The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

A call for arms to the special effects crew: Stop being so secret!

with 22 comments

special effectsDoes the name Bill Westenhofer tell you something?

No? He’s won an Oscar. As a matter of fact he’s won two, one for The Golden Compass and another one for Life of Pi. If you look him up at IMDb you can see that he’s been in the business since the mid 90’s, contributing to a whole lot of movies. But apart from that there’s no information about him whatsoever. You see Bill Westenhofer works with special effects. And for some reason, the stars in this business – as opposed to the actors and directors – remain completely anonymous. They are the ones that add magic to movies. And we don’t bother to even learn their names.

I’m not better than anyone else. The closest I come is that I know that Weta Workshop did a ton of special effects for the LOTR movies. This is only because of the extensive extra material that came with the DVDs, where you could see that geeky, enthusiastic and charming representative guide us through their studios. But I still haven’t learned his name.

Reasons for anonymity
Special effects are essential to many movies of today. There are limits of what they can do of course. No matter how good your special effects are, they can’t save the movie from being slaughtered by the critics if the writing is awful. On the other hand, I would argue that badly made special effects are distracting and off-putting and can pull down the impression of a from other aspects decent movie.

It’s as if special effects have become a hygiene factor. We’ve been so spoiled with the development over the years that we don’t marvel at them the way we used to. And maybe this is one of the reasons why special effect workers don’t get the recognition they deserve.

Another hold-back could be lack of knowledge in the audience. For someone who doesn’t work in film industry, it’s not easy to say what is what in a film production. If a movie looks great, is it because of the art direction, the cinematography or the visual effects? Over 200 people are listed as involved in the special effects of The Fellowship of the Ring and the much smaller production Moon still lists some 70 people working on the visual effects. If I want to give some love to the responsible wizard of a certain film, how can I possibly tell which person deserves the most praise when they wear titles as visual effects manager, supervisor and executive producer?

One thing that I also think works against the potential fame of special effects staff is that not every viewer wants to know about the machinery and the tricks that have been used to create the illusion. We’re there to be deceived and enchanted, we want to believe that the world we’re presented is “real”. Too much talk about some guy who programmed this in a computer might take away a bit of the spell.

A call for arms
So should special effect workers just resign and silently accept a situation where the lack of recognition leads to consequences such as the close-down of the studio that worked with the celebrated Life of Pi?

No! On the contrary! Those people need to stand up and make their voices heard. If they were interrupted at the Oscar award ceremony, there are other ways. Think marketing. Think branding. Think public relations. For some reason movies are still sold with taglines such as “by the producers of [insert movie name]”.  I don’t get this at all. Is a producer really a selling point to the normal movie goer? Who knows what a producer does for a movie? If you’re marketing a high tech science fiction movie, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to hint that the special effects were made by the same people who did a certain spectacularly looking movie? I think so.

What they need is an agent. They need someone who can fight for their names to come up earlier in the text credits rather than in the end, when the text is too small to read and everyone has left the theatre anyway. They need someone who can help them to write a bio at IMDb.

A lot of effort is put into special effects. But if you guys and girls want to get recognized for the work you do, you need to start communicating with the world, letting us know of your existence.


This post is a part of a blogathon run by the Swedish film blogging network Filmspanarna. The theme was “special effects”. Here’s a list of links to the other participants (all other posts in Swedish):

Except fear – filmblogg
Fiffis filmtajm
Fripps filmrevyer
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord

Written by Jessica

April 10, 2013 at 8:00 am

22 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] filmspanarna ser i specialeffekternas kristallkula: Fiffis filmtajm Jojjenito Fripps filmrevyer The Velvet Café Mode + Film Except Fear AddePladdes […]

  2. This problem has been recognised by the business as fas as I can understand but for some reason they seem to have a hard time coming together over it. Too many independent actors on the stage?


    April 10, 2013 at 9:34 am

    • I guess many of the enterprises that are into this are kind of small. They don’t have the muscles it takes to get through in marketing and stand up, claiming their part of the credits? It’s great that they’ve at least started to talk about it. I hope they’ll succeed to step out of the shadows.


      April 10, 2013 at 6:41 pm

      • I will actually muse on this very question on friday as well 😉


        April 10, 2013 at 8:27 pm

  3. […] bilder och tryckta ord Fripps filmrevyer The Velvet Café Fiffis filmtajm Mode + Film Addepladde […]

  4. You are SOOOO right on target here! Great post!


    April 10, 2013 at 11:15 am

  5. […] The Velvet Café […]

  6. […] Velvet cafe […]

  7. […] The Velvet Café […]

  8. Ah, you touch on some points that I come to later in my Harryhausen “marathon”. In the docus about him there is quite a lot of talk about special effects today vs special effects of yester days. Before it was one man doing everything, now it’s an army of computer hackers. Anyway, I’ll write some more about this in a few days.


    April 11, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    • Ah, yes, that makes sense – that it has changed over time. It’s harder to make a name if there are hundreds of people involved. But it wasn’t like that back in the days. I look forward to see you come back to this topic.


      April 12, 2013 at 12:17 am

  9. […] kring branschens överlevnad som ställts på sin spets genom bland annat Life of Pi. Jessica på The Velvet Café var redan i onsdags inne på samma tankar. Great minds think […]

  10. Truthfully, as far as the general public is concerned, a lack of recognition is a problem for pretty much everybody involved with films other than the actors. The actors are the ones on the screen, so they’re the ones people recognize. Some directors are big enough to be recognized by movie viewers who aren’t major film buffs: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and maybe Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, and Christopher Nolan out of those currently alive. Michael Bay in a love/hate way, Spike Lee as much for his public attitude as his films. But that still leaves a lot of directors whose work is unrecognized. The Amazing Spider-Man was a big hit; (500) Days of Summer was a successful film. How many people could tell you, if you asked them, that they were directed by the same person? Not many.

    Same goes with writers. A screenwriter is responsible for the bulk of what gets seen on screen. If they’re not also the director or actor, they get no recognition. Sure, everyone could tell you that J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter novels and Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilight. But I had to look up on IMDb that the screenplays were by Steve Klove and Melissa Rosenberg, respectively.

    Producers get their name on top of the film, but everybody ignores it. Most people aren’t even clear on what a producer even does. Makeup artists, costumers… there’s a lot of people whose only recognition comes from the Oscars. Special effects gurus are definitely on the list. But it’s a long list. I’m not saying that’s right; it’s not. But it’s something I don’t see really changing, because for most people, all they care about is who’s saying the lines.

    Morgan R. Lewis

    April 12, 2013 at 10:37 am

    • Yes, you’re right about that and it’s really a shame. I think enlightened (;))people like you and me should make an effort to spread the word about others as well. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on the actors or possibly the directors, but never going outside of this small circle. A film production is really a team work and there are so many others who contribute and whose efforts will decide how good a movie is.


      April 12, 2013 at 11:02 am

      • Morgan has exactly written down what I was thinking while reading this (and worded it way better than I ever could). I blog a lot about movies, but often won’t even check who directed a movie (although I do it more than I used to, I still wouldn’t be able to name a lot of names). You could also turn it around, why should actors get so much recongnition and pay, while they are only a small part of the equasion, it’s just their job.


        April 24, 2013 at 3:39 pm

        • I agree. I think I’ve got good track of the directors, sometimes referring to previous works in their career etc, but there’s room for improvement. Someone who is great at acknowedging different profession’s contributions to a movie is the blogger Surrender to the Void. We would do well taking a bit of inspiration from him.


          April 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm

  11. visual effects.

    every time you say “special effects” you really mean “visual effects”

    “special effects” are things like pyro, jumping cars, prosthetics, all the cool stuff the special effects guys do on set, in front of camera.

    “visual effects” are things like replacing backgrounds, compositing, cg creatures, miniatures, particles, virtual worlds, all the cool stuff that Bill Westenhofer does.


    August 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    • Ah! OK! Sorry for beeing such a noob when it comes to using the correct terms. Thank you for the clarification!


      August 23, 2013 at 12:42 am

  12. […] A call for arms to the special effects crew: Stop being so secret! […]

  13. […] A call for arms to the special effects crew: Stop being so secret! […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: