When discussing effects in films, it can be very difficult to determine the difference between the two phrases usually tossed around: Special Effects (SFX), and Visual Effects (VFX). SFX are usually described as being performed during the main production stage of a film’s life, while VFX are usually handled during Post Production. With the advent of digital technology, film production has evolved with its application, and thus it has had a very great impact upon the effects employed in modern motion pictures.
How SFX have been used in film has greatly varied over time, especially within the realm of blockbusters and science fiction films. During the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) the magnificent shots of space stations and ships would be achieved by hauling models on wires, and moving them towards the camera which would in turn slowly move toward the model. Then, in 1975, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was formed by George Lucas to work on Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope (20th Century Fox, 1977), and they created the Dykstraflex system (named after SFX artist John Dykstra), which left the model stationary on a swivel device, which was in turn connected to a computer-recorded motor while a camera would be dollied along a track around it. Filmed against a green or blue screen, space dogfights would be achieved without the amount of CGI as they now are today – using hand crafted models instead of digitally created animations.
Although CGI would make itself well known to film rather swiftly afterwards, it was first actually used in the 1973 film Westworld (Crichton, MGM) – albeit as 2D point of view shots. Nethertheless, this was the first instance of digital technology being used to create animation in a feature film. Three years later, and the sequel Futureworld (Heffron, AIP) became the first film to implement 3D CGI, and quickly CGI became more and more common, with ILM developing physically realistic creatures with complex internal structures by Jurassic Park (Spielberg, Universal, 1993), and in 1995 Pixar Animation Studios released the very first fully CG film in Toy Story (Lasseter, Disney). Today, nearly every film that is currently available for viewing in a cinema has had CGI applied to some degree – and this is of course done digitally. With the majority of films, such as Disney’s The Jungle Book (Favreau, 2016) and 20th Century Fox’s Life of Pi (Lee, 2012), CGI is installed so intricately that it becomes difficult to differentiate between what is really there, and what is digitally added – a testament to what impact such technology has had on Special Effects. In other cases, such as Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney, 2015) it is very obvious as to what elements of the film are real, and what have been digitally added over green screen or motion capture in post production due to lighting betraying the SFX’s authenticity.
Digital technology is used in other mediums than the application of CGI. One of the most noticeable forms is 3D printing, where props for films are digitally molded on computers, then developed by a printer – such examples of 3D printed props being the Lightsabers and C-3PO costume of Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens (Abrams, Disney, 2015). According to Andrew Whitehurst, the Visual Effects Supervisor at VFX Company ‘Double Negative’,
“Advances in 3D printing and photogrammetry enable VFX, SFX and art departments to work even more closely together.”
Theoretically then, CGI should become even more photorealistic if multiple departments are in close collaboration with one another, especially if major distributors like Sony are pitching in on the creative process.
“Sony have developed a system which analyses textures to assess materials’ properties…this will help speed up the creation of realistic, believable CG.” Says Simon Stanley-Clamp, the VFX Supervisor of ‘Cinesite Studios’.
Interestingly, it seems that in recent years Special Effects have become more and more popular with the film industry, and this may not be down to developments in digital technology, but rather by the types of film being produced by the major Hollywood studios. The highest grossing films of all time include franchises such as Star Wars, Marvel, and Harry Potter – all action/adventure based features that speak to a younger audience. These are all composed of mass usages of CGI, and so it becomes clear that films that use more Special Effects are more likely to do better at the box office than films that are not supplemented by them.
Then again, Avatar (Cameron, Fox, 2009) was subject to a marketing campaign based upon its usage of special effects, and it has become the highest grossing film of all time globally. Trevor Norkey of Moviepilot suggests that CGI heavy films have begun to prevent the success of critically acclaimed films at the box office. Indeed, all of the top ten films that earned the most globally at the box office are CGI heavy films, with only five of them being nominated for a BAFTA or an Academy Award – although only winning them for Visual Effects. Therefore it does seem to be true that the most popular films are not ones centered on story or motivating characters, but rather those that possess the biggest and most spectacular digitally created special effects.
The rise of digital technology has seen the equal rise of computer generated special effects, and due to the frequent usage of such technology, films now play host to unprecedented levels of digitally created effects – whether they be blindingly obvious (in the case of entire sets constructed out of green screen), or surprisingly subtle in films that do not appear to need CGI due to their realistic settings (such as the backdrops in The Wolf of Wall Street). Due to digital technology, special effects are now commonplace in cinema – and even though some productions may attempt to use practical effects over digitally created ones, unless you make a very low budget indie film, it is highly unlikely that digitally created special effects will be absent from your film.