I have been a connoisseur of science fiction for many years. As a result of this fixation, I have been able to observe closely the transitions in movie special effects over the last 30 years. I have come to believe that while special effects are an essential part of every movie, they can be and often are overused.

I grew up in an era when special effects were complicated and expensive. When the original Star Wars was created, the special effects team had to literally invent an entirely new way of filming special effects with a motor-driven camera that could smoothly fly through the small props that were the surface of the Death Star. This technique, combined with refinements on the older blue-screen and stop-motion systems, allowed special effects wizard John Dykstra to help create a movie unlike any other.

This robust collection of techniques became the standard for the following 10 years of movie-making, producing such classics as; Tron, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans, and the television show Battlestar Galactica.

Two of the biggest limitations of these techniques were time and money. Each effect-laden sequence took many hours of pre-, during and post-production by a team of special effects workers. When the average movie cost between 7 and 30 million to produce, the number of effects that a filmmaker could include in a movie was small.

There were still excesses, however. One new effect that was tried with only limited success during this period was 3-D movie making. The b-movie Jaws 3-D is an example of this. In that movie, the special effects team took every opportunity to show the audience how great 3-D movies were. Thus the screen was variously filled with limbs floating in mid air, aircraft swooping past, and sharks lunging toward the camera. I remember one particularly obnoxious scene transition where the camera slowly zoomed in upon the corner of a Japanese tea-house roof, allowing the dragon-styled edge to “poke out of the screen.” In truth, this overuse of the effect ruined it, by making the audience aware of the effect, and in essence, destroying any suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief was again possible, however, with the advent of computer-generated effects. This transition was heralded by movies such as The Last Starfighter but is exemplified by the movie Jurassic Park. I can still remember thinking “oh my God,” during the sequence with the rabid velociraptors attacking the kids in a cafeteria. The computer-generated effects seemed almost seamless in execution, and I, like many others, had the sudden feeling that a fundamental paradigm shift in movie making had occurred.

Fast-forward to the present day.

The year is now 2007, and the last several years have been filled with computer-generated effects ranging from fantastic to way over-the-top. Movies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy have pushed the boundaries of what is possible with movie effects, and it is truly amazing. However, to quote the script from Spider Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Just because you can have an F-35 fighter in VTOL configuration flying around a city in the finale of your movie, doesn’t mean that you SHOULD (with an obvious nod to this Summer’s Live Free or Die Hard).

A simple rule of thumb; if the audience can tell that it is a special effect, it should probably not be used.

As an example of special effects used well, watch Children of Men again. There are several sequences in that movie that have embedded seamless effects in the storyline. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were real and that you were watching documentary footage, rather than special effects. That is the power available to today’s filmmakers.

I encourage all filmmakers to keep in mind that special effects exist to help the plot and improve the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. If the effect draws attention to itself as an effect, it has not accomplished either of these goals.

EK

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