The Art of Practical Effects

Image result for john carpenter's the thing

As noted by my other entries, I am biased towards natural cinematography shot on motion picture film.  If it’s shot through a lens onto celluloid, count me in!  Recently, I have been thinking about a list of films with flawless execution of “special” effects.  By “special,” I mean true to life, in camera, photographic effects.  This excludes computer generated imagery of course.  Optical printing effects such as the brilliant work of Douglas Trumball were not included.  Those excellent works will be saved for another list.  There’s nothing like the actual texture of alien creatures, fantastical puppet wizardry, and goose bump inducing make-up art.  This short selection of six films contains representatives from numerous eras.  On any given day this list may  change, but this is the selection for today. Free from computer templates and copied looks – these films are as fresh as the day they were exposed.

6. House on Haunted Hill, Dir. William Castle, 1958

From the opening shot with Watson Pritchard’s disembodied head to Vincent Price puppeteering a skeleton at the climax of the film, this film is full of cleverly executed effects.  Some may merely dismiss this movie as camp, but I do not think that gives the film a fair discourse.  The effects in the film do not aim for realism, but instead follow a simple rubric.  If you were going to scare someone into hysteria using basic Halloween store gags, what would you use and how could you do it.  The visuals support a beautiful low-fi and tactile approach.  It’s a film that reminds us of the fantastic ways that we can scare our younger siblings through masks, make-up, fake blood, lighting, and a good old fashion skeleton on wire.

5. The Phantom Carriage, Dir. Victor Sjöström, 1921

Victor Sjöström‘s Swedish Silent masterpiece showcases some of the earliest and most refined use of multiple exposure effects.  The new Criterion restored Blu-ray version enables one to see the poetry of ghostly layered figures.  We, the audience,  are in awe when we first see death’s helper lift the soul out of a dead body.  This is the soul of a man who has just committed suicide.  Another spectacular moment is when the carriage goes to the Norwegian Sea to pick up another soul and floats above the water.  Uncanny in its translucent depiction of death, “The Phantom Carriage” amazes one in the precision of back winding and re-exposing the same strip of film.  This is movie magic indeed!

The Phantom Carriage 1921 

4. Alien, Dir. Ridley Scott, 1979

One of the best horror films ever made.  It’s slow patient dolly shots of the interior of the Nostromo create an unsettling feeling and never gives too much away.  For the first half hour we find comfort in the dynamics of the crew and their working class cargo hauling job.  In 1979, nobody was prepared to see Kane’s (John Hurt) chest burst to reveal a slimy lizard like creature that uses the human body as a host.  My Dad loves the “Alien” series, and I will forever have the memory of seeing this scene as a six year old, looking between my fingers.  The sense of fear and wonder never goes away.  Recently, I screened the film for my wife who had never seen it.  I was so excited for the little alien to pop out of John Hurt’s chest that I ruined the surprise for her.  Make sure to not say a word to the newcomer.  Their reaction will be worth your patience!

3. The Dark Crystal, Dir. Jim Henson & Frank Oz, 1982

A world made up entirely of puppets and real sets and locations.  The cinematography blossoms with organic textures of both creations and natural elements.  We have not seen the caliber of puppeteering in a feature film since this outing by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.  Watch your favorite computer generated picture and follow it with “The Dark Crystal,” and you’ll see that favorite synthetic piece fall from your mantle.

2. A Trip to the Moon, Dir. Georges Melies, 1902

It was nice to see homage paid to Georges Melies work in the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”  The best part of the Scorsese adaptation of the Brian Selznick children’s cinematic novel was that it introduced mass audiences to the magical world of Melies.  I wish the movie version would have been graphite hand-drawn animation or been created using Melies trick photography methods.  The mise-en-scene and camera trickery of “A Trip to the Moon” has never been topped for originality and charm.  The rocket crashing into the face of the moon is such a surreal  image that it sticks with one forever….hence its significance in “Hugo.”  I have seen numerous versions of this film and would love to see the restored 35mm hand-colored print the was screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

1. John Carpenter’s The Thing, Dir. John Carpenter, 1982

Somehow horror won out over charm in this list, but respects had to be paid to John Carpenter and his special effects team.  “The Thing” raised the bar as to what could be done with puppets, robotics, and latex.  Seeing a human head grow spider legs and run off on its own does make an impact on you.  My expectations for this film were not very high, but I was pleasantly amazed at the craftsmanship and detail that went into making the puppets that had a combination of human, animal, and alien forms.  Now “The Thing” is one of our perennial October favorites!  Please do yourself a favor and rent the blu-ray version, and screen it to a group of friends who have never seen it.  There’s just so much texture!

Computers make it so easy to make the creative filmmaking process digital and industrial.  If you want the “The Matrix” look, drop this effect onto your footage and everything will be yellow and green.  If you want a dinosaur, just drag and drop it into your sequence.  Looped music is so overused that when you hear a track you can attribute it to the specific looping software.  These formulas are so easily and often copied over and over.  They really can inhibit critical and creative thinking.  The list of practical effect films are examples of humans collaborating with film itself, each other, and the unpredictable world in order to make lasting art.  Practical effects encourage “happy accidents,” a term frequently used by cinematographer Conrad Hall.  These accidents bring the organic touch and a charm that are a necessary part of the filmmaking process.  Without them, films become antiseptic.  Hats off to the folks who keep the art of practical effects alive!!

About Jacob Dodd

Jacob A. Dodd is an independent filmmaker and educator who creates short films in 35mm, 16mm, and Super 8mm motion picture formats. He specializes in personal memoir documentary and fiction filmmaking and combines traditional production techniques with experimental practices. Dodd has an MFA in Photography and Film from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BFA in Film, Photography, and Visual Arts from Ithaca College. Dodd's fascination lies in the linkage of time periods to examine private histories. He uses traditional film techniques to bring forth a feeling of nostalgia, a transcendence of time, and a sense of the familiar. Dodd is an Assistant Professor of Cinema and Screen Studies at Oswego State University of New York. Dodd's films have been screened nationally and internationally, and have garnered several awards. Some notable film festivals include the Sharjah International Children's Film Festival in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Lahore International Children's Film Festival in Lahore, Pakistan, the Children's Film Festival of Bangladesh, Portobello Film Festival in London, UK, Virginia Film Festival, Athens International Film + Video Festival, Big Muddy Film Festival, Rosebud Film & Video Festival, James River Film Festival, Johnstown Film Festival, Jacksonville Film Festival, and the DC Independent Film Festival.
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2 Responses to The Art of Practical Effects

  1. What a great article–about time someone discussed the merits of practical effects. I just watched “The Thing” again a few weeks ago, and it still holds up.

  2. Marc says:

    While digital effects can be dazzling, practical effects are much more satisfying, especially to the filmmaker. As amateur filmmakers, we submitted a video for a “Best Headshot” challenge. We were determined to pull off a practical bloodsplatter effect, and the result couldn’t have been more satisfying. Out of the hundreds of submissions we watched, we were happy to be part of the very small group that put in the effort to execute a real effect. Long live practical effects!

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