Special effects are one of the most obvious techniques that filmmakers use to induce an awe-factor in their audience. Horror films have perfected techniques of instilling fear in us just as drama filmmakers can masterfully move us to tears - and fantasy and science fiction movie-makers have managed to find ways to leave their audiences in wonder time and time again. Their little tricks may seem like magic, but they're actually just the tools of the trade.
Science fiction and fantasy films regularly employ many of the same movie tricks as other genres, they just make them seem a little less connected to the world we know. Filmmakers in these genres use sounds, visuals, editing, and camera tricks to create a world we've never seen, yet are willing to believe in. There are even a few Spielberg-ian filmmaking techniques that lend themselves to these genres nicely.
Sci-fi movie tricks and fantasy movie techniques aren't so secret once you know what you're looking for, and films like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings might even take on new meaning for you. Read on for a little insight into the behind-the-scenes movie magic of your favorite fantasy films and science fiction movies.
Forced perspective makes use of the fact that objects in the distance appear smaller than those in the foreground. The Lord of the Rings filmmakers embraced this theory in order to make certain characters appear larger or smaller than the other actors on screen. For example, in this photo, Elijah Wood is actually sitting much farther away from Ian McKellen and appears quite a bit smaller than he actually is. Because the camera renders images in 2D, the perspective is compressed. To add to the effect, the actors were also given different sized props than the other characters in the scene.
The 17-minute-long shot at the beginning of Gravity is memorable not only for its length, but for the way that the camera moves through the scene as if floating through space itself. Director Alfonso Cuaron wanted the opening shot to not just remind audiences of an IMAX film, but to also provide another point of view to turn the audience into another character in the film.
A wide-angled shot can also show just how epic the world in a film really is, such as the vastness of space, the technological wonder of a futuristic city, or the highly populated battlefields of The Lord of the Rings. This also includes crane shots, which give a bird's-eye view, looking down over as much of the fantasy world as we are allowed to see.
Filmmakers often use miniatures, like the star ships in the original Star Wars movies. But in The Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson created something he called bigatures - basically miniatures made big enough to fill an entire studio. Bigatures were created for places like Edoras, Isengard, and Lothlorien, which filled an entire soundstage, and included trees up to 26 feet tall. Perhaps this was overly ambitious, but it proved filmmaking does not have to rely on CGI to create something magical.
Sound effects are essential when making the world in a film believable, and fantasy and science fiction movies need audiences to believe in their worlds even more. Although they are based on real-world vehicles, the light cycles from Tron and Back To The Future's DeLorean would not have created a sense of futuristic amazement if they sounded like the everyday motorcycle or car we hear on the street. Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt notes that "the basic thing in all films is to create something that sounds believable to everyone, because it's composed of familiar things that you can not quite recognize immediately."
Sound designers will often combine real-world sounds in order to create something completely new for a film. Who would have guessed that the sound of a TIE fighter is actually an altered elephant call or that the noise of a sneezing brachiosaurus was made from a fire hydrant and a whale blowhole? It's also interesting to note that many sound designers would rather use organic sounds than something completely mechanical, as the end result sounds more natural.