Special Effects: 7 Sizzling Cool Camera FXs!

Limitations can inspire creativity. Try performing a special effect

There are many things you can do to “fool” the audience into “seeing” an effect that really isn’t. Having a character dressed in a black suit walk in front of the camera, completely obscuring the field of view for a partial second, allows you to hide a cut in there, or you can also hide a cut in a fast pan to still give the idea that a shot is contiguous when it is not. The following are seven more cool effects you can do quite easily, with a little pre-planning and attention to detail.

1 Move it Once

Try telling a complete story with only one camera move.

Gaspar Noe’s disturbing Irreversible, and Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes both contain extended scenes which appear to be (though they are not actually) single, contiguous shots that go for long periods of time. Aleksandr Sokurov went a step further in his production epic Russian Ark which actually was done in a single 90 minute shot (on the third take). Mike Figgis did the same thing in Timecode but shot with four cameras following different actors who sometimes collided (and all four camera views are shown at the same time in a divided screen). Hitchcock filmed much of the movie Rope in long scenes comprised of a single shot, but was limited by the ten-minute length of a film reel and by the large tripods used to hold the camera. Very lightweight video cameras and inexpensive Steadicams make it much easier for video producers today to do extended scenes.

2 Never in Real Time

Try shooting things in either slow or fast motion, how about time lapse? Check your camera’s manual to see if it has an “interval recording” feature – many do. Compress an entire evening into a few minutes, see if your cat really does follow that patch of sunlight while you’re at work, watch a flower bloom or a shadow cross your yard.

3 Blow it Up!

Explosions are important special effects that are integral parts of many action movies. Now, you may or may not have access to a lot of high explosives and adequate space to blow up a Dodge Dart. Thanks to advances in computer technology, this isn’t always necessary anymore. Software packages like particleIllusion from Wondertouch allow you to create digital explosions from the comfort of your computer screen without risking your life and without the long and aggravating cleanup.

4 Shake it Up!

Things have come a long way from the days of the old Star Trek TV show where a photon torpedo hitting Captain Kirk’s ship would mean the camera would tilt to the left and all the actors on stage would run, slip or crash to the right. Modern seismic productions, like the submarine quaking Hunt For Red October actually build sets on hydraulics so that the actors will all fall in the same believable fashion and, unlike in Star Trek, things on shelves also fly off them realistically.

Today’s small video cameras don’t require hundred pound tripods to keep them steady, which means they’re easier to shake. Think about using this special effect subtly – rather than the violent shaking of an earthquake, consider gently tapping the side of the camera to simulate events such as the shaking of a car when the engine is turned off, or when a door is slammed.

While a wobbly camera is typically considered a bad thing, camera shake can be used to bring the viewer into the scene more. We subconsciously associate unsteady cameras with home, news, or documentary video, judicious use of a handheld shot can give an authentic “you are there” feeling to the video you’re shooting.


5 Let it Rain!

Even if it happens to be raining on the night you want to shoot your rain scene, you might not want to take your camera out into the elements. Hollywood productions use rain machines consisting of a series of pipes with holes drilled in them. You could use a twisted length of garden hose with randomly drilled holes between half an inch and two inches apart and hung above the camera. For the best effect the droplets should be at distances from one another (rather than three rows an inch apart, try three rows a foot apart). You’ll notice that simply turning the sprinkler upside down creates “rain” in a far too uniform fashion. For a quick and dirty solution, trying drilling several dozen holes, smaller than 1/8th inch in diameter, in the bottom of a plastic bucket, hold it in front of the camera from a ladder. Don’t forget that your background should be wet, as well as your actors. Don’t you just hate the old movies that show a major rainstorm, but the moment the actors step inside, their hair is bone dry with not a strand out of place?

Rain as a special effect, of course, can also be added digitally. You can also shoot video or buy stock footage of rain on a black backdrop from a place like Feedback Video, and overlay it as a blended track in your editing software.

Man hold umbrella in the rain

6 Burn it Down!

One summer at the beach, I found myself fascinated by a ride called “The Haunted Castle”. A little tram would take you through an exhibit where spooky things would leap out at you. I was particularly intrigued by the way that from the outside, the castle appeared to be on fire, flames were clearly visible through the windows.

I asked one of the attendants how the special effect was done and she gave me a “behind the scenes” tour. They had a room lit up with orange light while strips of clear plastic, cut into “flame” shapes were tied to the top of a simple window fan, blowing upwards to make them flap and move. A bright orange spotlight was aimed directly at the strips and the combination of the orange color, the bright white reflection, and the motion all conspired together to make it look like real fire. Some of the more sophisticated theatrical productions today use silk lit by amber and blue lights, and also powered by a fan, to get a similar, though somewhat smoother, result.

7 Make it Vanish!

7 Make it Vanish!

One of the oldest and most popular special effects is also one of the least believable – a character goes into a scene, the videographer presses pause, the character leaves the set, and the videographer starts recording again. In the director’s mind, it looks like a character has vanished! To everybody in TV Land, it looks like someone pressed pause and walked off the set. The thing that keeps us from suspending our disbelief on this is that there’s a perceptible shift between one frame and the next – however slight, there’s a jump. You can, however, cover this up very nicely by using a quick fade instead of a cut. Your character becomes much more believably invisible. In Star Trek not only did special effects creators use a fade instead of a cut when showing the transporter dismantling the atoms of our characters, they also superimposed a shot of glitter, swirling in a glass of liquid to create a flashy, more complex looking special effect.

It’s Up to You

Keep an eye out for special effects ideas while watching TV and movies. Try and think of creative ways to utilize effects in your own work. Be creative. The coolest effects are the ones that are so subtle that only you, other outrageously cool editors, and the Academy will notice, yet unlike the obvious star wipes or the blind, barndoor or push wipes of the 1970s, the average viewer will get a feel that something cool just happened but didn’t know why.

Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.

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