Getting Physical With Special Effects

The Complexities, The Chemistry & The Confetti

Given the proliferation of acronyms, terminologies and buzzwords that confuse the entertainment industry, it’s unsurprising there’s so much fascination around the physical special effects space. References to SFX, SPFX, smoke, lasers, confetti and flames conjure up all manner of mystique and it’s not hard to see why.

Add a little perspective and all-things SFX (special effects) become clearer. SFX are all about making an impact on an audience to spark an emotional response and, while that would apply to the general purpose of the wider entertainment industry, physical special effects in particular harness some very unique tools that other disciplines simply can’t access.

SFX = sensory experiences like no other

Triggering an emotion requires engagement. In the entertainment industry we engage with the senses. We’ll usually do it through a form of visual media, such as lighting, video, laser or a scenic construction or an audible interaction, using music, sound tracks or vocals. Sound and vision can have a profound effect on how we’re entertained – indeed, they’ve been the mainstay of theatre and live performance for centuries.

The five senses; sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, are universally recognised, but, dig deeper and there’s a network of advanced sensations that can be accessed too. There’s the sense of temperature and heat, motion and wind pressure, for example. There are also more negative sensory responses that we wouldn’t want to access, such as balance, pain or distress.

We use physical special effects to create an event or moment that has the power to touch as many of those senses we want to reach as possible. We have powerful weapons in our arsenal of effects to do just that; we can radiate heat from flames, emit the alluring smell of pyro and project the cold blast of CO2 jets to provide that extra interaction that lifts a moment in a show to the next level.

All this is the space within which physical special effects sit – and the way we touch the senses is how the magic happens.

Building in phenomena to make the magic happen

Now for the science part. Every physical effect is based on one or more principle that’s rooted in chemistry and physics. To design new effects and trigger ever more spectacular, more emotionally stimulating experiences, we have to go back to core scientific theories. Remember those exciting demonstrations we were given at school that made physics lessons more entertaining? Well it’s those phenomena that we build into equipment and, at the press of a button, they can be repeated reliably, and safely, over and over again.

We have spent a long time making this look easy, yet the fact is there will inevitably be some surprisingly advanced processes and engineering involved. What looks like a straightforward liquid flame projector delivering an eight-metre flame can have involve an incredible 800+ components and entail liquid pressure management, communications systems, power management and high-voltage ignition systems. All this and some seriously detailed quality-control processes that are necessary when it comes to executing a consistent output and maintaining system reliability.

Getting back to basics, what we’re really rather good at is throwing things in the air, whether they’re flammable liquids, phase-changing gases or atomised chemicals. Drill down further into that concept and what we have mastered is managing materials, the elements, the liquids, solids, gasses and fire that forms the basis of most SFX.

Exploiting the path of progress to deliver show-stopping experiences

Companies involved in physical special effects don’t just design new effects, we iterate existing technologies too. Add to that the regular influx of new components that come to market and we’re now able to do something special that we couldn’t do before due to the constraints of cost, time or space.

At Luminous, it’s our duty to ensure we have a rigorous understanding of physical and chemical principals and can use our ability and expertise to build machines that take advantage of these principals in a safe and controlled way. This gives us the opportunity to build effects into productions that have never been seen before and to solve technical application issues that might have been experienced with existing kit. Considering the vast majority of SFX vendors supply off-the-shelf equipment and it’s clear we’re in the unique position of being able to offer something really special for productions that absolutely has to deliver a sensory experience like no other.

Luminous and companies like us work with large-scale productions that depend on a specialist vendor to technically deliver their creative design with meticulous precision. This is exactly what taps into our core skillset. Not only must we understand exactly what can be achieved and how to do it, we’re relied on to provide the scale and ambition of the production and transform its creative design into a show-stopping reality.

If you’d like to talk to Luminous about a project that needs to spark sensory experiences and offers something really special, please contact us.