The movie industry has consistently relied on some type of visual effects even in the early years of film making. Even in the earliest days in movie history, films have used visual magic (“smoke and mirrors”) to produce illusions and trick effects that have startled audiences. In fact, the phenomenon of persistence of vision (first described in 1824 by British physician Peter Mark Roget) is the reason why the human eye sees individual frames of a movie as smooth, streaming action when projected.
As time progressed, it’s really no surprise that the amount of special effects utilized in films is constantly increasing. Special effects help to create the fantastic, the things that simply do not exist in our world, or to help create a completely unique visual experience. The early years of film making relied on practical effects, now the majority of effects are created through the use of a computer.
The earliest effects were produced within the camera (in-camera effects), such as simple jump-cuts or superimpositions, or were created by using miniatures, back projection, or matte paintings. Optical effects came slightly later, using film, light, shadow, lenses and/or chemical processes to produce the film effects. Film titles, fades, dissolves, wipes, blow-ups, skip frames, bluescreen, compositing, double exposures, and zooms/pans.
Cel animation, scale modeling, claymation, digital compositing, animatronics, use of prosthetic makeup, morphing, and modern computer-generated or computer graphics imagery (CGI) are some of the more modern techniques that are widely used for creating incredible special or visual effects today.
Let’s take a look at the evolution of VFX in movies, looking back on the great moments of effects that helped to push the art form into what it is today.
One of a number of early achievements that helped pave the way for animation was by Briton Eadweard Muybridge who famously photographed The Horse in Motion in 1878. In a series of pictures, he captured frame by frame, how a horse’s four hoofs were actually off the ground at the same time.
Turn-of-the-century Frenchman/magician Georges Melies developed the art of magical special effects (and film editing) in earlier films and then perfected them and used them in later films, such as in La Voyage Dans la Lune (1902, Fr.), (aka A Trip to the Moon). It is a 14-minute ground-breaking masterpiece and generally regarded as the first sci-fi movie.
Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) was an early special effect spectacular, with innovative use of miniatures, matte paintings, the Schüfftan process, and complex compositing. Released back in 1937, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Walt Disney was the first-ever full-length animated film created by using the single-frame method. The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first feature-length Hollywood “talkie” film in which spoken dialogue (synchronized) was used as part of the dramatic action.
The movie King Kong, first released in 1933, remains as one of the finest examples of this VFX technique widely used in those times. The use of hand-drawn sketches in the single frame and stop motion technologies soon gave way to the more advanced technique of strategic camerawork for manipulating miniature models of movie sets, such as those used in the iconic Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.
An important innovation in special-effects photography was the development of the optical printer. Essentially, an optical printer is a projector aiming at a camera lens, and it was developed to make copies of films for distribution. Until Linwood G. Dunn refined the design and use of the optical printer, effects shots were accomplished as in-camera effects. Dunn demonstrating that it could be used to combine images in novel ways and create new illusions. One early showcase for Dunn was Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).
Color enabled the development of such traveling matte techniques as bluescreen and the sodium vapor process. The Wizard of Oz from 1939 is generally considered the first color film. Shot in technicolor, the negative was three separate strips of the color Red, Blue, and Green (RGB).
During the 1950s and 1960s, numerous new special effects were developed which would dramatically increase the level of realism achievable in science fiction films. Many films became landmarks in special-effects accomplishments: Forbidden Planet (1956) used matte paintings, animation, and miniature work to create spectacular alien environments. In The Ten Commandments (1956), Paramount’s John P. Fulton, A.S.C., multiplied the crowds of extras in the Exodus scenes with careful compositing, depicted the massive constructions of Rameses with models, and split the Red Sea in a still-impressive combination of traveling mattes and water tanks.
The 60s were the decade of some truly impressive practical effects that had moviegoers in awe at what was transpiring on the screen. One of those ground-breaking moments were with the infamous skeleton battle scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, established a new benchmark for special effects. The shots of spaceships were combined through hand-drawn rotoscoping and careful motion-control work, ensuring that the elements were precisely combined in the camera—a surprising throwback to the silent era, but with spectacular results. Backgrounds of the African vistas in the “Dawn of Man” sequence were combined with soundstage photography via the then-new front projection technique. Scenes set in zero-gravity environments were staged with hidden wires, mirror shots, and large-scale rotating sets. The finale, a voyage through hallucinogenic scenery, was created by Douglas Trumbull using a new technique termed slit-scan.
Star Wars introduced some advancements in special effects technology in the 70s, and the sheer amount of effects in the film were staggering, from aliens to spaceships and planets. The film also spawned a new special effects house, Industrial Light and Magic, which are one of the most popular visual effects studios today. Westworld from 1973 was the film is the first to use 2D computer animation in a significant manner. Superman from 1978 took filmmaking to another level by using a blue screen, cables, and smart camerawork to create a flying superhero that left the audience awe-struck. Not only was Star Wars a film that is still impressive to the VFX industry today, but 70s films like The Hindenburg, The Poseidon Adventure, and the horror classic The Exorcist brought together many different techniques, like matte paintings, which is a technique still heavily utilized in the VFX industry. Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind boasted a finale with impressive special effects by 2001 veteran Douglas Trumbull. In addition to developing his own motion-control system, Trumbull also developed techniques for creating intentional “lens flare” (the shapes created by light reflecting in camera lenses) to provide the film’s undefinable shapes of flying saucers.
The 80s saw a massive leap forward in visual effects with movies like Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Blade Runner featured a beautiful futuristic city with flying cars, floating advertisements, and more. The 80s introduced the first computer-generated images in a movie. Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan was the initial film to feature a completely computer-generated scene. Right after Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and the first CGI elements in a movie, Tron took this a step further and featured extensive sequences created entirely by the computer.
With the onset of the 90s decade, the world of CGI (Computer-generated imagery) opened up new possibilities to do what had previously regarded as impossible. With the advent of CGI technology, it was now possible to create life-like imagery that exponentially enhanced the audio-visual experience of the viewers. Arguably the biggest and most “spectacular” use of CGI is in the creation of photo-realistic images of science-fiction/fantasy characters, settings, and objects.
The 90s featured the first time motion capture technology was used in film, first seen in Total Recall (1990) for a very short x-ray sequence. Then, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) featured many distinctive visual effects shots, as the liquid metal terminator could morph into any character (a technology James Cameron first used in The Abyss from 1989).
In 1993, stop-motion animators working on the realistic dinosaurs of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park were retrained in the use of computer input devices. By 1995, films such as Toy Story underscored the fact that the distinction between live-action films and animated films was no longer clear.
Films like The Lord of The Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, and 2003) took motion capture technology to a totally new level in the 2000s, with the creature Gollum. It was one of the first films to heavily utilize motion capture, Weta Workshop was able to infuse an actor’s performance onto an entirely CG creature.
Other movies perfected this technique even further, like The Polar Express (2004) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) also pushed motion capture with the award-winning visual effects on Davy Jones, using facial motion capture technology to push the actor’s performance and capture realistic movements. This technology was pushed yet again in James Cameron’s Avatar, with advancements in facial and body motion capture.
We saw movies constantly trying to push the boundaries of visual effects in the 2010s, trying to achieve more realistic and believable visual effects that can hold up next to the real actors and not know the difference. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) for example features extremely realistic apes and many advancements in terms of motion capture and the visual aesthetics of the apes like the rendering of the fur. More films are being shot largely on green screen stages, leaving the rest of the film up to the VFX artists.
The award-winning series The Mandalorian uses a novel way of creating real-time CGI. While he began working on The Lion King (2019), John Favreau worked with visual effects vendor Moving Picture Company, technology developer Magnopus, and the game engine software Unity to develop a new virtual camera system that allowed him to film scenes in a virtual reality environment as if he was filming with physical cameras. On The Mandalorian, Favreau wanted to use this very same setup to aid live-action photography and also developed the video wall system.
While VFX was previously often seen as the icing on the cake of a film, it is now becoming more of a centerpiece. VFX is as much of a part of many blockbusters as the actors themselves.