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Special Effects: The Swiss Army Knife of Filmmaking

By Michael Slone

Special effects have evolved in the last several years into the "Swiss Army Knife" of filmmaking. At one time, special effects were only used for "physical" needs such as rain, smoke, wind, explosions, breaking glass, bullet hits, etc. With the advances in technology, a filmmaker now has access to "digital" effects, which can do just about anything. Do you need to add a river to a scene? No problem. Do you need to make that one-story building look like a ten-story high-rise? Done. Do you need to erase that airplane that accidentally flew through your scene, and while you are at it, change the sky to a deeper blue? You bet. Things that would ruin a shot before can now be digitally erased, changed, moved or enhanced. Technology has erased the boundaries, upped the ante, and changed the rules. No longer do we have to think outside the box, there is no box. There is only possibility.

So how does this relate to the beginner and independent filmmaker?

Special effects have moved from the fringes of filmmaking to the center. Huge amounts of a movie's budget and resources can now be spent on the planning and implementation of special effects. The need for digital effects has permeated almost every part of the filmmaking process. Why is this becoming the trend? There are two reasons. First, digital effects allow the filmmaker to create almost anything he or she can imagine. Things that were once impossible with traditional special effects can now be achieved. The second is money. It's basic economics. The studios want to make the best movie possible for the least amount of money. Why pay to fly all of the cast, crew, and equipment to a river in Fiji, when they can just film their scene on a back lot somewhere, and use computers to add the river. The computer-generated river will probably look better than the real river anyway. The realism of digital effects today is amazing, and they are getting better all the time. I used to be a big believer in the "physical" is better than "digital" debate. I thought that anytime you could film a real rock instead of a virtual rock, you should. But with the photo-realism achieved by today's effects artists, CGI has proven itself as a viable option.

So how does this relate to the beginner and independent filmmaker? At one time, the equipment needed to produce high-quality digital special effects was very expensive. The cost kept it out of the hands of most filmmakers. The advances in technology have now bridged this gap, allowing the equipment required to create spectacular special effects to be much more accessible.

You can now buy reasonably priced software for every part of the filmmaking process. There are great programs available for script writing, editing, special effects, music creation, sound mixing, scheduling, and more. The playing field has been leveled, and the possibilities are endless. With the addition of high-quality, low-cost digital cameras, anyone can be a filmmaker. The real difference now between professional and amateur is not who has the deepest pockets, but who is the most creative, the hardest working, and the most passionate. The tools are now available; the rest is up to you.

Originally, special effects were used to create awe-inspiring excitement: explosions, floods, gun battles, windstorms, and much more. The greater the spectacle, the better it was. Special effects were in-your-face and larger than life. This is still true to some extent, but special effects have added another word to its resume: subtle. Sometimes the highest praise that a visual effects artist can hear is that the audience did not realize it was an effect at all. If the people thought it was real, then the artist succeeded in his/her job. I heard a story where someone had watched the movie The Fast and the Furious and stated that they loved the movie because the race scenes were filmed with real cars and no special effects. This is a testament to the skill of the visual effects artists who helped create those race scenes, because they used several different special effects techniques to bring those scenes to life.

Special effects can really make an impact on a movie. But how does a beginner or independent filmmaker learn about the planning and implementation of special effects? Fortunately, there are a lot of training resources available. At one time, the only way to learn the skills needed for creating special effects was to get an entry level job in the special effects field and learn from experience. While experience can still be the best teacher, there are many other choices available: books, training DVDs, training software, college and vocational classes. Even some DVD movies offer some training in their "extras" section. With all of the tools and training available, serious filmmakers can now learn and implement high-quality special effects in their projects.

Once you have researched and learned about filmmaking and special effects, the next step is to jump in with both feet and start creating. Make a short movie, experiment with special effects, try it different ways. Enter a local film festival or upload your short films to YouTube. The skills needed to create special effects are not just intellectual; you need to practice, practice, practice. Just like everything else in life, the more time you spend creating, the more proficient you will become. Dreams are what make life worth living, fight for them.

Meet the Author: Michael Slone