That Movie Magic – Special Effects

By Mike Wheeler

With the Oscars being announced today we thought we’d offer up our opinion on what movies made head way for the modern era of movies with special effects. Bear in mind this is the final word, and we don’t go back to the days when Buck Roger’s spaceship was farting firecrackers, but check out when SFX became part of main-steam movie making.

Star Wars
This is where it all started for me. Back in late 1977 I saw a trailer for what turned out to be one of the biggest movies of all time. Jaws gets credit with being the first blockbuster of the modern era, but Bruce the shark didn’t quite come up to the same special effects created by George Lucas and his team at Industrial Light and Magic. For a 10-year-old kid it opened up a whole new world to the movies and if you didn’t know better you would have thought the Star Wars production team had filmed a lot of the movie in space. Sure, looking back the story line is a little schmalzy, and the script and acting a little over the top, but this movie is the one that set the standard for others to follow.

The Matrix
As the Matrix series wore on, the movies seemed to get more convoluted and were in danger of imploding on Andy and Larry Wachowkis’s pretentiousness. I remember being in the movie theatre watching The Matrix Reloaded and Keanu Reeve’s character listening to the diatribe from the Architect as he explained what it was all about. After the Architect finished somebody in the audience yelled out “What the f*** did he just say?”, which was followed by loud and prolonged applause by the audience. However, you do have to give the movie its dues as it was of the first to utilise U-Cap animation that helped make the movie the visual feast it was – bullets flying through the air, and characters managing to put their bodies in contorted positions that only a top-class special effects outfit could pull off.

Lord of the Rings
Peter Jackson’s take on JRR Tolkien’s opus lived up to the hype. This is a classic example of a film that could never have been made 15 years before it was brought to our screens because simply the technology wasn’t’ available. Don’t believe me? Check out the awful version that appeared 20 years before by Ralph Bakshi where they used a combination of real life actors and washed over animation. Jackson’s WETA work shop provided the myriad of special effects, but the one aspect that really stopped everybody in their tracks with the use on the motion capture suit by actor Andy Serkis who played Gollum. The technique has gone on to be used in several other movies by Jackson including King Kong and Tintin.

James Cameron really talked this movie up and said we’d never see the likes before. And we brought into it as it became the biggest box office bonanza of all time. To be fair ,if you know nothing of special effects you’d be hard-pressed to see what is different from most other movies. However there was a reason Cameron had the movie on the backburner for so long a – he was waiting for the world of special effects to catch up with his vision of what he movie should look like. This included a number of new ideas such as creating characters using new motion-capture technologies for facial expressions, as well as an array of reference cameras that gave the artists who were performing the digital makeover on the characters for the screen. Overall, an impressive visual feast.

NB: Just to show how far special effects have come over the past few years, check out the Robin William’s 1996 film Jumanji, which at the time was seen as a cutting edge visage of modern-day visual effects. Today, it looks dated, with even the most basic special effects looking tired.