Paving the way for VFX: A Century of Special Effects

Paving the way for VFX: A Century of Special Effects

Since the birth of filmmaking, directors, producers, and animators have used a combination of technological invention and pure creativity to bring their art to life, with astonishing effects. From early cinematic masters like Méliès and Eisenstein, all the way through to green screens and modern IMAX productions, Special effects have been a vital and dramatic factor in bringing action to life on the big and small screen. We have come to expect the slickest and most realistic VFX, but the industry owes much to pioneering ideas and techniques of yesteryear.

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And although groundbreaking effects had been noted and awarded at the Academy Awards since the inaugural ceremony in 1929, the subsequent decade saw such innovative pictures as King Kong hit the silver screen, and in 1938 the Special Achievement Award for Special Effects was created. There are far too many amazing special effects-led films to mention here, but let’s have a look at two eras that nicely punctuate the last (almost) century, and inspired the modern incarnation of VFX.

1940s & 50s

The Thief of Bagdad was released to great acclaim in 1940, with VFX pioneers Lawrence W. Butler and Jack Whitney bringing home the Oscar for the groundbreaking special effects. Genies, magic carpets, and many other tropes of the Arabian Nights tradition take center stage — and those themes are still prevalent today across popular culture. Fans of online slot games, for example, can find titles like 1001 Arabian Nights on which to spin and win, alongside other fun options like online bingo and casino games.

The 1950s was rife with sci-fi movies, and there are plenty of worthy winners to choose from, including Destination Moon and the 1954 Disney adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There are also some dreadful examples, such as cult B-Movie legend Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. But perhaps the most famous winner from that decade was Ben Hur, with the largest budget and largest sets of any movie in history at that point. The iconic chariot racing scene was the high-water mark for the 1950’s VFX.


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Let’s jump forward a bit. The late-60s heralded a ‘New Hollywood’, a fertile time for filmmaking where directors assumed more creative control. This provided us with some classic movies, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Easy Rider, to name just three big icons. Social commentary, psychology, or absurdist humor took center stage, and smaller budgets befitting auteurs generally (forgetting A Space Odyssey) put less emphasis on special effects. At least until the end of the 1970s, when Star Wars appeared on the scene.

The arrival of Luke Skywalker and his cohorts, coupled with the disastrous production and reception of Heaven’s Gate (often cited as the nail in the coffin for New Hollywood, although since it has been rehabilitated) put more creative control, and bigger budgets into the hands of the studios, and directors such as Steven Spielberg began pushing the envelope with their special effects — a look at the Oscar list for special effects from the 80s tells its own story: ET (Bladerunner was also a nominee that year), Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens… The 1980s was definitely the heyday of special effects.

The way films look today was very much shaped in the 1990s and early 2000s, as far as developing technology is concerned. That was the era where SFX turned into VFX, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar through to the Marvel franchise, and animation houses such as Pixar eclipsing traditional style Disney animations. But it’s important to remember the past masters, with their smoke and mirrors, that inspired the cutting-edge cinema we know and love today.

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Written by Simon Cress

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