Special Effects: Then and Now

By Meilan Solly
LEESBURG, VA-Sixty years ago, life as we know it was non-existent. Children grew up watching TV shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It was the age of the baby boomers, and America was emerging victoriously from World War II. Although the top grossing film of the year was Cinderella, it was All About Eve, which starred Bette Davis and George Sanders, that won the Best Picture Academy Award.
Today, children grow up seeing TV shows like Hannah Montana and Spongebob Squarepants. Generation Y is taking over the scene, and America is becoming a technology centered country. Toy Story 3 was the top grossing film of 2010, while The Social Network won Best Drama at the Golden Globes.
The movie industry has grown enormously since 1950. Movies are produced with millions of dollars worth of special effects, and computers are responsible for most of them. In the 1950’s and 60’s, one of the most advanced special effects was a moving clay skeleton fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts. Today movies such as Avatar shine in the special effects department, with actual worlds simulated onscreen. “As seen from the evolution of movies within the past 50 years, as computer technology continues to evolve and become even more powerful, the special effects will continue to become even more impressing,” comments Megan Bryn, a THS freshman.
One movie which is full of special effects is Titanic. Made in 1997, the movie captures the Titanic’s fateful last moments and the love story of two of the ship’s passengers. A documentary entitled “Special Effects Titanic and Beyond,” released in 1998 by NOVA, detailed how the ship was brought to life. In order to show the Titanic and make it look as striking as the real one, a 45 foot model was made, and shots were taken at certain angles in order to make the ship look like the original’s actual size: 900 feet. Also, the passengers seen in full length shots of the ship are virtual. Their movements were provided by real actors wearing special motion capture suits. The sky and clouds are matte paintings, which the “Special Effects Titanic and Beyond” website says are “paintings of elaborate background scenery that can be composited with live action or miniatures. They were originally painted on glass, but artists now often create them with the computer.”
Now compare the process of Titanic’s special effects to the making of Jason and the Argonauts’ clay skeletons. A man named Ray Harryhausen made the skeletons through stop motion animation. First, seven men recorded the scene so that their movements could be used for the skeletons. Then Harryhausen used a stop-motion technique which he called Dynamation to make the skeletons come to life.
In his book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, Harryhausen explained the process in further detail. “Each of the model skeletons was about eight to 10 inches high, and six of the seven were made for the sequence. I had three men fighting seven skeletons, and each skeleton had five appendages to move in each separate frame of film. This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronized to the actors’ movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.”
One question which has arisen is this: is the quality of acting and screenplays going down as the special effect quality goes up? Carly Mokhiber, a freshman at Stone Bridge, believes “the quality of acting has changed because [in the 1950’s] there was more pressure to make a good performance due to lack of technology, which distracts the audience from how well an actor carries on the role of a character.” An example of this can be seen in Titanic. According to imdb.com’s trivia section, Rose says Jack’s name 80 times throughout the movie, while Jack says Rose’s name 50 times. Also, while Titanic was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, none of them were for acting. Megan Bryn adds, “The movie industry’s goal, especially within the past couple decades, has developed into spending a lot of money, hoping for the film to be successful in its profit, and not necessarily to create a piece of art.”