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Special effects (often abbreviated as SFX, SPFX, or simply FX) are illusions or visual tricks used in the film, television, theatre, video game and simulator industries to simulate the imagined events in a story or virtual world.
Special effects are traditionally divided into the categories of optical effects and mechanical effects. With the emergence of digital filmmaking a distinction between special effects and visual effects has grown, with the latter referring to digital post-production while “special effects” referring to mechanical and optical effects.
Mechanical effects (also called practical or physical effects) are usually accomplished during the live-action shooting. This includes the use of mechanized props, scenery, scale models, animatronics, pyrotechnics and atmospheric effects: creating physical wind, rain, fog, snow, clouds, etc. Making a car appear to drive by itself and blowing up a building are examples of mechanical effects. Mechanical effects are often incorporated into set design and makeup. For example, a set may be built with break-away doors or walls to enhance a fight scene, or prosthetic makeup can be used to make an actor look like a non-human creature.
Optical effects (also called photographic effects) are techniques in which images or film frames are created photographically, either “in-camera” using multiple exposure, mattes or the Schüfftan process or in post-production using an optical printer. An optical effect might be used to place actors or sets against a different background.
Since the 1990s, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has come to the forefront of special effects technologies. It gives filmmakers greater control, and allows many effects to be accomplished more safely and convincingly and—as technology improves—at lower costs. As a result, many optical and mechanical effects techniques have been superseded by CGI.
In 1857, Oscar Rejlander created the world’s first “special effects” movie by combining different sections of 30 negatives into a single image. It was a montaged combination print. In 1895, Alfred Clark created what is commonly accepted as the first-ever motion picture special effect. While filming a reenactment of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, Clark instructed an actor to step up to the block in Mary’s costume. As the executioner brought the axe above his head, Clark stopped the camera, had all of the actors freeze, and had the person playing Mary step off the set. He placed a Mary dummy in the actor’s place, restarted filming, and allowed the executioner to bring the axe down, severing the dummy’s head. Techniques like these would dominate the production of special effects for a century.
It wasn’t only the first use of trickery in cinema, it was also the first type of photographic trickery only possible in a motion picture, i.e. the “stop trick”. Georges Méliès accidentally discovered the same “stop trick.” According to Méliès, his camera jammed while filming a street scene in Paris. When he screened the film, he found that the “stop trick” had caused a truck to turn into a hearse, pedestrians to change direction, and men to turn into women. Méliès, the stage manager at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, was inspired to develop a series of more than 500 short films, between 1914, in the process developing or inventing such techniques as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand painted colour. Because of his ability to seemingly manipulate and transform reality with the cinematograph, the prolific Méliès is sometimes referred to as the “Cinemagician.” His most famous film, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), a whimsical parody of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, featured a combination of live action and animation, and also incorporated extensive miniature and matte painting work.
From 1910 to 1920, the main innovations in special effects were the improvements on the matte shot by Norman Dawn. With the original matte shot, pieces of cardboard were placed to block the exposure of the film, which would be exposed later. Dawn combined this technique with the “glass shot.” Rather than using cardboard to block certain areas of the film exposure, Dawn simply painted certain areas black to prevent any light from exposing the film. From the partially exposed film, a single frame is then projected onto an easel, where the matte is then drawn. By creating the matte from an image directly from the film, it became incredibly easy to paint an image with proper respect to scale and perspective (the main flaw of the glass shot). Dawn’s technique became the textbook for matte shots due to the natural images it created.
During the 1920s and 1930s, special effects techniques were improved and refined by the motion picture industry. Many techniques—such as the Schüfftan process—were modifications of illusions from the theater (such as pepper’s ghost) and still photography (such as double exposure and matte compositing). Rear projec