Special effects have come a long way since the black and white films of yesteryear. Nevertheless, there’s still a handful of techniques pioneered over a century ago that are still alive and well in Hollywood today. And for filmmakers on a budget, they might just be the key to pulling off your next super-ambitious scene!
Timeless Visual Effects Used in Films
1. Forced Perspective
This is an optical illusion used to make an object or a character appear larger, smaller, closer, or further away than it actually is. It’s a technique that’s been used since the days of Charlie Chaplin, all the way up until today, playing an especially pivotal role in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Think all those scenes with Gandalf and Frodo roaming middle earth side by side…or were they?
To achieve a forced perspective you need to set up what’s called a ‘split rig.’ This is where you have two separate but almost identical sets filled out with different sized objects. You then position the set with the larger sized objects slightly back from the camera to achieve something a little like this.
Have you ever watched a-Ha’s inimitable Take On Me music video and thought, “how the fricking frick did they get that animation to look so spot on?” The answer: rotoscoping.
Rotoscoping is a clever little animators technique where you take motion picture footage and trace over every single frame to create life-like animation. Invented in 1915, rotoscoping has gone on to play a role in virtually every Disney cartoon, big blockbusters like Sin City, and a ton of video games and music videos.
Over the last two decades, however, the art form has advanced to ‘interpolated rotoscoping,’ a digital process that uses computer graphics and vector keyframes to create animation instead.
3. Dolly Zoom
The dolly zoom (a.k.a. The vertigo effect) is an iconic cinematic technique designed to conjure up a sense of foreboding. It’s been used in film’s dating as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Jaws (1975), and as recent as Pulp Fiction (1994) and HBO’s The Wire.
The vertigo effect is achieved by zooming the camera lens in, while simultaneously drawing the camera back in the opposite direction on a dolly—or vice versa.
If you’ve already finished wrapping a shoot, don’t worry—you can still get those vertigo vibes happening in the editing suite. Our tutorial on how to get the vertigo effect in post-production has all the info you need.
4. Miniature (Tilt Shift) Effect
Simply speaking, miniature effect refers to any artificial sets or models that feature in a film. Remember King Kong stomping around New York in the 1933 original of that film? The landscape you see there, that’s a miniature effect. And remember King Kong stomping around New York in the 2005 remake? That would be CGI.
With the advent of CGI, the miniature effect has slowly but surely been working its way onto the special effect endangered list in recent years. But it’s still far from extinct.
A lot of big-name directors aren’t 100% sold on the merits of CGI (Chris Nolan, Peter Jackson, and James Cameron to name a few) and will still resort to the miniature effect if they think it can produce a more realistic result. And very often they’re right. Just check out the underground car chase scene in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Yep, all miniatures!
But if you did want to create this effect digitally, here’s how you would go about creating the tilt shift effect in Adobe After Effects.
5. Matte Painting
In a nutshell, this is where you paint part or all of a landscape you aren’t able to film because a) it doesn’t exist, or b) you don’t have the budget to create it. Needless to say, matte painting gets a lot of air-time in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Star Wars, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Lord of the Rings were all big fans.
While matte painting used to be done by hand, it’s now primarily produced through a combination of 3D rendering and photography.
What did you think of our list of old school visual effects that are still around today? Can you think of an iconic effect we might have missed? Let us know what your thoughts are in the comments section below.