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What makes it a special effect?

Mission: Impossible—Fallout
Photo: Paramount

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on film and TV. 

Mission: Impossible—Fallout opens this weekend. It’s got oodles of charm: the brawl in the bathroom of a frou-frou nightclub; the way Alec Baldwin’s cloak-and-dagger functionary says “Hunt” (also a feature of the previous film); the awesome stunts and set pieces that have become the whole point of the series. The fact that the some of effects are imperfect—they look sort of gummy and slippy in IMAX—is almost a bonus, because you can usually tell where the daredevilry ends and the digital work begins. But then again, what makes something a special effect? It’s a question that came up as we were putting together this week’s list feature, “The 50 Greatest Special Effects Movies Of All Time,” and it’s resurfaced a few times in the comments.


Is the digital color grading in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (mentioned by a number of commenters) a special effect? For the purposes of our list, my gut instinct says “no,” because manipulating contrast and tonality has always been a part of the game. Sometimes, this has involved elaborate trickery both on set and in the lab. One example is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, whose stark medieval sets were actually painted in pastel shades of pink and yellowish cream to give them texture on orthochromatic (i.e. blue-green-sensitive) black-and-white film. Another is Army Of Shadows, in which director Jean-Pierre Melville and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme achieved a distinctly somber look by covering the sets in a wash of yellowish paint. The color was then removed in the lab, leaving cold light, gray walls, and extremely pale skin tones.

Screenshot: Army Of Shadows, The Godfather

Compare that to The Godfather, which was actually shot on the exact same film stock as Army Of Shadows, the tungsten-balanced Eastman 5254, but intentionally underexposed and then pushed in printing and developing, creating images with incredible shadows. In fact, most movies made between 1968 and 1976 were shot on this same stock, and the fact that the vast majority of them don’t look like The Godfather or Army Of Shadows tells us a lot about the role of labwork in cinematography. It also points to an essential fact: That creating a movie image usually involves an element of illusion.

So where do we draw the line between run-of-the-mill filmmaking ingenuity and an effect? Anything involving prosthetics, animatronics, digital figures, miniatures, and composites is understood to be a special effect. But is Rear Window a special effects film? Isn’t the split screen the real special effect of the climax of Carrie? Shouldn’t Tom Cruise count as a special effect in the Mission: Impossible movies? He definitely doesn’t seem human. (And of course, the question of what’s real and what’s a put-on is a theme of M:I series; the antics of the IMF team—masks, sets, misdirection, death-defying stunts—are pure Hollywood.) When we were putting together the feature, we didn’t want to just be a list of technical milestones. But we needed something like a definition of that nebulous category of “special effects,” even if it was intentionally limited. After all, film is all about effects, so there’s no shortage of material to work with.


The closest thing we could get to a consensus on what would and wouldn’t qualify excluded anything that could be chalked up entirely to production design, editing, or cinematography. But at the same time, a great effect is never just about an illusion; it’s how it’s used. A special effect is a concoction of the imaginative and the technical; it doesn’t have to be convincing to be beautiful or fun, but a seamless relationship with the internal reality of the movie often helps. The magic isn’t in the trick; it’s what it does for the audience.

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