Tips for First-Time Special Effects Filmmakers

By Lee Manansala

Special effects have been used in cinema since the dawn of moving pictures. Originally, special effects were crude—there were no special-effects houses or computers to create them. They were created through sheer filmmaker ingenuity.

The Conjuror (1899) by Georges Melies.

In the early 1900s film was still a novelty. Techniques like using trick camera angles, for instance (to create a more interesting image), were a revelation. To create his magic tricks for The Conjuror, Georges Melies cut scenes from his shots and in the process basically stumbled upon editing. Film editing is essential to the cinematic medium today.

“Cousins” by Vampire Weekend

The music video above could have been made in the 1950s and employed effects that have been around since the days of Melies.

Cause and Effects
Special effects can be used in multiple ways to tell a story. For a special-effects movie camp that teaches kids to create cool visual effects, look no further than DMA’s Adventures in Filmmaking and Special Effects. For older teens, learning how to create Hollywood visual effects can add a profesional level of quality to your YouTube films.

Creating Effects & Using Filters in Final Cut Pro
Start a new project in Final Cut Pro and you’ll notice a tab in your browser window called “effects.” Select that, and you’ll see a number of options. Look for “video filters.” This is the effects set you’ll most use, especially if you’re shooting events like weddings, which I’ve done for the past six years.

Video filters manipulate the characteristics of the image; you can remove excess blue from an image that was shot outdoors, excess orange from an indoor shot (cameras read sunlight as blue and light from fixtures as orange), or you can remove color from the shot altogether to create a black and white image. In addition to correcting color, you can also add filters to distort, sharpen or literally highlight an image.

Making Magic
Here’s a trailer for a film called “That’s My Majesty” by Emily Carmichael (for which I performed the cinematography). Notice the unearthly glow around the female actor. This was accomplished using a glow filter:

“That’s My Majesty” by Emily Carmichael.

The important thing to remember is that a filter will envelope the entire image, meaning you can’t simply draw the filter onto a specific portion of the image. A glow filter will make the entire shot glow. In Emily’s movie, only the actress glows; the light follows and illuminates her and only her throughout the entire movie.

This was accomplished using keyframing and masking. Masking involves drawing a border around a portion of the image you want to affect (in this case, the actress), and keyframing means shifting the mask, frame by frame, to follow the subject as it moves. Emily’s movie is 4 minutes long; she had to move the mask frame by frame for most of the movie. At 30 frames per second, 60 seconds per minute, it’s a very time-consuming and tedious process. In the end though, the effect pays off.

Time versus Effect
Very often when someone first discovers Final Cut Pro’s effects—the effects are overwhelming. Before you know it, you’ve spent an entire day throwing filters onto shots just to see what they do. So it’s important to think about what you’re trying to accomplish before you start trying to create an effect. You’ll save more time and find your projects will be more professional looking.