Special effects in motion pictures has evolved over the years into an
involved science of illusion and visual magic. The following is a comprehensive
perspective depicting the rapidly expanding realm of cinematography.
In times of old, special effects in movies was limited to an individual's
creativity and the constrictive limits of the tools available. However the
results of early special effects masters astounded audiences in their age in the
same manner that modern artists do today. The ability to create an effect that
was brand new was, and still is, the key to the industry.
Techniques range from the expected to the bizarre in order to achieve a
certain image or illusion. Cinematographers in the early fifties would use a
black cloth backdrop with white paint splattered off of toothpicks to simulate a
space scene in the many science-fiction movies made in that era. There is also
stories of a common plate being thrown across a "space" backdrop to emulate a
flying saucer in mid-flight.
Although the special effects persons of old were strapped with limits, one
of these was not make-up. They relied heavily on this prop to portray the many
monsters and aliens in their films. "Nosferatu" a German film about the vampire
with the same name was a huge success even in America, where thousands marveled
at the intricate detailing of the blood-sucker's razor-like teeth, bulging eyes
and a pointed nose and ears. "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" used a
somewhat new technique of a body suit that the actor wore along with a mask made
of latex rubber and foam. Using cooking oil or butter spread on the body and
mask gave an enhancement of sliminess added to the monster image. A fairly
recent film using heavy make-up effects is "An American Werewolf in London" done
by the master make-up artist Rick Baker who shows what can be done with a steady
hand and a lot of patience.
Another popular trick used was strings to manipulate miniature objects.
Often used in the science fiction era to show spacecraft or other objects in
flight was thin strings attached to miniatures. Audiences did notice the
obvious strings but it did not matter at the time because it was state of the
The next major breakthrough in the effects world was stop-motion animation.
A process by which objects were filmed for a very short period (3 or 4 frames)
being altered or moved very slightly at each interval of "cuts". "King Kong"
and "I was a teenage werewolf" popularized this time-consuming process but was
worth the results. The teenage werewolf program used it to show the unfortunate
boy transforming into a raging beast. At each cut interval the special effects
"crew" (usually the producer and a make-up specialist) would add a little bit
more hair to the actor's face. When finished, the illusion of growing hair was
achieved, although it was choppy....