Forced Perspective Illusions and The Movies – by Elise Soeder
When guests visit us at the Museum of Illusions in Chicago, we frequently hear them asking for the “big and small room” and “the giant chair” because they result in hilarious photos and videos. The Ames Room and the Beuchet Chair are examples of optical illusions that rely on something called “forced perspective” and have been utilized by filmmakers in some of your favorite flicks for decades!
Forced perspective is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the use of any of various techniques (as in photography or architecture) to create the optical illusion that objects or people are smaller, larger, closer, or farther away than they really are.” Tourists at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for example, often use the concept of forced perspective to appear as if they are single-handedly holding up the structure that is actually 185 feet tall, simply by standing closer to the photo point, and following directions from their photographer.
Similar photo opportunities present themselves in the museum at the Beuchet Chair.
The legs of the chair are actually separate from the seat and backrest, and are closer to the camera point as well. It gets a lot of puzzled looks at first because of its deconstructed look and even when standing on the specific photo point, it can be hard to see without a camera. Just trust us and hop onto the chair and the posing point beside the posts while we take photos for you. Don’t worry, our staff are great directors when it comes to forced perspective!
The Ames Room uses both forced perspective and our inclination to make comparisons in its illusion. While the room may appear normal from a certain vantage point, it is actually trapezoidal! This allows the person in the “small corner” to not only be farther away from the camera, but they get a much taller wall than the person in the “big corner.” We compare the two people against the walls they are standing by, and with the difference of depth, it appears as if one person is a giant and the other went through a dryer cycle. It’s always fun to watch people switch from corner to corner and grow and shrink along the way!
These and other illusions are sometimes hard to see with the naked eye because our brains tend to pick up on the tricks of forced perspective and our eyes have great depth perception, so we recommend experiencing these illusions with the help of a camera. The lens in any camera has no depth perception, making it appear that people or objects are right next to one another when in fact some are further away than others! Plus, you’ll get great pictures of your visit!
The Ames Room, Beuchet Chair, and other forced perspective illusions are incredibly photogenic, not just in the Museum of Illusions, but also on the sets of many familiar films. For decades, filmmakers have used forced perspective to their advantage when creating unusual worlds. One of the great benefits of using these illusions is that filmmakers aren’t relying on computer-generated imagery, or CGI, which may cause the films to look dated within just a few years as audiences adapt to rapid technology advancement. Instead, these illusions are considered “practical effects” which are created physically on set, rather than digitally in post-production. In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, an Ames Room was used to make it appear that Gene Wilder’s Wonka is getting bigger (or the room is getting smaller) as he leads everyone into the factory. Similarly, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Joel (Jim Carrey) looks child-sized under the kitchen table compared to adults nearby. In Elf, forced perspective was frequently used to make Buddy much bigger than his Christmassy colleagues. (Will Farrell is a tall guy, but not that tall!) Check out this great behind-the-scenes video from Netflix that shows some examples of how they used forced perspective in this holiday classic.
Perhaps most notably and intricately, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy relied on forced perspective illusions to make the hobbits appear small next to their castmates. Ames Rooms, as well as scaled up props and furniture, size doubles, and other tricks were used especially in scenes in the Shire. One of the famous set pieces from the trilogy is Gandalf’s forced perspective cart, which was created with the same concept as our Beuchet Chair. The cart was built with Gandalf’s side much further forward and closer to the camera, while Frodo’s side was further back, creating the illusion that Elijah Wood was proportionally smaller than Sir Ian McKellen. Remember that to maintain the illusion, the actors’ eyelines would not have been toward where their scene partner actually was, but toward where their scene partner would appear to be on film. That means they would have been looking in front of or behind their cast mate, sometimes by several feet. Keep that in mind when you’re setting up for your forced perspective photos in the museum!
In the following video, Sir Ian McKellen confirms his shifting eyelines during the kitchen table scene. You’ll also see how complicated and precise the illusions had to be to allow for camera movement. This is some next-level movie magic–if you were to try to film the Beuchet Chair and move around it, the chair would disassemble in your video!
Of course, the best way to understand these forced perspective illusions is to experience them in person. When you come visit us, make sure your phone is fully charged and has storage left for plenty of pictures and videos so you can be the wizards and hobbits and elves of your own story! Our staff make wonderful directors and will capture all the best “takes” for you. See you on set!