Types of Special Effects Used in Movies

Types of Special Effects Used in Movies

Special effects differentiate movies from theatrical acting. The different types of special effects used in movies create more visually appealing content.

With special effects, movie producers can get natural life scenes without the dangers.

I remember how my heart skipped when Dominic Loretto drove the Lykan Hyper sport through a skyscraper. Breaking through a series of glass, the car jumped to another building, and I was curious to discover how they did that.

At first, I thought it was just computer-generated imagery. But, the driving was so real, it couldn’t have been the work of CGI alone. My curiosity led me to scour the web, looking for answers.

Care to know what I found? To achieve the stunt in the Etihad Towers, the production team-built glass walls as high as 40 ft in Atlanta.

A professional stunt driver then got behind the wheel of a real Lykan Hypersport and drove the glass walls.

The rest of the production was a mixture of Computer-generated imagery and special effects. Incredible, right? There is something more impressive than that, and it is dropping a comment and sharing this article with your friends.

Some crazy scenes are dangerous to film in real-life situations—scenes like lightning blasting through the clouds or flood laying waste to towns. You will probably be in your basement if there is a warning about a tornado.

Special effects have enabled filmmakers to achieve these weather conditions in a safe and controlled environment. The different types of special effects used in movies are based on the visual experience they want the viewers to get.

One of the main reasons I love any movie is the visuals, and they must be compelling and accurate enough to capture my attention.

Brief History of Special effects in Movies

Types of Special Effects Used in Movies

Oscar Rejlander, in 1857 produced what would come to be the world’s first special effects image. He combined different sections of 32 negatives into one shot, resulting in a montaged combination print.

Alfred Clark brought special effects into the movie world by creating the first motion picture special effect in 1895. He made this during the filming of the beheading scene in Mary, Queen of Scots. The process of achieving this was quite intriguing at the time.

Clark had an excellent idea to make the execution look real. He used an actor dressed in Mary’s costume to shoot the scene. As the executioner brought the ax above the head of the actor, Clark stopped the camera. He instructed all the actors to freeze on the spot.

To me, that was very dangerous. How would you feel if an ax was dangling over your head? Let us know in the comments section. Clark removed the stand-in actor from the set, and a dummy mary replaced the actor.

He began filming again as the executioner severed the head of the dummy. This particular special effect technique was the go-to effect for almost a century, and this was a brilliant and less demanding way of achieving special effects.

This special effect used by Clark began the evolution of different types of special effects used in movies today. With the advent of color photography, the new technology refined special effects to match.

Traveling matte effects such as the bluescreen and sodium vapor process were developed because of the introduction of color. Several movies executed special effects well using paintings, animations, and miniatures.

Some of the movies that became standard in special effects include Forbidden Planet and The Ten Commandments. 

Difference between Special Effects and Visual Effects

Types of Special Effects Used in Movies

Special effects refer to visual effects added on set practically. Various elements such as fire, water, and snow may be added to scenes based on the requirements. I prefer special effects in explosions to computer-generated explosions.

Visual or video effects refer to visual effects added to scenes during post-production. The actors do not need to get wet to get a rainy special effect, and visual effects are digital recreations of special effects.

Backgrounds can be added to scenes using a green screen using visual effects, and it can also generate models and even creatures. Using special effects or visual effects depends on many things, including personal preference, scenery, cost, etc.

Special effects feel more authentic than visual effects. However, computer-generated imagery has come a long way, and it is looking more real with each passing day. Special effects created Master Yoda, a popular Star Wars character.

The producers made the large space ships in the early Star Wars episodes with special effects using miniature models. Special effects have also evolved throughout the years to provide more natural images.

Different Types of Special Effects used in Movies

The different types of special effects used in movies are;

1. Animatronics

As one of the types of special effects used in movies, producers can develop true-to-life creatures utilizing this technique. Animatronics are simple puppets controlled with mechatronics, and they are trendy in portraying characters in films and in theme parks, where they serve as sources of attraction.

As we know them today, Animatronics were once referred to as robots. As robots became more associated with practical and programmable machines, Animatronics became a household name on its own.

The dinosaur you saw in Jurassic World was animatronic. The field is not as simple as we might imagine, and it integrates puppetry, anatomy, and mechatronics to achieve the moving figures we see on screen.

One significant difference between Animatronics and puppetry is that the former can be controlled by a human or a computer, including teleoperation. Motion actuators create muscle movements and realistic motions.

Bodyshells and flexible skins encase the figures to obtain authentic life visuals. Artists use different materials to make them. Hard and soft plastic materials make flexible skins with other components such as colors, hairs, and feathers attached to make the figure feel natural.

Design of an Animatronics

Artists make a sketch of the animatronic. They then make a small model for study and approval. It is a process that takes a lot of time.

A team of artists creates a full-size figure sculpture after the approval of the small model. They can add facial features, skin texture, and other details. It is then used to make a mold, and using a mold is vital if multiple Animatronics are needed.

The artists build the animatronics character around an internal steel supporting frame. The muscles are then attached to these skeletal bones. They can also make muscles using elastic netting composed of styrene beads. The inner structure provides support for the mechanical and electronic components.

Animatronics is one of the types of special effects used in movies that can reproduce natural life movements and even facial expressions. Foam rubber, silicone, or urethane are some of the materials used to make the figure’s skin.

The artists pour the skin materials into molds and allow them to cure. Cutting a piece of fabric and embedding it in the foam rubber after pouring it into a mold enhances the strength. Once the mixture is fully cured, the parts are separated and attached to the figure’s exterior.

The splitting into different pieces helps the figure have hyper-realistic movement. The design of Animatronics has come a long way with the use of 3D printers to make molds and models.

Structure and Materials of an Animatronic

There are two parts in an animatronic


Different materials used for the frame include steel, aluminum, plastic, and wood. Several considerations, such as strength and weight, are made before choosing a material for the frame, and the cost is also a significant factor.

Exterior or skin

The skin is one part of an animatronic that can create different types of special effects in movies. Artists also use other materials to make the skin, depending on the particular character requirement.

Material selection is vital for creating natural forms, and you don’t want to see a dinosaur look like a rabbit. Acrylic is the best material for making eyes and teeth, and other materials include latex, silicone, polyurethane, and plaster.

Emotion Modeling with Animatronics

One of the most challenging parts of Animatronics is mimicking the emotional response of humans and other living creatures. It is challenging to make a figure smile, laugh, roar, or bark in excitement. However, vital progress has been made in the direction of emotional modeling.

One of the most emotional models used is the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). This model was developed by two individuals, Ekman and Friesen, and it defines six basic emotions that humans can recognize through facial expressions.

The emotions include anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. The Ortony, Clore, and Collins (OCC) model postulated 22 different emotional categories.

Animatronics remains one of the best types of special effects used in movies. Several movies that used this special effect include Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993), Aliens (1986), Terminator (1984), King Kong (1976), and E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

2. Miniature Effect

Another type of special effect used in movies is the miniature effect. Creative filmmakers create beautiful sceneries using miniatures, and also make complicated objects like space crafts using miniature models. They used these special effects extensively in time past.

The miniature effect is peculiar to the other types of special effects used in movies, and it involves using scale models employed explicitly in motion pictures and television programs. Once executed correctly, the miniature effect can create optical illusions that appear pleasing to the eye.

Movie producers create convincing gravitational and other effects by combining the scale models with high-speed photography and matte shots. More on matte shots later. Even though computer-generated imagery has largely replaced miniature models, it still produces stunning effects.

To keep miniatures in the foreground of a shot, they are often placed very close to the camera’s lens, especially when it involves matte painted backgrounds. The videographers adjust the exposure of the object being filmed in production to ensure that the actors appear well illuminated with it.

To achieve exposure balance and eliminate any visual depth of field differences between the miniature and the actors, the miniatures need to have more light. Forced perspective is the use of miniature in the foreground.

The use of scale models to obtain visual effects in the movie industry goes as far back as the early days of cinema. The miniatures or models have reproduced images or 3D models of people, animals, buildings, scenes, and objects.

Movie producers use miniatures to recreate things that do not exist or to represent things that are too expensive, difficult, and dangerous to films, such as explosions and floods. Another form of using miniature effects is stop motion animation.

Types of Miniature Effects

Types of Special Effects Used in Movies
1. Forced Perspective

The forced perspective special effect technique uses optical illusion to make an object appear closer, farther away, more prominent, or smaller than in real life. It uses scaled objects and how they correlate with the vantage point or the camera to manipulate the human visual perception.

A famous example of scenes where forced perspective is used is when dinosaurs are howling and threatening the actors. The filmmakers place the miniature dinosaur closer to the camera to create the illusion of a monstrously tall dinosaur.

Environmental conditions often obscure the difference in perspective, and the illusion results in a more believable effect. The final scenes of the famous movie Casablanca contain this special effect. The scene shows an airport caught in the middle of a storm. Well, the producers shot this entire scene in the comfort of the studio.

How was the Casablanca scene was shot? Read further. The producers used a painted backdrop of an aircraft serviced by dwarfs placed next to the backdrop. A downpour drew the viewer’s attention away from the backdrop, making it less noticeable.

Filmmakers used forced perspective as one of the types of special effects used in movies during the early days of miniature effects.

How Forced Perspective is used as one of the types of Special Effects used in Movies

During the early days of using forced perspective, objects were distinct from their surroundings with a bit of blurring, or different light shaded added. This was because of the geometrical nature of light travel.

The light decreases in intensity from a point source as the inverse square of the distance traveled. Therefore, to light up an object with the same level of intensity two times far away, the light source must be at a four times brightness.

Now, you can see that it required more light to obtain the illusion of a distant object being close to the object with the correct scale. Besides lighting, camera operators make other tweaks to the camera to ensure proper depth of field.

Forced perspective is one of the technically demanding types of special effects used in movies. One must be an expert in light and camera, and it is crucial to maintain the sharpness of the foreground and the background.

Filmmakers create miniature models to withstand the large amount of heat generated by the incandescent light sources typically used.

Different Movies that used Forced Perspective

The Lord of the Rings movies made use of forced perspective. The producers separated characters that appeared to be standing next to each other several feet in depth from the camera. Peter Jackson used this special effect to make dwarfs and Hobbits appear smaller than others.

A slight movement in the camera’s point of view would reveal the proper positions of these characters. Film producers carefully execute the miniature effect one of the types of special effects used in movies.

The Lord of the Rings 2, The Fellowship of the Ring, used an enhanced forced perspective in moving shots. Movable platforms carried mounted set portions to move in a precise fashion according to the camera’s movement.

The enhanced form maintains the optical illusion. Harry Potter series used a similar technique to make Hagrid appear giant. Props placed around Harry and his fellow wizards were of average size.

Now, let’s go ahead and explore the other type of miniature effect.

The producers of Harry Potter used smaller identical props to place around Hagrid, making Hagrid appear as a giant. Forced perspective is an impressive technique that creates special effects in movies.

2. Stop Motion Animation

Stop motion animation takes a long time to execute. Producers who use this in their movies go great lengths to make them look real. It is not a simple form of special effect, and it requires a lot of patience.

There is small incremental manipulation of objects in stop motion animation. The videographers photograph the incremental manipulated results frame by frame, resulting in an independent motion when the frames are joined together.

The most commonly manipulated objects on set are puppets with movable joints and plasticine figures made of clay. Pixilation refers to the use of stop motion with live actors, and cutout animation when it involves flat materials such as paper.

Let’s discuss the types of stop motion effects and the movies used.

3. Stereoscopic Stop Motion

This special effect used in movies is rare. The first 3D stop motion animation was Motor Rhythm, also known as In Tune with Tomorrow, and John Norling produced Motor Rhythm in 1939.

The next stereoscopic stop motion movie was The Incredible Invasion of the 20000 Giant Robots from Outer Space. Elmer Kaan and Alexander Lentjes produced the movie in 2000; and also the first film made with a mixture of 3D stereoscopic stop motion and computer-generated imagery.

Other stop motion movies are Caroline (2009) and ParaNorman (2011). The Nintendo 3DS video software is available with an option for stop motion videos.

4. Go Motion

Go motion is stop motion on steroids. It is more complicated than stop motion. Phil Tippett co-developed the go motion, and its first use was in the 1980 movie, The Empire Strikes Back, and Dragonslayer produced a year later. Earlier RoboCop movies also used this particular effect.

Go motion combined computer programming with hand movement to move parts of the miniature model slightly during each frame exposure. This produced a more realistic and truer-to-life motion blurring effect.

Tipped applied this technique extensively in a short film he produced in 1984, Prehistoric Beast. The film was about a carnivorous dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus, pursuing a herbivorous one, Monoclonius. Christopher Reeve hosted a full-length documentary on dinosaurs with footage derived from Prehistoric Beast a year later.

Phil Tippett later used his previous go motion models to produce his first photo-realistic dinosaurs using computers in Jurassic Park, 1993. One of the advantages of stop motion over CGI is the accurate display of real-life textures.

3. In-Camera Effects

One of the camera-centric types of special effects used in movies as in-camera effects. The techniques either in the camera or on the camera and its parts create the in-camera effects. The post-production professionals receive the original video with the visual effect.

Examples of in-camera effects are the Schufftan process, dolly zoom, lens flares, lighting effects, filtrations using a fog filter or grad filter, shutter effects, bipacks slit-scan, infrared photography, reverse motion, rear projection, and phonotrope.

It might be hard to notice in-camera effects, but they play a significant role in creating the needed scene picture.

A famous illustration of the in-camera effect is in Star Trek, and a simple shaking motion of the camera made the impression that there is motion in the scene.

Let us look at the dolly zoom in on more details.

Dolly Zoom

The Zolly shot, Jaws effect, vertigo shot, and Hitchcock shot are some of the alternate names of dolly zoom. The main aim of this type of special effect is to undermine normal visual perception.

A camera operator adjusts the angle of view with the zoom lens. The camera moves either towards or away from the subject. The effect keeps the subject in the same size even when the camera is moving closer or farther away.

Just imagine pulling a camera away from the subject while zooming in to maintain the subject’s size. There is a perspective distortion when the background appears to change its size relative to the subject when this happens.

One of the creative types of special effects used in movies is dolly zoom. The viewer then sees a background growing in size and detail to overwhelm the foreground. Or, the viewer sees a foreground that grows and dominates the entire setting.

This effect is a highly unsettling effect with a strong emotional impact. This is because the viewer sees a change in perspective without a difference in the subject’s size. Films such as Jaws and the Lord of the Rings series used this effect. 

4. Prosthetic Make-up Effect

Real people play the scary zombies you’ve seen in some movies. Why do they look so dangerous? Producers use prosthetic make-up to achieve this effect.

The producers use this as one of the human-centric types of special effects used in movies, and it is applied directly to the actors.

Prosthetic make-up, also called special make-up effects or FX prosthesis, involves prosthetic sculpting, molding, and casting methods to obtain advanced cosmetic effects.

The first film to use prosthetic make-up effect is A Trip to the Moon. Produced in 1902, the French adventure short film used a combination of make-up and prosthetic mask to make the man appear as if he was on the moon.

Jack Pierce, a famous make-up artist in Hollywood, created the iconic Frankenstein character make-up worn by Boris Karloff.

He also did make-up for the Wolfman and other movies, and John Chambers introduced modern prosthetic make-up in Planet of the Apes.

Other movies that used prosthetic make-up effects include Little Big Man, Terminator series, and The Thing.


Many of the special effects techniques developed in the early days of filmmaking are still in use today. Modern artists have created advanced techniques for make-up effects. Special effects are different from digital visual effects, and special effects are physical and practical.

Special effects have evolved to involve the use of computers. Though heavily threatened by computer-generated imagery and the likes, special effects are not going anywhere anytime soon.

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