Special Effects are Real!

This month the movies are all about the monsters, the creatures, and the special effects. Since man first invented the motion picture, he used it to create a world of fantasy. Even the earliest films took a leap just beyond the realm of the possible.

The 1902 feature, A Trip to the Moon, which was loosely based on both Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, incorporated extensive make-up, camera effects, and pyrotechnics. The black and white masterpiece of brothers George and Gaston Melies runs 14 minutes, and can be seen on YouTube in its entirety. Village Voice honored the film by naming it #84 in the “100 Greatest Films of the 20th Century.”

To see this film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYRemE9Oeso&ob=av1n

The first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s horror story, Frankenstein, was made in 1910 as a Thomas Edison Production. The special effects in this movie also included make-up, mirror effects, and fire.

The truth is that movies and special effects—in all their forms—go together like peanut butter and jelly. I love watching the monster movies from the ‘40’s and 50’s, because I love to see how far technology progresses each decade.

A few months ago, my family watched the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans, starring Laurence Olivier, Harry Hamlin, and Burgess Meredith. I loved that the movie used the stop-motion animation (for creatures like Medusa, Pegasus, and Calibos) pioneered by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. His techniques brought to life Mighty Joe Young as well as armies of warrior skeletons.

As I watched Clash of the Titans with my guys, I adopted a new slogan. When Poseidon issued the order to “Release the kraken!”, my sons began to giggle. The water effects with the Olympian and his beast, while impressive for 1981, were decidedly weak for today’s audience.

I responded to their scoffing with my most insuppressible declaration, “That’s real!” They laughed. I was a little hurt.

Imagine what a terrific task it is for these special effects artists and their teams of magicians to keep up with the demands of the times. Technology changes hourly, and what was mind-boggling in Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, must be re-mastered and CGI-ed frame by frame just to not look silly next to the sequels and prequels.

I feel for these technicians. When I think about how freaked out everybody gets when Facebook updates its format, I can hardly imagine what fury must rush through the rendering studios whenever there is a new process. “This has to look real, people!”

One of my favorite monster movies is the horror-comedy, also from 1981, An American Werewolf in London. This was the first movie to win an Oscar for Best Make-Up Effects, and when you see artist Rick Baker’s werewolf creation (after his own dog, Bosko) you understand why. I know there are many werewolf movies all over the place now, but for a good twenty years, nobody could compete with the monsters in this flick. Baker was a man way ahead of his time.

When I watch creature features, I figure I’m living in denial anyway, so why not suspend reality just a bit further. If the effects are a little cheesy, who cares? If I can see the wires or zippers on the costumes, what’s the difference?

I know that Hugh Jackman isn’t really a quadruped. I don’t actually believe in zombies or krakens or vampires. But for an hour or two, it’s real!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!

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