November 1st 2008 Special Effects and the “Modern” World

I spent part of my morning listening to Nirvana, one of my favorite bands from my childhood. Nirvana had a pretty dirty sound, but every now and then Cobain used some interesting effects like a Small Clone chorus pedal or a flanger. Although I like a good clean sound, I’ve been enamored of guitar effects since I was in middle school, so I decided to take part of the morning to learn how these effects are created. After a bit of research on Wikipedia, I had a pretty good idea in mind how to create chorus, flanger, and phase-shifter effects (in theory, at least).

I was especially intrigued by the flanger, because Wikipedia explained how the flange effect was created back in the day. Basically, the recording engineer took three tape players—two for playback and one for recording—and played a track back on two of them; these two were closely in sync (much like a chorus effect). Then, he’d press his finger on the rim of one of the tape wheels, which slowed playback, creating an echo-ey “drainpipe” sort of sound.

The idea that effects were created “manually” prior to the widespread adoption of DSPs fascinates me. It reminded me of the special techniques George Lucas used to make Star Wars, way back in 1977. This was before the advent of CGI, so everything was done using what amounted to clever optical illusions. The effects in films like Star Wars were created not with SGI workstations, but rather with clever camera angles, or layers and layers of celluloid laid atop one another. Fascinating, eh?

In some way, I feel that there was more “artsiness” to those techniques. While computers certainly help to make special effects richer and more realistic, and DSPs allow for the more flexible application of audio effects, there’s a certain quaintness to doing things the old-fashioned way. If I still made films, I’d probably try my hand at “old school” effects. (Hey, if nothing else, they’re a cheap(er) option for the filmmaker on a budget!)

Another problem with special effects—especially in film—occurs when they are used as a substitute for good storytelling. Above all, a film should tell a story, or send a message, or evoke a mood. A skilled filmmaker can do that without fancy special effects. More often than not, it seems that some directors focus too much on effects and not enough on story. For evidence, compare The Empire Strikes Back with Revenge of the Sith.

In the end, I’m a big fan of guitar effects. They can really add a new dimension to music. And I don’t mind flashy special effects in film, either. But just like most things in life, when it comes to effects, moderation in everything, and everything in moderation.