The Special Effects You Don’t See

Image: Barn from The Landing Short Film

Image from the short film The Landing

A fleet of space ships swoops into battle, a dragon flexes its wings, a superhero uses their incredible powers… in films and TV shows, these are the kind of scenes where you’re likely to comment on the amazing (or not so amazing) special effects. Their very nature, as things that don’t exist, will make you more inclined to scrutinise them, and decide whether you are impressed or unimpressed by how they have been brought to life on screen.

What we rarely notice are the copious special effects that re-create real things. I guess we’re not supposed to notice them, because they are meant to appear so real that no one gives them a second thought.

Last year a friend of mine was working on a short science fiction film called The Landing. The film has garnered a stack of awards since then, including best short film at Sitges and best foreign film at LA Shorts. Here’s the trailer (though if you have 20mins to spare, I recommend watching the whole film):

While it was screening at film festivals, the filmmakers noticed that it received a lot of recognition for its cinematography and direction and story, but people didn’t seem to notice the film’s visual effects, or even realise it had any. Considering a lot of the post production time was spent on visual effects, and a lot of effort was put into those effects, they found this strange.

It seemed the problem was that very few audience members realised the film was shot in Australia (on the abandoned Superman Returns set), and because of its American Midwest setting a lot of the landscapes had to be inserted in post. So the filmmakers ended up putting together this short clip to give people an idea of the kind of effects that went into it:

Personally, I would never have picked those shots (except for the falling meteor) as being so effect heavy.

Still, it’s not unusual for films and TV shows to be packed with “invisible” effects. Many of our favourite TV shows regularly use green screens and effects to composite the backgrounds of scenes. Here’s a reel that gives an idea of just how often this happens, and how impressive and surprising the use of effects can be:

It’s stunning sometimes to think how much is added in later, and how little the actors often have around them when performing the scene.

If you think about it, these kind of special effects are in some respects more challenging, because they actually have to resemble reality.

Of course, fantasy and science fiction films (and perhaps also disaster films) will almost always be more likely getting attention for their effects. Indeed, one of the great things about effects is that they allow us to see and invent things that are magical and impossible. Given how far the technology has come, what filmmakers can do nowadays is nothing short of breathtaking.

Still, sometimes it’s fun to remember that even if you’re watching a realistic scene, you won’t be able to tell how much of it is real. Every time you see an actor looking off into the distance, awed by the vast impressive landscape in front of them… well, they’re probably just gazing in awe at a green screen.

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6 thoughts on “The Special Effects You Don’t See

  1. Pingback: Best fiction and writing blogs | M.C. Tuggle, Writer

  2. If the movie does a good enough job, I don’t notice any of the effects — even, for instance, the talking raccoon and tree in Guardians of the Galaxy — because I’m caught up in the total story. If I find myself looking at such details, that’s a sign that the script is lagging in some way.

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    • Yes I guess that’s often the sign of a good film, that you don’t actually notice the effects. In Guardians of the Galaxy I also spent most of the time just enthralled in the story and not paying much attention to the effects (after a while the talking raccoon seemed totally normal). Still, sometimes if the scene I’m watching is just so impressive, I can’t help but notice and admire the visual detail even if I have no idea how it was achieved (for example the creepy effect on their bodies in Guardians of the Galaxy when they touch the stone, or the giant waves in Interstellar, or Smaug’s opening eye in The Hobbit).

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  3. Interesting read. I still remember reading about the construction of Jabba the Hut and his giant sail barge on Return of the Jedi. Fast forward to now where nearly everything is done in front of a green screen. Some claim something artistic has been lost with all the green screen effects, but progress is unstoppable; and as long as it looks good and helps tell the story, then so be it.

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    • Yes, I guess it’s just become so much easier and cheaper to green screen things in that more and more things are done that way. I do like it when things actually get constructed and made though… you would think in certain circumstances it would still have to be easier/cheaper to do this than trying to computer generate something. And I guess one of the advantages of doing things this old fashioned way is you have something for fans to come and see after the film is shot (e.g. the Hobbiton set in New Zealand).

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