Posts Tagged ‘special’

The secret science behind movie stunts and special effects

// March 20th, 2011 // Comments Off on The secret science behind movie stunts and special effects // Science at Home, Science Communication, Science in the Movies

Movie stuntsSteve Wolf sent me his book on the science of movie stunts and special effects for review last month, by Saddleback Educational Publishing.

Full of glossy pictures, this book is written for aspiring young scientists (not for adults or film makers.) Particularly kids who are a little off the rails, wild experimenters who need guidance without curbing enthusiasm. I think the author himself fell into that category.

One of the best things about the book was a message that science isn’t just about reports and measuring things. It’s about creating, trying, testing and doing cool stuff. That’s a good message.

When he’s not writing, Steve Wolf does science shows in schools. I bet they’re a blast. He’s worked in the film industry for years creating special effects and in the first page of the book admits “he has the best job in the world.” I got the feeling that he gets a real kick out of exploding stuff.

That brings me to the other good message – safety. From smoke detectors to seatbelts, he covers not only safety in special effects, but also just every day. It even talked about life lessons like doing what you love and eating healthy food. Although these are good things for kids to learn, I did wonder if this book was the right avenue for that. Safety messages are important, but talking about politeness, teamwork and professionalism seemed like a little much for a kid excited by science.

burnt toast

People are like toast. You can't unburn them.

But back to blowing stuff up, that was cool. Did you know that complete combustion of propane creates a blue flame, but incomplete combustion makes an orange flame because the heat excites carbon atoms? I didn’t.

Oh, and it showed someone covered with Zel Jel, fire insulating goo used by stunts performers which looks like marmalade. To quote the book “remember, people are like toast. You can’t unburn them.”

Diagrams also splatter the pages, which is awesome. I love a good diagram. They showed atomic states of matter, electrical circuitry (both series and parallel) and even chemical reactions. Clear explanations were delivered with a dose of movie stunt applications, like making mist, or arming explosives.

Teachers could build science classes around the book, as it covers important concepts and putting them in a cool context. It would be suitable for Years Five to Eight as a short introduction to complicated topics including atomic theory, chemical reactions and electric circuits, though none were discussed in huge depth. Sometimes I wasn’t sure which audience the book was talking to – young children or teenagers? But it could be used to spark classroom discussions.

At the end of the book Steve describes how it all comes together on set, from rolling cameras to checking all the explosions have detonated correctly after the stunt. It was a good insight into the film industry, but this is a book aimed at the science, not at movie making. Aspiring film producers won’t get a lot out of the book, certainly not how to make their own stunts. That’s not the purpose of the book. It’s about inspiring kids to do science using movie stunts as a draw card.

The Secret Science Behind Movie Stunts & Special Effectsis a nice book, and would make a good addition to a school library. It has potential as an alternative or addition to science textbooks. And if you know a kid (8-12) who does science experiments at home and loves movies, it would make a good present. Not for adults or film makers.






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