While pic has definite entertainment value, this look at the history and science of special effects is superficial. Opening hook sums it all up: We see a clip from the classic “King Kong” (1933) and then cut to a full-screen modern rendering of the climactic shootout atop the Empire State Building. Breathtaking sequence ends with the revelation that much of it was in miniature, but no further detail about what made it work.
TX:A Nova/WGBH Boston production. Produced by Susanne Simpson. Executive producer, Paula S. Apsell. Co-producer, Laurel Ladevich. Directed by Ben Burtt. Written by Simpson, Burtt, Tom Friedman. A very brief history of onscreen special effects follows, rightly noting that it all began with Georges Melies.
However, subsequent work is barely touched on and major landmarks in special effects like “The Ten Commandments” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” aren’t mentioned at all. That’s so narrator John Lithgow can inform viewers that the “turning point” for special effects was “Star Wars” in 1977.
While that case can be made, it seems more like a bow toward the generosity of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic in cooperating with the docu, and the sense that young viewers really believe that movies were invented with “Star Wars.” The section on the sci-fi epic is linked to the new effects being shot for its 1997 re-release. A special redoing of the “Star Wars” opening in the Imax format will probably be the most talked-about moment of the film, demonstrating that Imax is wasted on the science docus to which the process is largely limited.
Sequence on the pyrotechnics of “Independence Day” succeeds, as we see effects wiz Joe Viskocil plot to blow up a model of the White House. Here we get a very good sense of how such an effect is constructed.
The second half of this 40-minute ride is less successful. The upcoming “Kazaam” with Shaquille O’Neal is used to demonstrate blue-screen image replacement, but we get little explanation about how it works. There’s also the risk that “Kazaam” may fizzle, quickly dating the documentary. Imagine a similar docu released in advance of “Howard the Duck.”
Final sequence on animatronics and computer graphic imagery is a mixed bag, focusing on the animals of “Jumanji.” The animatronic stuff, greatly simplified, is informative, but the CGI material doesn’t leave the viewer with much more information than that it’s done with computers and involves a lot of work.
This should satisfy the family audience that will see this in museum settings from L.A. and Boston to the Hague, Taiwan and Paris. Viewers hoping for something with a little more substance on how it’s done will be disappointed to find that “Special Effects” is largely special effects.