Skip to Main Content

Home Explore Careers

Special and Visual Effects Technicians

History

At the turn of the century a French magician-turned-filmmaker named Georges Melies invented motion picture special effects. To film futuristic space flight in A Trip to the Moon, he made a model of a rocket and fired it from a cannon in front of a painted backdrop. By the 1920s, special effects, or "tricks," had become a department of the major film studios, and technicians were steadily inventing new techniques and illusions. For a tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz, a miniature house was filmed falling from the studio ceiling, and when the film was reversed it became Dorothy's house flying into the air. Also in the Wizard of Oz, a 90-pound costume transformed actor Bert Lahr into the cowardly lion and extensive makeup and metalwork turned actor Jack Haley into the tin man. Effects departments still make extensive use of miniature models, which are easy to work with and save money.

In 1950, the Supreme Court broke up the movie studio monopolies. Independent, low-budget films began to proliferate and to affect audience tastes. They helped to make realistic, on-site shoots fashionable, and studio special effects departments became virtually extinct. It was not until the 1970s, when George Lucas brought his imagination to Star Wars, that special effects were revived in force. The crew that Lucas assembled for that project formed the company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which still remains a leader in a field that now includes hundreds of large and small visual and special effects companies. ILM has created visual effects for nearly 300 feature films, including 10 of the top 15 box office hits in movie history.

The industry experimented with computer-generated imagery (CGI) in the 1980s, with such films as Tron and Star Trek II. By the 1990s, the movie-going public was ready for an effects revolution, which began with James Cameron's The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and reached full-force with 1993's Jurassic Park. Twister in 1996, Titanic in 1997, and The Matrix in 1999 raised the stakes for movie effects, and Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace used 2,000 digital shots (compared to Titanic's 500). Digital inking and painting, along with a software program called Deep Canvas, gave Disney's Tarzan its great depth and dimension and detail unlike any other film in the history of animation. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Sin City (2005), and Avatar (2009) featured settings entirely generated by computers and blended with the performances of live actors. Avatar was unique in its use of a virtual camera system during filming, which displays the CGI reality on a monitor and places the actor's visual counterparts into their digital surroundings in real time; this allows the director to adjust and direct scenes as if producing live action without the need for repeated lighting setups or costume or makeup changes. According to James Cameron, the film's director, the film is composed of 60 percent computer-generated elements and 40 percent live action. In fact, the quality of computer-generated characters and scenery is so good in some movies (such as Avatar), that audiences have not been able to tell the difference between live action and computer-generated elements. Avatar won the Academy Award for Visual Effects in 2009.