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Special Effects: The History and Technique

By Richard Rickitt

Aurum – ISBN 9781845131302 – Hardback 384pp £40

Everyone knows about special effects these days – DVDs have countless extras featurettes that enthusiastically refer to NURBS or caustics before being pushed aside for one of those shots that fades from wireframe modelling to final result, all through the magic of computers. The perception is that of geeks with supercomputers doing “stuff”. Similarly everyone knows about coffee-table books. Those gorgeous, hire-a-forklift tomes with glossy pages smelling of high-tech printing but with the intellectual depth of the Argos catalogue. So a coffee-table book about special effects should be a no-brainer – lots of pretty pictures of spaceships and explosions, probably with an enticing synthespian on the cover, say Jar-Jar Binks, except he’s rubbish, so maybe Gollum instead. Special Effects: The History and Technique does indeed have the aforementioned Gollum on its trendy matte finish cover. It even comes with hundreds of gorgeous stills to admire, but offers much, much more. This is not a brief introduction to the history of effects work followed by a quick leap to post Star Wars cinema, but a comprehensive study of the art of illusion, from Georges Méliès onwards. This means that as well as showing us the art of the model-maker there is also room to explore make-up, prosthetics, pyrotechnics and a variety of cinematic techniques such as mattes, front projection and the Shuftan process.

After presenting a history of the effects trade Rickitt breaks his subject down into specific areas of interest – make-up, sound, animation etc. This approach spares us getting bogged down in chronology and allows the development of various processes to be seen in a wider context. Scattered throughout are landmark films that showcase a leap forward in the art, each accompanied by a double page spread. What is fascinating about many of the more recent inclusions is the number of relatively simple sleight-of-hand shots employed between the computer number-crunching – for example The Phantom Menace’s impressive waterfalls being realised with little more than black cloth and some salt. There are surprises on almost every page. Alongside the stills and behind the scenes footage there are numerous diagrams explaining how the various effects techniques work – and pretty devious many of them are too. It makes you itch to have a go at some yourself. This does mean that occasionally Special Effects: The History and Technique is a heavy book (in more than the literal sense) as there is a lot to absorb and a bewildering array of methods of achieving similar effects. In the realm of digital effects work Rickitt delves into all aspects of the standards for modern film. While you won’t become an expert in Maya overnight you will begin to appreciate the level of computational power necessary to create particle systems, texture maps and fur rendering. Naturally the book is skewed towards genre film-making and Hollywood product, but there is some space to examine less obvious effects work in films as diverse as Bridget Jones and the Godfather, and in non-US product such as Thief of Bagdad and Gojira.

Special Effects: The History and Technique is an essential purchase for anyone interested in the art of cinematic illusion. It’s extensive, informative and beautifully produced. There are potted biographies of most of the major players that provide ideal introductions to their work (although these too are Hollywood biased – Eiji Tsuburaya only gets a mention in the Gojira section and there’s nothing made of Eastern Europe’s contribution to stop-frame work). Normally we’d balk at a £40 price tag but in this age of vacuous Making Of tie-ins this book offers outstanding value for money.