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Movie Magic: Audio And Visual Special Effects 1960-1990

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Have you ever wondered what special effects in movies were like before computer graphics, 3-D animation, and Pixar? Well, take a look at the 1970’s and 80’s and you will see. Before 1977, no one knew what a light saber was. After that, everyone wanted either a blue, green, or red saber. Such was the magnitude and impact of the film entitled “Star Wars”. The technological aspects of this film were like no others seen before. It was a pivotal movie, showcasing the newest and brightest special effects and sound designs of the time.

In the movie, light sabers are the main weapon used by the “Jedi masters”, an elite group of fighters and psychics that used the “Force” for good and not evil. The actors were filmed with light saber props made of plastic handles and rods made of aluminum. The film is developed normally, and then taken to the special effects team.

“A special effects … artist looks at the film frame by frame, and projects each frame that contains a light saber onto a clear piece of plastic (an animation cel). The special effects artist draws the outline of each light saber blade in the frame onto the cel. Then, for each frame, the artist paints in the correct color for the blade using a bright cartoon color. Eventually the artist has a stack of these cels, one for each frame of the movie containing a light saber. The cels are clear everywhere except where the light saber blade is seen in each frame.

Now, a new piece of movie film is shot. On this film, each animation cel is placed over a black background and shot with a light diffuser over the lens (this diffuser gives the light sabers the glow they have around the edges). If you were to play this film in a projector, all you would see is the light saber blades moving on a black background. Before it is developed, however, the actual footage from the movie is double-exposed onto this same film.”

Because all the special effects were new to the producers, almost every effect and sound was made up as they went along. The sounds of the light sabers were actually made with the humming of a movie projector and a tape recording of an electrical tower. Alien dialogue was created using bits of foreign languages from all over the world. These are just a few examples of the new movie magic secrets used in “Star Wars” and other films of its kind.

Science fiction movies have been the leaders in new audio and visual effects for many years since the release of “Star Wars”. Since 1977, several films have been made with the same “far away galaxy” theme such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T. the Extraterrestrial”. These two movies were set here on earth and featured aliens more up-close than “Star Wars”. Most of the aliens were animatronics or robots. Moving parts of the body are controlled by a computer, but the mouth is usually controlled by a person somewhat like a puppeteer. Things such as facial expressions can all be controlled by a computer and timed precisely with an actor’s voice. In E.T.’s case, walking could not be performed with animatronics, so dwarves or people with no legs were recruited to play E.T. as he walked on screen.

Films like E.T., Star Wars, and Close Encounters were all blockbuster hits, and all featured animatronics, new sounds, and new visual designs. Because of these new pioneers in special effects, many recent films have followed in their footsteps. Such movies are Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, iRobot, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Matrix. These films offer their audiences many more technological advances

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