These days, a huge portion of the special effects that you see in movies are computer generated, but this wasn’t always the case obviously. And there are still quite a few movies who utilize effects that are actually created live on set (known as practical FX), be it for budgetary or creative reasons. There are actually a lot of different types of practical FX, and you may be surprised what’s included!
Explosions, Fire, and Car Stunts
One of the most obvious and exciting types of practical effects on a set is an explosion. No doubt, it’s one of the more fun things to be on set for – but the amount of planning and safety precautions that need to be taken mean that it’s also one of the hardest things to put together.
Practical effects teams that handle this sort of thing tend to consist of engineers and scientists with a strong background knowledge of physics, chemistry, and a touch of daredevilism. They are part of the location scout, and know every detail about the space and the stunt that they’re going to pull off.
They help the producers by informing them of what kinds of permits they’ll need, what kinds of supplies they’ll need to build the rigs, and what all the safety considerations that will need to be taken into account are.
They also usually know who the most qualified stunt people are for the job – professional stunt drivers for example are highly trained and heavily insured to be able to pull off car flips and quick escapes. Once in a while you’ll find a particularly daring actor who wants to do their own stunts, such as Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan, but generally producers try to avoid this because many of these stunts can be deadly. Sadly, even very experienced stuntpeople have died on film sets, despite having all the meticulously planned safety measures followed. It happens.
Rain and Wind
Another fun practical effect is weather – and this is one that is still used quite a bit today. There are specialised rigs which have been used for many years on special sets that simulate heavy rainfall and wind. I’ve never gotten to be on one of those sets, but it looks really fun.
In many films, it’s not uncommon to actually shoot real guns which are equipped with specialised blank bullets – some reasons to actually use this method over a rubber model with a flash inserted later, would be that they actually kick when the trigger is pulled so the actor doesn’t have to try and mimic an actual gun kick, and they’ll actually emit a muzzle flash which can be captured on film. You can’t get more real than a real gun. For the same reason, however, you can’t use these when you’re in close range to someone. A blank explodes at the muzzle to create that flash, and you don’t want to be anywhere close to that when it’s fired.
Squibs are little blood packets which are designed to explode at the push of a button, and are used for the people who are being shot. These actually pack quite a bit of a punch – they sometimes have to be strong enough to burst fluid through fabric, and consequently it’s not uncommon to get a small bruise if you’re not protected underneath them enough!
Makeup, Prosthetics, and Creatures
This is my favourite kind of practical FX, probably because I’m a huge fan of monsters and creature features. The range of makeup effects in film is vast. Most of the time it’s as simple as creating a realistic cut or a bruise on the body, but it can get as complicated as turning someone into a completely different person, or full body creature suits! And I’m not just talking about B-movies from the 50s and 60s like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (which by the way is an amazing suit), but throughout film history up until today – Star Wars, Star Trek, the first Xenomorph from “Alien”, countless horror movies throughout the 80s and 90s, and this last year’s Best Picture Oscar Winner “The Shape of Water”. And it’s not just strange otherworldly creatures either – another 2017 film called “Darkest Hour” included Gary Oldman getting a full body transformation into an amazingly convincing Winston Churchill.
These crazy suits and transformations can take months for the artists to plan, sculpt, and figure out how to apply safely and comfortably onto an actor. Not to mention that on the shoot itself it can take an entire day to actually apply on the actor. The things we do for art!
These days, many of these practical effects are still augmented with computer help in the final picture, but in my humble opinion there’s no denying that having a real foundation which is actually implemented on set can really ground and sell the effect in the movie. Did any of these practical effects surprise you? Which ones? Tell me about it in the comments!