10 Visual Effects That Changed Cinema Forever

There will always be stories when you go to the movies, but it’s special effects that truly mark the passage of time in the annals of cinema. These groundbreaking visual effects opened the door to new eras of innovative filmmaking. Do you remember the first time you saw them? Relive the magic moments…

The film: ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902)
The effect: Georges Méliès puts a man on the Moon

Cinema itself was a special effect back at the turn of the 20th century, thanks mainly to innovator and technological pioneer Georges Méliès, who ushered in a new era of filmmaking with his 1902 short film. This was sci-fi before Christopher Nolan’s great-great-great-great grandaddy was but a twinkle in his great-great-great-great-great grandaddy’s eye: the 13-minute short tells the tale of a group of astronomers who travel to the Moon in a cannon-powered rocket, complete with special effects considered lavish for the time. The crowning moment – a scene imitated for over 100 years – sees the rocket land in the man in the Moon’s eye. Okay, so it’s no 'Gravity’, but bear in mind this was cinema with one eye on the stars at a time before even the first manned flight had taken place.

The film: 'King Kong’ (1933)
The effect: Stop-motion animation

Animation is a medium modern audiences taken for granted, but it has come on leaps and bounds since its first baby steps. Stop-motion animation – the act of posing a model, shooting one frame, moving it slightly then shooting again ad infinitum – had been used in movies before Merian C. Cooper’s creature feature, most notably 1925’s dino pic 'The Lost World’, but none used it quite so memorably as he in 1933: no mere man in a monkey suit, Cooper’s King Kong was a fearsome beast that felt every bit as alive as Peter Jackson’s CG creation over 70 years later. The technique was later refined by the likes of Ray Harryhausen, who used it to thrilling effect in adventure movies like 'Jason And The Argonauts’, but they key was always emotion: animators would only move the characters if they knew the characters would move us.

The film: 'Star Wars’ (1977)
The effect: Creating a galaxy far, far away

It’s hard to fathom a world before 'Star Wars’ existed – for certain younger generations it has been nothing less than ever-present. Older generations, however, will remember the sheer giddy thrill they felt in the opening seconds of George Lucas’s space opera, when the Blockade Runner zooms into view, swiftly followed by the gargantuan Star Destroyer vessel hoving into the picture, dwarfing the Rebel ship in its sights. Lucas has long been a visual effects pioneer and in founding Industrial Light & Magic in 1975, laid the groundwork for several stunning special effects benchmarks to come. 'Star Wars’ represented the perfect blend of miniatures, practical effects and digital inserts: the sense of immersion was total and all-conquering. Love him or hate him, Lucas is the grandfather of modern movie VFX.

The film: 'An American Werewolf In London’ (1981)
The effect: Werewolf transformation

There is no sub-genre of movie that better argues the case of practical effects versus digital effects than the werewolf movie. When was the last time you saw a werewolf movie with a truly shocking transformation scene? Chances are anything made in the last 20 years has relied on CG to turn man into wolf, painting over the pain with pixels: it’s just not the same. John Landis’ lupine adventure, however, expertly utilised practical effects to create a werewolf transformation that still makes audiences uncomfortable 34 years later. Rick Baker was the man who made the magic happen, with all manner of prosthetics and animatronics; the Academy were so creeped out by the infamous scene, they dusted off the category of Outstanding Makeup in its honour. Baker has won the award six times since.

The film: 'Tron’ (1982)
The effect: CGI

“Without 'Tron’, there would be no 'Toy Story’,” says John Lasseter, who knows a thing or two about animation milestones himself. Computer-generated imagery – or CGI in today’s parlance – was still in its infancy in the early 80s; it was more of an experimental technique than a proper tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. 'Tron’ changed all that. The painstakingly-created digital world – an aesthete’s dream of jet black and neon reds and blues – was a marvel of modern technology and opened the doors for those forward-thinking filmmakers willing to take their computer experiments further. Bizarrely, the Academy refused to recognise Tron’s achievement in the field of special effects; they thought the use of computers was “cheating”. And people think the Academy is out of touch…

The film: 'Young Sherlock Holmes’ (1985)
The effect: The first CGI character

Not even hardcore Holmes fans will own up to loving this 1985 flop, but 'Young Sherlock Holmes’ will always have a place in cinematic history. The film, directed by Barry Levinson with special effects provided by a young John Lasseter, was the first to contain a photo-real computer-generated character. The effect of a knight formed from the pieces of a stained-glass window is still an eye-opener today, but back in 1985 it was nothing less than a revelation: proof that CGI could and would revolutionise blockbuster filmmaking. Some years later, James Cameron, with the help of ILM, took the techniques learned on 'Young Sherlock Holmes’ to create two more terrifying CG characters: the pseudopod in 1989’s 'The Abyss’, and the liquid metal T-1000 in 1991’s 'Terminator 2: Judgement Day’. And the best was yet to come…

The film: 'Jurassic Park’ (1993)
The effect: CG makes stop-motion extinct

The story goes that upon seeing the CG dinosaurs created by ILM’s Dennis Muren, 'Jurassic Park’’s stop-motion animator Phil Tippett remarked to director Steven Spielberg “I think I’m extinct!” Computer-generated imagery had evolved beyond Hollywood’s wildest dreams in less than a decade, and 'Jurassic Park’’s dinosaurs – particularly the rampaging T-Rex – rubber-stamped the new technology, announcing that it was here to stay. When combined with the animatronic work of Stan Winston, the ILM dinosaurs looked realer than real – even today it’s difficult to differentiate between the digital and practical effects. Like 'The Lost World’ in 1925, 'Jurassic Park’ did the impossible and brought dinosaurs back to life, to the delight of audiences worldwide.

The film: 'The Matrix’ (1999)
The effect: Bullet-time

The Wachowski siblings had lofty ambitions indeed – they wanted to free their movies from the shackles of traditional filmmaking and to set their camera free. 'The Matrix’ was a movie of many a great achievement – perhaps the most impressive was making Keanu Reeves a star again – but the bullet-time effect was the best of the lot: an impossibly dazzling 360 degree shot that circled its star in slow-motion as he limboed under bullets. Bullet-time was achieved by setting up a circular rig of several dozen cameras, all poised to shoot sequentially, allowing the camera to appear untethered. As technologically advanced as the technique was, the most important thing was that it looked bloody cool.

The film: 'The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers’ (2002)
The effect: Motion-capture

Arguably, George Lucas was the first man to commit to a fully-CGI lead character in a mainstream movie, but the fact he did so with Jar-Jar Binks kind of diminishes that achievement. Three years later, however, and Peter Jackson’s WETA took the throne with Gollum: an eye-rubbingly realistic CG addition to Tolkien’s fantasy epic. The reason Gollum worked where Jar-Jar did not was down to the pioneering use of motion-capture, or performance capture, as the pros prefer to call it. Andy Serkis suffered the indignity of wearing a suit covered in ping-pong balls while on set, but the finished product was jaw-dropping. Gollum kickstarted the performance capture craze of the 00s and Serkis became the go-to guy for breathing life into digital creatures such as King Kong and Godzilla.

The film: 'Avatar’
The effect: 3D comes of age

3D has, of course, been around for donkeys years, albeit in the crude form of crappy paper spectacles and blurry blue and red visuals. James Cameron doesn’t roll like that. The director actually had to wait for technology to catch up to his vision of a 3D fantasy epic: 'Avatar’ was the first movie to create a three-dimensional world it actually felt like you could step into and explore. Combining bleeding edge performance capture with state-of-the-art 3D – using brand new techniques created specifically for the film – 'Avatar’ proved itself to be more than just a gimmick and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. It is the sole reason you still have to pay £1.50 for glasses every time you go to the cinema, but few movies give you your money’s worth quite as much as 'Avatar’ did.

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