How Special Effects Work #5: Mary Pickford Kisses Herself

This is the latest in a long-running, very occasional series of posts about special effects but this is the first time (I can’t promise it will be the last) where my starting point is a trick I can’t explain. Of course, I know that the shot (see above) from Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which Mary Pickford, playing two roles, appears to kiss herself, was created using a double exposure, but I don’t know exactly how they got it to look so seamless. I would be grateful for any inside information, and interested in any speculative theories, about how this magnificent special effect was achieved. Much of this post was derived from out-takes of research for a chapter on special/visual effects in the silent era, for a forthcoming volume of the Behind the Silver Screen series from Rutgers University Press, which should be available some time next year. Continue reading

How Special Effects Work #4: The Reveal

The latest in my semi-random, long-neglected series of asides on special effects continues with the concept of the “reveal”. This is that moment when you finally get to see the spectacular object that has been withheld from you for so long. A good reveal will not just happen, but will be the culmination of a series of gestures that draw you in to a state of curiosity, suspense and anticipation. In short, if they’ve spent a lot of money on their biggest selling point, they’re going to make you wait to see it.

Read on…

How Special Effects Work #3: Now that’s magic…

Georges Melies ~ Vanishing Lady

Since I started researching the topic of special effects for my PhD thesis, I’ve been interested in the interactions between stage magic and early cinema. The development of film as a mass cultural medium coincides strikingly with the decline of magic as a popular theatrical form, but magicians were amongst the first to fully exploit the cinematic apparatus as a tool for creating fantastic entertainment. Early film-makers often made records of music hall, vaudeville and carnival performers, perhaps because it made sense to turn the camera on people who were well-versed in the mechanics of addressing an audience and completing an action in an allotted time and on cue (so as not to waste precious film stock!). But it might also be that recordings of stage acts, often with direct gesticulation to the spectator, allowed the viewer to contemplate the distinctions between the recorded performance and the live original. Films such as the Lumière BrothersL’Arrivée d’un Train a la Ciotat (1895), shot outdoors on a railway platform, with a train approaching from the background to the foreground, displayed the camera’s ability to embalm a fraction of time and drag it, pale and quiet into the theatre, providing the marvel of incongruity between the dark enclosure of the theatre and the bright spacious air of these distant locations. The aim was to reconstruct a sense of physical space extending beyond the borders of its two-dimensional canvas. When a magician takes to the stage, there is a promise that integrities of space will be disrupted, either by making something disappear, reappear or transform (whether it be an elephant, a coin, or “your card“). The thrill of seeing a magic trick performed live is reliant devants-egg-trickupon the physical presence of the magician in a solid space, and the sense that, if we try hard enough, we can locate discrepancies in the performance that will reveal how it’s done; even though we know that it’s not really happening,  it is riveting to watch space being twisted: “Where did the card go? It was right there, and now I can’t see it – does it still exist? Did it ever? What kind of world is this where such a … oh, there it is; it was in his other hand all along. Cute.” This dynamic interaction between performer and observer, with the former attempting to divert the latter’s attention from the secret, would seem to be dependent on liveness and presence.

So, what is lost and gained when a magic trick is filmed? How do magic films compensate for the loss of liveness? First of all, there are two types of magic film – the first is when a trick is recorded “whole”, with a fixed camera and no camera tricks. See, for example, David Devant in The Egg-Laying Man, a brief record of one of the Egyptian Hall stalwart’s oldest tricks, plucking a succession of eggs from his own mouth. It’s a bit of sleight of hand, and while it’s clear that Devant is skilfully performing the illusion in real-time, he could easily have re-recorded it if something had gone wrong or if an ill-chosen camera angle had given away the secret at the first take.

buatierdekoltaThe other kind of magic film is that which requires a filmic manipulation in order to effect the illusion. You can see these kinds of effects on profuse display in the films of Georges Méliès (see also my ever-expanding blog post about A Trip to the Moon). One film in particular, L‘Éscamotage d’une Dame chez Robert-Houdin (1896) illustrates so many of Méliès’ trick principles in such a succinct format that I can’t help returning to it again and again, and I like to use to illustrate . In this film, Méliès recreates for the camera one of the staples of his stage show at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris – the Vanishing Lady, a trick which, in this form, is usually attributed to French illusionist Buatier de Kolta. If you don’t want to know how this trick was done, look away now:

de-kolta-vanishing-lady1. The magician places a newspaper on the floor of the stage.
2. On top of the paper, he puts a chair, and invites his female assistant to sit.
3. He drapes a sheet over the woman, hiding her completely from view.
4. He pulls away the sheet and … she’s gone!
5. He removes the chair and shows off the newspaper, still whole, to prove that nothing has passed through it.

Under the sheet is a wire frame that holds the woman’s shape while she disappears through a trapdoor in the stage – the newspaper is made of rubber, with a slit cut in the middle to allow the woman to pass through without tearing any paper. It’s easy when you know how.


For the film version, Méliès stages the trick in almost exactly the same way – he keeps the newspaper as “proof” that the stage is not gimmicked, but instead of disappearing his assistant through a trap-door, he effects the vanishing through a stop-action substitution. This trick is the cornerstone of Méliès’ special effects work, and I’m sure you’re familiar with how it works: by stopping the camera and re-arranging the scene before recommencing the shooting, the magician could give the impression of a continuous space in which instantaneous transformations occurred.


Actually, these effects were not necessarily done “in-camera” – splice marks on the film tell us that the transitions were finessed with some careful editing to ensure the greatest continuity between the separate actions. These may be amongst the earliest match-cuts, though they are matched not to draw comparisons between two separate spaces, but in order to preserve the integrity of the framespace. Even if spectators don’t notice the substitution that removes the assistant (Jeanne d’Alcy, whom Melies would eventually marry in 1926) from underneath the sheet, the next trick is far more obvious. Striking a pose with arms outstretched above the empty chair (the graphic matches of stop-motion substitutions are easier to effect if figures in the frame hold a posture across the change, but in later films he has refined this to an astonishing level of fluidity, and they are played so fast that they are often difficult to detect), the magician conjures instantaneously a grey skeleton. This is a game with death, life and the absolute control of the representational field offered by the cinematic apparatus, but what is striking here is how Melies has toyed with expectation. He has begun a trick in conventional style, suggesting that this is a simple record of a well-known trick, and then diverged to deliver a bit of conjuration that could only be achieved cinematically.


The aim seems to have been to preserve a sense of continuous space and time – the film is, after all, imitating the conventions of a stage performance (the newspaper, the bows to the audience etc.) – but this act of preservation is, I suggest, primarily so that Méliès can subvert expectations of how that space will act. The rest of Méliès’ trick films will take this principle to extremes, using frenzied repetition to create a markedly unstable filmic space in which any object can transmogrify, disappear or spring into life at any moment. Whatever the Lumière Brothers had done to show how their Cinématographe film camera (you can see one here) could extract fragments of time for the world and grant them a powerful sense of actuality, the use of stop-motion substitutions provided a powerful lesson in how malleable the filmed image really was, which should have been heeded as a sign of its limited status as ineffably objective proof of presence and actuality. This, I believe, is not just an exploratory theme of “primitive” cinema fidgeting with its new powers, but a fundamental facet of special effects, wherein a film-maker will take what you know about cinema and twist it, not so much that it will be incomprehensible, but just enough to play upon your expectations.

See also: How Special Effects Work 1: The Sandman & How Special Effects Work 2: Virtual Actors are on the Way.

How Special Effects Work #2: Virtual actors are on the way.


In some of my earlier writing about special effects, I regularly found myself banging a particular drum, and eventually had to stop myself getting repetitive. In my research on special effects, I continually found practitioners, and some critics espousing a belief that virtual actors were soon going to reach such a perfect state of simulation that spectators would be unable to tell them apart from the real thing. The following comes from a paper I wrote for Stacy Gillis’ collection The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded:

It would be all too easy to fall for the suggestion that the age of the synthespian is imminent, and that soon human actors will interact with computer-generated co-stars without the audience realising which is which. Will Anielewicz, a senior animator at effects house Industrial Light and Magic, promised recently that “Within five years, the best actor is going to be a digital actor”. The apotheosis of an animated character into an artificially intelligent, fully simulacrous figure indistinguishable from its carbon-based referent is technically impossible, at least in the foreseeable future, but visual effects are not definitive renderings of a character or event but indicators of the state-of-the-art offering “a hint of what is likely to come” (Kerlow) in the field of visual illusions in the future. It is understandable that such a competitive industry needs to maintain interest in the potential of its products, but the mythos of the virtual actor has infiltrated the Hollywood blockbuster in recent years […]

For the record, I regret the phrase “technically impossible”: I think the barriers to producing perfect synthespians are not primarily technical, but cultural and economic (if there was enough demand, money would have been found for even more research and development even sooner). I was using the “mythos” or concept of the virtual actor, the belief in inevitable progress, as an example of the kind of teleological argument that I wanted to unpick. It wasn’t hard to find it surfacing in other places. This from another essay in James Lyons and John Plunkett’s Multimedia Histories: From the Magic Lantern to the Internet:

Kelly Tyler, of NOVA Online, a science-based website, has identified the photorealistic human simulacrum as “a new digital grail.” Damion Neff, an artificial intelligence designer for Microsoft video games has called it “the Holy Grail of character animation.” In his keynote address at the 1997 Autonomous Agents Conference, Danny Ellis listed the emotionally intelligent virtual actor as one of four “holy grail” in the field. In May 2003 John Gaeta, discussing his visual effects work on The Matrix Reloaded in the Los Angeles Times, referred to a believable digital human as “the holy grail” of our world. It seems that the Grail analogy has found some currency, at least amongst those working in the relevant creative industries. This frequently uttered analogy sums up the suggestion that technologies of visual representation have been working inexorably towards a final goal, but they might also inadvertently hint that such a goal is essentially elusive.

The development of special effects over time suggests scientific progress as motion towards a logical conclusion, their development effected by a series of refinements and improvements to existing mechanisms. Certainly, computer-generated imagery, with its increasing photographic verisimilitude permitted by faster processing speeds and more efficient rendering software, appears to be advancing at a quantifiable rate, implying a final destination of absolute simulation, a point where a digital human being can be rendered to a level of detail indistinguishable from actual flesh and bone, and possessing enough (artificial) intelligence to be a star offscreen instead of just a hyperreal cartoon upon it.

So, how can this teleology by questioned? How do we construct a more continuist approach to historicising these spectacles in the face of such persuasive technological progress? By drawing the focus away from the dazzling verisimilitude of illusory technologies and focusing on the conceptual questions which underpin their fascinating surfaces. We can observe antecedents of the virtual actor and note that the same spectacular strategies, prompting the same ontological questions, were in play.

That’s enough self-promotional recapping. I hope you get the message that, whatever actual developments there might be in imaging technologies that can simulate properties of human figures, there is another narrative here. As Lev Manovich put it in The Language of New Media, “throughout the history of computer animation, the simulation of the human figure has served as a yardstick for measuring the progress of the whole field.” So, just to make sure you stay interested, every now and then some industry insider pipes up and tells you that you’re just months away from being fooled into believing in a bit of CGI as a living, breathing person. So, here we go again. Only this week, Image Metrics have announced that they’re very close to the Holy Grail. Take a look at this video of actress Emily O’Brien:

[Find out more about the process, or watch a higher resolution version of the video here.]

Pretty impressive stuff. As you can probably tell, her face has been digitally captured and mapped over her actual face, not because it’s a useful thing to do, but because it puts the digital and the flesh versions of Emily close enough that we can compare them. Presumably, the real benefits of the process will be seen in applications that can map her face onto her stunt double, or onto another actress if Emily, heaven forbid, suffers a terrible accident halfway through shooting a very expensive blockbuster movie. Or it might help our already beloved stars transcend the limits of their own bodies. Here’s the original post I spotted on IMDB:

1 January 2009 1:30 AM, PST

“Silicon Valley is on the verge of producing sophisticated software that will allow motion picture companies to create actors on a computer who are visually indistinguishable from real people, San Jose’s Mercury News reported today (Thursday). In the words of the newspaper, which closely follows the sofware industry, when software engineers finally achieve what it calls “the holy grail of animation,” stars would be able to “keep playing iconic roles even as they aged past the point of believability like Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft or Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter.” Rick Bergman, general manager of AMD’s graphics products group, told the Mercury News that his company “is getting real close” to producing computer-generated actors that will look identical to real human beings.”

Does anyone honestly believe that there is a call or a need for technologies for sustaining the shelf lives of these people? Of course not – it’s just a distracting excuse to avoid the real explanation, which is closer to “we’ve got this cool gadget, and we really want to show it off.” I remain skeptical about claims of impending perfection in virtual actors not because the technology isn’t impressive, but because the grand deterministic narrative  of progress is overriding the reality of the situation. One savvy poster over at the Blu-Ray forum says it all in a manner that needs no elaboration from me:

Oh, dear lordy, they (meaning, JU) posted the article here, too…

The same exact article (with different star insertions, hence the ’01 dated Tomb Raider ref) that studios plant once a year by the clock, in the hopes they can finally get that CGI resurrected dead-Karloff-and-Chaney Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman movie going again, because it sounded like such a neat idea back when Forrest Gump shook hands with JFK–
Twelve years, Final Fantasy, and Beowulf later, and they’re STILL trying to sell us on “With virtual actors, we could bring George Burns back from the dead, and he’d look so real!


In case you needed more convincing, I dug up this old article from The Boston Globe, 23rd May 1999. There’s that grail again:

It sounds like a plot from a sci-fi pulp, or an old B movie: A snaggle-toothed scientist toils in the laboratory, perfecting his creation. A touch-up here, a tiny tuck there. But this is not some green-gilled monster from the house of Dr. Frankenstein; it’s a realistic human with shiny hair, glittering teeth, and liquid eyes. The pressure is on to beat other genetic geniuses racing to create human clones. Suddenly, there’s a burst of energy – and voila! – the model comes to life. Blink your eyes, and it’s Marilyn Monroe. Blink again, and it’s James Dean.

This scenario isn’t as far-fetched – or as far off – as it might once have seemed. In this case, the scientists in question are digital doctors: computer programmers developing the software needed to create a photorealistic digital actor, or ”synthespian.” Special-effects wizards have already created convincing digital dinosaurs and dolls, aliens and ants, stuntmen and superheroes. And the two biggest box office draws of the moment – The Mummy and a certain prequel that unfolds in a galaxy far, far away – showcase digital creatures.

So why not digital humans? Why not virtual stars?

”The digital actor has been the Holy Grail forever, since the dawn of 3-D computer animation,” says Brad Lewis, executive producer of visual effects and vice president of Pacific Data Images, the firm that gave life to insects in Antz. ”There’s always been someone trying to do a hand or a face or some aspect of a human being that looked real.”

Some say realistic digital humans will be on-screen within the next five years. These synthespians could be brand-new characters or reincarnations of old legends, long cold in the grave. One Hollywood producer, for instance, is planning a film that would resurrect martial-arts phenomenon Bruce Lee; another is reportedly working on a digital version of an aging screen star (rumored to be Marlon Brando), restoring his youth and making him a contender for a manly role. Another producer got permission to re-create the late George Burns in a film called The Best Man, and a California firm, Virtual Celebrity Productions, has obtained the rights to digitally reproduce a handful of stars, including Marlene Dietrich and W. C. Fields.

wcftorsoHang on. Did I read that correctly? W.C. Fields? I can understand how Dietrich’s pictorial stillness might translate relatively easily to a digital avatar, but is there anyone less suited to a CGI resurrection by the pixel pixies than W.C. Fields?! Well, they gave it a go a few years back with the Gepetto software (nice puppet reference, there) for real-time 3D animation. I can’t say the results were ever going to replace the memory of the real thing, but that’s not really the point. These rumours and promises build anticipation, expectation, and a sense that something is at stake. The defiance of death, age and human inadequacies is just a cover story for the real business of special effects.

Look at the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The stated aims of the film, in which Brad Pitt’s character ages “backwards”, might be to integrate visual effects so seamlessly that they don’t distract from the character-driven, Oscar-baiting emotional truth of it all, but there’s no getting away from the fact that, by centralising the concept of a spectacular body like Benjamin’s, a magnet for diegetic and extra-diegetic curiosity, the film can’t help but draw attention to the visual effects used to achieve the concept’s visualisation. Pitt’s body becomes a laboratory for all kinds of tricksy bits of CG animation and performance capture, and there’s a complex connection between the fascinated gaze that attaches to the character’s condition, and the one that fixes on the image of a movie star transformed into a recognisable but fundamentally changed series of physiques by means of cinematic tricks. When Benjamin strikes muscleman poses in the mirror, it’s as much about technological display as it is about his own narcissistic enjoyment. The discourses around the futuristic capabilities of digital imaging technologies shape expectations about how a particular special effect is to be viewed and appreciated. There’s an element of promotional hype in play, but by providing a set of measurable goals and projected rationales, the impression given is that special effects are contributing to a worthwhile cause with a pre-determined path, instead of offering random and occasional attractions; it all makes sure that you stay interested, and keep buying a ticket for the next attraction, and then the next. Special effects, like movie stars, exist intertextually – they provide reassuring continuities: we are expected to keep watching how they develop from film to film, how each is an improvement upon the last – so it makes sense that a certain weight of expectation should hand on the predicted hybrid of a special effects movie star, an all-digital, perhaps artificially intelligent character actor who passes for flesh and blood before your very eyes. But to truly deliver on that promise to deceive would defeat the object of the special effect, which was to attract and hold that multi-focus spectatorial gaze. What’s the use of a spectacular attraction if nobody notices it?


See also How Special Effects Work 1: The Sandman & How Special Effects Work 3: Now That’s Magic…

Lisa Bode, ‘“Grave Robbing” or “Career Comeback”? On the Digital Resurrection of Dead Screen Stars’, in History of Stardom Reconsidered. Edited by Hannu Salmi et al. (Turku: International Institute for Popular Culture, 2007) Available as an eBook at

How Special Effects Work #1: The Sandman


It’s been over a week since I’ve blogged – towards the end of a semester, things seem to get much busier, and I start to feel a bit stupider, so it’s harder to sustain my more prolific bursts of writing. Perhaps my previous post was long enough to keep you busy (or fed up of me) for a while. Thanks to all those who’ve commented on my Cloverfield paper: I always enjoy receiving feedback, negative or positive, so feel free to add your thoughts to the discussion. Hopefully, things will ease up a little and I can devote a bit more time to this. To reboot things, I thought I’d play to my specialism and start a series of short posts about special effects. This is partly to expand upon and clarify points from Performing Illusions, and also to include some ideas that were too late to make the final cut of the book. I’ll be making these up as I go along from time to time, but I’m happy to take requests. It’ll be a good way for me to take notes as I go, and hopefully provide some interesting reading.

To kick things off, here’s a little analysis of a great sequence from a far less great film, Spider-Man 3. About halfway through describing the plot of a superhero film, I usually pause for breath and realise how ridiculous it all sounds. Teenage boy sprouts web-spinning glands and dresses up in natty spandex togs to fight crime. Meanwhile, some other dude gets exposed to some sciencey stuff that turns him into sand. It’s not exactly Death in Venice, but this kind of story has become so familiar that we barely bat an eyelid when some new fancy-dress vigilante takes to the screen. Stop and think for a moment. Peter Parker is at school. Then he gets bitten by a genetically modified spider and picks up some arachnid tendencies. Why are we not laughing this stuff out of town? Partly, I think, it’s because of the familiarity: we’ve seen a lot of superhuman heroic figures over the years, whether it’s Achilles, Aeneas, Hercules, Perseus, Jesus, Beowulf, Gawain, King Arthur, Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Barack Obama or token female Wonder-Woman. But also it’s because we understand the allegorical function of these characters. Whether it’s Superman as a refugee migrant who has to change his name and act like a local to gain acceptance in society (while secretly saving the world’s collective ass), or Spider-Man playing out his awkward years of bodily change and early-career anxiety, we know that these are not portrayals of how things really are, but re-imaginings of things that are easier to talk about and popularise if we dress them up in shiny clothes and pit them against a series of similarly allegorised embodiments of villainy/social evils.

That’s my starting point here, but I suppose it’s not strictly relevant, except to say that Spider-Man 3 operates (because it is a sequel) in a pre-existing alternative world where scientific exaggeration is an accepted form of expression, with certain agreed limits on what may occur: there’ll be no “magic” here, just scientific principles extruded to a degree that probably constitutes impossibility, all the while remaining anchored in a logical basis (however tenuous) that isn’t there to make incredible events believable, but comprehensible.


The scene in question is an origin sequence. We get to see how the Sandman came into being: as such, it offers a spectacle of incarnation, animating an apparently living body out of inanimate materials. It is structured between the bookends of these two states, beginning with an extreme, near-microscopic close-up of grains of sand, which gradually cohere into an image of the actor Thomas Hayden Church. This demarcation of the set-piece is a common trope in this kind of foregrounded spectacle – it has clear entry and exit points and stands alone as an autonomous performance, even as it offers some narrative information; It possesses a limited colour scheme of browns and greys (er… it’s sand-coloured), and the lack of dialogue or peripheral characters further enforces the self-containment.


Witnessing the birth of the Sandman, one of the pleasures comes from seeing a two-dimensional comic book character transplanted into a three-dimensional, digitally rendered figure. The Sandman is the perfect CGI character: the kind of particle-system modelling used to make swarms of particles take on shapes and patterns is something that computer-graphics are equipped to do – it would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to do this in stop-motion or another kind of pro-filmic object animation. So, while the scene references older media, it focuses on graphic qualities that exude novelty and technological specificity. The virtual camera (the scene is entirely computer-generated, so it’s not entirely accurate to think about the camera being situated within the scene) executes a slow track around the central focus of the emerging Sandman. The stressed dimensionality of the sequence thus puts further distance between this and two-dimensional animation, optical process shots and puppet animation where camera movements are much more difficult to pull off. In short, the scene’s novelty value is to be understood in terms of its differentiation from prior instances of animation and effects shots.


The long take is the core of this sequence. The sustained performance of a technical illusion would seem to imply its pro-filmic authenticity: the camera never needs to cut away to or fragment the trick to hide its mechanisms in montage. However, there is no longer a logical reason to attach such notions of presence and solidity to things we see onscreen, even when the camera’s unflinching eye seems to be hinting that there are no sleight-of-hand edits, nothing up its figurative sleeve; a virtual camera tracking through virtual space to “film” a virtual object never needs to cut, and those connotations of authenticity can just as easily be translated into indications of artifice, of a lack of presence or ostentatious virtuality. But digital effects still exploit our residual expectations of photographicness. You can see it in the use of artificial lens flare to suggest that the camera is physically present, its mechanism overloaded by the scene in front of it. Lens flare is a side-effect of a camera’s registration process, and in a virtual scene it is added in order to offset the true origins of the shot.:


These techniques subtly purchase your understanding of the sequence as a wholly situated moment, recoding it not as a flurry of algorithmic manouevres, but as a live recording of an event, where some of the unplanned markings of the photographic apparatus might come into play. To cut through my verbose description, the shot, which was actually constructed in a computer, is dressed up to look like it was shot on a set. So, computer-generated effects do not erase or evade the properties of photographic media. Instead, they extend those properties to supernatural lengths: the power of the illusion arises out of the distance between the acknowledged impossibility of the event, and impression of authenticity lent to it by the markers of a situated apparatus.