This summer we again have a slew of movies that contain impressive special effects. From cars falling out of airplanes in Furious 7 to Ant-Man’s microscopic action sequences, and Mission Impossible’s daredevil aerobatics on the side of an airplane. Today, special effects are ubiquitous in movies and there seem to be new ones that push the envelope of what is possible all the time as movie studios and filmmakers try to outdo themselves and impress audiences. But special effects have been developed over many years in tandem with the development of cinema. And today’s mind blowing special effects owe a debt of thanks to the movies that came before them. So here we look at 11 movies that contained special effects that changed filmmaking forever. Listed in chronological order.
11. King Kong (1933)
It might be hard to imagine now, but movie audiences had never seen anything like the stop motion animation they saw in 1933’s King Kong, which at the time was a major achievement in both special effects and filmmaking. Special effects wizard Willis O’Brien created masterful, detailed stop motion effects in the film of giant ape King Kong, as well as a number of prehistoric dinosaurs. He used matte paintings, 18-inch miniatures of King Kong, rear projection and painstaking stop-motion animation to create the effects in the movie, which included a scene where King Kong battles a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the classic finale where King Kong scales New York’s Empire State Building and fights an armada of airplanes. Willis O’Brien had the tricky task of inserting puppet dinosaurs into scenes with live actors, which at the time was extremely difficult. However, the results thrilled moviegoers in 1933 and set a new benchmark for what is possible with film special effects—particularly stop motion animation.
10. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
An Arabian Nights fantasy film, 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad contains a number of special effects that were truly incredible in their day, including a flying magic carpet, a six-armed mechanical assassin, a toy horse that could fly, a battle with a giant spider in its huge web, and a 50-foot-tall genie who grows immeasurably once released from a tiny bottle. At the time these effects were the first of their kind and deservedly won the movie the Academy Award for Special Effects for both photography and sound. The special effects used a combination of stop motion animation, models, paintings and classic cartoon animation. It was also one of the first movies to use the then-new “Technicolor” and it is one of the earliest films to employ blue screen technology, where actors perform in front of a screen and then a background is inserted later in post-production. The special effects were overseen by Lawrence W. Butler and used to create a thrilling adventure film that enthralled audiences and took special effects to new heights.
9. Forbidden Planet (1956)
The 1950s were a fertile period for science fiction films and special effects. To be fair, a number of films from the 1950s could be listed here, among them The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), War of The Worlds (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954). However, Forbidden Planet gets the nod for being the most innovative among a crop of science fiction classics. The film, directed by Fred Wilcox and based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, is the first science-fiction film ever made in color and CinemaScope. Forbidden Planet’s Oscar-nominated special effects employed miniatures for the spaceship, innovative set and art decoration that included soundstage scenic paintings and matte paintings to create the alien environment of planet Altair IV, and Robby the Robot, which was an electrically wired and remote-controlled prop that at the time cost $125,000 to construct and was the most expensive film prop to date in 1956. The movie also boasts the first all-electronic music score. And, Forbidden Planet used innovative animation to depict a night attack by flying saucers. All of these innovations showed future filmmakers what was possible in science fiction movies.
8. Mary Poppins (1964)
A Disney family film, Mary Poppins was the first movie of its kind to blend real life action with cartoons, and had actors such as Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke singing and dancing with cartoon penguins and carousel ponies. The special effects technique used in the film to combine live people with animated characters and backgrounds was called sodium-screen (or sodium vapor), a then-new dual film traveling matte system similar to the blue-screen process used today. It was revolutionary at the time and blew the minds of children and their parents. Mary Poppins was the first movie to win the newly-named Academy Award for Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects, and the film paved the way for subsequent movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Cool World, to name only two other live action cartoon hybrid movies. It also gave us a number of classic songs to sing such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Whew!
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director Steven Spielberg famously called 2001: A Space Odyssey his generation’s “Big Bang,” and it is easy to see why. The movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is a masterpiece that has not dated over time and continues to be one of the most realistic depictions of space travel to ever grace the big screen. Kubrick and his special effects team used miniature models of spacecraft, manually-guided pre-motion control cameras, rear-projection to display the film’s many video displays and computer monitors, full-sized props such as the 30-ton rotating “ferris wheel” spaceship, and other innovative techniques such as a primitive type of “Go-Motion” to create the many space environments and space crafts in the movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey also features the famous Star Gate sequence that had audiences at the time tripping out over the film’s depiction of light speed that used then-groundbreaking photographic techniques, and the giant Star Child image that concludes the film. Combined with a classical music score and some of the best editing ever in a movie (the scene where the caveman hurls a bone into the air and it cuts to a spaceship has been called the single greatest edit in film history) and you have a classic special effects movie that deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects.
6. Star Wars (1977)
The year 1977 was a landmark in movie special effects due to the release that year of George Lucas’ Star Wars and also Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A more cerebral modern day imagining of man’s first contact with aliens, Close Encounters lost the Best Achievement in Visual Effects Academy Award to the space opera that is Star Wars. However, it deserves mentioning that Close Encounters contains some innovative animated special effects that still impress today. Of course, Star Wars was truly innovative, revolutionary and mind blowing when released in 1977 and took science fiction films in a whole new direction. The movie’s climactic spaceship battle scene was filmed with an innovative motion-controlled camera that used a computer to control a long, complex series of camera movements. Hooked up to a computer, the Dykstraflex motion-control system (named after special-effects supervisor John Dykstra) issued a complicated series of movements to the camera to create remarkable never-before-seen shots. Star Wars was also the first major work of George Lucas’ visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which would become the biggest and most prestigious special effects company in film history.
5. Tron (1982)
Tron came out the same year as Blade Runner, and one could argue that it is Blade Runner that has had more of an influence of filmmakers and science fiction movies. However, for breaking ground in special effects and pushing filmmaking technique in a new direction, Tron deserves credit. Despite its convoluted plot, Tron was the first live-action film to use computer generated imagery (CGI) to a significant degree—about 20 minutes of the movie contain CGI effects. And the famous high speed “lightcycle” scene was created using a full three-dimensional graphics world that was created by legendary artists Syd Mead and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Other innovative special effects in Tron include backlight animation, in which light was shown through a specialized filter through each frame to create extraordinarily vibrant colored light effects. Ironically, Tron was refused an Academy Awards nomination because voters at the time felt that the film “cheated” in its use of computer animation. Today, the effects pioneered in the movie are the norm in Hollywood.
4. The Abyss (1989)
The 1985 movie Young Sherlock Holmes featured the first three-dimensional digital or computer generated animated character in a full length movie. Created by Pixar, “the stained-glass man,” a knight composed of shards of stained glass that comes to life, was the first computer animated character to be scanned and painted directly onto a movie using a laser. However, it was director James Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss that was the first to employ the technique to great effect. The movie’s underwater visual effects, especially of the watery, snake-like alien “pseudopod” were the first example of computer generated water, as well as the first computer generated three-dimensional character. In fact, the alien water probe sequence in The Abyss lasts only 75 seconds but took 8 months to create. The water-based life form called a pseudopod emulates the face of actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the film, which had never been seen before. James Cameron would use this same special effect technique in his next film Terminator 2: Judgement Day to create the liquid metal T-1000 character, and the special effect technique is used in countless movies today.
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
The dinosaurs featured in Jurassic Park were so lifelike that they sent audiences running for the movie theater door in 1993. Director Steven Spielberg combined animatronic and computer-generated photorealistic dinosaurs in the film, which were the first of their kind, and showed the prehistoric beasts with textured skin and muscles. The dinosaurs were created at Industrial Light & Magic and seamlessly integrated within live action sequences. There are 14 minutes of dinosaur footage in the movie, and only four of those minutes were created by computers. The original plan to use only stop motion versions of dinosaurs was scrapped when computer generation became a superior option. Other special effects featured in the movie included scale models of a Triceratops and Dilophosaurus, computer generated and animatronic Velociraptors, and a number of men dressed in rubber dinosaur suits. The end result is the most realistic and scariest iteration of dinosaurs ever in a movie. And Jurassic Park is widely credited with showing Hollywood the full potential of computer animation or CGI special effects.
2. The Matrix (1999)
The movie that gave us “bullet time” and spawned countless copycat films, 1999’s The Matrix combined a staggering number of special effects that take up about 20 percent of the movie. Directed by The Wachowskis, The Matrix used digital effects dubbed “flow-mo” and “bullet time” that slow down the movie’s action and rotate the camera angle at the same time. The effects were created using actors on wires, motion capture technology, and filming segments of the movie with multiple still cameras placed at different angles, and then enhancing the picture with computer animation. Other special effect innovations include camera tracking around frozen action, shoot-outs, virtual backgrounds, biomechanical monsters with tentacles known as Sentinels, and airborne kung-fu fights among actors. There is also Japanese anime used in the movie and cool cyberpunk chic clothing. It all combines to make The Matrix groundbreaking and extremely influential. It’s hard to go to a summer blockbuster today without recognizing some element of The Matrix in it.
1. Avatar (2009)
James Cameron’s first feature film since Titanic in 1997 set a new benchmark in special effects and computer generation. It also single-handedly revived three-dimensional, or 3D, films from the dustbin. A futuristic, 3D live-action film, 2009’s Avatar rightly won the Academy Award for special effects. The film’s mammoth budget of more than $300 million was spent mostly on CGI effects. In fact, 40 percent of the movie is live action, while the majority, 60 percent, is photo-realistic CGI. James Cameron developed brand new cameras for the movie that simultaneously filmed in both conventional 2D and state-of-the-art 3D. The film utilizes motion performance capture-assisted CGI technology with actors on a stage (called the Volume) to create the blue colored Na’vi characters seen in the film. The technique of performance capture involved putting actors in bodysuits covered with tiny dots, while 140 digital cameras captured their every body movement. Another tiny helmet-rigged camera was used for recording finer facial, eye, and head movements. This digitally recorded data was then used by animators to create the completely computer generated Na’vi characters in their virtual world. Other striking elements in the movie included the visually stunning alien planet of Pandora and its lush tropical environments, as well as impressive military vehicles and weaponry. Movie theatres had to install special 3D projectors to show the completed film during Christmas of 2009. All the hard work paid off, as Avatar was the film that took CGI effects and 3D moviemaking into the future.