Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 7 / FEBRUARY 1989


Cyber Corner

Special Effects, Part I

by Jon A. Bell

Create your own stellar apocalypse! File CYBERCNR.ARC on your START disk!

I've been interested in special effects (FX) ever since I was a little kid. After years of experimentation in high school, I've continued to pursue my interest in FX-building models, doing still photography and studying how film FX are done. And with the Cyber family of software, I can recreate Hollywood-style FX on my ST, all from the comfort of my computer chair. You can too.

This is the first of three columns about how to use your ST to imitate or re-create cinematic special effects. All you'll need is your ST, this issue's START disk and Cyber Paint 1.0 or 2.0 from Antic Software.

aliens.jpg This image is of the
Narcissus shuttlecraft
from the movies Alien
and Aliens. We'll
use this image as the
basis for our special
effects sequence,
using Cyber Paint
1.0 or 2.0 to create
the animation.

Opticals ond Rotoscoping

In film industry parlance, an "optical" (technically) is any FX shot that requires an optical printer. This device enables filmmakers to combine various pieces of film (elements) into a single composite. A spaceship battle from Return of the Jedi, for instance, might contain dozens of different elements--spaceships flying, planets, moons; a moving, swirling starfield for a background and a frosting of laser beams and engine glows.

However, opticals typically connote effects animation. Animation effects include lightning bolts, laser beams and Star Trek's famous transporter.

Effects animation is created in much the same way as cartoon animation: a series of line drawings is made on transparent acetate cels, one for each frame of film. For a sequence of, say, an alien getting zapped by a laser beam, the footage of the actor portraying the alien will first be projected onto an animation stand. An effects animator will then draw over the sequence, using pencil or pen on tracing paper. On one sheet of paper, the animator will draw the laser beam reaching out to hit the alien. When finished, the animator will advance the film to the next frame, replace the paper with a clean sheet, and draw another image, slightly different from the first. When the sequence is complete, he or she might add to the effect by drawing waves of energy washing over the alien after the beam has hit.

After the drawings are finished, other optical personnel shoot film negatives of the artwork. The negatives are placed onto another animation stand, backlit with colored gels and diffusion filters and then rephotographed. This element is then combined in the optical printer with the original footage of the alien and the FX sequence is finished. This process of tracing over live-action footage is called rotoscoping.

This issue, we're going to begin our own optical sequence.

Getting Started

For the effects we're going to do, you'll need a copy of Cyber Paint, either version 1.0 or 2.0. We'll load a DEGAS picture into Cyber Paint and then create a sequence of a photon torpedo hitting the prow of a spaceship with waves of energy wafting across it.

On this issue's START disk you'll find a 16-color DEGAS picture called SPACESHP.PI1 in the file CYBERCNR.ARC. It's shown in Figure 1. The image is of the Narcissus shuttlecraft featured in Alien and Aliens, which I copied from an FX photo. Tom Hudson's Antialiaser accessory helped me create the background. (This picture also served as the basis for the demo for START's Audio Video Sequencer in the November 1988 issue.)

Let's get started. First, un-ARC the file CYBERCNR.ARC following the Disk Instructions elsewhere in this issue, then boot up Cyber Paint and load SPACESHP.PI1. The picture will appear as frame one. Clip it by pressing the Tab key to store it in the Clip buffer, then press the Return key twice to copy the frame 20 times. Now you'll have 21 frames of the same image to work with.

Okay, now let's blow up the Narcissus.

Photon Torpedoes, Away!

Remember the opening of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, when the Klingon ships fire photon torpedoes into the V'ger space cloud? The Apogee effects company created the torpedoes by mounting a chunk of crystal on a rotating lucite rod. By firing a laser up through the rod and filming it in a smoke-filled room, the FX men created a sparkling ball of energy with shafts of light spinning from it.

We're going to create a similar effect in Cyber Paint. What we'll do is have a photon torpedo enter the frame from the lower left and hit the front of our ship.

Go over to the Color menu and select white (color 16) from the Color Palette. Move to the Modes menu, select Concentric, then select Lines from the Draw menu. This will give us the proper setting for our photon torpedoes.

Now, go to frame 2 (keep a clean frame at the beginning of the sequence) and place the cursor in the bottom-left corner of your screen. Hold down the left mouse button and draw, moving the cursor in and out in a circular sweep. It should look something like Figure 2.

Move to frame 3 and draw another torpedo to the right and up from the previous one, following an imaginary line from the "foreground" to the ship's bow "in the distance." Repeat this for the next four frames until the torpedo actually hits the ship. When you're finished, play the sequence a few times. It's interesting, but it needs more impact (pun intended).

For impact, we'll do a "nuke" effect. Go up to the Draw menu and select Circle. On the frame following the one where the torp touches the ship, place the mouse cursor where the torp hit in the previous frame and draw a solid white circle, about an inch in diameter. (Make sure Filled is highlighted in the Modes menu.) Go to the next frame and draw a three-inch-diameter circle and a five-inch circle on the frame after that. If you play the sequence now, it should look pretty neat--a ball of energy impacting on the front of a spaceship.

But we want something that will really jolt you. Make sure you're in To Frame mode (an F should show in the far right bottom of the menu bar) and go to the frame after the five-inch ball of light. Clear that frame--make it black. Go to the next frame, and fill that frame completely with white. Now play the sequence. Startling, isn't it? The black frame lulls your eyes for a split-second, making the white flash even more dramatic.

Until Next Issue

We'll look at ways to visually enhance the impact of our torpedo on the Narcissus, but one final note: always take into consideration the physical conditions present within your sequence. In our nuke sequence the Narcissus is obviously being illuminated by a harsh single light source off to its right. What should happen to the ship as a (presumably) brilliant ball of light approaches and hits it? Shouldn't that side of the ship start to brighten as the photon torpedo approaches?

I'll leave this graphics problem for you to solve. Next column, we'll talk about rotoscoping, miscellaneous lighting effects, Cyber Paint 2.0's Pixel FX menu and one of my favorite topics: traveling mattes and how to use them.

Jon Bell is the Editor of Oracle Magazine, but has long been a part of the ST community. Most recently, Jon was the Associate Editor of START.


The Antialiaser, $19.95 plus $2 shipping and handling. Tom Hudson, P.O. Box 3374, Shawnee-Mission, KS 66203.

Cyber Paint 2.0, $79.95. Antic Software, 544 Second St., San Francisco CA 94107. (800) 234-7001.