An essay on Special Effects in Cinema.

As admission prices escalated and the lire of television kept more and more people at home for their entertainment, motion pictures began to incorporate elements that television couldn’t provide. One was the special effect, which created visual spectacle on a grand scale and showed audiences things they had never seen before” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008: p158).

          The incorporation of special effects in film was a natural progression, necessary for competing with and differentiating from the other arts. “Recent advances in technology have made elaborate special effects an important part of the modern film” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008: 158). As audiences become desensitised to, even bored by, what would have left previous generations speechless, one must wonder how necessary special effects are in regards to creating meaning, if at all. Do special effects remove or add verisimilitude? This essay will explore both sides of the argument.

          A major problem with special effects is that the bad ones are talked about the most, bringing overall opinion of them down. As with bad table service, a consumer is much more likely to point out a bad experience than they are a seamless one. Only the truly outstanding is praised, whereas everything from average to awful is complained about. Seamless special effects can truly transport an audience to another world, as they did in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). On the sci-fi classic, Kubrick stated, “[he] felt it was necessary to make this film in such a way that every special effects shot in it would be completely convincing” (Kubrick, 1968), this led audiences and even crew members to believe that costumed men playing prehistoric man were in fact real apes (Clarke, 1972: p50).

apes 2001

          One special effect that nearly every modern film utilises, yet possibly the least flashy effect, is the changing of colour gradients. Different colours that invoke different moods and feelings can be used to tint a frame or an entire movie; highlighting or characterising certain characters or objects. It is rare that a film today does not use any kind of gradient manipulation. For example, one-hundred percent of the shots in the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) had the gradient manipulated digitally,  “giving each location a distinctive look.” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2004: p250). Today this is all done on computers although at the start of the twentieth century, around sixty prints of George Méliès’ film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), were individually hand-coloured by Elisabeth Thuillier’s colouring lab in Paris, furthering the vibrancy of the spectacle and adding life to the scenes (Yumibe, 2012: p71-74). Specific colours invoke specific feelings and as Misek writes in one of the limited texts on the subject:

from the earliest colour tints which tended to highlight static blocks of colour, typically aspects of the set, to the (post-)modern use of an orange and teal digital colour palette to make human subjects ‘pop’ out of a blue-grey background, colour has become more and more sensualised and subjectivised.” (Misek, 2010: p227).

On orange and teal, a contemporary colour scheme, contemporary screenwriter Max Landis (writer: Chronicle (2012), American Ultra (2015) and Victor Frankenstein (2015)) states that:

“Around 2004 orange and teal became the dominant colours in everything because it makes skin tone look richer and sci-fi stuff look cooler” (Landis, 2015: Redlettermedia).

          Bordwell and Thompson explain how special effects pioneers Weta developed a computer program named Colossus on Lord of the Rings, to not only adjust gradient in large scenes such as the pallid faces in the Mines of Moria or the healthy glow of the Shire, but to “adjust the colour values of individual elements within a shot” allowing Galadriel to glow white amongst the “deep blue tones of Frodo’s setting”. They summarise that:

“In such ways CGI techniques can go beyond the creation of imaginary creatures and large crowds to shape the visual style of an entire film” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2004: p251).


          Weta Digital was formed by Peter Jackson in 1993 and was used in every aspect of creating the Lord of the Rings films. Even in pre-production, a new form of animated storyboard was created using animatics (a rough type of CGI). Mise-en-scene was manufactured digitally, blending matte paintings, green screens and real sets seamlessly.  The enormous armies seen in the films were brought to life by another of Weta’s creations, the Massive system (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment). This artificial intelligence system gave thousands upon thousands of computer generated soldiers individualised movements, creating lifelike battles which would be practically impossible to film otherwise, small numbers of actors in costume would be filmed for the battles with Massive adding the surrounding soldiers. Weta’s contributions to special effects are significant as each Lord of the Rings film won the Oscar for best visual effects on the year they were released (2001, 2002 & 2003). Probably the most significant in terms of creating meaning, though, was being the first studio to incorporate real-time motion capture into a digital character. The movements of Andy Serkis were digitally transferred onto the Gollum character. This technology has allowed actors to play characters that would have been played by a actor in a costume in the past but with all the nuance and emotion that a rubber suit would hide, in the way 1933 version costume does compared to the 2005 version. Although Andy Serkis is at the forefront when it comes to motion-capture performances with motion-capture credits in the Planet of the Apes franchise and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he also worked as a motion-capture consultant on Avengers: Age of Ultron, which starred James Spader, using motion-capture, as the villainous robot; Ultron. Without motion capture technology these characters simply wouldn’t have been able to have been brought to life with the same level of realism. Serkis himself has said that:

“Performance-capture technology is really the only way that we could bring these characters to life. It’s the way that Gollum was brought to life, and King Kong, and the Na’vi in Avatar and so on and it’s really another way of capturing an actor’s performance. That’s all it is, digital make-up.” (Andy Serkis, 2011).

Autonomous A.I. armies created with Weta’s MASSIVE system

          As with any new technology there are naysayers when it comes to motion-capture and increasingly digital films. Although this, when it comes to art, is often the case when a new method or technology is introduced. Even when colour was introduced there were those that thought it unartistic, distracting and unnecessary. In the words of actor, screenwriter, director, and producer Douglas Fairbanks, colour was:

“always met with overwhelming objections. Not only has the process of colour motion picture photography never been perfected, but there has been a grave doubt whether […] it could be applied, without detracting more than it added to motion picture technic. The argument has been that it would tire and distract the eye, take attention from acting, and facial expression, blur and confuse the action.” (Buscombe, 1978: p.23-25).

          The current 3-D against 2-D debate is reminiscent of the black and white or colour debate. Whilst 3-D can allegedly increase immersion and experience, it has been argued that it is an unnecessary gimmick which is used to increase ticket prices. Firstly, there are two types of 3-D film: those that are filmed in three dimensions using the correct multiple cameras and production techniques, such as Avatar and there are those that are converted into 3-D in postproduction like Tim Burton’s poorly received Alice in Wonderland (2010). When debating 3-D, the focus is often on industrial, economical and technological factors and:

“less attention [is] paid to stereoscopic moving images’ aesthetic constitution, particularly their ability to produce new relationships between audiences and screen content” (Ross, 2012: p381-397).

‘Stereoscopic’ refers to the process of photographing the same object from two different angles and viewing them at the same time, creating the 3-D effect. Whether or not a 3-D viewing is a positive experience is often an absent argument in regards to 3-D, as other previously mentioned factors seem to dominate. It could be argued that Avatar had to be doing something right in order to become the second highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation (Guinness World Records, 2015: p160–161). In films such as Avatar it is said that “stereoscopic affect moves the haptic quality found in many 2-D moving images into a realm of hyperhaptic visuality” (Ross, 2012: p53). This refers to a 3-D films ability to transcend the affect that a 2-D film has on the senses, creating something new and more powerful.

          This all leads to the argument of style over substance. Is Avatar nothing but a special effect?  Today, seven years later, it has no real lasting impression. Director James Cameron wanted to establish a franchise, stating: “You’ve got to compete head on with these other epic works of fantasy and fiction, the Tolkiens and the Star Wars and the Star Treks. People want a persistent alternate reality to invest themselves in and they want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time” (Boucher, 2010: James Cameron: I want to compete with ‘Star Wars’ and Tolkien). An article in Forbes magazine, titled Five Years Ago, ‘Avatar’ Grossed $2.7 Billion But Left No Pop Culture Footprint, explains how Avatar won oscars, received rave reviews and gained box office success then immediately vanished from the popular zeitgeist. When compared to ‘the Tolkiens and the Star Wars and the Star Treks’, Avatars fan following is non-existent. All of those franchises inspire fandoms, spinoffs and demand for more, ‘kids don’t play Avatar on the playground nor with action figures in their homes’. There seems to be an air of unspoken embarrassment amongst society in regards to how positively this film was received, now that the dust has settled there isn’t much to cling onto in terms of character or story (Mendelson, 2014, Forbes).

          Whilst an audience can seemingly be deceived by spectacle in films such as Avatar, at the opposite end of the spectrum is what is known as ‘the Jaws effect’. Legend tells that Bruce, the animatronic shark built for Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), was faulty to the point of being almost unusable. Apparently the original script featured much more of Bruce and according to Sinyard in The Films of Steven Spielberg, “this forced restraint is widely thought to have added to the film’s suspense” (Sinyard, 1989: p36). Spielberg himself said that the inability to utilise the shark forced him to be more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen. Hitchcock is famous for leaving things to the imagination, Harryhausen is famous for stop motion monsters. He also stated that less focus on the beast meant more focus on the acting and generally stepping up all the surrounding factors:

The more fake the shark looked in the water, the more my anxiety told me to heighten the naturalism of the performances” (Speilberg, 2011,

Bruce Under Construction.jpg

          Jaws is often considered the first blockbuster and it’s techniques are still mirrored today. This ‘creativity through adversity’ approach is also apparent in Alien, again, the monster is hardly seen due to Ridley Scott wanting to avoid it looking like what it was, a man in a rubber suit. It seems that what an audience will come up with when something is left to their imagination is often much more meaningful than if they are shown explicitly what they are dealing with. Scott states that:

“[he had] never liked horror films before, because in the end it’s always been a man in a rubber suit. Well, there’s one way to deal with that. The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw” (Scott, in Scanlon: 1979: intro).

          A psychological study by Sung-il Kim in 1999 where participants of the experiment  were shown different versions of stories, some were detailed accounts others were the same events with information left out. The participants found the more enigmatic accounts to be more interesting. This explains why an audience will often react more to a monster, or character, like Michael Myers in Halloween, who is hardly actually on camera, than to a creature shown explicitly throughout a film.

          The work of American philosopher Charles Pierce states that a photograph’s ability to properly represent truth depends on its accuracy and indexical value. His term ‘indexicality’ refers to the physical relationship between the object photographed and the resulting image. This falls in line with the works of French film critic Andre Bazin, an advocate of Russian montage techniques who sought ‘true continuity’ through mise-en-scene, as opposed to through editing or visual effects. Whilst the argument for ‘true continuity’ is valid, it doesn’t really apply when genres such as sci-fi or fantasy are considered as there is no reality to be reflected, only through visual effects can the fictional realities we see in films such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars be created. True reality comes from heart and character, not setting. If the characters are believable then the world in which they live becomes irrelevant.

          The problem with manmade indexicality, though, can be seen in films such as The Polar Express (2004), A Christmas Carol (2009) and Beowulf (2007). Such near reality is in some ways counter-productive as it creates a feeling known as the uncanny valley. This is the feeling when something is replicant of something real but just slightly unnatural and can be seen as ‘eerie’ or off putting. Artist Scott McCloud asks the question “Why would anyone respond to a cartoon as much or more than a realistic image?” and answers with:

When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning’, an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t” (McCloud, 1993: p30).

McCloud’s research was done in regards to comic books, but can easily be applied to film, for example something such as the Oscar nominated short, World of Tomorrow (2015), which features abstract settings and stick figure characters, contains more heart and meaning than the ‘dead-eyed’ characters in Polar Express, which is by design supposed to be heartwarming. Whilst World of Tomorrow has been described as “visionary” and “possibly the best film of 2015” (Murray, 2015), Polar Express was described as “at best disconcerting” and at its worst “horrifying” and in Beowulf the monstrous Grendel character was described as being “only slightly scarier than the close-ups of our hero” (Gallagher, 2007: New York Times). This shows how the realistic can lack meaning whilst the abstract can hold an abundance.

creepy polar express
The Polar Express is creepy

          Scholars always have always and will argue on the virtues of special effects, as with any art there is the old-school and the new-school, the high brow and the low-brow. Some such as Rudolph Arnheim, author of Film as Art, believe that:

the film will be able to reach the heights of the other arts when it frees itself from the bonds of photographic reproduction and becomes a pure work of man, as animated cartoon or painting” (Arnheim, 2006: p213).

          Whereas others such as Manovich argue that special effects “subordinates the photographic and the cinematic to the painterly and the graphic, destroying cinema’s identity as a media art” (Manovich, 2001). One film that has recently garnered critical success by traversing the fine line between two ideologies, impressing both the old school and the new is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which is currently nominated for ten Oscars. Partly because, “George Miller did stage much of the action, with real fantasy vehicles and hair-raising stunts, and employed CGI only when necessary” (Thompson, 2013: The Waning Thrills of CGI). By shooting in real locations with real people doing real stunts in real vehicles whilst simultaneously creating an utterly fantastical world (Failes, 2015: FX guide), Miller has seemingly pleased everyone. Fury Road is the epitome of using effects to enhance rather than to create. With Fury Road what you see is essentially what you get, appeasing both realists and fantasists. Only the crowd scenes and the environments have been enhanced yet all the stunts are real, providing a real sense of danger for an audience. Through this, Mad Max: Fury Road avoids the pitfalls of an over-reliance on special effects, which can be seen in so many contemporary films.

           True meaning comes from heart and character, but special effects can be used to enhance and reflect both of these through visual story-telling. Consider Interstellar (2014), regardless of the incredible backdrops that it is set against, it is the human interaction and connection between Matthew McConaughey’s character and his daughter that remains in the audience’s heart and memory. Whilst special effects can do amazing things, they are pointless without emotion and drama. Consider when Obi-Wan-Kenobi fights Darth Vader on the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), compared to when he fights General Grievous in Revenge of the Sith (2005). The latter has so much more going on, more effects, millions more dollars spent, more of everything… except character. Without characterisation, flashy fight scenes mean nothing. Special effects can have meaning, but they are no substitute for it.



  • Arnheim, R (1957). Fiilm as Art. California: University of California Press.
  • Boggs, J & Petrie, D (2008). The Art of Watching Films. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Bordwell, D & Thompson (2004). Film Art: An Introduction. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Buscombe, Edward ‘Sound and Color’, Jump Cut, 17 (April 1978) pp.23-25 – reprinted in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods: An Anthology, Vol.II Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1985.
  • Clarke, Arthur (1972). The lost Worlds of 2001. New York:Signet
  • Guinness World Records 60 (2015 ed.)
  • Kubrick, S & Phillips, G (2001). Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
  • Manovich, L (2001). The Language of New Media. Massachusetts: MIT Press. .
  • McCloud, S (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Richard Misek (2010) Chromatic Cinema. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell
  • Ross, M. (2012). The 3-D aesthetic: Avatar and hyperhaptic visuality. Screen: Oxford Journals, Arts & Humanities. (Issue 4),Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Scanlon, Paul; Michael Cross (1979). The Book of Alien. London: Titan Books.
  • Sinyard, Neil (1989). The Films of Steven Spielberg. London: Hamlyn Bison.
  • Yumibe, Joshua (2012), Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press



  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Directed by Stanley Kubrick [Film]. USA: Warner Bros & MGM
  • A Christmas Carol (2009) Directed by Robert Zemeckis [Fim]. USA: Walt Disney Pictures
  • A Trip to the Moon (1902) Directed by George Méliès [Film]. USA: Star Film Company
  • Alice in Wonderland (2010) Directed by Tim Burton [Film]. USA: Walt Disney Pictures
  • Alien (1979) Directed by Ridley Scott [Film]. USA: 20th Century Fox
  • Beowulf (2007) Directed by Robert Zemeckis [Film]. USA: Paramount Pictures & Warner Bros Pictures
  • Interstellar (2014) Directed by Christopher Nolan [Film]. USA: Paramount Pictures & Warner Bros Pictures
  • Jaws (1975) Directed by Steven Spielberg [Film]. USA: Universal Pictures
  • King Kong (1933) Directed by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack [Film]. USA: Radio Pictures
  • King Kong (2005) Directed by Peter Jackson [Film]. USA: Universal Pictures
  • Lord of the Rings, The (2001, 2002, 2003) Directed by Peter Jackson [Film Franchise]. USA: New Line Cinema
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Directed by George Miller [Film]. USA: Warner Bros Pictures
  • Polar Express, The (2004) Directed by Robert Zemeckis [Film]. USA: Warner Bros Pictures
  • Star Trek (debut: 1966) Directed by Various [Film & Television]. USA: Various
  • Star Wars (debut: 1977) Directed by Various [Film & Television]. USA: 20th Century Fox & Walt Disney Pictures

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