Animation and Special Effects: One and the Same?

When I first started subscribing to Animation Magazine, I was quite surprised to find a couple of pages devoted to special effects. Surely, that was an entire seperate area of the entertainment industry, no? Well, as it turns out, it isn’t.

Once upon a time, visual special effects in movie mainly involved tricking the viewer into assuming something actually happenned when in fact it hadn’t. Sure there were the usual tricks like a knife through the head, or, in the case of Back to Future Part II, where Michael J. Fox had to play three different characters on screen at the same time. Over the last 20-25 years however, we have seen, since the release of Star Wars, the phenomonal growth in the SFX industry.

Today, it is possible to create an entire film without even shooting one scene in a studio. So far, Robert Zemeckis has been the driving force behind the use of using motion-capture technology to create films that would otherwise cost vast amounts to make. The prime example is Beowulf, a film that was ultimately a wee bit ahead of its time.

So in today’s Hollywood, just what differentiates a (CGI) animator from an SFX person? Not that much. Both create images that could not realistically be produced by normal means and both must use creativity in the course of their work. In fact, Richard Baneham, who won a visual effects Oscar for his work on Avatar, began his career as an animator!

While it is beneficial to see the overlap between the two professions, there is relatively little joint events where both parties are in attendance. Just this year (2010) bore witness to the first joint event between ASIFA-East and representatives from the top FX houses in New York City.

Such events are very much welcome as with all things human-related, we tend to stick to our own familiar territory. People on the west coast don’t really speak to those on the east who don’t really know what the folks in Vancouver are up to and so forth. With the massive leaps in visual effects technology, animation could stand to benefit from some of them. Indeed, many of the more advanced software is used by both parties for similar uses.

In due course, we will see even more films and Tv shows that rely on SFX for even the simplest things and while this may be best left to those with the expertise, certainly longer shots or entire episodes or films could be best served by having an animator on board whose perpective may bring about a much more balanced product.

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