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Excerpted Interview with Director Ben Burtt

Photo: Ben Burtt NOVA: Tell us about your interest in special effects.

BURTT: Well, my interest in special effects goes back a lot further that my professional career. When I made films as a child, the very first film I ever did involved army men falling from buildings. And, I did it with little dolls and I think what drew me into movie making as a child and then a teenager, was the fact that I could do the ultimate make-believe. I could be a super hero, or my friends could be super heroes, or we could do super feats, or this sort of thing. And, that developed into an interest in film making in general, and story telling, and editing. I also had an interest in sound. But when I got involved as an actual professional, I was very fortunate to be linked up with some of the principal special effects films of the late 1970's ... most notably, "Star Wars". And my job on that film, of course, was to create special sound effects and voices. But, because it was a fantasy picture, because it was filled with special effects, my concerns dealt with the make-believe, it dealt with the supernatural things ... the magical things that happen in film.

NOVA: How did filming with IMAX for this particular movie, "Special Effects" differ from past experience?

special effects logo BURTT: With the IMAX format, you've got this enormous screen, with an image that contains a great amount of detail. You have to be very careful what you show, because it will be magnified on a screen a hundred feet across and seven stories high. Therefore, you really have to compose your shots very carefully. You have to be sure that what's in them is what you want. Because, by God, people are going to see it, you know? You're going to see buttons on people's shirts and you're going to see reflections in the buttons of the crew, if you're not careful ... or in their glasses or something. So, there's a lot of concerns, just in a technical realm, that are different from ordinary feature films, and certainly from television. This particular film, "NOVA's—Special Effects. Anything Can Happen", these were a very interesting blend of documentary and make-believe, because the essential subject is about make-believe. And so, it gives us a little license, within the film, to wander off into areas of fantasy, to dramatize scenes like the King Kong opening on the film, as well as fall back suddenly into the behind the scenes point of view in which we see the film makers, and the artists, at work creating the magic of special effects.

NOVA: Does IMAX enhance the special effects for us, and is it, in fact, a special effect of its own?

special effects logo

BURTT: IMAX is very good at two particular things. One, it's taking the audience to a place and making them feel like they're actually there. Because the format shows a lot of detail, it's put on a big screen. You actually can be taken into a place. So if you go behind the scenes, you go on location into the desert, you go to the top of a building and look down into the streets. Whatever. The audience, when they see those shots, can really feel like they're there. And so, it's very good for taking people places. The other thing that's great ... in doing to the audience, is giving them a sensation of motion. Once again, because of the large image, because in the presentation it's kind of wrapped around your field of view. The audience can respond very viscerally to motion. And so, if you fly, if you roll the camera, if you zoom though the streets of San Francisco, and put the camera down low, the audience can really get a visceral sensation of that kind of motion. And those are two unique properties of 1570 film, which you can't do in any other format.


Photo Credits: (1-3) copyright 1996 WGBH Educational Foundation.

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