercial.

  • Although both 16mm and regular 8mm movie cameras may offer single-frame control, it is generally less expensive and easier to find processing for Super-8 film format. In addition to a camera, you'll also need a compatible projector to view the processed film.

  • Many photographic and video companies offer film-to-video transfers. If your class wants a video copy of their project, you can invest in a single video copy that can be dubbed for the entire class.

  • The length of tape stored in a standard videocassette is 246 meters. If this tape plays for 120 minutes at standard speed, what is the minimum length of tape needed to record the following time segments: 60 minutes (123m), 30 min. (61.5m), 10 min. (20.5m), 30 seconds (assume 30 frames per second; 1.025m), 1 second (.03416m).

  • This FRONTIERS story features a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a television commercial that first aired on in September 1992, and which some of your students may have seen. They may be surprised to learn of the many complexities involved in producing and filming a 30-second commercial.

  • Take a few moments to consider the nature of a movie. How much is illusion, how much reality? The smooth movement observed on a movie or television screen is an illusion created by our brain's inability to separate a rapidly displayed sequence of images. Only when these images frames are displayed fast enough (TV frames are flipped at a rate of 30 per second), do we observe fluid motion.

  • Cinematic morphing, seen briefly in this episode of FRONTIERS, combines video and computer technology. Morphing debuted in the 1987 movie Willow, in which a sorceress changed into different animal forms. The 1991 box office hit Terminator II increased viewer awareness of this special effect, with the metallic morphing of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In morphing, computers process a frame-by-frame change in appearance between two different objects. Each step of the change is displayed as a single frame that is then recorded onto film. When the completed stack of frames is flipped, the images produce a fluid change between the objects.

  • For a brilliant display of morphing and other special effects techniques, watch "The Art of Science" computer animation, also in this episode of FRONTIERS.


Jeff Mann heads the Creatures and Models Shop at George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic studio in northern California. There, he coordinates the technical know-how and imaginations of dozens of skilled professionals to create characters and puppets, as well as inanimate objects for film, TV commercials, toy development and industrial design prototypes. The shop usually employs between 50 and 70 core staff and free-lancers working on as many as five different projects at once.

Mann's group handles projects from conceptualization through performance. If the project is a creature, for example, the process typically involves creating two-dimensional renderings, sculpting and molding a three-dimensional form, adding mechanics to animate the creature, and finishing by adding hair and other details. Finally, staff members go on location with the creature to make sure all goes well during filming.

How did Mann land a job that seems too much fun to be called work? An art major who began his career as a fine artist, Mann decided about twelve years ago that he wanted to work with other people on projects bigger in scope. He applied to ILM, which had just completed The Empire Strikes Back, and was hired for a three-week project that soon turned into a full-time job.

For students who are interested in working in a shop like ILM, Mann points out that competition in the Los Angeles area, where the industry is concentrated, is intense. Many people work on a free-lance basis for several shops, which means a lack of job security at times. In addition to imagination and skill, Mann adds that the work requires certain personal qualities, too, such as a team spirit and the flexibility to change ideas and direction as work on a project progresses.

What does Mann like best about his work? Without hesitation, he replied, "I'm happiest when I am really busy," as he was when supervising the Nike commercial seen on FRONTIERS. "It was challenging project with lots of pressure and expectations, and it took 12- to 14-hour days to accomplish the job. But it was great fun to create Godzilla with animated facial expressions, a dimension the character didn't have in the original screen version."


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.