The Grand Illusion:
NOVA Film for IMAX Theaters Traces the Method Behind the Magic
Century of Special Effects
In a minute-long movie marvel called The Conjurer, shot in 1899, French magician-turned-
filmmaker Georges Melies one-upped his colleagues in the conjuring trade. He made himself literally disappear; he
made his female assistant disappear; she turned into him; he turned into her;
she turned into confetti. All in plain sight. Special effects had found its
Today's movie magicians have graduated to making entire cities disappear, a
stunt pulled off with alarming realism in this summer's motion picture epic,
Independence Day, in which extraterrestrial invaders set out to
systematically destroy the world. Despite the difference in scale, special
effects artists still rely on the same visual sleight-of-hand
that early filmmakers practiced. Only the technology has changed.
Exploring the method behind this magic, Special Effects follows the
innovative effects wizardry that goes into blockbuster movies including the
Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition,. Independence Day, Jumanji,
Special Effects is shot in large format IMAX/IMAX Dome
which is a special effect unto its own, with a projected image that takes in
the audience's entire field of view.
Special Effects is produced by NOVA/WGBH Boston, creators of NOVA, the
highly-acclaimed public television science series.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the biggest special effect of all was
cinema itself. People paid to see such spellbinding shows as workers leaving a
factory, a baby being fed, and a train arriving at a station. These films were
actually screened on cinema's official birthday, December 28, 1895, when the
Lumiere brothers in Paris opened the world's first movie theater. Cinematic
legend has it that the audience shrieked and fled during the train sequence.
Legend also has it that the Lumieres' father confided to Georges Mélies
(not yet himself a filmmaker), "The cinema has no future at all." For their
part, the brothers were not so optimistic either, since one of them later
admitted, "I never believed that someone could remain permanently attentive in
front of the cinema screen for many hours."
The secret, obviously, is to use film to tell a story—to envelop the viewer in the illusion that something is real when it isn't.
Traditional props, sets, actors, costumes and make-up
all serve this purpose. But so does something a little more specialized,
something known in the early days as "tricks" but eventually exalted as
The early pioneers of special effects created illusions that relied on cinema's
ability to make discontinuous motion appear continuous, achieved by stopping
and then restarting the camera (or splicing the film) to make impossible
transformations seem to occur. They also made liberal use of magicians' stage
tricks. Another effect made people appear unnaturally large or small by
exploiting perspective, an illusion familiar to anyone who has ever
photographed a friend whose outstretched hand "holds" an enormous object in the
distance. Similar tricks of forced perspective were used to create some shots
of the giant marauding toddler in the movie Honey, I Blew Up the Kids.
The technology of special effects has advanced by leaps and bounds since the
1890s. For example, Honey, I Blew Up the Kidsused a host of now-common
illusions, including blue-screen and split-screen
compositing, in which two or more separately shot scenes are almost seamlessly
merged. In the crucial sequence where the baby starts to grow, computer
animation morphs the tiny tot into a towering toddler—in plain sight.
Although films such as Jurassic Park and Jumanji have made
computer animation virtually synonymous with special effects, digital graphics
are just one tool in the effects bag of tricks. Many older illusions that were
developed during Hollywood's golden age are still in use. The meticulous stop-motion
methods that made the original King Kong come to life in 1933 were used
in The Nightmare Before Christmas and in James and the Giant
was also used to recreate Kong's denouement atop a skyscraper in the
spectacular opening of Special Effects.
But computers are playing an increasingly important role behind the scenes.
Nightmare, Peach and the IMAX Kong sequence all used computerized motion-control
of cameras to create a realistically changing point of view that takes viewers
in, around and through the action. An early form of motion control was
pioneered in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the technique really took off in
the 1977 classic Star Wars, considered one of the most influential
special effects films of all time, largely for its use of this technique. The
motion-control camera allowed complex space battle scenes to be composited from dozens of
Special Effects draws on another revolutionary technology in two scenes
from Star Wars that it recreated in the IMAX format. They are the famous
opening in which a Rebel blockade runner is pursued by an Imperial Star
Destroyer and the closing scene in which the Millennium Falcon accelerates into
hyperspace. Aside from the vast change in scale to IMAX, the major difference between
the original and the re-creation is that computers are now used to composite the many
elements that comprise the scene- space ships, star fields, planets and laser bursts. With optical compositing
technology, each separate element had to be copied in precise register from one
piece of film to another with a resulting loss of picture quality.
Moreover, digital compositing does for moviemaking what word processing does
for writing: it provides an infinitely versatile editing tool. Different
elements can now be added, altered and moved around endlessly and effortlessly
inside a computer, as the movie artist searches for the perfect special
One can only wonder what the original masters of the medium might have conjured
up with such tricks.
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