Chapter 2: Key Visual Effects moments throughout the 20th century

Visual Effects has been in film since the beginning of the 20th century. Blockbuster films such as Avatar, Jurassic Park and The Avengers are films people think about when the term Visual Effects is used. Exploding cars and large fantasy battles! Filmgoers in today’s society just expect the Visual Effects they are watching to be a grand spectacle because they take it for granted. However, Visual Effects didn’t always look as it does today. Certain technologic advancements happened throughout the 20th century. Rom wasn’t built in a day and neither was Visual Effects. Key moments took place throughout the 20th century for this feeling amongst both the general public and filmmakers that Visual Effects is taking over the film industry.

In the early 1900’s, Visual Effects was known as Visual Magic. This was done through the use of smoke and mirror’s to create illusions and tricks, which would then startle the audience. Computers where a thing of the distance future. Visual Effects, or Visual Effects as it was known then, were mostly done in-camera, using miniatures, matte paintings and jump cuts.

The first type of stop motion was used in, The Enchanted Drawing (1900). In the same year, the first miniature scale models and the first focus dissolve where created the, A Railway Collision (1900) and Let me Dream again (1900) respectively.

George Mellies, a French filmmaker, lead the way for many developments in the industry in the early 20th century. He created a 14-minute revolutionary masterpiece called A trip to the moon (1902). Why was this so groundbreaking? Before he created this film, he established the art of magical Visual Effects and then he expanded and perfected them in his later work, such as this film.

Edwin S. Porter, who helped switch films to actually focus on the story, directed, The life of an American Story (1903). This is where the narrative actually began to play a part in the film, however in todays society it is felt amongst a select few that the story is secondary to the visual images taking place on the screen.

In the industry today, almost every film we watch combines live action and animation in some sort of way. The first piece to accomplish this was back in 1914, Gertie the Dinosaur. Due to technology forever developing, we are seeing it done in almost every film we watch. All of these key instances so far have all an important part to play in making Visual Effects what it is today.

One of the most revolutionary films to have come out of the early 20th century was The Thief of Bagdad (1924). “It was on level with the Wizard of Oz”[1]. This is a statement by world known film critic, Roger Ebert. Why was this film so groundbreaking? It was the first film to use the Chroma keying process, which is still used in today’s industry. Removing a character from a background and placing them against another background is standard practice in today’s film industry with large Green and Blue screens becoming very much a part of the set, just like a prop. However many actors and actresses have claimed to dislike acting against a green screen.

Sir Ian McKellen, while filming The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), “I felt pretty miserable. It’s not what I do for a living. I act with other people, I don’t act on my own”[2]. All this stems back to The Thief of Bagdad for beginning this technique.

Another film that has played a huge part in making Visual Effects the titan it is today, is The War of the Worlds (1953). This was the first Visual Effects Popcorn movie. It featured pulsating colour Visual Effect’s. This film would then go on to inspire other Visual Effect blockbusters such as Independence Day (1996) and War of the Worlds (2005).

One of the supposedly greatest ever Visual Effects film Gravity (2013) was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 awe-inspiring film 2001: A space Odyssey. This is a film which was created back in the 60’s and many still believe to this day it features the most realistic footage of space ever created. “Stanley Kubrick’s colossal head-trip stands as one of the cinema’s most painstakingly accurate depictions of spaceflight”[3].

Visual Effects then evolved further in the 1970’s, when The Andromeda Strain (1971) was created. This was the first film in history to use advanced optical photographic Visual Effects, the first film to use computer rendering. This new type of technology then allowed for future technology to go even further and is a process, rendering, that is used in all Visual Effect companies and film industries all around the world.

Westworld (1073) was the first film to use 2-D generated images. This was directed by Yul Brynner and then three years later, he created the sequel Futurworld (1976). This is where technology and Visual Effects really took a large step in its developments because Futureworld was the first film to use 3D CGI, “for a short CGI, representation of a face”[4].

The 1970’s were a big stage for the evolution of Visual Effects, with blockbuster films such as Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and Superman (1978) being created.

This then continued on in the 80’s with films such as Bladerunner (1982) and Tron (1982) being created. However, probably one of the most ground-breaking films, Visual Effects wise, created in the 80’s was The Last Starfighter (1984). Up until then, all space vehicles where created using miniatures, but director Nick Castle used photo-realistic CDI models instead of miniatures. The majority of films now, if not all, use photo-realistic CGI models but because of that, do we tend to over use it. Many people favour the old school technique of using real-on-set objects, like the Original Star Wars Trilogy for example, instead of overusing CGI like was used in the prequels. Maybe this is why Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is being so largely built up for its highly anticipated release in Christmas 2015. “J.J Abram’s mandate from day one was the authentically and being as true to the original trilogy as possible. And he felt the prequels were flawed by the fact that they had every CGI tool known to mankind and used everything at their disposal”.[5]

In the late 1980’s/early 1990’s optical printers because to be replaced by computers. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) is where many people feel that Digital Visual Effects was born. The liquid metal effect. Director James Cameron wanted to develop Terminators T-800. ILM (Industrial light and magic) then created the sophisticated CGI imagery and created the Liquid Metal Robot, T-1000. This same type of technique was used nearly a quarter of a century later in Terminator Genisy’s (2015), when the morphing robot returns, however “there’s nothing quite like the original”[6].

The Lawnmower Man (1992) was the first film to use a technique, which is heavily used in today’s Visual effects industry. It recorded actor’s movements using a sensor-covered body suit (more commonly known as Motion Capture). This type of technology has been heavily used in Peter Jacksons Lord of The Rings trilogy, for Gollum and then for Azog in The Hobbit trilogy, which or course has been heavily criticised for it over usage of Digital Visual Effects.

All of these key-moments and discoveries have helped build Visual Effects into the titan it is today. Films today simply couldn’t be created without Visual Effects and Visual Effects wouldn’t be what it is today without these key moments throughout the 20th century. However, just because films in today’s industry cannot be created without the assistance of Visual Effects doesn’t mean that the filmmakers have to over-use it and sometimes just let the story steer the film instead of the visuals.

[1] Ebert, R. (2009) ‘The thief of Bagdad movie review (1940)’

[2] Pulver, A. (2014) ‘The Hobbit’s Gandalf almost proved a greenscreen too far for Ian McKellen’, The Guardian, .

[3] Chernov, M. (2014) ‘“Interstellar” and the 10 most realistic space travel films’, .

[4] Visual and special effects film milestones (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 31 October 2015).

[5] McKnight, B. (2015) ‘The extreme lengths JJ Abrams went to connect the force awakens to the original Star Wars trilogy’, .

[6] Herzog, K. and @KennyHerzog, K. H. F. (2015) ‘How James Cameron and his team made Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s liquid-metal effect’, .


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