In these days of high technology, “special effects” usually means electronic effects.

In fact, the one device that accomplishes many of the most common effects so familiar to TV viewers-wipes, split screens, and dissolves-is aptly named a special-effects generator (SEG).

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to achieve these basic transition effects without digital memory, genlock, or the expense of an SEG? Mirrors may be a bit more cumbersome than electronic manipulation, but they are effective and the price can’t be beat.

Split Personality

To achieve the most basic effect, the split screen, simply position a mirror between the subject being videotaped and the camera. Set up the mirror so it appears in about half of your viewfinder. Angle it to reflect the split screen’s second subject-which should be perpendicular to the path between the camera and the first subject-in the proper proportion and size relative to the first subject.


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This technique may sound overly simple, but it works well. Make sure the mirror is free of imperfections or smudges, which can cause the eye to focus on the mirror’s surface rather than the subject being videotaped.

To include a subject in the split screen that cannot be conveniently reflected in this arrangement, like a battleship or an elephant, you can shoot it first and play it back on a television to be reflected in the minor. This approach will create some resolution and timing problems, however.

Timing problems can be alleviated by “cueing up” your tape to roll for a few seconds before you begin shooting. Experimentation with your VCR and a stopwatch will reveal the best pre-roll time.
The resolution problem is solved by using a movie projector rather than a television monitor. If the subject is static or unmoving, such as a landscape, then a 35mm slide projector can do the trick.

Obviously, this technique is easier and more effective when you are shooting a split screen between two live subjects.

If you plan to record audio with this effect, it’s best to run separate microphones to each subject rather than one omnidirectional mike.

Using a single microphone source may, in the listener’s ear, reveal the trick-especially if you can hear the same background noise when either subject speaks!

A wipe can be accomplished by smoothly moving the minor in a direction perpendicular to the angle of the camera.

You can create wipes with a color border by attaching a strip of reflective color tape (available from auto supply stores) to the edge of the mirror. Maice sure the camera is focused on the subject and not the mirror so the tape won’t detract from the effect.

Special Mirror for Special Effects

Dissolves, impositions, and ghost effects require a special mirror that’s partially translucent, yet still reflects light. Ground glass can be used; but a transmission mirror, also known as a “beam splitter,” available from Edmund Scientific (Barrington, NJ), is ideal.

Basically, a transmission mirror is a piece of glass coated with titanium dioxide, allowing it to transmit 70 percent of the light and reflect 30 percent. As light passes through the mirror, the reflected portion thrown off will not reflect into your camera.

Those who don’t want to spend the bucks for a beam splitter might consider the aforementioned ground glass alternative. Images will be of slightly lesser quality, but the effect will be the same.

To make a ground-glass beam splitter you need a 5- by 7-inch (or larger) piece of glass with no bubbles or imperfections, wet sandpaper (fine or extra fine), and a little H2O. Evenly sand one side of the glass until it is slightly opaque. Check the glass’s reflective/transmittive proper- ties by shining a flashlight through its surface; if about the same amount of light passes through as is reflected, stop sanding, wash off your new beam splitter, and enjoy.

The effects setup is essentially the same as for the split-screen technique, except in this case the mirror should be positioned to appear in the entire viewfinder. Depending on the lighting level, one or both of the subjects can appear in the frame.

Show Some Spirit

A beam splitter setup opens possibilities for some interesting ghost effects, in which one subject appears to be only partially there. In the early days of filmmaking, the technique was used extensively for horror movies.

The trick to having one subject or background appear solid and the other transparent lies in the lighting and angle of the camera in relation to the subjects.

As long as the minor is positioned properly, subjects directly in front of the camera will appear more solid, while those to the right or left of the camera will be less visible.

If a ghost is needed to float through a hallway, the camera should point down the hallway and the subject should stand off to the side in front of a black background-preferably something that will trap any light, such as velvet.

The ghost should be lit while you observe the effect in a television monitor; as soon as it becomes too solid, back off on the brightness of your lights. For an even freakier effect, try putting the ghost on someone’s shoulders covered with black material. The poltergeist then will appear to float!

If you’re one of the many holdouts who refuse to give up your Super-8 projector and screen, you might try something that Hollywood still does to this day: front projection.

Refer to Figure 2, except replace the ghost with either a slide or movie projector. Face the projection screen toward your camcorder, and position your subject directly in front of the screen so that both subject and screen appear in your camera’s viewfinder.

Now select an appropriate background slide or movie footage to be projected through the glass and reflected onto the screen.

For example, suppose your video calls for an explorer to tramp through a humid rain forest. Simply dress your actor in appropriate garb and select a slide of the jungle.

This effect works best if your camera has a manual iris, which can be closed down if the slide spills some light onto your subject as well as the screen. Also, the better your projection screen is at reflecting light, the more realistic the effect will appear.

One of the best screen materials, Scotchlitem from 3M (Minneapolis, MN), is available in rolls or adhesive-backed sheets. If you really want your effects to look great, the expense is worth it.

Do-It-Yourself Dissolves

Using a costly SEG isn’t the only way to obtain decent dissolves, although the less expensive approach can be a more time-consuming setup.

This effect requires the lighting on the two subjects or sets to be controlled by rheostats (light dimmers), which are tumed up or down depending upon which scene dissolves into the other.

To dissolve from one scene to the other, place the first subject to be videotaped under lights at full brightness; the second subject, off to the side, should be in total darkness.

At the moment of the dissolve, have production assistants slowly turn down the lights on the first subject while turning up the lights on the second. For a straight “cut,” switch the first lights off and the second ones on at the same time.

This dissolve technique has one major limitation: It can’t be used outdoors, except at night.

Out of This World

A transmission mirror also can be used to create all sorts of interesting light effects, such as floating stars, UFOs, and glowing eyes.

For a floating star effect, just use the setup shown in Figure 2. But instead of a ghost or slide projector, shine a flashlight at the glass.

The globe of floating light created by the flashlight can be transformed into a star by placing a star filter on the camcorder.

To make it look as though the star is floating through a well-lit room or down a flight of stairs, watch the monitor (which will show the composited image of star and room) and move the flashlight to correspond to the contours of the room.

If the star is to “disappear” around a corner, draw your hand in front of the flashlight.

Want a glowing title to appear over live action? Try cutting letters out of black cardboard and shining a light through them at the transmission mirror.

How about a room filled with water? Place a well-lit fish tank to the side of the glass. The entire room will take on the murky greens of the tank, and your fish will turn gigantic as they swim by.

With mirrors-and a little creativity-the possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination.

Steven Beckner, art director for Videomaker and producer, currently is working on Dark Forest, a modestly-budgeted motion picture.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.