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The Emergence Of SFX (Special Effects) In Movies

April 1, 2012 | By

Often several different techniques are used together in a single scene or shot to achieve the desired effect. Let’s have a look what is SFX all about.

The emergence of Special Effects (SFX) in movies has been a fast and very entertaining process.  As years come and go we will watch countless movies with surprises on their Special Effects, along with the traditional ones.

Do you know what Special Effects will be on the next blockbuster?  Why don’t we wait and be in for the surprise.  Creativity of individuals out there will be there to make it happen whether if they are good or bad.  “How do they do that?” This is the big question in the minds of shocked movie audiences worldwide watching a well-made Special Effects movie.  Prehistoric dinosaurs come back to life, aliens invade the earth, humans fly, and volcanoes erupt inside cities… We have been capable of reaching worlds we would never have thought we would see.  Is there a limit to what the effects people can achieve on screen?

In fact, we are venturing into an era where technology is no longer a limitation to bringing magic onto the screen. Only imagination is.  The creators of Special Effects bring dreams, fantasies, and mysteries to the big screen, and mostly to our eyes.  What emerges on the story board, finally lands on celluloid.  There are millions of Special Effects out there; I will concentrate on the main effects.

What is SFX? 

SFX is both an art and a science. The “science” part involves the complete understanding of how the audio-visual sensory parts of our body and brain perceive the world around us, while the “art” part involves the strategic use of this information to fool the sensory system.

Special effects (SFX) are used in the film and entertainment industry to create effects that cannot be achieved by normal means, such as travel to other star systems. They are also used when creating the effect by normal means is prohibitively expensive, such as an enormous explosion. They are also used to enhance normal visual effects. The illusions used in the film, television, theater, or entertainment industries to simulate the imagined events in a story are traditionally called special effects (often abbreviated as SFX, SPFX, or simply FX). (Wikipedia)

Many different visual special effects techniques exist, ranging from traditional theater effects, through classic film techniques invented in the early 20th century, to modern computer graphics techniques (CGI). Often several different techniques are used together in a single scene or shot to achieve the desired effect. Let’s have a look what is SFX all about:

SFX Techniques in Various Movies

Morphing – Terminator 2: Judgment DayT2 came out in 1991; no one had ever seen anything like morphing. Watching the T-1000 change shape right before your eyes was far too cool for words. The process involves taking two distinctly different images and gradually changing the pixels on one of them until it becomes the other image. T2 also pioneered the use of warping technology. It’s when a computer alters the pixels of an image, like when the T-1000 impaled someone’s head with an extended pointed finger or emerged from a puddle on the floor. The use of morphing in science fiction movies was often copied by rarely equaled after T2.

Terminator 2 Judgment Day

Bullet Time – The Matrix

Watching Neo and Mr. Smith dodging bullets in super slow-mo made every sci-fi fan’s jaw drop when The Matrix hit movie screens in 1999. The special effects in that film made time and the laws of physics irrelevant. Fans watched characters firing guns and flipping head over heels while their perspective spun around them in ways never seen before. The bullet time special effect was created by placing a series of still cameras around the subject and taking pictures from each perspective in rapid-fire sequence. The images were then animated together along with interpolation software to fill in the gaps. The result was a head spinning point of view.

The Matrix was prophetic when it came to special effects. We all took the red pill and believed it. The technology was actually used before. Bullet Time was used in Blade and Lost in Space the year before. However it is named after the bullet dodging in The Matrix because that’s what everyone remembers. Bullet time is also used in shows like Smallville when Clark Kent moves faster than everyone else.

The Matrix

Space Miniatures – Star Wars

Before 1977 when Star Wars changed the world forever, special effects consisted of poorly disguised miniatures and choppy animation. Sometimes you could even see the wires. Star Wars redefined special effects. Watching Luke Skywalker racing through the canyons of the Death Star with Darth Vader on his tail is still one of the most exciting sequences ever shot on film. Light sabers inspired every kid in America to smack each other with wrapping paper tubes while making whooshing noises. Sure, the special effects might look primitive by today’s standards, but Star Wars was the granddaddy of all modern science fiction special effects.

By the mid ‘90s, however, the space miniature universe was sucked into the black hole of computer animation. By the time George Lucas got around to making Star Wars episodes 1 through 3, the space ships were computer generated. Lucas even went back and added computer animation to Star Wars episodes 4 through 6 to a mixed response from fans.

After Star Wars, science fiction stories set in outer space all stepped up the details in their miniatures. Star Trek the Next Generation made liberal use of space miniatures and integrated layered animation to make the lights on the starships flicker and the phasers fire.

Exploding Heads/face melt – Raiders of the Lost Ark

When the ark was finally opened and the wrath of God released, it set a new standard in horror special effects. Raiders of the Lost Ark was not a horror movie, but anyone who watched it back in 1981 was horrified by the scene of the ark opening. They might have been glad to see the Nazis get what was coming to them, but still grossed out. In the span of a few seconds, they saw a Nazi’s head crushed, another Nazi’s dissolve, dozens of others impaled by lightning bolts, and a Nazi stooge’s head explode.

A lot of people spilled their popcorn when they saw that for the first time. The crushed head was a hollow mold of the actor’s head that had the air inside rapidly sucked out. The dissolving head was actually a mold of the actor’s head made out of plaster and gelatin that was melted under a head lamp and sped up. The exploding head was done the old fashioned way. They packed a head mold with fireworks, stood back and pushed a button.


Raiders of the Lost Ark

Hybrid Dinosaurs – Jurassic Park

Until Jurassic Park came out in 1993, dinosaurs in movies were lame animated creations with jerky unbelievable motion. Jurassic Park made it feasible that a dinosaur really would be like that if it was trying to eat you.

Jurassic Park came out during a transition period in special effects. As a result, Steven Spielberg used a hybrid combination of life-sized dinosaur robots and computer generated images to make us forget that we were watching special effects. The special effects wizards also studied the muscle tone changes of real animals to mimic what the dinosaurs should look like when they moved. There were no more jerky motions like in the old Sinbad movies. When these dinosaurs moved, they looked like dinosaurs moving. The T-Rex trying to eat the children in the overturned car was a robot. The T-Rex that ate the lawyer sitting on the toilet was computer animated.

Jurassic Park

Documentary Doctoring – Forest Gump

This is the first movie to make a serious attempt to combine fictional characters with real historical figures using special effects. In 1994, the film introduced everyone to Forest Gump, a simple man who led an exceptional life. It showed Forest on news reels with real life presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. It showed him in actual news reports as Alabama Governor George Wallace tried to block two black students from integrating the University of Alabama in 1963.

These were achieved by shooting Tom Hanks in front of a blue screen. He used reference markers so his movements would match those of the people in the real documentary footage. Computer generated technology was then used to insert Hanks into the scene. Voice impersonators were used to mimic the voices of dead presidents and match the words to the moving lips on film.  The special effect of Lieutenant Dan as a double amputee was also very convincing. Gary Sinise wore very long blue socks so his legs could be removed from the picture by computer. He could move around like a double amputee and no one watching could figure out where his legs went.


Bluescreen (known in television as chroma key) is a term for the filmmaking technique of using an evenly-lit monochromatic background for the purpose of replacing it with a different image or scene. The term also refers to the visual effect resulting from this technique as well as the coloured screen itself.

BLUE-GREEN SCREEN TechnologyGreen screen technology was used extensively in The Matrix (2000) this still shows the crew setting up the bullet time sequence


free runningParkour or free running has appeared in various television advertisements, news reports and entertainment pieces, often combined with other forms of acrobatics also called free running, street stunts and tricking. Parkour is a physical activity which is difficult to categorize. It is not an extreme sport, but an art or discipline that resembles self-defense in the martial arts.

According to David Belle, the physical aspect of parkour is getting over all the obstacles in your path as you would in an emergency situation. You want to move in such a way, with any movement, that will help you gain the most ground on someone/something as if escaping from it, or chasing toward it. Thus, when faced with a hostile confrontation with a person, one will be able to speak, fight, or flee.

As martial arts are a form of training for the fight, parkour is a form of training for the flight. Free running has appeared a lot in film quite recently, with appearances in three major blockbusters in the last two years, Casino Royale (2006), Die Hard 4.0 (2007) and the Bourne Ultimatum (2007). The opening sequence of Casino Royale (2006), features Parkour (or Free running) founder Sebastien Foucan in a death-defying stunt.


A facial prosthetic or facial prosthesis is an artificial device used to change or adapt the outward appearance of a person’s face or head.

When used in the theatre, film or television industry, a facial prosthesis alters a person’s normal face into something extraordinary. Facial prosthetics can be made from a wide range of materials – including latex, foam latex, silicone, and cold foam. Effects can be as subtle as altering the curve of a cheek or nose, or making someone appear older or younger than they are. A facial prosthesis can also transform an actor into a sci-fi creature, an anthropomorphic animal, mythological beast and more.

stunts with sfx 1

WIREWORK (also known as Wire Fu)

stunts with sfx 2Wire fu is an element of Hong Kong action cinema that has been appropriated by Hollywood. It involves the use of wire-work (the name being a combination of “wire work” and “kung fu”) to perform Qing gong stunts. Qing Gong translates to “light body skill”, and consists of two main skills: One being the ability to perform vertical jumps of a height many times that of the human body, and the other being the ability to travel long distances with a flitting, continuous motion as if flying.

Its practitioners perform improbably exaggerated feats of acrobatics, such as easily scaling walls, flying over rooftops, gliding on water or walking on trees.


A stunt is an unusual and difficult physical feat, or any act requiring a special skill, performed for artistic purposes in TV, theatre or film. Stunts are a big part of many action movies, in fact they are an essential ingredient of an action film and it is a thriving industry in its own right, every major Hollywood actor has had a stunt double. Despite having only 76bhp to call on, the stunt drivers in The Italian Job (1969) still managed 45ft jumps over rooftops in Turin.

A stunt sequence from Mission Impossible III (2006)

A stunt sequence from Mission Impossible III (2006)

Computer Generated Imagery

1991 marked the beginning of the ground breaking years. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Oscar winner) brought to life by the artists at ILM began to change the way Hollywood perceived computer graphics. It was the first major digital character to be used in a film since the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes. Alias/2 and Photoshop were used along with a host of in-house tools designed especially for the project.

Another major contribution that year came from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; the ‘ballroom’ sequence contained a complete 3D rendered background. Stop Motion was superseded by Go Motion created by Phil Tippet for Dragonslayer (1991). During 1992 ILM continued to push the boundaries in Death Becomes Her (Oscar winner), creating photorealistic skin.

Walt Disney also continued to push their techniques in both Aladdin and their short in-house project Off His Rocker. Also Virtual Reality hit Hollywood in the form of the Lawnmower Man (Angel Studios).


SFX Originally Known As “Tricks”

Some of the early pioneers for special effects, or “tricks” as they were originally called, were also magicians, machinists, inventors, and prop builders. Their multiple talents were brought together to find new and interesting ways to use the motion picture camera. Because the mere sight of moving pictures on a wall seemed like magic to those first audiences, it is not surprising that the first films were magical, whimsical and absurd. The magicians first viewed the cameras as another tool for their illusions, using the magic of film to enhance their own magic tricks.

Audiences quickly caught on to the methods of trick films, however, and film makers had to push harder and harder to find amazing visions for their films. The magician/filmmakers were shortly made extinct by their own creations, however, as the magic of film held little need for actual illusionist talent. The illusions that required such talent on stage could be produced by anyone on film. Only those magicians that could adapt to the new art form and make the shift into special effects survived. The others usually ended up bankrupt, with street-corner jobs that utilized none of their talent.

While Special Effects are the main driver to get us to watch movies, the outcome we get after watching the movies is up to us.  Whether we go out after a movie and try and light a house on fire and then turn it off like in the movies is up to us, if we hurt somebody because of the special moves on the movie we just watched is up to us.  It is up to us how we perceive Special Effects.  Society has grown around Special Effects in movies.

SFX in the new released Avatar

The live-action 3-D sci-fi adventure Avatar released on Dec. 18, 2009, is James Cameron’s sci-fi epic, made in stereoscopic 3-D and combining live-action and computer animation using visionary new techniques. Star Wars, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, The Lord Of The Rings… Now Avatar can be added to the exclusive club of movies that have lifted special effects to the next level.

avatarThe movie’s biggest triumph, however, is the motion-captured Na’vi. While Pandora’s ten-foot-tall, blue indigenous cat people looked rather underwhelming in publicity material, in their natural habitat they’re a revelation. Avatar SFX leaves audience ‘breathless’.

Hollywood, thus, has found there to be a huge shortage of dinosaurs, dragons, Gungans and various other creatures and characters needed for lead roles in today’s motion pictures. A lot of people are very keen to see the progression of digital creatures taken to its logical conclusion of human beings, while others say the focus should be on more artistic effects. Whatever your opinion is, you can be sure of one thing: the magic of computer animation and special effects will continue to advance even faster into the next millennium as a tool to bring to life the dreams of storytellers.

To conclude, SFX have brought other worlds to our eyes, things that we would never imagined we would catch a glimpse at, and volcanoes have erupted and destructed the city of Los Angeles.  Special Effects have revolutionized the way we are entertained, they have made movies almost seem so real.

Special Effects are not biased against age, they come in all shapes and sizes, and for the kind of movie anyone would like to watch.  Since the beginning of Special Effects in Movies we have made them better every year.  Each new movie tends to have better effects than the prior one.  The insurgency of Special Effects in movies has just begun; the best is yet to come.


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Richa Tewari is working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities in Pranveer Singh Institute of Technology,Kanpur.She has been teaching Professional Communication in B. Tech., MCA & MBA courses for over years. Her area of PhD research is American English Literature. She has offered wide-ranging papers on the multifaceted growth of Professional Communication skills in National &International seminars/conferences and also in several renowned journals/magazines.
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