Special Effects Essay

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Special effects are those techniques employed in moving image technologies to provide images other than those recorded by simply opening the camera’s shutter and recording. In some cases the entire image may be produced using non-camera techniques, as in both cel (for ‘celluloid’) and digital animation. Alternatively, events may be staged or images altered to produce special effects.

Some effects are as old as cinema itself, including stunts, sets, make-up, props, rear-projection and mattes (paintings on glass placed between camera and physical objects to provide extensions of sets and locations), pyrotechnics, and miniatures. In-camera effects like stop-motion have also been used since the earliest times, and effects of over- and under-cranking (exposing frames at higher or lower speeds) were common throughout the studio era, for example to give extra dynamism to chase sequences. Extreme forms include the bullet-time technique best known from The Matrix (1999). In post-production, printing and editing of film has offered such techniques as boosting colour since the 1920s, but the arrival of digital tools passed control over these processes from technical to creative staff.

Among the most significant changes in recent years are: Steadicam stabilisation of mobile cameras, allowing extreme perspectives on action; motion-capture, which allows actors to be replaced with CGI (computer-generated imagery); and compositing, in which elements derived from photographic and digital sources are combined, and camera movement records matched with the design, lighting, and recording of 3D vector graphic into seamless wholes.

Metz (1977, 657) once declared, “all cinema is a special effect.” Klein (2004) is among those who assert continuity between special effects and the spectacular expression of power in the baroque. Pierson (2002) emphasises, on the contrary, the assimilation of effects to realist aesthetics. Rodowick (2007) argues the loss of both realism and humanism in digital cinema and its discontinuity with previous visual regimes. Realism remains popular even in digital television’s documentaries, reality TV, and adult drama; but the alliance of spectacle with anti- or post-humanism remains deeply problematic in effects-based media.


  1. Klein, N. M. (2004). The Vatican to Vegas: A history of special effects. New York: New Press.
  2. Metz, C. (1977). Trucage and the film. Critical Inquiry, 3(4), 657–675.
  3. Pierson, M. (2002). Special effects: Still in search of wonder. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. Rodowick, D. N. (2007). The Virtual life of film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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