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New Undergraduate Course Supplement 2020

FILM 41.20 Special Effects in Film History

“Special visual effects” has many meanings in cinema. When we use the term in the twenty-first century, we usually refer to computer-generated fantasy images of otherworldly creatures or impossible locales. However, the history of special visual effects begins with the basic technologies of photographically filmed moving pictures, and effects—whether matte shots using optical printers in post-production, rear- or front-projection process shots done live on-set, in-camera mattes and mirror shots, or “creature” effects controlled by wires, puppetry, robotics, or remotes—have served many purposes besides generating fantasy worlds. Beginning in the 1890s, the magician and filmmaker Georges Melies used editing, photographic processes, elaborate puppets, and ornate costumes and sets to take viewers up to the moon or down to the bottom of the sea. Only two decades later, however, processes similar to those utilized by Melies were primarily employed to film realistic-looking settings at a fraction of the cost of location shooting. Today, scholars of special visual effects try to answer historical as well as technical questions about what has motivated the incredible innovations of “FX,” the forms they take, and the functions they perform for producers and viewers. What determines these different uses of special effects? How have these processes and practices developed in the US film industry and among independent creators? And how do the standards of realism and plausibility—the standards by which special effects are traditionally judged—change depending on the era, the technologies being employed, and the culture in and for which films are made? This course will place us in the thick of such contemporary scholarly debates about special effects and their history. By viewing key examples of special effects cinema from the past century (primarily from US films) and reading what historians have argued about the significance of these films, students will learn to write and think in these terms and to develop their own educated stances on the topic—to participate as full partners in these scholarly debates. Students will also learn to consider such conditions as industrial history and cultural change as factors in the development of special effects as well as what these effects mean to their viewers.

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