Overestimating Special Effects

Here is an interesting video that made me think recently:

It’s a video by an older fellow clearly comfortable in the discipline of moviemaking. In fact the actual video radiates experience with the medium. He brings up a surprising point on why the moon landings in the late 60ies couldn’t have been faked – as some people believe. Apparently, we didn’t have the technology to fake it.

He goes deep into moviemaking technology of the era. Basically, in order to fake the low gravity of the moon, NASA would need a way to show long stretches slow-motion footage on TV. The video cameras to pull that off didn’t exist. Filming with movie cameras and transferring to video would have been impractical.

At the beginning of the movie he makes an interesting observation. The later we were born, the more we tend to overestimate the omnipotence of movie special effects, even retroactively. It’s an observation that resonated with some of my thoughts on this topic.

I like to study behind-the-scenes material for movies and TV shows. I usually catch myself being completely misguided about how some effects were produced in the 80ies and 90ies. In general, I tend to overestimate the use of computers in works from that era. They turn out to be clever physical solutions. Quite often, the physicality of the solutions is what make the effects so compelling. Here are two examples.

Star Trek: The Next Generation


Of course it’s made with computers! It’s the future, right?

I grew up thinking the special effects in Star Trek were all computer-generated. Especially the space ships looked 3D-rendered to me. When I actually learned a 3D package, I tried to re-create the look and feel of TNG space ships. I realized how difficult it was. No matter how hard I tried, my own creations never had the detail, the subtle yet vivid lighting Paramount studios were apparently able to achieve. I always assumed they just hired incredibly experienced and talented computer artists.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, when I went through some behind-the-scenes material on the DVD collection when it struck me: all of the ships in TNG were physical models.

TNG Model

Wait! You mean none of this was real?! I mean… it was all real? I’m so confused right now.

I was shocked. But in hindsight I should have known. Going through all of the different Start Trek series, you can tell EXACTLY when they started using computers to do the ship models: It wasn’t until Star Trek: Voyager. And even then they still used a physical model for many shots. Mid-series they started relying more heavily on computer animation and you can tell. Because suddenly it looked less real and more like the kind of ships I would build myself. Incidentally, this also coincides with some of the worst writing in Star Trek. But of course eventually the process matures. Nowadays you would hardly try to use physical models for space ship special effects.

Jurassic Park

Jurasssic Park Raptors

OMG, it looks so real. I could almost touch it.

When Jurassic Park came out it was being touted as a revolution in computer special effects. Of course this never went any deeper than superficial marketing rhetoric. Nobody really knew how and where they used computers. All we knew was that computers were involved and computers are the future. And Jurassic Park delivered. All dinosaurs in that movie looked real and impressive. The technology was highlighted so much, that I guess we just all assumed that they looked that good because EVERY dinosaur in the movie was CGI.

Except now looking back in detail on how some of the effects were made, it turns out that computers weren’t always involved. Some of the special effects simpler from a technological point of view but no less impressive

So in many shots, the Raptors were actually “just” very well trained actors in a sophisticated suit. And actually all of the shots where humans interacted directly with dinosaurs were “old school” puppets or animatronics. CGI was used extensively in Jurassic Park, but mostly for specific full-body shots of the big dinosaurs. The iconic Brontosaurus establishing shot being a very clear example. Most scenes are actually a clever combination of both. The famous T-Rex scene is a complicated combination of CGI and an actual, full-sized T-Rex robot that tooks months to build. One of the reasons why the CGI works so well in that scene is because they cut to a physical model in crucial moments. You see a CGI model moving with the speed and fluidity a robot could never achieve. And then the camera cuts to a close-up physical foot burying it’s claws in the glistering, wet mud. Your brain seamlessly connects the two scenes.

Physical Thinking

Those two examples are why the above moon landing video resonated with me. Indeed, we tend to think the Hollywood technology of today somehow always existed. We forget that a lot of what we see on the silver screens is based on technology that has just recently been invented or made available or reached the necessary maturity. We also tend to simply overestimate the omnipotence and awesomeness of computer technology. A lot of the most impressive cinema special effects are effective because they were NOT made with computers.

This has interesting implications on games. When working on TRAUMA I realized that using photography gave me access to visuals with unprecedented fidelity-to-cost ratio. You can use visuals in a game very differently if you don’t have to model every blade of grass by hand. Additionally working with the physical world forces you into decisions you wouldn’t have made otherwise. Working on TRAUMA I could not create a level however I wanted. I had to work with the already existing location I chose. But those non-obvious decisions made the end-result much more varied and engaging – more real in some sense. I do believe there is an incredible benefit in forcing yourself to incorporate real-world thinking into digital creations. That’s certainly something I want to be doing in future projects.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

One response to “Overestimating Special Effects”

  1. Luis Sopelana

    “Of course this never went any deeper than superficial marketing rhetoric. ”

    Some months ago I was reading an old Nintendo magazine from the days when the “Ultra 64″ was in progress. I found funny the way they hyped the processing power of said machine by showing a couple of “exclusive” screenshots from Mario 64 that showed a rolling black ball (”Perfectly round!” until you actually played the game and could see up close it was a simple 2D sprite) or Mario’s metallic “reflective” surface. Take THAT, Sega!


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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