17 films that changed everything with their special effects

Clockwise from top left: A Trip To The Moon (Flicker Alley), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Warner Bros.), King Kong (Warner Bros.), Avatar (Disney), The Matrix (Warner Bros.)

Though they may seem a recent phenomenon, special-effects driven movies have been with us since the dawn of cinema. From the moment filmmakers realized that the camera and the editing room offered the potential for manipulation of images, directors have tried to push that manipulation as far as they could. Images once relegated to the imagination have been recreated on the big screen, sometimes with more success than others, but almost always with the goal of creating a more convincing illusion.

Considering what we can accomplish today on our cell phones, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when a simple split screen or a matte painting was considered a gasp-producing effect. Over the decades, filmmakers discovered rudimentary effects like dissolves and wipes before eventually moving on to more modernized visual trickery that involved blue screens and rotoscoping. Indeed, the story of film is the story of innovations, from the magic tricks of Georges Méliès to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So check out our list of 17 movies that changed the special effects game, and remember that in 1923 the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandmentsas cheesy as it may seem nowwas pretty freakin’ spectacular.

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A Trip To The Moon (1902)

A Trip to the Moon - the 1902 Science Fiction Film by Georges Méliès

A puppeteer and stage illusionist, Paris-born Georges Méliès quickly saw the potential in the newly invented cinematograph for visual trickery. His initial shorts were mostly tests to see what was possible; stop-action became an accidental invention when the camera jammed and he liked the effect. Méliès brought all his techniques to bear in the film that brought him the most fame: the 1902 Jules Verne/H.G. Wells inspired A Trip To The Moon. Dissolves, pseudo-tracking shots, double-exposures, and even hand coloring of at least one print made this the special effects extravaganza of its time–and it proved that audiences would be drawn to sci-fi spectacle onscreen.

Missions Of California (1907)

Missions of California (1907)

Before the backgrounds of epic movies could be filled in with CG backdrops, photo-realistic matte paintings were the go-to technique, frequently done on glass to fill in epic vistas that weren’t practical to film. Their first known use, however, was not in the service of any epic fantasy, but rather 1907’s Missions Of California, a silent documentary that simply showed images of historical mission sites in the Golden State. A viewer would scarcely know it to look at the footage, but artist Norman O. Dawn painted in roofs and bell towers to convincingly restore some of the more run-down buildings.

The Alice Comedies (1923-27)

“Alice’s Wonderland” (1923)- Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams/ Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies

Decades before Roger Rabbit took Eddie Valiant to Toontown, and years before Mary Poppins danced with penguins, Walt Disney brought a live-action girl into a cartoon world with The Alice Comedies. Animated by legends like Disney himself, Rollin Hamilton, Ub Iwerks, and Friz Freleng, the shorts found a home at Winkler Pictures, which had just lost rights to Felix the Cat. (Alice would interact with the totally-not-legally-the-same Julius the Cat.) There were 57 Alice shorts in all, firmly establishing the popularity of live-action/animation hybrids. If you haven’t heard of them, it’s probably because they’re in the public domain now and aren’t promoted by Disney, since the company has no way to profit from them anymore.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer (1927) First Sound Film | Al Jolson

Many of the things we take for granted today were special effects once upon a time. Such is the case with sync sound, which made a grand splash in the 1927 Al Jolson vehicle The Jazz Singer. Utilizing an elaborate Vitaphone sound on disc system–and playing silently in theaters that couldn’t afford it–the autobiographical tale of Jolson’s conflict between being a synagogue cantor and an entertainer (in blackface, alas) wowed audiences with the first synchronous score and dialogue. Behind the scenes, Warner Bros. introduced a less “special” effect–demanding a cut of the ticket gross, with a decreasing percentage each week to encourage the theater to play it longer. That practice remains in effect to this day.

King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933) - Beauty Killed the Beast Scene (10/10) | Movieclips

Stop-motion animation wasn’t invented for King Kong–Willis O’Brien had created similar dinosaurs for The Lost World, eight years prior, developing a realistic look for them with a skin-over-frame design and inflatable bladders to simulate breathing. Kong, however, was the first photorealistic (by 1933 standards) stop-motion character to be so expressive as to be emotionally relatable. Despite the fact that he’s a monster who eats the tribesman that worship him, and he spends the entire movie trying to sexually assault an actress (Fay Wray), his death throes, as he wipes away a tear and sneers at attacking planes, traumatized generations of kids. So much so that many, including directors John Guillermin and Peter Jackson, would grow up to remake him as progressively more sympathetic and a lot less rapey.

The Thief Of Baghdad (1940)

The Thief Of Bagdad (1940) Sabu and the Genius

Bluescreening is so well known as a technique that when referred to today, it doesn’t necessarily involve an actual blue screen. Chroma-key compositing—the reason TV weather forecasters can’t wear blue and celebrities wearing bright green invite a million Photoshop gags—replaced the silent film technique of double exposure over a black drape. In 1940’s The Thief Of Baghdad, special effects creator Lawrence W. Butler combined a blue screen with a traveling matte, pioneering the modern use of blue-screening as a technique to separate actors from backgrounds. Use of the revolutionary technique in this film—which earned Butler and Jack Whitney an Oscar for the category then-called Best Special Effects—created the illusion of a genie escaping from its bottle, while unleashing a metaphorical one of its own.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941) Official Trailer #1 - Orson Welles Movie

Citizen Kane is acclaimed for so many reasons that it isn’t typically thought of as an “effects” movie, yet Orson Welles created many new visual techniques in the process of directing the film. At the time most sets, like stage productions, would light from above, but Welles was determined to show actual ceilings, and in an age before cameras were especially portable, sawed holes in the floor (and drilled further into the concrete below) to get the kinds of low angle shots nobody had achieved before. Meanwhile, thanks to newly developed high-speed film, and experimentation with lenses and lighting, cinematographer Greg Toland was able to get the kind of extreme deep focus that had previously required split diopters. Rather than having to cut from wide shots to close-ups, he could capture everything from 18 to 200 feet from the camera, and create a new visual language favoring blocking over editing—one that has been largely negated in recent years by a preference for quick cuts, though it has proven useful for immersive 3D films like Avatar.

Bwana Devil (1952)

1952 - Bwana Devil - Bande annonce

As TV began to compete for eyeballs with the silver screen, filmmakers—especially in the exploitation genres—sought new gimmicks that couldn’t be reproduced in the home. For a time, they found it in 3D, which kicked off as a major craze with 1952’s Bwana Devil. It was the first wide-release sound and color feature film to make use of special polarized glasses that created the illusion of images popping out of the screen (on later home video transfers, the more headache-inducing red and blue lenses had to suffice). Like many 3D movies to follow, the Robert Stack-vs.-lions adventure was disliked by critics but successful nonetheless. It would take many more decades before serious A-list directors would embrace the illusion.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - Trailer

Long before the game-changing green screen replacement technology The Volume allowed for live, interactive digital backdrops on shows like The Mandalorian, Stanley Kubrick pioneered front projection with retroflective matting in 2001: A Space Odyssey. For most of the Dawn of Man sequence, the background is a projection on a massive 40 by 110 foot screen, necessitating a custom projector larger than any before to avoid any grain showing. To create most of the zero-gravity illusions, a giant centrifuge set combined with wires to hold the actors in place. For the Star Gate sequence, Douglas Trumbull created a custom device for slit-scan photography, which utilized a technique previously mostly used in still photography (and Hitchcock’s Vertigo) to create psychedelic images using slides with slits in them in front of the camera. Both the precise exposures of these images and the model work for spaceship scenes required the development of early motion control, in which precise camera movements could be repeated exactly for multiple passes.

Star Wars (1977)

Official Trailer: Star Wars (1977)

What 2001: A Space Odyssey started in motion control, Industrial Light & Magic head John Dykstra perfected with the invention of the Dykstraflex, an electronically controlled digital system invented to shoot sequences like the Death Star trench battle in Star Wars. The system, which allowed for the duplication of motion in seven different axes—roll, pan, tilt, swing, boom, traverse, track, lens focus, motor drive, and shutter control—won Dykstra and his team an Oscar. And it spawned many imitators since. Twenty years later, a version of the same movie, now titled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope Special Edition would pioneer the insertion of computer-generated effects into older movies. Audiences have not been as thrilled about that one.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) Theatrical Trailer

Though other sci-fi movies had utilized CG for visual effects (Tron) and even photoreal-for-the-time spaceships (The Last Starfighter), Young Sherlock Holmes is acknowledged as featuring the first photo-real CG character in a movie. He is admittedly a hallucination, but the knight that steps down from a stained glass window and appears to be made up of flat glass panels broke new ground. Not only was he CG, he was also the first to be composited with live-action backgrounds, and scanned and painted directly on to film with a laser. The folks responsible? A small group, then part of Lucasfilm, known as Pixar.

Willow (1988)

Willow Official Trailer #1 - Val Kilmer Movie (1988) HD

Terminator 2: Judgment Day gets most of the credit for morphing, the computer-generated transformation of one onscreen object into another, using mathematical approximations to fill in the gaps between stages. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lucasfilm got there first with Willow. Before the liquid metal T-1000 oozed into alternate shapes and faces, the sorceress Finn Raziel (Patricia Hayes) had to transform back into human form from a rodent. It’s not a direct route, however, as she hits several different stages in between, including a goat, ostrich, tortoise, and tiger. Puppets and real animals were used for the intermediary stages, but the shape-shifting was all digital magic.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993) Theatrical Trailer

Audiences in 1993 were frequently stunned to learn that many of the dinosaurs they’d just seen in Jurassic Park were entirely computer generated. Not all were, of course—Steven Spielberg used animatronics as well. But just like stop-motion in Willis O’Brien’s hands a generation before, CG began its most convincing illusions by bringing back dinosaurs. These prehistoric beasts moved in ways animatronics couldn’t, unrestrained by the need for men in suits or mechanical puppetry. And while many imitators tried and failed to make similar creatures (looking at you, A Sound Of Thunder!), the digital toolbox had been fully thrown open. Very few epic movies since haven’t had at least some CG effects, and a large percentage now use it almost exclusively.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999) Official Trailer #1 - Sci-Fi Action Movie

It’s hard to pinpoint when the first use of Hong Kong style-martial arts wirework made it onscreen. But we can nail down exactly when the aerial poses could freeze as the audience POV spins around the combatants. That’s Bullet Time, and it was invented for the Wachowskis’ The Matrix. Utilizing circles of cameras all running at once, and taking individual frames from each one, bullet-time allows unique slow-motion perspectives in and around combat choreography. In 1999, when Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was revolutionizing CG characters, it was the navigation of digitally enhanced battles, slowed from the speed of gunshots, that swept the sound and visual effects Oscars.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) Official Trailer #1 - Viggo Mortensen Movie HD

With photo-realistic CG creatures achieved, the next goal was to capture an actual actor’s performance in a photo-real character. Jar Jar and Yoda had “acted” by means of virtual puppetry, but the onscreen characters weren’t giving a pure translation of Ahmed Best or Frank Oz acting. Andy Serkis, however, became the first motion-capture A-lister as Gollum, fully revealed in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. His split-personality performance and soulful eyes conveyed a real complex being inside a CG body that couldn’t possibly be human. Serkis’ physicality was recorded with motion-capture, and his face animated based on footage of him acting the part. Full performance capture hadn’t arrived yet, but fully believable “synthespians” had.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Movies like Forrest Gump and Zelig had recreated dead people within altered newsreel footage, and TV commercials used the likenesses of Fred Astaire and John Wayne. Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, however, had the audacity to claim it co-starred Laurence Olivier, who’d been dead nearly 13 years. An episode of Tales From The Crypt had previously “starred” Humphrey Bogart by using subjective point-of-view cinematography and the camera seeing Bogart’s face in reflective surfaces. But Sky Captain director Kerry Conran’s digital manipulation of archival footage took things a step further. Sky Captain also opened the door for independent effects movies, as Conran shot the entire movie against blue screens, first with stand-ins and then with name actors, before going to studios and asking for money to finish the effects. (Two sets were created for scenes he didn’t have time to do the other way.) Virtual studios, so beloved by George Lucas during the Star Wars prequels, were now provably accessible to all.

Avatar (2009)

Avatar | Official Trailer (HD) | 20th Century FOX

Audiences had looked into Gollum’s eyes and seen a soul—but those eyes were animated nonetheless. For Avatar, James Cameron’s team created a Facial Action Coding System that actually captures the actors’ performances. The uncanny valley that so vexed Robert Zemeckis’ many efforts at performance capture, like The Polar Express, had finally been crossed: viewers could look into the face of Sigourney Weaver’s avatar body and see Sigourney Weaver’s eyes acting. It’s no easy trick to have nine-foot-tall aliens interact with humans—Battlefield Earth notoriously tried it with enlarged prosthetic heads and platform boots, making John Travolta look ridiculous. Cameron knew audiences would have to fall in love with Neytiri just as Jake Sully does—and all he had to do was create the technology to capture Zoe Saldana’s performance exactly, as a giant blue Na’vi.

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