Special Effects: Anything Can Happen

on July 04, 1996 by Ann Kwinn
   With a nod to the past and a look to the future, "Special Effects," a new IMAX documentary made by NOVA/WGBH Boston, gives a peek behind the scenes, under the puppets, between the 3-D wire frames, and into the many techniques that fall under the general category of special effects. The gargantan problem the filmmakers here had to overcome is the fact that commercial movies with special effects have commonly been shot in 35mm or perhaps widescreen. The 15-perforation 70mm IMAX movies have tended to be documentary in nature, deemphasizing camera tricks and post-production manipulation. In fact, until very recently, computer effects had never been output to the IMAX format.
   What to do? Part of the problem was handed over to George Lucas' SFX company, Industrial Light and Magic. It delivers (in the IMAX format) footage from the upcoming "Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition," to be released in Feb. 1997 boasting new digital effects. Other aid comes from the makers of "Independence Day", "Jumanji" and "Kazaam," who allowed the "Special Effects" production team to set up their large cameras and shoot while the standard cameras were rolling. The crew also interviews specialists in the areas of miniatures, pyrotechnics, animatronics, and digital modeling and compositing and lets them show their respective crafts.
   Cinematographers move the camera or background rather than the subject to create the illusion of movement. Explosions are shot in slow motion for emphasis. Animators study animals in motion before creating 3-D objects and animating them running through a real city--or is it a set? And the team recreates one of the best special effects of all time, the stop-motion terror of King Kong, this time in IMAX format. The format problem is most acute when it comes to showing archival footage including, thankfully, Georges Melies' 100-year-old magic tricks, which feature a disappearing assistant. The older clips are simply shown in the middle of a black frame or stacked up three across. All in all a great experience for children or anyone interested in the magic of moviemaking, the film is also a well-deserved curtain call for the technical people who realize some of the most important scenes in today's movies. Yet "Special Effects" suffers from the kind of awkwardness found in other IMAX movies--those moments during which scientists are required to act. For examples: A cinematographer explains to a miniatures supervisor why he will shoot a scene a certain way--as if he didn't already know after all these years; the CEO of a puppetry company directs a crew in manipulating an animatronic lion without its facial fur, which looks cool but wouldn't be done that way in reality. There is no real story in this picture, which instead concentrates on answering lots of "how'd they do that?" questions. Narrated by John Lithgow. Directed by Ben Burtt. Produced by Susanne Simpson. An Imax Corp. release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 40 min. Format: IMAX
Tags: Narrated by John Lithgow, Directed by Ben Burtt, Produced by Susanne Simpson, Narrated by John Lithgow. Directed by Ben Burtt. Produced by Susanne Simpson, Imax Corp, Documentary

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