There was a time, not so very long ago, when a fantastic fiction television program could get away with low-budget (and sometimes cheesy
) special effects to show that the characters had special powers. Think of all those "flying" props suspended in mid-air on fishing wire and you have the idea.
Unfortunately, today's audiences are much more sophisticated. The days of sending a flying character jumping out of the set's window and then cutting to a cheap Chroma Key
effect to show him flying around are long gone.
But here's the rub: the more sophisticated the special effect, the more expensive it is. And that is why, in series that center on people with extraordinary abilities, you'll see a lot of characters saying
that they can do amazing things... but you won't often actually see them doing them
. This may give the false impression that they Fight Like A Normal
The opposite of Mundane Utility
in many ways, Coconut Superpowers
are any obviously budget-restrained Informed Ability
. The name is a tribute to Monty Python, who couldn't afford the horses or the time to train them and teach the actors how to ride them for Monty Python and the Holy Grail
, so they used The Coconut Effect
as a joke.
Coconut Superpowers are for the most part only averted successfully in fully animated shows. It's often not a concern in films, as they usually have larger budgets (though it can still happen).
Compare with Informed Ability
. Contrast Useless Superpowers
, where the characters could
show off and use their powers but they aren't allowed to because it'd resolve the conflicts too easily
, and Misapplied Phlebotinum
, where the characters do
use their special powers but in stupid or unimaginative ways. See also Offscreen Moment of Awesome
and Fight Unscene
This trope has nothing to do with superpowers actually relating to coconuts. Not that kind, either, weirdoes.
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- The animated equivalent of Coconut Superpowers is something difficult and expensive to animate, such as an accurate depiction of people playing musical instruments. One of the main criticisms against K-On! is not only that it's about a high school rock band who avoid practicing as much as possible, but even when they do play, most of the time the camera cuts away just as they begin and cuts back when they finish. This is especially egregious because K-ON! is produced by Kyoto Animation, who had previously animated an astonishingly good scene of a rock band performance in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. There's a rumor that the animators got so bored/exhausted animating the latter that they don't want to animate any more band scenes, but that just presents the question of why they would then do a series about a band.
- The low-budget superhero spoof film The Specials went all the way to the end without showing any powers in use by anyone, reserving those expensive effects for the final moments of the movie (which were more like a curtain call than anything having to do with the plot). This was partially lampshaded by turning the question of just what the new girl's powers actually were into something of a Running Gag.
- In The Scorpion King 2, Mathayus fights an invisible giant scorpion in the climax.
- Godzilla Final Wars has the Xilians (aliens from Planet X) disguised as humans for the express purpose of looking less threatening to Earth's native population. When they inevitably turn on the humans, they keep their human disguises, with one character simply remarking that he likes the outfit. That said, the movie had Godzilla fighting almost every monster that's ever appeared in a Showa-era Godzilla film one after another, so no one really cared.
- In the early 80s, an aspiring Canadian director wanted to make a movie about a Robot War in a post-apocalyptic future after seeing a burning metal skeleton in a nightmare. He couldn't get the necessary budget, so he decided to move the action into the present (saving lots of money on the sets) and clothe the robot in human skin (saving lots of money on animatronics). The rest is Future History.
- In Captain Sindbad (not to be confused with the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies), Sinbad must fight an invisible beast in an arena.
- In Dreamscape, Dennis Quid's psychic character is said to have telekinesis, and we see a still movie slide of him levitating a small metal, ball bearing. If viewers were expecting him to use this at any point in the film to save himself from a dangerous situation, they will be disappointed because the movie focuses on his ability to enter dream instead.
- In the adaptation of Generation X, Chamber (who expels hot plasma from his chest) was replaced with Canon Foreigner Refrax (who melts things with his eyes), Husk (who can shed her skin and make new skin out of different materials) became Buff (a teenage girl with an Arnold Schwarzenegger physique), and Mondo's power to take on the texture of materials through physical contact had no corresponding change in his body's appearance.
- Storm and Jean Grey both used their powers far more cautiously in the X-Men films than in their animated or comic versions. Prolonged flight and telekinesis are still very difficult to film. Not to mention beings made of living ice or metal. Iceman doesn't become a full-fledged X-Man until the third film, likely just so he won't have to use his powers to their fullest, with ice slides, ice projectiles, and ice armor. (He does learn how to do the ice armor at the end of the third film.) Also, Colossus only takes on his metal form just as something is about to hit him or he needs to use his strength.
- Of course Storm probably should be more cautious about using her powers, considering what they could do to local and possibly even global weather patterns.
- The Darkest Hour takes this to new heights, depicting a massive invasion of the Earth by invisible aliens.
Live Action TV
- Heroes. It inspired the trope after all. As a matter of fact, one of the suggested names for this trope was a takeoff on the "Heroes" tagline: "Ordinary People, Budget-Straining Abilities".
- Nathan Petrelli only did supersonic flight twice in all of season 1, and once in season 2. This is odd, since West (who also flies) has taken off more than once in season 2. It may be possible that they assigned one of the most expensive ones to Nathan because he is somewhat embarrassed by them. West really floats instead of flies, which is a much cheaper special effect than Nathan's supersonic flight.
- Niki/Jessica has super strength, but viewers more often just see the results of her strength, and not her using it.
- By far, the most commonly used power on the show is telepathy. It just requires Matt Parkman to squint, give somebody the crazy eyes, or tilt his head and stare off into space. As said by the actor who plays him, "I have the power... of LEANING".
- Micah gets to use his
HBO cable stealing technopathic abilities every few episodes too. He puts his hand on a prop and squints.
- And the plots always seem to demand readily available precogs, most of whom just have to paint (with white out eyes), and some of whom just get odd dreams which is as easy as shooting another scene and screwing with the filter.
- This is also the main reason why we hardly ever see Hiro perform short teleports — longer ones let them change the whole scene, which is easier to do believably.
- Sylar and Peter both had lots and lots of powers, but you'd usually just see telekinesis from Sylar and a smattering of cheaper powers (such as teleports, mind reading, floating) from Peter. The expensive ones, like radiation and freezing, were usually saved for big-budget finales and premieres.
- Showdowns between Peter and Sylar consist of flashing lights seen through the cracks around a closed door.
- It's extremely telling that the characters use their powers far more often and more creatively in the online comics. We also see many more new characters in the comics with more (for want of a better word) "trippy" abilities that'd be hard to visualize with the show's budget (a plant-man, a woman who can literally rearrange your face, a guy who clones himself through "budding", and so on).
- While Star Trek tries to avoid this kind of thing as often as it can, a few exceptions stand out:
- Over the course of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the ship's ability to separate the drive section from the saucer section was seldom seen after the first few episodes, even though there were numerous times it might have come in handy for various reasons. In addition to money and pacing issues, it was also not such a hot idea to change the iconic shape of the series's Cool Ship.
- Gene Roddenberry pre-empted this trope by deliberately adding a scene in the Enterprise's engine room in the premiere. He did this to justify the large expense in building the set. Otherwise, the engine room set might never have been built.
- Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. and other shapeshifting creatures constantly hang around in humanoid form and rarely seem to change their shape in moments when it would be helpful. Most of Odo's transformations take place off-screen, obviously because because the special effects cost a small fortune at the time. Odo even spends most of a season without the ability to shapechange. Peter David acknowledges the problem in the introduction of his DS9 novel The Siege and notes that he's unrestrained by special effects budgets. As promised, the novel itself features Odo in a crazy mad number of shapeshifting instances.
- Occasionally, this can work out for the best: The iconic Star Trek transporter itself was invented to save on doing expensive landing sequences every episode. Ironically enough, and truer to the spirit of this trope, it was still the most expensive visual effect to do on the show. So in the final season, the camera panned away from the transporter effect while the noise was still being played so that the audience would still be clued in on what was going on. Although digital effects and bigger budgets made costs more trivial, this was still done in the Spin-Off series all the way to Voyager from time to time. Enterprise's final season returned to the "off-screen transport" effect (even though these episodes often used visual effects much more complicated and expensive) as a subtle hint to the viewership that this was indeed the final season, mirroring the final season of the original series.
- In the original Trek episode "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield," the two natives of Cheron arrived via invisible ship (no, they didn't say "cloaked" or anything that'd make it sound less silly) so it wouldn't have to be shown.
- Every version of Star Trek has done space battles where the camera stays on the bridge, and we hear the weapons being fired and a report about damage done to the enemy ship, without seeing it on the viewscreen or an exterior shot (and only a Star Trek Shake or two to signify the damage done to the Enterprise).
- The first series had Coconut politics. The reason that Klingons were a more frequent problem for the crew of the Enterprise than the Romulans is because the pointy ear tips made the Romulan costumes significantly more expensive than the Klingon ones.
- The Enterprise Incident had an off-hand mention of the Romulans being reported to use Klingon ships to get more mileage out of the rather expensive D7-class model.
- Similarly, in Doctor Who, the TARDIS only ever materialized in place because they didn't have the budget to show their space ship traveling in space (except for a few times) or actually flying. The new series has fixed this somewhat and we've gotten many more scenes of the TARDIS flying, including one where it speeds along next to a car on a highway. The writers do note that that sort of thing "puts a strain on the engines," thus explaining the rarity.
- The aliens from far-off worlds were explained to be so humanlike because they evolved to be like Time Lords, the most powerful beings in the universe.
- In the original-series story "The Mutants," an alien transforms through several stages from a humanoid, through a lobster-like creature, to a glowing, floating alien. For most of the transformation, the camera shows a close-up of his hand, only requiring work from makeup and costumes for the hand rather than full-body work that would only be seen for a few seconds.
- One of the worst examples has to be the Animorphs TV series. The producers decided to make it live action (a rather odd decision, given that the target audience was well within the Animation Age Ghetto), so they ended up having to adapt a very imaginative sci-fi book series with the budget of a half hour cable kids' show. As a result, the characters rarely used their Voluntary Shapeshifting abilities - even stupidly spending an inordinate amount of time in their normal forms around the Yeerks (whom, by the way, they are supposed to be hiding their identities from). Ax, on the other hand, spent nearly all of his screen time disguised as a human, even when there was no clear reason for him to do this.
- There was one especially blatant instance from the show. After capturing the team using a net, Visser Three walks up and tells them "How foolish of you to come in human form!" - While in human form himself.
- In another episode, Visser Three spends all of his screentime in human form while on the Yeerk mother ship.
- The kicker is that K. A. Applegate originally designed the Andalites as Rubber-Forehead Aliens to make it easier on a potential television adaption. When publishers complained about how generic they were, Applegate turned them into blue centaurs with scorpion tails and four eyes that would be fiendishly difficult to produce onscreen; thus, they only appear as (extremely crappy) animatronic puppets for about five seconds at a time.
- Extremely apparent in the Live-Action Adaptation of The Tick. Because of budget constraints, the show was not allowed to actually show any of the superhero characters ever doing anything superheroic. They would just stand around and talk about it later or do everything offscreen. This made it seem less like a superhero sitcom and more like a bizarre Seinfeld spinoff where everyone was constantly in gaudy costumes.
- Lois and Clark became notorious for one aspect of this around the time of its second series. The show's about Superman, right? And how does he get around? He flies... except that flying is FX-heavy to depict on screen and can involve actors literally hanging around in uncomfortable harnesses for hours. So the L&C production team tried to save money by depicting Superman flying away from a location by having the actor swirl his cape around to fill the camera view and adding a stock sound effect. Later, they stopped bothering with the cape swirl and just had him leave the shot, followed by the sound. It worked much better.
- Worth nothing that while the first season featured more on-screen flying than the rest, the effects for most of Superman's many other powers saw an upturn in quality as the show went on.
- The first three seasons of Charmed had numerous stunts involving Prue's telekinesis, but budget cuts lead to her replacement Paige having the ability to remotely teleport objects instead, which turns out to be more efficient given that it's easier to add some CGI effects than to set up and insure stunts that involve flying through the air. Chris, introduced in the sixth season, also had telekinesis, but rarely used it. Billie, in season eight, ALSO had telekinesis, but rarely threw demons into walls the way Prue did.
- This is also supposedly the reason why Piper kept her initial molecular control powers while Prue gained astral projection and Phoebe gained levitation — her special effects were costlier than anyone else's.
- This is also why Phoebe lost her levitation power, as the harness and insurance for the stunts ended up being too costly.
- Demons in general became more and more human-looking as the series went on, to save on costuming and make-up.
- Related: The "Vampires Exploding into Dust After Being Staked" effect on Buffy the Vampire Slayer cost $5,000 per use. As a result, the majority of vampires (especially in the first few seasons) are staked just off-screen, with the disintegration sound-effect playing. By the time the show's budget had been raised to a point where they could afford to use it every time (and the cost of CGI had been reduced by a significant figure), vampires had long ceased to be the main threat on the show—which, naturally, let Buffy kill scads of them.
- In earlier episodes, when vampires shifted to vamp face, the actual shift usually occurred off-screen. As the show's budget increased, vamping out onscreen became more common. Furthermore, in many cases you can tell the shift is something of a "jump cut" between pre-makeup and post-makeup; once Season 2 comes around, the "game face" effect is a more gradual, CGI-based shift.
- There's an episode of the spinoff Angel, where Wesley and Gunn fight a two-headed, fire-breathing, twenty-foot tall monster. Neither it nor the battle is shown on screen. This might be because it wasn't particularly crucial to the plot. An earlier episode featured the Haxil Beast, a huge demon that was nonetheless shown on-screen for quite a while.
- This is done with invisibility in one episode early on in the show's run. We get one quick CGI shot of a floating baseball bat and at one point the invisible character hits another character with a baseball bat... the hand of which is just off-screen.
- Another one relating to the seventh season. The Big Bad can take the form of anyone that has died and its true form is only seen a couple of times. Quite lucky that Buffy herself has died twice in the show's continuity, which means that Sarah Michelle Gellar could easily double up and appear as the First when they didn't want to stretch the budget by bringing back old cast members for every episode.
- Due to budget limitations, Marcus's telescoping fighting staff in Babylon 5 was opened and closed mostly off-screen.
- Although they did take care to actually show it open up when it was used for the first time.
- Not quite a superpower, but watch Stargate SG-1 enough, and you'll notice almost every time the Gate is opened on Earth, it's either just off screen, behind the iris, or one of the stock shots they probably filmed a decade ago.
- The "kawoosh" was made by hanging an airplane turbine over a pool and filming the resulting effect underwater. Not the cheapest effect to reproduce repeatedly. By later episodes, they could've CGIed it, but had no reason to, as the thing ends so quickly that no one notices it's the same effect.
- The crew did, however, make sure they set up multiple cameras and got many shots of the "kawoosh" to maximize their use of a hard-to-reproduce effect.
- Also, for some reason, you would almost never see the gate close. Again, it was usually stock footage of one of the times we saw it in the premiere, but you don't even see that every day. The overwhelming majority of the time, the gate closing consists of the sound being heard an instant after the camera cuts away from the open gate.
- There are also only two "full" stargates built for the show; every other one seen is made of laminated cardboard and thus shown face on at all times.
- Forever Knight actually used on-screen flying effects in the first season, but because of safety and budget issues, decided to imply Nick's flight by just having him lifted up before cutting to an in-flight viewpoint and then to him "landing" at his destination.
- The hero of Manimal could (implicitly) turn into any animal. Unfortunately, Stan Winston only made Transformation Sequence effects for a hawk and a panther. He also made a large snake transformation, which was seen on-screen a big total of once. Any other transformations happened off-screen.
- Wizards of Waverly Place somehow manages to have the worst of both worlds. Despite centering around a trio of Wizards in training, who you'd think would be using magic as often as possible to practice, they generally only use a couple of effects per episode, and those effects due to budget constraints look very very cheap.
- In episode 8, the cast get a dragon which has been made to look like a dog so that he is allowed to be seen in the mortal world. He does occasionally fly and breathe fire, but always appears as a dog and is never shown as a dragon, even when only among wizards.
- Much of Disney shows have similarly "special" effects, even the non-fantasy genre ones. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (Suite Life on Deck) had a the owner of the ship (I forgot his name), drugged and sent in a balloon. And then later someone got away in a plastic bubble. The plastic bubble was a giant beach ball rolled off stage with nobody in it, and the flying balloon appeared to be done with a blue-screen chair and with characters looking up alot and voiceover.
- The 4400. The vast majority of characters had really, really cheap powers. This got really bad with Isabel. She had ALL possible abilities... and only really used one, telekinesis. Minor powers used include changing her eye color and making a pool warmer. Yet they kept saying she had many amazing powers. Somewhat compensated for by how original and cool many of these cheap powers were, such as a b-movie director who could see the events of the past exactly, so he figured out the Kennedy assassination and a powerful conspiracy... but channeled them solely into horrible, cheesy, low-budget films.
- In the first episode of Merlin, the titular character can use his magic to slow down time fairly easily. Since then, however, he's only been shown to do it once. This is presumably because it is hard to film.
- And, of course, it's illegal in-universe. Hard to film, yes, but it's not going to happen a whole lot anyway.
- Another example is when two assassins use shape-shifting amulets to impersonate a pair of knights and enter a tournament. After they are killed, Gaius removes the amulets before removing their helmets and revealing their true identities, preventing the need for any face-changing special effects.
- The 1980s miniseries/series V had reptilian aliens who wore clever disguises to pass as human. And, since reptile-face makeup is expensive and hard on the actors, the aliens wore their clever disguises even aboard their spaceships when no humans were around to see. Also, in V: The Series, the Visitors lost the reverb effect added to their voices in both mini-series.
- Jekyll: Hyde's superspeed ability requires very little in the way of effects except perhaps for the odd cut to reveal that, while a character's back was turned, Hyde has warped in front of him. The one scene where he demonstrates it by daring an Asshole Victim to attack him with a knife consists of the camera spinning around him real fast and ending with him behind the victim.
- Later seasons of Quantum Leap's budget cuts caused the famous Mirror Reveal to be a one-camera, Sam-to-mirror-to-Sam panned shot.
- There were plot-critical reasons for the main Cylons in the retooled Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined) being human-looking, but there was still an element of "save frakloads of money on having to make CGI robots for every episode". Indeed, this trope took place in the very planning stages; the Cylons were redesigned as human-looking because the creators counted that they could only afford one Cylon suit good enough to convince modern audiences, while CGI was still too expensive to rely on constantly. However, as the miniseries was past and it was time to start filming the main series, the CGI prices had fallen significantly, and they managed to squeeze in more Centurions than they had initially thought possible.
- Misfits thrives on this trope. Of the five main characters, four of them have abilities that require practically no effects (time-rewinding and telepathy only need a rewound camera shot and tiny voiceover, respectively; sex pheromones and immortality need even less effort) and the fifth (invisibility) only needs a brief effect to show it happening, which usually occurs off-screen. Other powers featured so far include mind control, really fast-acting alopecia, de-aging, uncontrollable rage and becoming a dog (who still looks human), none of which require any effects whatsoever.
- Furthermore, the invisibility is almost always shown from Simon's perspective, and he can still see himself. So far there's been one instance of the other characters perceiving objects moving on their own.
- Not to mention most only used their power once per four episodes. In the alternate Nazi reality episode, we only got to see one using and had to guess if the others even had theirs.
- Mocked in the "Mr Neutron is Missing" episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, where the episode ends before the story is resolved because the studio runs out of money. Shortly before the credits run, the narrator tries to explain what was going to happen, and how expensive the various scenes were going to be.
- Supernatural gets around a lot of budget problems by giving practically every creature the ability to transform into or possess a human. Angels apparently have enormous inhuman forms, but humans are incapable of perceiving them without their eyes burning out, and to interact with things on Earth they have to take human hosts. Demons are occasionally briefly seen as black smoke, but mostly possess humans and give them weird eye colors. Then there are the more obtrusive examples, like werewolves who look like humans with long nails, fangs, and weird eyes, some kind of spider monster that somehow looked like a human with a messed up face, and most notably the time they fought dragons with the convenient ability to look human almost all the time (although their draconic forms did appear briefly).
- H2O: Just Add Water doesn't ever show Emma actually freezing something. She points her hands at whatever she's freezing and squints really hard. Then we get a CGI shot of ice molecules appearing (the same one is used each time) and it cuts to the object already frozen. Rikki's power is also very easy to simulate since it involves boiling water done via smoke effects. Cleo's power on the other hand does require plenty of CGI effects which is probably why you rarely see her using her water manipulation to lift objects unless they're inside the water. Also they do have a CGI effect for the girls turning into mermaids - their body turns to water and then you see them with the tails but more often you'll either just see them jumping into the water and they'll already be in mermaid form when it cuts to an underwater shot or they'll fall to the floor out of shot (with the transformation sound effect) and it'll cut to them on the floor with the tail.
- The series finale of M.A.N.T.I.S. pitted the Powered Armor-clad hero against an invisible giant killer dinosaur.
- In BIONICLE, the characters seem to use their Elemental Powers in far more elaborate and interesting ways in the written media than they do in the Direct-to-DVD movies. For example, Gali performing a Nova Blast and crushing the entire realm of Kharzani with a Giant Wall of Watery Doom in a written web serial, but only doing a bit of Floating Water and Healing Hands in The Movie.
- In Bionicle 2, none of the Toa can be seen using their elemental powers (save for the ending, when they focus them into an unspectacular but shiny beam), because they've depleted them off-screen, while in Bionicle 3, they don't use any kind of power (element or mask-related), because they have been mutated into forms that don't support these powers. Again, the only way they do use their elemental powers is via colored energy spinners, which are far easier to animate.
- Parodied in a The Incredibles DVD Extra, with a horribly low-budget in-universe animated show in which most superpower use is just off-screen. Made even funnier in the commentary on the DVD, which is made by Frozone and Mr. Incredible themselves. Frozone is less than impressed. That cartoon was a parody of Clutch Cargo, a series from the late 1950s which also used Synchro Vox.
- An even funnier thing to note is that fantastic superpowers and gigantic explosions are generally a lot easier for computers to render than more mundane, everyday movements like shirt grabs or brushing one's hair. The latter actions occur only a few times over the course of the movie - in fact, Pixar's animators pointed to the shot where Bob pokes a finger through a hole in his old suit as the single hardest shot to pull off in the entire film by far. This is at least partly because everyone knows exactly what brushing your hair looks like, and when done wrong it looks jarring. By contrast, how many times have you seen a woman turn into a rubber raft or giant parachute in Real Life?
- Parodied also in Freakazoid!, in "Tomb of Invisibo", featuring an invisible bad guy with a not-invisible staff. The announcer even let the watchers know that the following segment had been made when low on budget. Then the villain's staff appeared suspended on fishing line for a while. ("The following special effects are not scary, please pretend that they are"). After a few scenes of this, the announcer declares that the executives were shamed into raising the budget, and the invisibility is done "properly" from that point on.
- An exceptionally silly example, since as an animated show it was probably easier to do have the villain truly invisible (and just show the staff) than to bother depicting the "wires". Of course, one expects "exceptionally silly" from Freakazoid.
- Superman actually gained his trademark ability of flight in animation because they didn't want to have to animate him running and jumping to get around, and even when they did, it looked kinda silly seeing him bounce all over the place. This is why his famed listing of powers mentions leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but not the presumably more impressive flight.