Very Special

I’m sorry to break it to Harry Potter fans that the magic they obsess over in the Warner Brothers films doesn’t exist…except it does, just in a less wand-waving form. Fire-breathing dragons can’t be bought at your local pet shop, but with the right technology and skill, special effects technicians can bring that “Hungarian Horntail” to life on screen.

It is truly amazing how far SFX (the practical effects of make-up, pyrotechnics, animatronics and props used on set) and VFX (the digital effects added to the film in post-production) has progressed since it first appeared in 1895.

Filmmakers are now able to create any creatures, natural phenomenon, and scenery their heart desires with the help of SFX and VFX technicians.

SFX technicians use a variety of different materials and techniques to add non-digital effects. There are different categories these technicians may be experts in, such as:

  • Pyrotechnics : this involves creating explosions, fire, smoke and sound concussion effects on set. Pyrotechnics used in films make use of class B explosives; which is a good thing because these bad boys will burn, but won’t explode unless they are confined. Class B explosives include: black powder, pellet powder, ignitors and fuse lighters. But it isn’t as simple as lighting a fuse; all explosives consist of a source of oxygen (oxidiser) and a type of fuel (reducer), and different combinations of oxidisers and reducers determines the kind of effect which is produce (smoke, flame, explosions, or sound) as well as the colour and intensity of the effect. Pyrotechnics technicians require specialised licenses in order to create these effects, and for good reason, because even the incorrect storage of pyrotechnics can be extremely dangerous.
  • Claymation : An abbreviation for “clay animation,” this technique involves the sculpting of figures and objects out of clay. The clay creatures are then filmed using stop-motion animation.
  • Robotics : A highly specialised field, engineers design and construct robots which are used in mostly science fiction films.
  • Make-up : Special effects make-up artists apply make-up and/or wax prosthetics to create wrinkles, cults, scars, bruises, burns and distortions to an actor/actress’ face. Make-up artists take direction from the script and the director in order to alter the actor/actress’ face to fit the character they are portraying.
  • Props fabrication : These technicians create all the weapons, custom objects (e.g. Rowena Ravenclaw’s Diadem for the Harry Potter films), and large sculptural objects needed for a film. They may use a variety of materials, from steel to foam.


Special effects make-up using prosthetics by James Sizemore

Special effects make-up by Nasreen Alkhateeb

Fire and smoke effects by Elemental FX for an ABSA advertisement

Once the film has been shot with all its explosions and gun-weilding zombies, thanks to the special effects technicians, the footage goes into post-production where the visual special effects technicians take the illusion to a whole other level. They use digital software, referred to as CGI (computer generated imagery) technology, to add and edit images. This is great not only for filmmaker’s imaginations, but also for their budgets and their performers’ safety, as The Avengers-level battle scenes could get tricky IRL. Although pyrotechnics can do some cool effects, it is near impossible to create the destruction of whole cities, as seen in films such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004), or gigantic gorillas like in King Kong (2005).

Green screens and blue screens are used when filming, in the anticipation of VFX effects. The specific green or blue is removed from the image in post-production and is replaced by background scenery, infrastructure, crowds and action. For this very reason, it is important to co-ordinate prop, make-up, and costume departments to not use that specific green or blue, unless you want the actor’s green-shirt-bearing torso to vanish as well. However, technology is becoming advanced enough to discern not just colour but other properties as well, such as luminescence. This means that as long as the actor’s shirt is a darker green, he gets to keep his torso.

One of the developments in the VFX field  has been that of Motion Capture. As indicated in its name, this technology captures a performer’s motion and translates it into data that technicians can use to 3-dimensionally recreate the performer’s motion. This is normally used in animation films and video games. The performer normally work on a green screen and wears a suit with special markers that are recognisable to the image processing software. An offshoot of this technology also uses dots to not only capture motion, but small facial movements as well, thus allowing for the creation of CG characters. For example, “Gollum” from The Lord of the Rings trilogy was created by using the facial expressions and body movements performed by Andy Serkis to render a completely CG-character using a lot of polygons and keyframe animation.

(Andy Serkis as “Gollum”. Image taken from Andy Serkis)

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It seems that movie magic not only lives, but is thriving, as we see greater and greater use of SFX and VFX technology. Mechanical and digital technologies are allowing for stories of greater scale and impact, and it is often the technicians behind the scenes who add the special sprinkle of AWESOME.

So, it turns out, HP fanatics, that all you need to have your own personal dragon is a green cloth-covered prop and a kick-ass special effects technician on speed dial.


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Featured image taken from:

Slideshow images taken from: Wonderful EngineeringBrian LobedaLa LibreMary Papenfuss



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