DMA Central


Special Effects Filmmaking

Special Effects Filmmaking

By Lee Manansala

This is The Conjuror by Georges Melies from 1899. It is (and please forgive the pun) magical.

Maybe you have to be a film history nerd like me, but seeing that never gets old. Film was still a novelty back then (placing the camera at an angle to create a more interesting image was a revelation) so when Melies cut frames from his shots to create his magic tricks, he basically stumbled upon editing—something specific to the cinematic medium. Now take a look at this and see if you can find the connective tissue:

Yes. I just drew a straight line between Georges Melies and Vampire Weekend. This is the first video from the band’s second album, so their record company probably threw a lot of money their way to spend on the video. I love that they made a video that could have been made in the 50’s and employed effects that have been around since the days of Melies.

I guess I’m making one of my deepest filmmaking biases all too clear: I’m not a huge fan of fancy special effects. I do, however, appreciate when my students want to use effects to help tell their stories, and Final Cut Pro has a pretty wide selection of video effects to choose from. I explain what they do and how to use them in my Advanced Digital Filmmaking for Teens course. Here’s a preview.

When you start a new project on Final Cut Pro, you’ll notice a tab in your browser window called “effects.” Choose that, and you’ll get a number of folder icons, one of which is called “video filters.” This is the effects set you’ll most use, especially if you’re doing event and wedding editing like 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 temperature mistakes, you can add filters to distort, sharpen, or literally highlight the image:

This is a trailer for a film called “That’s My Majesty” by Emily Carmichael (cinematography by yours truly). You’ll notice the unearthly glow around the princess/alien character. This was accomplished using a glow filter. The important thing to remember is that a filter will inform 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 princess glows; the light follows and illuminates her and only her throughout the entire movie. This was accomplished through two processes called keyframing and masking. Masking involves drawing a border around the portion of the image (in That’s My Majesty’s case, the princess) you want to affect, and keyframing entails 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 needless to say the processes were very time consuming and tedious. I’ve often described a young filmmaker’s discovery of the Final Cut Pro effects tab as a time vampire. Before you know it, you’ve spent an entire day throwing filters onto shots just to see what they do.

I don’t discourage my students from using special effects, but I do implore them to heed this bit of advice: know the effect you want to use before you use it. The course is an intensive 5-day program, and there’s very little time for experimenting in the editing room. Fortunately, I’ve lucked out in this department, because every student I’ve taught at DMA has had a clear idea of the story they want to tell.

I’m set to teach the Digital Filmmaking for Teens courses at Harvard and Brown this summer. In the meantime, I’m reachable and friendable at:

or visit the DMA website to register for courses:

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