Thursday, December 10th, 2020

Science has many different applications, but few are as entertaining as special effects in movies. Even back in the ‘90s, film producers used visual magic, tricks, illusions, and other effects to startle the audience and leave them in awe. Science has dramatically influenced the film industry because it facilitates many special effects we see on the screen. For example, the movie 300 took only two months of filming, but the producers needed over a year to release it because post-production effects required plenty of work. James Cameron’s Avatar was no different. 60% of the entire movie’s budget ($300 million) was spent on creating computer-generated imagery and special effects. 

Now more than ever, fantasy and SF movies attract people because they have cool unparagoned effects. While some producers use computer graphics and CGI to create magical effects, many still rely on science, mirrors, and smoke. This article will focus on the special effects and stagecraft, science facilitates. Even if some of the following effects seem harmless and straightforward to recreate, don’t try them at home.

Wizardly Magic

If you are into warlock movies, then you are no stranger to smoke and fog effects because they’re around every time a wizard casts a spell. Movie producers simulate spooky fog and smoke using a filter on a camera lens. And they often rely on chemistry tricks to get wafting waves because science makes everything look more real. Alongside other stage productions, they use dry ice in water to produce fog.

Fans of Shadowhunters’ warlock Magnus Bane probably wonder how the producers created the glowing fire the Great Warlock of Brooklyn used to cast spells or the flames bursting from pentagrams. And should we mention the portals? You never know what you get when Magnus waves his hands. Green fire is one of the methods used to create magical effects. But Magnus didn’t use only green fire; he also handled red or yellow fire to summon demons or heal people. By adding specific chemical ingredients, producers can obtain colored fire. 

It’s true that for some of the effects, they used technology because some computer effects better recreate magic effects. It would have been dangerous for the actor to stay in the center of the burning pentagram.

Fake blood

Thriller movies need plenty of fake blood to make effects look realistic. And they aren’t the only movies that rely on fake blood, dramas, police, and even soap operas use it. But think how smelly and sticky a movie set would be if the producers would use animal blood to recreate murders and injuries. Fortunately, chemistry allows them to use alternatives. Actors can even drink some of the products that look like blood, which makes it more comfortable to play an on-screen vampire. Only think about how many times the actors in Vampire Diaries had to pretend they drink blood. We can only hope the alternatives they use are quite tasty.  

Stage makeup

With DC and Marvel movies, makeup special effects reached a new level. Chemistry powers many makeup special effects. If makeup artists would ignore or misunderstand the science behind the products they use, they could hurt actors and damage their skin. Johnny Depp is one of the actors that often play roles that require plenty of makeup effects. Alice Through the Looking Glass, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Pirates of the Caribbean are only some of the films that required him to wear heavy makeup. Because his makeup artists knew what products to use and how to combine them to prevent the side effects of toxic metals, he didn’t get in the hospital.

Glow in the Dark

There are two ways to make things glow in the dark. The first method implies using glowing paint that is often phosphorescent. The principle behind this method is simple, the paint absorbs the light and re-emits part of it when the lights are turned out. If you want to make a phosphorescent painting to use for your Halloween party, you need some chemistry knowledge and skills. If you didn’t pay attention to your chemistry classes, you could still acquire some aptitudes with the help of an online tutor who can teach you how to create a paint that glows in the dark, and what ingredients to use to make sure you don’t burn or hurt your skin in the process. 

The second method is to apply black light to phosphorescent and fluorescent materials. The human eye cannot see the ultraviolet light the black light produces. 

Lately, producers use cameras that features filters that block violet light so the things they film are left with a glow the human eye can perceive.

Sometimes they also use chemiluminescent reactions to make items glow. 

But do movies base their scripts on science?

In the movie Lucy, Scarlett Johansson, playing the character with the same name ingests a lethal amount of drugs, and accesses 100% of her brain, acquiring some superhuman abilities. Don’t try this at home because you’ll probably die. But for the sake of the movie, we believe when the producers state that people use only 10% of their brain, and if they would find a way to use more, they could develop abilities like telekinesis and telepathy. Actually, we’ve seen this plot many times in movies because Lucy isn’t the only one that uses it. Limitless and Phenomenon also did.

The bad part about these movies is that they’re questioning the real science. They distort the reality of how a laboratory looks or how scientists operate in their laboratories. 

But scientists can help producers to make movies. For Watchmen, the producers collaborated with James Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota. Talking to scientists helps filmmakers figure out the things that can happen together and make sense. Scientists want to help producers offer their audiences a kind of sense, both on how nature and people act. 

10 years ago, filmmakers were afraid to ask scientists for recommendations because the only thing experts did was to tell them how wrong they are. But to encourage movie producers to rely their scripts on real facts, the National Academy of Sciences in the US launched the Science and Entertainment Exchange in 2008 to create a connection between the two industries. The program helped producers come up with better ideas; audiences no longer find it difficult to believe. 


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