Visual Effects: Activity 3

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Computer-Generated Effects

New computer technology makes it possible to create more and bigger visual effects. While many new kinds of effects have been developed by computer graphics (CG) artists, much of what is accomplished using digital effects duplicates processes from the past.

Matte production, for example, is now automated, using preprogrammed software, although it remains a sophisticated process requiring great skill on the part of both the cinematographer and the matte technician. Actors are filmed in front of blue or green screens. The negative is then sent to either an optical printer or an electronic scanner and computer workstation and is composited, or joined together in the computer, with a previously filmed background shot in miniature or created digitally.

Computer graphics are often used to add fire effects, to paint backgrounds snowy white, or to make a small crowd seem larger, for example. For The Lord of the Rings series, thousands of three-dimensional computer-generated Orcs and Uruk-hai were added to the background of the battle scenes after filming was completed. Throughout the film, miniatures, digital shots, and the New Zealand landscape were digitally combined to construct an imaginary Middle Earth.

Some of the first films to use computer-generated visual effects were The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Tron (1982), and The Last Starfighter (1984). CG water effects were used for the first time in The Abyss (1989). An entire ocean was digitally simulated for The Perfect Storm in 2000. The monkeys in the 1995 film Jumanji were among the first 3-D computer-graphics characters to have fur, a breakthrough in the difficult task of digitally reproducing multi-dimensional hair.

Morphing, a technique that makes one image appear to transform seamlessly into another, was used effectively in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) to turn actor Robert Patrick into the liquid metal cyborg. The technique is also used to change shots of a stunt performer into those of an actor, merge a miniature with a full-sized prop, or combine separately filmed shots to create the illusion of one continuous shot.

The Oscar-winning film The Matrix used an innovative effect in which action appears to have been frozen in time while the camera roams freely around the scene. The effect, called “bullet time,” was accomplished by placing over 100 still cameras around the action. The filmmakers used a computer model to tell them exactly where to place each camera. The cameras, which were concealed behind a circular blue screen, were set off sequentially at set intervals. When the separate frames were later projected at 24 frames per second, the resulting sequence stretched one second of action into a five-second moving camera shot.

The first completely computer-generated character in a full-length feature was the knight who emerged from a stained-glass window in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). The character of Gollum, who played a major part in the Lord of the Rings films, was created using a combination of motion capture, CG techniques and animation.

Gollum’s creation began when actor Andy Serkis performed the creature’s movements in a studio, wearing markers attached to various points on his body. The markers were recorded by special electronic cameras in a process known as motion capture, creating a digital record of the actor’s natural movements. Gollum’s animators used this record to create the CG character. Later, Serkis’s muscular legs were digitally altered to appear thin and frail.

Subsurface scattering, a way of lighting characters that duplicates the effect of light striking a translucent surface, was used for the first time in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It helped Gollum’s computer-generated skin look realistic.

Motion control is used when separately filmed elements, such as live action and miniatures or animation, will be combined into one shot. For the combined footage to look believable, camera positions and movement must be identical in each shot. Although earlier films used various techniques to coordinate camera movements, computer-programmed motion-control rigs were first used in Star Wars (1977).

Motion control allows visual effects artists to film a model or miniature multiple times with different lighting conditions. Motion control also makes it possible to film a live-action sequence in one part of the world, while visual effects artists elsewhere use identical data to film additional elements, such as miniatures.

Computer graphics are also changing the way special effects makeup is done. Some of the robots in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) look human from the front, but reveal a machinery-filled skull when they turn their heads. Special effects designer Stan Winston and his team worked with makeup artist Ve Neill to achieve this effect. Blue-screen elements were incorporated into the makeup, allowing the CG artists to remove pieces of the actors’ faces in post-production and replace them with digitally generated mechanics.

Show your students two similar films or scenes from films with different types of visual effects and ask them to compare the effects. Some suggestions for comparisons are: the 1933 King Kong with either or both of the subsequent King Kong films; Raiders of the Lost Ark with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest; Superman (1978) Superman II, III or Superman Returns; Star Wars (1977) with Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith; Stuart Little and Babe; When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1971) and Jurassic Park. Discuss with your students which of the films were the most enjoyable, the most visually pleasing and the most exciting.

Supplemental Activity

Play a special effects scene without sound. Then repeat the scene with the sound. Have your students discuss how sound and music complement the effects. Ask them to pay attention to the editing and cinematography of the sequence and discuss the way pacing, lighting and color work together with the effects.

Visual Effects: Seeing is Believing

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Complete Visual Effects Activities Guide (PDF)

Activity 1: Visual Effects Beginnings

Activity 2: Physical Effects

Activity 3: Computer-Generated Effects

Activity 4: Visual Effects in Non-Effects Movies

Bonus Material Related to the 79th Annual Academy Awards Poster

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