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by Ariel


BOOM ! You're sitting in the movie theater and all of a sudden a car blows up. Or you're quietly munching your popcorn while your favorite bad guy gets shot and almost simultaneously starts to bleed. Did you ever wonder how these effects are created? I certainly have. Sometimes I get so involved in figuring out how a special effect was accomplished, that I lose interest in the movie. That is why I chose special effects for my I-Search topic.

When I started to research I knew little about this field. I knew computers were getting big in the movie industry and sometimes mechanical models were used to create odd creatures, but that isn't much. I wanted to learn more technical terms and how computers and different types of cameras work and are used. I also wanted to find out about special effects that are created through the use of gun powder and explosions. When I had considered what I wanted to find out I came up with different research questions and finally decided on- What technologies are used in the creating of special effects in television and movies?

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When I first set out to research I wasn't sure where to start. I decided to use the UMI system on the school library's computer to find citations for magazines which had articles on special effects. I had never used this system before, but I soon found out it was quite simple to use. I got a list of seven or so citations in the time period I had on the computer. Walking back to my seat to look at my list I got distracted by a book I saw on the shelf. It proved to have excellent information on everything I needed and I would later find out it would be my best source of information.

Next, I went to the index to the SIRS books. I found an article that suited my topic, and set out to find the book. I found my book after some trouble locating it and read the article which had minimal information, but I did get a good quote. I finally used my computer list and found two articles in magazines which also had little information, but did give me some insight into the movie industry's plans of using special effects in the future.

I had some difficulties finding the right magazines and I didn't get as much information as I would have liked, but I think i answered my question sufficiently. It was extremely frustrating ( I don't think I'll laugh about it until I'm out of college) sorting through all the stacks of magazines and never finding that one little issue of Rolling Stone that could have really helped my project. Encyclopedias weren't much help, and I was extremely surprised to see I didn't go blind from sorting through microfiche. Even so, all the researching proved to be a rewarding experience when I saw I had a nice chunk of information.

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As I started to research I realized that special effects are used when a film requires dangerous, expensive or impossible scenes. Early special effects included wind machines, matte paintings for scenery, glass shots, and miniatures. Some of these are still used today but mostly expensive, new technologies are used to create special effects. One of the first cameras used in creating special effects was the stop motion camera. It allowed film makers to stop the camera and make changes in the scene to create the illusion of movement, but the finished product came out looking jerky and unnatural. As sound and color were developed they brought excitement to the movies, but they also brought challenges to effects designers.

In the early 1900s the optical printer was developed by Linwood Dunn and Cecil Love of the Acme Tool Manufacturing Company. It was an important breakthrough in the field of motion pictures. It made the combining and integrating of almost any separately filmed sequence possible. Special effects have come a long way since then, though. One of my favorite quotes that I found was: "Who cares if it's real, as long as it looks cool," said by Don Bies, a Lucas Arts archivist.

One aspect of special effects that has always interested me are explosions. To create the illusions of guns, bombs, and other weapons being shot, powder effects are used. To resemble blasts from cannon shells and high velocity rifles thunder flashes are used. Thunder flashes are sealed cardboard tubes containing black powder, or flash powder. To create even bigger explosions ground maroons are used. They are like large thunder flashes with heavy string or twine wound around them to increase the explosive effect. To make the explosion look even more realistic smoke pots are ignited and they are filled with a mixture of chemicals which emit smoke. Shrapnel effects are paper bags filled with bits of black cardboard and flash powder. They are set off with a time fuse and look like metal shards when hurtling through the air.

As I mentioned in the opening, the shooting of villains is always popular in the movies. The bullets used are often plastic covered detonators called bullet hits which are triggered electronically. The actor being shot at wears bullet plates. These are metal plates with foam padding.

Often, mechanical creations are used to portray creatures that don't exist. Jaws was guided by a team of scuba divers along an underwater track and ran on hydraulics. In the filming of mechanical creatures the Motion Control System is used. The Motion Control System is a method of recording camera movement (often via computer memory), so that the camera can repeat the precise movement as many times as required. It allows for perfect combining of main elements into one scene.

The Zoptic System was developed by Zoran Perisic and it was used to make Superman look like he was flying. A radio controlled system using fishing tackle-type rods with lines attached to his cape rippled and flapped the cape at exactly the right moment. The Zoptic System incorporates a camera system and a projector with synchronized zoom lenses. It allows a projected back round scene to remain constant while the camera zooms in on a foreground subject. The result is that the foreground subject appears to move dramatically toward the camera.

An important company in the industry of special effects is Industrial Light and Magic or ILM. Seven of the top ten hit movies of the 1980s were movies with special effects. Digital sequencing was used to restore every frame of the 56 year-old Disney version of Snow White. A blue screen background with a picture of a ravine was used to film someone falling from a cliff in the movie CLIFFHANGER. Computer animation is being used to put dead movie stars in modern movies with live actors.

Computer graphics are becoming very popular in the industry. An input scanner is a device for digitizing photographs, specifically ones for creating digital images from motion picture film. The Vista Glider is a new motion control dolly camera used to plot the movement of a camera during filming. It allows the camera to repeat the exact sequences of motions each time it rephotographs the scene.

There are many fields in special effects. As I mentioned there are mechanical effects, as well as atmospheric effects, make-up effects, and optical effects. Some take already photographed scenes and add things or change them. In my research I focused on technical items and machines, but if I ever researched special effects again, I think I would look more closely at make-up special effects. I realized when doing my research, that all these special effects are created to entertain and amaze interested moviegoers. Through special effects, all the people on a movie set are trying sharing their excitement about new technologies with audiences. This is why I believe my research connects with the overarching statement of- Technology impacts our lives.

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I think that through this research paper I really developed as a researcher. I learned to use the computer to gather information which I had never attempted before because I was scared to. I no longer shy away from large books, because I learned to take things slowly, and one paragraph at a time. I also learned to not get frustrated or become overwhelmed. I also realized that if you try your best, it will be satisfactory, and you don't always have to be the absolute best.

I will no longer take movies for granted, because I understand all the effort put into them. At the very beginning of the project, when the teachers were explaining what was required in this paper I got very frightened, because it sounded like a lot of work. When I got into it though, it didn't seem that hard. I've learned that in every job, big or small, there are many difficulties and at the same time, moments of triumph.

I learned you have to be independent in this world, and not wait for something to come to you. I'm proud that I made many of my own decisions in this project. I was surprised that l took the risk of changing rny topic, but even so I am extremely glad that I did because this is what I really wanted. I think I developed as a researcher and as a person.

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Armstrong, Larry, Brandt, Richard, and Schwartz, Evan I. "Wow! Who Taught Those Dinosaurs to Act?" Business Week. June 21, 1993, p. 44.

Edelson, Edward. Great Movie Spectaculars. New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976.

Guarding Vivian. Personal interview on special effects in movies and television. New York, New York, December 3, 1994.

Himelstein, Linda. "Studio Back Lot of the Living Dead." Business Week. December 6, 1993, p. 6.

Industrial Light & Magic. (Pamphlet). San Rafael, California, Industrial Light & Magic, 1994.

Rimmer, lan. The Great Book of Movies FAX. Florida: Rourke Enterprises Inc., 1989.

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