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The Grand Illusion:
A Century of Special Effects

NOVA Film for IMAX Theaters Traces the Method Behind the Magic

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 first master.

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, and Kazaam.

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 "special effects."

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 Peach. Stop-motion 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 individual elements.

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 effect.

One can only wonder what the original masters of the medium might have conjured up with such tricks.

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