Special Effects: Looking Through the Eyes of a Hit Man

Need to show a shot as if your viewer were looking through binoculars? Peering through a telescope? Peeking through a keyhole? If you have a pricey Special Effects Generator (SEG) you may be able to add effects like these after the fact (when you edit), or "you could do it the old fashioned way" with a matte.

TV and film producers have used them for years. Shapes like circles, hearts, stars and keyholes cut out of wood or card stock. Application is simple, place the matte between the camera and the subject framing the image within the shape of the cutout. To sell the effect to the viewer, edit the shot together with footage of an actor raising a pair of field goggles or kneeling near a closed door.

Make a Matte

Start with a firm piece of card stock. While an 8.5" x 11" card will work, we suggest something a little larger to allow some flexibility of framing, and to prevent light from spilling around the sides of the card. We chose to use a heavy gauge cardboard for our example (a piece that we cut from the side of a cardboard box).

For purposes of this column, we chose to make a binocular-shaped matte, but the principle of matte making remains no matter what shape you choose. To make our binocular matte, we traced two overlapping circles onto our card using the bottom of a glass (figure 1a), then cut on the lines with a blade (figure 1b). After removing the center portion, we found that the cardboard had frayed in a few places around the edge of our cut. Instead of choosing a new card and starting over, we taped the rough edges of our cut with electrical tape. This way we masked the imperfections in our cut and gave our matte a smoother, more realistic looking edge (figure 1c). Because we would be simulating the view through a pair of binoculars, we needed to paint our matte black. A few sprays with a can of spray paint did the trick (figure 1d).

Ready, Set, Shoot

After allowing the paint to dry, we were ready to shoot. We attached the matte to two light stands (a couple of old tripods would have worked just as well). Next we put our talent in position (across the street) and framed the shot. We raised the matte to a level that matched the center of the cutout to the height of our camcorder’s lens, then positioned the matte between the camcorder and our talent, being extra sure to keep the matte perfectly level. We found that by manually focusing on our subject we could vary the sharpness of the matte’s edge by positioning it closer or farther from the camcorder, while still maintaining a crisp focus on the talent.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different matte shapes. Try placing a little leaguer in a diamond, or a singer in a star. Put your honey in a heart, or your beagle in a bone. Once you’ve discovered the power of the matte, the only limit is your own creativity.

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