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Special Effect Branding

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In the real world, things which serve the same purpose tend to have similar form factors: different brands of car do look different, but they're all recognizably automotive. Different models and brand of tank, plane, or gun all look different, but are still similar enough that someone not well-versed in the particulars would still be able to identify them at first glance.

Not so in Science Fiction: If two different races have similar technology, it must look radically different, even in the visual effects they use. One might think that Energy Weapons based on the same physical principles would give off a visual effect characteristic of that principle, so any weapon that works in the same way would look the same — not so. In fact, each weapon will reflect the race of its builder. This might seem doubly strange as the aliens themselves tend to all look exactly like humans with a funny nose glued on. The realm of Special Effects is the one place where show designers seem to remember that the product of alien development should look really radically different from Earth development — even though it's an area where one would expect form to follow function. Two species will not use the same special effects for the same technology, unless a point is being made that they are trading science (and not always then). Perhaps there's an intergalactic trademark office which registers the colors of laser beams. Lasers, incidentally, can be made any color but because the different wavelengths behave differently colors would probably end up distributed by the task the weapon was designed for rather than by species.

Note that this specialization is a comparatively recent phenomenon: In bygone days when budgets were lower, effects were harder and audiences cared less, everyone used the same film-negative effect for lasers, and the same V-2 spaceship design.

Specific form of Color-Coded for Your Convenience.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist
    • In Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), the Transmutation circles vary depending on what's being transmuted, whether the alchemist has seen the Gate, and other factors. Justified; different circles are designed to do different things.
    • In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the sparks from alchemy use are normally blue, but when homunculi regenerate or someone uses a Philosopher's Stone, they're red. Possibly to denote the consumption of human soul energy in the transmutation.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Star Wars:
    • Red lightsabers are Evil, Blue and Green are Good. Purple ones are apparently reserved for bad motherfuckers.
      • Averted in at least one Expanded Universe story, in which Leia's lightsaber is red. Corran Horn also manages to create a lightsaber that can do two different colours depending whether it's set to its regular length or an Awesome, but Impractical setting that turns it into a BFS.
      • In the EU, lightsabers come in a whole rainbow of colors, owing to the crystals that are used to focus the beam. You really don't know what color a lightsaber you made will turn out to be until you first switch it on. (At the time, only the original trilogy of films existed, and there was no reason to assume that just because the one bad Jedi we met had a red lightsaber and the two good ones whose sabers we saw had blue and green, it was a universal rule.) When by pure coincidence one of Luke's students activated his lightsaber for the first time and it turned out to be red, others worried what he'd think of the saber matching Vader's, but of course Luke didn't bat an eye.
    • A separate example is the colour of blaster and turbolaser weapons. In the original trilogy, this trope was used in the space battle scenes (where the Empire used green and the Rebels used red, an interesting reverse of the usual lightsabre colour branding) but was not used in ground fights, where all bolts were red. The prequel trilogy on the other hand used it for ground battles as well, the Naboo using green, the Trade Federation using red and the Republic using blue (confusing some Expanded Universe fans who were used to the games colouring ion-cannon fire blue.
      • A further example is in the Geonosis battle at the end of Attack of the Clones with the rockets: good rockets leave white trails of smoke while evil rockets leave black ones.
  • In the Harry Potter films, Death Eaters and Order members have different Apparating effects for no reason. Death Eaters turn into menacing clouds of smoke while Order members turn into blazes of white light. It looks rather cool, though.
    • A more justified example in that the (Slytherin to a man) villains tend to use a lot of green Avada Kedavra spells, while the (almost entirely Gryffindor) heroes stick to red Expelliarmus and Stupefy spells.
  • Star Trek franchise:
    • Played straight in the original cast films, where Klingon transporter visual effects were red and Federation transporter effects were white. (This led to a certain dissonance for fans in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock when Kirk, hitherto always seen transported with a white effect, was beamed up from the Genesis planet with a red Klingon effect.)
    • Star Trek (2009): In the new Alternate Timeline films, phasers have red and blue emitters for Kill and Stun settings, respectively. Apparently, it's an entirely different technology fired from the same weapon, requiring you to switch barrels, rather than simply a lower setting of the same weapon.

    Live Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: Whatever may have happened in the old days, "The Christmas Invasion" raised some loud arguments in fandom because the Sycorax and "Pilotfish" used the same visual effect for their teleports. The plot thickened somewhat when the "pilotfish" returned for "The Runaway Bride" and were revealed to have nothing whatever to do with the Sycorax.
    • Also, there was a spoiler for Doomsday in the trailer for Army of Ghosts: a brief clip of action from the second episode was inserted instead, and it contained the distinctive Dalek gun effect and sound, revealing the shock appearance of the Daleks at the end of Army of Ghosts.
  • Star Trek:
    • This trope is avoided in most cases: for instance, both Klingon and Romulan ship-mounted disruptors use green effects, and both Cardassian and Federation phasers are the same yellow/orange color. (Despite their similarities, "phasers" and "disruptors" are different technology.) However, transporters generally follow this trope, having similar but distinct special effects: blue transporters for Star Fleet, red transporters for Klingons, green transporters for Romulans, and so forth. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine made a special point of this, as the titular station, though operated by Star Fleet, was of Cardassian origin and used Cardassian transporter effects.
    • In the TNG episode "Devil's Due", Ardra attempts to pass herself off as the devil of various cultures, and as a part of this she does supernatural things like appearing and disappearing at will. In the end Data proves that Ardra uses "standard transporter technology", but unlike all other transports in the franchise there is no visual or sound effect, implying a special version of the "standard" transporter process just for her.
  • Stargate SG-1 gives each major player their own radically different ship design and weapon effects, ranging from Egyptian pyramids to Earth naval ships to bioships, though there is an exception: the minor races all use the same (Goa'uld) design of ship, having acquired them second hand. That said, the technology of both humans and aliens in the Pegasus Galaxy of Stargate Atlantis looks quite different. Even the gates are of a different design (they're implied to be upgraded and have a more digital feel to them, while the Milky Way Stargates look analog). And despite their obvious usefulness, the Atlantis team does not appear to have brought any Zat guns or staff weapons with them, nor have they sent any Wraith stunners or (with one temporary exception) puddle jumpers back home.
  • Babylon 5:
    • Ships from every power look far different from each other, and even their propulsion systems and weapons are different, making the species owning them readily identifiable once they're introduced. Jumpgates all look the same, regardless of what species built them, but background material states that the tech was seeded to the younger races by the Vorlon.
  • Both used and subverted throughout Firefly and Serenity. The Alliance and civilian vessels (particularly Serenity) have very distinctive differences from each other. However, while definitely "branded" with their Spikes of Villainy, painted blood, and corpses, the Reaver ships are still recognizable by class - one shot from Serenity's fleet battle shows an Alliance frigate and a Reaverized counterpart of the same ship in great detail.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Averted in Space 1889. Martian things resemble human objects with a similar purpose. They can be a little bit more showy, though.

    Video Games 
  • In the Descent: Freespace series, apart from the fact they all use engines, lasers and subspace drives, it's hard to tell that Terran, Vasudan and Shivan ships are even from the same universe. The factions' laser cannons all have distinct colors. The MediaVPs take this further with the shields being different colors.
    • Terran vessels are boxy, grey and decidedly 'military' in aspect to reflect their 'utilitarian' attitude. In FreeSpace 2 they become more streamlined due to tech-sharing and Vasudan influence, although this process doesn't seem to work in reverse.
      • The early Vasudan ships, especially freighters such as the Bast and Ma'at classes, are as clunky and boxy as their Terran equivalents, but they seem to have crossed the starship Bishōnen Line much faster than the Terrans. Even the Shivans are going this way, from the harsh, severe, jagged asymmetrical contraptions of the first game to the insectile designs of the second.
    • Vasudan ships look vaguely like alien creatures, particularly beetles. According to the Tech Room, they are based off creatures that live or used to live on the planet Vasuda, supposedly because of their highly philosophical culture.
    • The Shivans... well their ships are painted black, red and silver and fire off red lasers. They also have the tendency to have random spikes sticking out, and be asymmetrical with an off-center engine. God knows how Shivans manage to balance their ships. Maybe that's why the captured Terran-modified asymmetric Dragon in FS1 was crippled, while the captured (symmetrical) Mara you flew in FS2 was awesome. But I digress. This, of course, shows that the Shivans are just plain weird (and evil).
  • Used in EVE Online. The Amarr have sleek, symmetrical, shiny golden ships with beam weapons. The Gallente have smooth-shaped, almost organic-looking green ships with Attack Drones and blasters. The Caldari have utilitarian, gunmetal grey/blue, angular ships with railguns and missiles. The Minmatar have rust-brown/red heaps'o'junk which fly at unsafe speeds and the larger ships fire car-sized artillery shells. Some of the minor factions also have their own designs. Angel Cartel fly ships that resemble the Shivans mentioned above, the Sansha ships look like they have been designed by a sadomasochist, the rogue drones are basically mechanical insects and the Jove fly Gigeresque biomechanical ships.
  • In Sins of a Solar Empire, the three sides have different ship designs and different weapons. Even weapons that are supposed to be similar between the sides have different effects. Most of the TEC ships are hastily-converted cargo haulers and passenger liners, and it shows. The Kol-class battleships are the only ones that were designed specifically for war, but their appearance is decidedly utilitarian. They primarily use pulsed lasers and kinetic weapons. The Kol is equipped with powerful red laser beams. The Advent are psychic cyborg humans whose ships feature sleek, gleaming designs. Their staple weapons are bright blue beams that look nothing like the TEC lasers. The Vasari, being nonhuman, feature vastly different designs, although not different enough not to be recognizable. They're still sleek, but alien sleek. Their weapons are mostly of the green plasma variety.
  • Star Control II has a wide range of Starfish Aliens and Rubber-Forehead Aliens, with ships designed to meet their physiological needs as well as using their unique weapons systems. While you may control ships designed by a specific race, you must also have pilots of that race to control them.
  • Sword of the Stars averts this trope in that all factions have similar effects for their weapons, and weapons effects in fact represent the technology level and type of the weapon - green lasers for example, used by anyone, are stronger than red lasers used by anyone. While each faction's ships do, however, look drastically different from the other factions' ships, the game does provide varying degrees of technological or cultural justification for this, including the fact that each faction has a different stardrive from the others around which they base their ships.
  • Champions Online uses this trope where it can - the ships of the alien enemy Qulaar are insectile and highly organic, while the ships of the froglike Gadroon are sleek, shiny, have no visible engine or thruster, and apparently Bigger on the Inside - a cruiser large enough for a full terraforming force with dozens of Gadroon is barely half again larger than an F-22. On the other hand, player characters have a huge variety of armor, weapon, and even jetpack styles to choose from, and many will mix and match.
  • Zigzagged in Dawn of War: While most races have unique projectiles (the Tau have blue plasma, the Necrons have green lightning), the Imperial Guard and Sororitas have very similar building animations while the ork Flash Gits use the same projectile as Ogryn Rippers, but then it's possible their snazzguns were Rippers before falling in the hands of the local mekboy.
  • Appears in a very specific variation in MechWarrior 4, which features technology from both the Inner Sphere and the invading Clans. Inner Sphere lasers fire red energy beams, but in spite of using identical technology (albeit extended to longer ranges), Clan laser beams are bright green. This makes it very easy to tell what kind of loadout an opponent is using based on what color of laser you see flashing past your cockpit viewscreen. This extends into their pulse laser technology, where you can also find red Inner Sphere-origin pulse lasers, green Clan-made ones, and Inner Sphere-built experimental blue 'X-pulse' weapons. The advent of the Mektek Mekpaks includes the amber-orange Clan-designed heavy laser to the mix. This breaks down to the primary colors, red and blue, being Inner Sphere technology, while the secondary colors, green and orange, denote Clan technology. Averted in the other games, in which comparable Clan and Inner Sphere weaponry are visually identical, as both use red-green-blue lasers, with blue being the most powerful.
  • In the Mass Effect series, standard biotics (Psychic Powers) are blue for every species except Protheans, who are green. Prothean holograms are also green instead of the blue or orange that other species use. Reaper technology is marked by an ominous red glow and black tendrils.
  • Crash Bash: In many of the minigames, each type of character would use things themed to them. For example, in the minigame Pogo Pandemonium, Crash and Coco use actual pogos, Dingodile and Rilla Roo use... some kind of modified pogo that shoots flames, Tiny and Koala Kong use spring coils attached to their legs, and Neo Cortex and N. Brio use Jump Jetpack.
  • Ships and weapons in the X-Universe follow this. Every faction that builds ships does it differently. For example, Teladi love ballistic weapons and have yellow, junkyard-esque ships, while Terrans fire brilliant white electromagnetic plasma bolts from their blindingly white ships. Each race has their own set of ships, and as of Terran Conflict, their own unique weapon set, which typically only usable by their own ships and their allies - Argon and Boron, Paranid and Split. Teladi buy their stuff from everyone, so they can mount schizophrenic loadouts. Terrans are independent, and cannot use any non-Terran weapons in their ships. However, there are generic weapons that can be used by any race, such as plasma throwers or photon pulse cannons.
    • Argon fighters look vaguely like diesel punk fighter jets (M3 Nova), while the capital ships are gray and boxy (M1 Colossus).
    • Boron ships are bright green and organic-looking, resembling fanciful sea creatures (M7 Thresher).
    • Paranid ships are grayish purple with lots of sweeping curves (M1 Zeus).
    • Split ships are rusty red with lots of sharp edges and flat panels (M7 Panther).
    • Teladi fighters are basically bluish slabs of metal with stubby wings (M3 Falcon Hauler), while the capitals are frequently likened to "flying junkyards" (M1 Condor).
    • Terran fighters resemble space shuttles (M3+ Cutlass), while the capital ships are big, white, boxy contraptions (M2 Osaka).
    • ATF ships tend to be spiky and angular, with lots of silvery gray (M1 Odin).
    • Kha'ak fighters are purple and pyramid-shaped (M4 Interceptor), while the capitals resemble giant insects (M1 Carrier).
    • Xenon ships are gray and boxy with Spikes of Villainy (M2 K).
  • Spaceships in FTL: Faster Than Light have very distinct designs depending on the faction that built them. Federation ships have mostly practical designs with few orange stripes, Rebel ships have orange hulls with blue stripes running on them, Engi ships look like metal boxes welded into a rectangular frames, Mantis ships have jagged red hulls, Zoltan ships have green rounded hulls with yellow spots, Rockmen ships look like they were made from rocks, Slug ships resemble jellyfish with purple paintjobs and Lanius ships look like knives and blue lights glued together. Ships of the Space Pirates are any of these ships but with purple paint sploshed on the hull and a Jolly Roger symbol, with octopus in place of a skull.

    Web Comics 
  • Well That Was Unexpected: Most types of energy weapons and spellcasting in the comic have their own unique visual and sound effects. However, one aversion shows up with the Tau and Eternus energy weaponry, which share a bright blue appearance and distinctive "FREEN" (or sometimes "BREEN") sound effect despite being from entirely unrelated sources.

    Western Animation 
  • Taken to an extreme in most Transformers series, where everybody's weapons are theirs and theirs alone. This is a combination of the Merchandise-Driven idea of making sure everyone uses the weapon they come with and launches the appropriate missiles, and the fact that, as Transforming Mecha, their weapons are more or less part of them. This doesn't explain why ships tend to have similar variety, though.
    • Averted in one of the G1 animated episodes. The Decepticons have captured the Autobots with the exception of Wheeljack. Wheeljack manages to infiltrate their holding cell, discovers his buddies are tied up, depowered, soaking wet (bad thing for robots), and with their carbine-shaped weapons piled sloppily in the corner. He then proceeds to go Guns Akimbo—pointing AT THE AUTOBOTS. "My friend's weapons! Hmm. Okay, Sideswipe's flare gun should dry off your circuits, and Bluestreak's bolts should give you all an instant recharge!" It's amazing the first thing Optimus didn't do was Face Palm: "It's a wonder the Decepticons didn't just kill us outright, but vector sigma, am I the only one that knows that guns are supposed to be for killing?"
    • Additionally, in some continuities, each faction has different colored beams from their energy weapons. The different factions also generally have different coloured eyes (blue for Autobots, red for Decepticons) although their optical sensors presumably all function the same way.
    • Beast Wars averts this. While all the characters do have their own signature weapons, the Maximals have a separate armory, supposedly for gunless characters like Dinobot.
    • Also, Transformers: Robots in Disguise has each of the characters having one of a set of identical Morph Weapons called Decepticon Hunters. Each team member has a different favored mode but can change it to another form if needed.