Good Subtle Special Effects

I always love Special FX that don’t draw attention to themselves but are well done. Here’s both an old example and a new one:

  1. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I love how the water from the Holy Grail heals the gunshot wound. It fizzes like peroxide and then just literally washes it away. It is really well done.

  2. As most people know, the twins in The Social Network are actually two different actors with the face of one, superimposed on the other so they matched. It is amazingly well done and unless you had heard you would have no idea.

Any other examples?

I like the idea of this but FX have come a long way and it’s amazing what can be done.

In the movie The Gamers, there is a scene where the characters come out from the woods to see a path leading up to a castle with woods on the edges. The path and castle are obviously FX since they don’t have those where they filmed. But, it turns out that everything was an FX shot! They even put the woods in, or enhanced them, and I certainly didn’t notice. Even knowing it, I can’t tell where the real ones are!

Or, how about the fact that isn’t it just a filter that creates night now? So, they can do all shooting during the day. I’m thinking about Cast Away here but I’m sure there are more. That surprises me because at the same time it’s easier for many involved if it’s the daytime, don’t we lose some non verbal cues that it’s not night to them? Of course, not that I have noticed!

They’ve had Day for Night for decades.

Maybe, but it was pretty crummy up until…I don’t know,m aybe the 80’s at least?

I know that when I’ve watched films from the 70’s or earlier, I could very clearly tell when a “night” scene was shot in the day. The most notable I can think of right now is “American Grafitti.”

I think it’s the scenes with the nerdy guy and the older blond woman and she seduces him, or something? I don’t remember exactly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but the scenes were clearly meant to be the same time as the others, ie middle of the night, but they looked, at best, like dusk.

Every time you see a shot of a night sky with stars, it’s a special effect.

My favorite relatively subtle effect was at the end of the first Matrix movie- where Neo has finally realized his power… and the hallway ripples away from him as he flexes.

I swear there was an X-Files episode that had a CG cockroach that looked like it was dashing across your television screen.

I don’t think it was ever done any better than the 1931 black-and-white Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Frederic March. Take a look at this clippety.

Because it was being filmed in B&W, all they had to do was put the EVIL make-up in a different color on March’s face so that would only be seen with different filtered lighting, specifically at 25 seconds in. That – and acting – made it truly impressive.

Apparently there are visual effects in Out of Africa–Syd Dutton and Illusion Arts get a special credit–but I’ve never spotted them.

I love the FX in O Brother. All the outdoor shots had to be made to look like it was set in the drought of the depression dust bowl.

One of my favorites is the movie Zodiac. There is a great featurette on the visual effects here.

The reason “Day for Night” never used to work very convincingly was because the intensity of the sky couldn’t be masked. The camera would pick up its bright exposure no matter what, and the best you could hope for was a blue filter or aiming the camera in a direction that wouldn’t get any sky in shot. But even then, a bright sunny day would cast shadows on the ground that wouldn’t quite look right even for a moonlit night. An overcast day would help, but in Los Angeles those are unreliably rare.

Digital colour grading, and sky replacement compositing, have fixed those problems now.


Seriously, there was a great shot in Panic Room where the camera tracked through the handle of a teapot. It took a few seconds for me to realize what I just saw.

Both David Fincher (director of the aforementioned *Zodiac *and Panic Room) and Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Contact) are great at using “invisible” special effects.

For example: Captain Dan’s missing legs in Forrest Gump, the 360 degree view from the top of the island mountain in Cast Away, and the shot of young Ellie in Contact running up the stairs and opening the medicine cabinet door (actually that last one is not so sublte once you realize what just happened, though I didn’t even notice anything unusual about it the first time I watched the movie) Ah, here it is on youtube.

I agree that that is an impressive scene, but I’ve always preferred this Jekyll & Hyde transformation.

Are you sure that’s how they did it? There’s a clear cut as they tilt back from the hand up to the face… it’s subtle, but the tell-tale jerk of the arm gives it away. Once you’ve cut, you can do all the makeup work you want.

It seems to me that it starts with him taking a drink with a clean hand, he grimaces in an unconvincing way, they tilt down to his right hand which has some subtle make up that shows up in different lighting, as mentioned, then while we’re down there he puts in some fake teeth.

We tilt back up to his face, where there seems the shift in lighting has emphasised the shadows and made him look a little more menacing, and we tilt down again to his left hand that, all this time has had hairy make up applied, but is hard to see until the lighting changes again, making it look like it grows quickly on the hand.

But we tilt back up to see the face now has a different wig, heavier eyebrows, and dark make up on the nostrils. That had to have been applied separately, so there’s a small cut that has been reasonably well hidden in the camera move.

I thought the miniature effects in Moon were really good. And cheap!

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has some fantastic examples (not all subtle, but even in the obvious effects shots there’s a lot going on).

Buzz Image Group, who did some of the effects, used to have a “making-of” video on their site for one of the shots and it showed just how much work they put into it.

I also liked a lot of what was done in The Fountain. We saw an advanced screening with Darren Aronofsky, and the processes he described were really interesting, and also relatively cheap.

Here’s a snippet from wikipedia: