Film School 101: Practical Effects

Do you think you’ve mastered the basics of keeping the camera steady and framing your shots? Maybe you’re looking for something a little more ambitious to try out in your next home movie? If that’s the case, then welcome to the world of practical special effects – effects that are actually created physically on-set (or at home), and not added digitally after the event.

Although they’re not as high-tech as their computer-generated counterparts, when done right they can inspire just as much awe and excitement. Often used by filmmakers trying to capture a retro vibe, practical effects are cheap and effective – so we’re going to help you learn how to use them for yourself. First on the list: Forced Perspective.

If you’ve ever seen a holiday snap of somebody propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or holding the Eiffel Tower between their fingertips then you already know a little about forced perspective. This technique involves using the size of objects, their relative positions and the angle of the camera to make something look bigger, smaller, closer or further away. Although getting it right takes precision and commitment, the results can be stunning.

So how do they do it in the movies?

Perhaps the most famous use of forced perspective in recent cinema history comes from The Lord of the Rings, where it was used to effect the viewers’ perception of characters such as the hobbits and the dwarves. Although this wasn’t the only technique they used for manipulating the size of the hobbits, it was employed to great effect in sequences such as an early scene that shows Frodo and Gandalf riding together in a cart. With Frodo’s section of the wagon set back to make him appear smaller, the filmmakers were able to position the camera so that the difference was unnoticeable to the viewer.

Another way to harness the power of forced perspective is to use models, filming them so that they appear real – generally by placing figures or objects in the background t create a false sense of scale. In Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a 20 foot model of a ship was used to create the impression of a real boat beached in the desert – with actors placed ¼ of a mile in the distance to complete the effect.

How can you do it at home?

We’ve already said that it can be fiddly, but don’t let that put you off – if you have the time to get to grips with this technique then it really can add a little extra magic to your movies.

If you’re completely new to the idea of forced perspective then it might be a good idea to try out some still photography first, and give yourself a chance to experiment with manipulating the depth, getting the eye-line right, and making the shots seamless enough to sell that they’re real. Don’t worry about making mistakes – just take some time to discover firsthand what it’s like to set up a forced perspective shot before trying the more complicated act of committing one to film. Then, when you think you’re ready…

It’s time to set up the shot! Professional filmmakers will use a precise ratio to ensure that the size of their models, figures or actors, and the distance that they are set apart are just right. At the simplest level this means that, for instance, if you wanted to film a hobbit at ¾ the height of a human then you would need to place the actor playing the human character ¾ closer to the camera.

Of course, if you’re only playing around with forced perspective for your own personal enjoyment then you can often get away with being a little less precise and simply letting your eyes do the work – if you’ve framed the shot, and it looks right from behind the camera, then it will probably work for a simple project such as a home movie.

What other factors should be considered?

If you’re aiming for complete professionalism then there are just a couple of other things to bear in mind. The first is lighting, as unwanted shadows can quickly give the game away! If you have access to spotlights then these can be used to great effect to clear the shadows – otherwise just try to make sure that the lighting you use makes the scene look smooth.

The other thing to keep an eye on is the movement of the camera. Whether you’re moving forwards or panning to the side the movement needs to be mirrored – which is to say, the same but opposite – by whatever you’re using in the background.

And that’s it! Now you’re ready to go forth and film the forced perspective shots that will make your films stand out from the crowd. When you’re ready to convert your fabulous home movies from VHS to DVD we can help. Simply contact us today on 0800 592 433 and we’ll be more than happy to get the job done.