The History of Special Effects in Movies

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Going back to the precamera 1700s, when magicians used optical illusions to astound crowds, special effects have always captivated audiences. From the earliest days of film, directors have used special effects, or F/X, to better bring audiences into the confines of their film’s unique reality. Previously unimaginable sceneries could become a reality. Modern filmmakers tend to rely on computers for helping them generate the sophisticated special effects that moviegoing audiences expect.


Filmmakers have used miniature models to represent scenes that don't exist in the real world since the early 20th century. The 1902 release of “Trip to the Moon” featured innovative effects, one of which was the use of models to represent the moon’s surface and the spaceship that traveled there. Nearly a century later, the "Lord of the Rings," in 2001, continued the tradition of filmmakers using miniatures to recreate buildings and environments.


When actors are placed in front of a screen or “matte,” the director can project different images on to it, thereby giving the viewer the illusion that the actor is in a particular location. According to the University of California, Los Angeles, the use of matter effects began in the early 20th century, with the release of “The Great Train Robbery,” which used actual paintings behind the actors. When “Star Wars” was released in 1977, a new form of matting became the norm: this used a blue screen for the background.


Prosthetics were most memorably used in early monster movies such as “Frankenstein” (1931) and the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). Makeup artist Jack Kevan, who made prosthetics for amputees during World World II, created the creature’s bodysuit. Later examples of more convincing prosthetic usage include Johnny Depp’s character in “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) and the faun character in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

Computer-Generated Imagery

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) in film refers to the application of 3-D computer graphics to special effects. According to "Popular Mechanics," the 1982 release of the sci-fi film “Tron” was the first to use computer imagery to create a 3-D world. CGI rapidly developed in the decade that followed, leading to memorable effects, such as the liquid-metal robot's humanoid appearance in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) and the frighteningly realistic giant digital waves seen in “The Perfect Storm” (2000).