Gratuitous Special Effects

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No, he isn't a Rubber Forehead Alien from a sci-fi flick. He's from a Deliberately Monochrome crime-thriller.

In live action sci-fi or fantasy works, special effects are a must. In the past, they were also very difficult to use and expensive so it was rare that you would see any major special effects in dramas or comedies.

Modern filmmaking being what it is, these effects are easier to come by. Because of this, works in genres other than science fiction and fantasy may contain computer generated imagery and other formerly complex special effects for cinematic purposes. These effects might be present for dream sequences, to emphasize the mood, for comedic effect, or simply because it looks really cool. Newer filmmakers are using these techniques in works that don't technically need them in order to bring their stories to life.

Examples of Gratuitous Special Effects include:


  • Almost every modern TV ad uses computer graphics to sell everyday items such as cars or soft drinks.


  • A large portion of the budget for Amelie was CGI despite the fact that it was a romantic comedy. In the beginning, she is shown playing doctor with a stuffed animal as a little girl. This is a common enough scene and a real stuffed animal could easily be used. The director used a CGI stuffed animal in order to show it moving slightly. It's barely noticeable by many audience members. There was also a scene in which Amelie turned into a puddle of water in order to convey a sad mood. These are just two examples.
  • Sin City was very over the top but when it comes down to it, it was a standard action movie that could have used the same special effects that have been around since the 70's. Instead, it broke ground in special effects by creating fully digital environments. You would expect this from a sci-fi movie that takes place on another planet, not a crime-thriller. This was done so that the movie could be as close to the original comic series as possible.
  • Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a stoner comedy, but it contains several fantasy sequences with big special effects and even a lightsaber fight (apparently, the movie they were shooting had real lightsabers and not props).
  • Forrest Gump: While SFX were used toward particular purposes (e.g., removing Gary Sinese's legs or inserting Tom Hanks into historical stock footage), there's also the feather Book Ends.
  • Three Hundred is a (somewhat) historical war epic that makes use of prosthetics, Green Screen and lots of computer graphics. The same battle was depicted in the movie The Three Hundred Spartans decades earlier with little more than fancy costumes and prop swords.
    • It should be noted that while 300 was based on a comic by Frank Miller, the comic was more or less realistic. At least compared to the movie which had monsters and goat-boys throughout. In fact, the inclusion of the goat-boy was a Throw It In moment by Zack Snyder who saw a sketch by a production designer and decided to put it in.
  • In The Social Network the Winklevoss twins were portrayed by two non-identical actors, one of whom later had his head painstakingly replaced by a realistic CGI reconstruction of the other's head. A movie from even a decade earlier would have relied on Split Screen or would simply have hired twins, but this film went the extra mile so that the twins could do things like walk around the frame in front of each other. Effective, but arguably not really required for a dialogue driven drama.
    • The filmmakers said they originally planned to cast twins, but couldn't find 6'5", 220-pound twins who could act and be believable as champion rowers. Also, some scenes (like the ones in the Harvard President's office) were done via split-screen. The digital reconstruction was used in other scenes because Fincher didn't want to limit the movement of his actors.
  • The birth of the baby in Children of Men.

Live-Action TV

  • Scrubs had an Imagine Spot Once an Episode. They often featured somewhat elaborate special effects. For instance, in an early episode, JD imagines that his head blows up in a scene that would be more appropriate in a horror film. It was a comedy/medical drama.
  • Much like Scrubs, there was at least a Once an Episode Imagine Spot in Ally McBeal. It typically used CGI, which was extremely rare for a show like Ally McBeal (law drama) in the 1990s.
  • Predating Scrubs and Ally McBeal was the 1997 3rd Rock from the Sun episode "A Nightmare on Dick Street", which featured Dream Sequences with production values far higher than that of the actual show, including some CGI. It was a Three Dimensional Episode, with said dreams originally broadcast in 3D.

Web Original

  • That Guy With The Glasses features several movie and video game reviews. The hosts are not content with simply talking about various pop culture works. They often contain special effects such as when The Nostalgia Critic had a laser shootout with The Angry Video Game Nerd. The effects would be cutting edge a few decades ago in a fantasy film. Today, they're quirky, funny flourishes that anyone with a decent movie-making program can achieve.