Special Effects and the production of new architectural qualities 

Juan Elvira


Architects belong to the special effects industry. Their practice is urban eroticism: seduction strategies pursuing the production of ornamental, emotional and physiological effects. With the emergence of cinema, magical artifices merged with new techniques based on the medium itself, which lead to the creation of a consistent theory on FX. From Shklovsky to Einsenstein, from Mertz to Youngblood, FX production theory has established as the creation of emotional and aesthetical impacts, an activity in which trucage is a key instrument and wonder its aesthetic category. FX lack meaning. Like an instant of illumination, they avoid narrative. They are fleeting as life itself. Enchantment and attraction are its key aspects, meaning the continuous emission of a latent persuasion in search of potential users-receivers.
Magic levitation, disappearance or metempsychosis techniques would lead at the beginning of past century those of superimposition and scale manipulation (models used in Schüfftan effects, pyrotechnic and programmed destruction effects) and the creation of artificial mediums (Foley effects, cloud tanks, flooding chambers, chemical reactions as basis of micro-photographed fantastic scenarios, Slitcam techniques). Such assemblages changed forever space’s collective imagination, turning it into an animated and communicating substance.
This paper will discuss that FX are essential for contemporary architecture, the symptom of a spatial sensibility and the basis for a new tectonic discipline.


‘I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect’1
Edgar Allan Poe

Architecture is a source for sensitive experiences. Its combined effects shape a complex alternative nature from which desirable and satisfactory situations emerge. Such events are one of the main reasons why the city is a feasible human habitat.
The city and their inhabitants share a mutual empathy. Such reciprocal impregnation is a kind of ‘urban eroticism’ where space surrounds users, embracing them, flowing and fragmenting around them. Thus, a new urban faciality soaks through public space, conditioning our lifestyle. Two complementary fields compose it, namely the physical and architectonic one and the immaterial one, where a continuous proliferation of instantaneous and unstable effects takes place.
Therefore, today’s concept of space is deeply influenced by those strategies that pursue the production of all kinds of ornamental, fleeting and emotional effects. The material practices based on the aesthetic of effects, those that emphasize the seduction that emanates from the objects and not the objects themselves, will be a key reference for an FX- based architecture.
Now, where architecture like this could come from? An inspection on the history of the abovementioned practices shows that the first traces can be found on scientific research primitive forms. Based on this epistemology that combines magic and science, material and environmental phenomena where explored. The special effects of the moment were the invisible and aerial wonders hidden in the very heart of Nature, which natural philosophers extracted from it and presented to amazed audiences. Later, theatrical treatises and criticism such as Aubignac’s, for the first time would organize a specific theory on effect production; the same way music critics, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, would do within the nineteenth century music theory.
But the discipline that introduced a proper FX theory was cinematography. Sergei Einsenstein agreed with Edgar Allan Poe and Gottfried Semper in a fundamental idea: the definition of beauty as effect.2
With the outcome of cinema, theatrical artifices were adapted and new techniques, inherent to the new medium, were developed, introducing new elements into consideration. From Shklovsky to Einsenstein, from Mertz to Youngblood, FX production theory has established as the creation of emotional and aesthetical impacts, an activity in which trucage was its key instrument and wonder its aesthetic category.


Effective arts look for the maximum transmission of phenomenal sensitivity, meaning or ideology, according the contents they emit, pursuing expressive capacities inherent to a given medium (a material, a technique or, generally speaking, a media) and a coherent exploration of its material and technical potentials.
Effects are ephemeral, vital and instinctive, and fleeting as the ever-changing life. Seduction and sensuality are the agents for effect production par excellence. In this sense, the erotic attraction of space can be defined as the permanent emission of a latent persuasion in search for a receiver.
Effects lack meaning and destabilize the sense they act upon. The seduction of effect undermines reality by manipulating it. A sense of ambiguity and uncertainty before what is perceived is achieved by means of devices that are capable to distract from themselves any stable meaning.3 They unfold by means of assemblages, whose conception and (partial) exhibition are as important as effects themselves. This way, intellectual engagement is added to admiration. Mutual complicity and a new depth to something that is essentially superficial are achieved.
Some are aseptic, invisible and indivisible from its medium, and some create their own field of exploration. Some mimic and dissolve with the assemblage (as frequently happens in digital postproduction); others stand out from it, expressing its own potentials beyond seamless simulation. The latter are avowed machinations as defined by Christian Metz, where user appreciation not only takes place after the illusions, but also after the construction of devices that produce them. Stop motion and in general any manual and artisan FX cinema techniques are a paradigm of this, where Karel Zeman’s ouvre in the 60’s or Michel Gondry’s in the present days are eloquent examples.4
The importance of the abovementioned techniques lays on the impact that they have produced over our perception of reality, especially regarding the production of inhabitable space, and the persistence of such a ‘perceptive imaginary’ in our days. Stage magic followed by cinematography have exposed us to an unprecedented sensuous experience where an ambiguous relationship between opposing poles is set up: depth and surface, two and three dimensions, stillness and transformation, light and shadow, transparency and opacity, reflection and refraction… And it manages to do so in a highly mechanized way, inducing amazing experiences in order to trigger a complex set of emotional responses. They’ve allowed for the introduction of unprecedented spatial qualities and a desire for spatial emotions that have redefined our relationship with architectural experience. Such attributes have been classified in the present research in the following categories: Paradoxical Depth, Unstable Presence, Spatial Stratification, Altered Physical Laws and, finally, Spatial Densification.

1. Paradoxical Depth

Magic Cabinets developed for diverse theatrical numbers for centuries are true microarchitectures aiming dematerialization and spatial equivocality. Built with technical precision and refinement, they set up a frame where desired effects could be produced, like disappearance (Proteus cabinet by Tobin-1865-, Houdini’s cabinet -1918-, Gorilla den by Maskelyne – 1873-, Maskelyne’s cabinet -1879-, Morrit’s cage -1892-); production (Davenports’ cabinet -1854-) or transformation (Light and heavy chest by Robert Houdin -184?-, The blue room by Pepper -1879-). In all of them, in between, unused spaces were integrated within the whole architectural artefact.
Those were interstitial but no longer neglected areas. Such places of machination and concealment provided new capacities to space. Inside them bodies slipped through trapdoors activating hidden mechanisms, moved from visible to invisible spaces constructing a paradoxical kind of ergonomics. Inside them the body is subjected to an intimate and richly topological experience, where server space is inhabited and the hidden technological framework is finally appreciated. This counter intuitive space leads to a new kind of architectural transparency, playing with its symbolic qualities (where visibility is usually related to honesty) subverting them. Now profundity is not only a three-dimensional quality but also that of the flat surface. The traditional stability of the ever-visible architectural space has now been blurred into a world of trap doors and secret compartments.

2. Unstable presence

Scientist Henry Pepper was the creator of some of the most influential technologies of disappearance of the late nineteenth century. Pepper’s Ghost was one of the most popular stage tricks of all times. It allowed ethereal figures move through the theatrical stage and interact with ‘flesh and bone’ characters. Likewise, The Blue Room allowed for metempsychosis effects, this is, the transformation of one object in another. Among all objects present in stage, some of them could vanish or be transformed into something else.
Some key components can be found in both special effects. Firstly, the state of the art use of glass. The biggest panes available at the time were introduced, with the added possibility of sliding it vertically or horizontally in order to produce certain illusions. Transparency and reflection qualities were simultaneously used, foreseeing a contemporary architectural sensibility. Secondly, the construction of a complex vertical and horizontal sections in order to superimpose both the ‘visible’ stage and the concealed one where the vanishing acts took place. The architectural section produced a simultaneously deep and flat composite image.

Figure 1. Illustration of metempsychosis effect at Cabaret du néant in Paris, appeared in Scientific American magazine, March 7th 1896.

3. Spatial Stratification

Based on the former experiences, a heterogeneous body of FX techniques is dedicated to the creation of stratified spaces. In Matte effects, an actor o a whole scene is located in front of a painted curtain or a rear-projected screen, or more recently, a blue or green surface that will be later substituted by another scene.
Perception can be understood as an act of selection of information after the innumerable stimuli that humans face constantly. Spatial stratification techniques precisely replicate such process, where certain elements are extracted from a certain scenario, then pasted onto another set of elements belonging to a different context, displacing them spatially and temporally.5

Figure 2. Stage operations for a Schüfftan effect with final composite. Fielding, Raymond (1985).  The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography. Abingdon UK: Focal Press, p. 78

Clarke process (1940) and Schüfftan process (1923) are other techniques still in use that are not produced in postproduction but behind the camera, like stage magic artifacts. Clarke process composited clouds directly into the live action scenes, contributing to its dramatic tone, from white spring clouds to menacing, stormy ones.6 Eugene Schüfftan devised a technique that allowed the integration of architectural miniature models or rear-projected images into live-action scenes. Fragments of buildings or whole landscapes completed the sets where filming were taking place, sometimes placing miniatures between the camera and full-scale buildings.7
Architecture wise, in these filmic techniques the various devices used, their location, set component, profundity plane and live action are as relevant as fascinating as the final seamless filmed result. Spatially these techniques lead to the superimposition of heterogeneous spatial, time and scale-based laws that are composed in order to create a coherent single space. Again an ambiguous space made of hidden spaces, twisted planes of profundity and unconnected fragments of experiences, stresses spatial stratification and false flatness.

4. Altered Physical Laws

Levitation effects in stage magic were pioneering technology implementations that anticipated structural techniques that would later be recognized as specifically architectural. Weightless and floating structures, omnipresent in modern architecture, are closely related to certain magic assemblages.

Figure 3. Nevil Maskelyne’s levitation apparatus diagram used at the end of the  nineteenth century. Goldston, Will (no date). Exclusive Magical Secrets. London: The Magician Ltd (original edition). New York, Dover Publications Inc, 1977, p. 446

The pioneer of such devices was the first great modern magician, Etienne Robert-Houdin, who built two levitation magic tricks by the mid nineteenth century. The first one was “Le Coffre lourd et léger” (Light and heavy chest), based on an electromagnetic apparatus. The second one was “La Suspension éthéreene”. The Ethereal Suspension consisted, in the magician’s words, on the construction of an ‘impossible building’ 8 with different stacked pieces of furniture. Every object’s gravity centre was heavily displaced from the next one, sharing a single precarious point of contact. The resulting static derive was literally ethereal. The successor of Houdin’s levitation techniques was the magician, inventor and watchmaker named John Nevil Maskelyne. He used two basic strategies between 1894 and 1897, the ‘goose neck’ and the thin steel cable bundle. In architectural terms, a primitive use of the cantilever and the tensile structures.
In 1909, David Devant, another British magician, defined magic as ‘the impression of beholding the subversion of some natural law’. 9 The structural models analysed so far, like contemporary floating and lightweight architectures, are able to deploy gravitational contexts with autonomous laws. Within their boundaries, a given narrative or experience takes place. Here, the special effect is the altered medium or paraspace as defined by Samuel Delany. Science fiction, stage magic, video games or “cartoon physics”, as architecture, contain narratives based on self-contained alternate physical laws.

5. Spatial densification

The Eidophusikon (1781), a miniature pocket sized theatre that presented shipwrecks in a rough sea, and the special effects of “The Perfect Storm” (Wolfgang Petersen, 2000) are basically the same, namely the recreation of the dramatic and climatic conditions of atmospheric phenomena, or in a broader sense, the staging of artificial worlds. The exploration of these amazing experiences often has been a common practice for both scientists and artists.
Let’s quickly follow a set of devices used to create artificial rainbows, what is commonly agreed as a fascinating natural phenomenon, during the last five hundred years. While Isaac Newton experimented in 1663 with his optical prism to prove natural light’s color spectrum, outside his shadowy laboratory giochi d’aqua could be enjoyed at the fresh and sunny gardens of the bourgeois villas. Among them, ‘rainbow fountains’ allowed for the creation of iridescent light without the help of rainy weather. From W. D’A Ryan’s Scintillator (1919), a night rainbow projected with colored searchlights built for the General Electric, to Otto Piene’s Olympia Regenbogen/Olympic Rainbow (1972), a pneumatic night rainbow built in occasion of Munich’s Olympiads… from Olaffur Eliasson’s Beauty (1993) to Dommitrich y Gelfland’s Hydrogeny, where fine mists decompose light’s colors… in all of them science and art have recreated potentially amazing meteorological phenomena.

Figure 4. Cloud Tank effect apparatus. Photography by Eric Alba.

The special effects industry has also recreated atmospheric events in laboratory conditions in order to produce threatening rainy clouds, big explosions and even cosmos-scaled outer space landscapes. For instance, the Cloud Tank technique was used until the nineties of the twentieth century. It is basically a water basin where dynamic flows of liquids with different densities were produced and filmed, then inserted in certain scenes. Professionals like Chris Parks or Jordan Belson also used similar techniques, micro-photographing chemical reactions inside Petri dishes. Some of them were instantaneous; others might take 24 hours to fully develop. As a result, exuberant outer space scenes, meteorite showers or the convoluting skin of the Sun were obtained in a surface often not bigger than a pinhead, like those in Darren Aronofski’s The Fountain (2007). 10
Sometimes bigger scale chemical reactions are produced in order to recreate big explosions, like Joe Viskocil’s for the Death Star’s spaceship final destruction, in Star Wars (Georges Lucas, 1977). FX industry has developed a whole range of chemical composites according to its combustion properties. For example, black powder mixed with soap flakes creates a plume of white smoke. And so on. As a result of such a technical expertise, a new sensibility for a densified space emerges.

Figure 5. Explosion effect for the Death Star spaceship destruction in ‘Star Wars’ (Georges Lucas, 1977) by Joe Viskocil. Rickritt, Richard, Special Effects: The History and Technique. New York: Billboard Books – Random House, p. 103.


Magic levitation, disappearance or metempsychosis techniques would lead at the beginning of past century those of superimposition and scale manipulation (Schüfftan effects, pyrotechnic and programmed destruction effects) and the creation of artificial mediums (cloud tanks, flooding chambers, chemical reactions as basis of micro-photographed fantastic scenarios). Such assemblages changed forever space’s collective imagination, turning it into an animated and communicating substance.
FX produces paraspaces, ambients outside the everyday world. Architecture also can be defined as a progressive displacement from an existing exterior to an interior that contains autonomous narratives, fictions that immerse users in pocket worlds of his own.
The production of effects is a space-based activity that entangles the creation of new forms of sensibility. Architecture wise, the notion of effectiveness stresses the performative capacities of architecture: how it behaves, obtains and offers and what meaning strategies it carries out. As a starting point, an architecture that “prefers commencing with the consideration of an effect”, in Poe’s words, shall take into consideration the conditions and qualities that will build a certain space; then developing an accordingly coherent structure.
Effects come first, not the objects or process they come from. FX architecture shall explore its potential fields of possibilities, manipulating itself ceaselessly in search for new interaction protocols.
The wonder machines of FX are able to create entirely new physical and psychological worlds. Architecture today is dissolved and densified within the city. It is a constellation of effects, a weightless, immaterial and emotional medium.


1. Allan Poe, Edgar. (1846) The Philosophy of Composition, Graham’s Magazine, April 1846, Philadelphia. Paragraph 4)
2. See Poe, Edgar Allan. (1846) Ibid. Paragraph 19; Semper, Gottfried. (1860) Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics. (Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten; oder, Praktische Aesthetik, Ein Handbuch für Techniker, Künsteler und Kunstfreunde, 2 vols,) Los Angeles, 2004: Getty Research Institute, (p. 83); Einsenstein, Sergei. (1924). The Montage of Film Attractions, S.M. Eisenstein. Selected Works. Volume 1. Writings 1922-34. Richard Taylor (Ed.), London 1988: BFI Publishing,
3. See Baudrillard, Jean. (1991) On Seduction. Chapter 2. Superficial Abysses. The effigy of the seductress. New World Perspectives Culture Texts Series. Montreal, 2001. E-book.
4. Allen, David. (1972) Dramatic Principles in Stop Motion: A discussion of animation in the Fantasy Film, Photon Magazine 22.
5. Trifonova, Temenuga. Special Effects: Simulation in Cinema. http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/article. php?id=94&feature
6. Fielding, Raymond. (1985)The Technique of special effects cinematography. Waltham: Focal Press, p. 44.
7. Rickitt, Richard. (2000) Special Effects. The history and technique. Crown Publishing Group, p. 90.
8. Robert-Houdin, Etienne. (1868) Mémoires et Révélations. Comment on devient sorcier. Blois Lecesne. Imprimeur-Éditeur. Rue des Papegaults, p. 448.
9. Devant, D. (1921) Magic Made easy. Arthur Pearson Ltd.
10. The Telegraph, January 28th Supplement, 2007, p. 6

Juan Elvira. Architect (Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, 1997) and master degree at Columbia University of New York (2000). Project Design Associated professor at ETSAM, and visiting professor at national and international schools. His projects have been exhibited at Freshmadrid and the 11 Mostra Internazionale de Architettura di Venezia, among others. Finalist at the Norwegian Architecture Prize 2012. Along with his academic and professional career, he also runs a critical and editorial task begun as editor of Oeste architecture magazine, followed by the publication of numerous essays in specialized books and journals. He is currently completing his Final Thesis in ‘Ghost Architecture’.