Visual Effects: Activity 4

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Visual Effects in Non-Effects Movie

An audience expects visual and special effects in fantasy, science fiction or action films. Many of the same techniques are also used in more subtle ways in films that do not have obvious visual effects. For instance, when Bridget Jones sits musing in her window in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the views of her London neighborhood, including the skyline and the moon, were created in the computer.

Similarly, the 2004 film The Aviator used computer graphics and forced perspective in sequences with the real Spruce Goose airplane. For example, miniature airplane engines mounted on a full-scale cockpit model appeared to be full-sized when viewed through the camera lens. In another scene, an aerial sequence from the 1930 film Hell’s Angels was digitally re-created to match the original shot for shot.

It is often difficult for filmmakers to find unspoiled locations for films set in the past. Telephone wires, neon signs, overhead air traffic and other modern devices are visible and audible in the most isolated areas. One way around this problem is to create the setting in the computer. Pacific Ocean Park, a Southern California amusement park demolished 30 years ago, was digitally re-created, down to aged wood, broken railings, and seagull droppings, for the low-budget film The Lords of Dogtown. Utility wires, modern buildings and anything else that does not fit the film’s time period may also be digitally removed from the film.

Visual effects artists can enhance the achievements of makeup artists, cinematographers, costume designers, and stunt actors. Flaws on the film itself, such as light leaks and scratches, can also be cleaned up using visual effects techniques. Makeup, costumes, color, and lighting can all be perfected in the computer, and physical effects, such as explosions and stunts, can be fine-tuned.

In The Passion of the Christ (2004), digital effects were used to keep actor Jim Caviezel’s makeup wounds consistent from day to day. Except for handles that were held by the actors, the sticks and whips used by the Roman soldiers to beat Jesus were also created in the computer. The effects crew can touch up makeup mistakes, correct makeup colors, or create the makeup, for example, for Imhotep’s decomposed face in The Mummy or the demonic visions in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

Digital programs are used to erase wrinkles and bags under the eyes from aging actors and actresses as well as remove facial hair, birthmarks, scars, tattoos, and blemishes. They can sculpt muscles on an undersized actor or remove unflattering pounds. Computer-generated visual effects enable present-day actors to mingle with famous people of the past, as in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, or can digitally remove the legs of an actor portraying an amputee.

If a costume fades into the background when a scene is filmed, or if the director decides a room does not have emotional punch, visual effects artists can change the colors to match the filmmakers’ vision. In the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, for example, the color of a car used for location shooting was digitally adjusted to match exactly the color of the car used in the rest of the movie. For The Aviator, complete sections of film were altered in post-production to reproduce the pastel shades of early two-strip Technicolor.

Director James Cameron thought a scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day would look better if it were reversed from right to left. When the film was reversed, however, the words on the street signs were backward. These were digitally changed to read correctly.

Stunt performers usually stand in for box office stars when the action is dangerous or difficult. These stunts are often shot from a distance so the audience will not realize that the stars are not actually performing the feat. Digital technology can replace the stunt double’s face with the star’s, and identifying features such as tattoos can be added, allowing the camera to come much closer to the action. Strong, thick safety wires and cables make many stunts less hazardous, but traditionally, supports were kept as thin as possible so they would not be visible in the shot. Now that digital equipment can easily erase supports from the image, stronger, safer cables and wires can be employed.

Have your students read an action, fantasy or science fiction short story or part of a longer novel. Ask them to discuss what effects might be needed to make a film of the story. Then have your students read a more conventional story about characters like themselves. Ask them to list scenes where visual and physical effects might be used in this kind of movie, for example, to film a scene more safely or less expensively.

Supplemental Activity

Have your students figure out how they would approach a story set in the past. Have them research the period, using textbooks, novels, paintings and the Internet. Ask them to discuss how visual effects might be used to re-create that time. Have them consider how the visual effects artists would have to work with cinematographers, editors, production designers and costume and makeup designers to make the period come to life. Ask them to discuss how the story could be filmed without the use of visual 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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