Greatest Visual and
Special Effects (F/X) -
Milestones in Film


Film Milestones in Visual/Special Effects (F/X)
(chronological order by film title)
Introduction | 1880s-1890s | 1900-1905 | 1906-1920 | 1921-1929 | 1930-1939 | 1940-1949 | 1950-1959
1960-1969 | 1970-1974 | 1975-1979 | 1980-1982 | 1983-1985 | 1986-1988 | 1989-1991 | 1992-1994
1995-1996 | 1997-1998 | 1999-2000 | 2001-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-2007 | 2008-2009 | 2010-Present

Greatest Visual-Special Effects (F/X) Milestones in Film History:

From even its earliest days, films have used visual magic ("smoke and mirrors") to produce illusions and trick effects that have startled audiences. It should be understood that the main reason motion pictures are possible is because of the phenomenon of persistence of vision (it was first described to some degree in 1824 by British physician Peter Mark Roget). The human eye is able to see a rapid series of individual frames (or images) of a movie as smooth, unbroken, and flowing action when projected.

Although the specific term "special effects" first appeared in screen credits for the silent film What Price Glory (1926), with credit given to L.B. Abbott, "special effects" have always been a part of film-making.

The earliest Visual Effects processes were produced within the camera (in-camera effects), and/or by other simple means, such as:

  • in-camera simple jump-cuts or superimpositions
  • split-screen (combining two or more different actions, filmed separately, in the same film frame)
  • models or miniatures
  • back or rear projection (combining previously filmed backgrounds with live-action foregrounds)
  • simple mattes (masks that prevented light from reaching and exposing a portion of the film)
  • matte paintings (types of paintings, traditionally done on glass, of a landscape or other background that were combined with other images in the finished film)

Optical or More Advanced Visual Effects came slightly later, using film, light, shadow, lenses and/or chemical processes to produce the film effects. They included:

  • the creation of film titles, fades, dissolves, wipes, blow ups, time-lapse, forced perspective, skip frames, bluescreen, compositing, double exposures, slow-motion or fast-motion, stop-motion, cel animation, and zooms/pans

Physical Effects (also known as practical or mechanical), or the "real world" elements in a film, refer to:

  • use of prosthetic makeup (items attached to a performer to change appearance)
  • advanced animatronics (the use of 3-D mechanical figures or parts)
  • stunt work (i.e., car crashes, building collapses)
  • explosions or pyrotechnics
  • bullet hits
  • water or weather effects (tornadoes, deluges, wind storms, smoke or fog effects, etc.)

Modern Computer-Generated Visual Effects or Imagery (known as CGI), beginning in the early 1980s, began to take over visual effects work, by using special software to accomplish many of the more traditional visual effects (such as mattes, compositing, bluescreen or makeup effects). Some of the modern techniques that became widely used for creating incredible special or visual effects included:

  • scale modeling
  • the optical process of blue-or-greenscreen (subjects filmed in front of a blue or green background were combined with a separately filmed background)
  • motion capture (recording the movement of bodies or faces to be used for animation or computer-generated characters)
  • motion control (recording or programming the movements of a motion picture camera so that the shot could be repeated exactly)
  • claymation
  • rotoscoping (tracing live-action footage frame by frame)
  • digital compositing
  • the Shuftan process (using mirrors to combine full-scale live action and miniatures)
  • morphing (making one image transform seamlessly into another)

See also additional sections of site for more related information: Film Terms Glossary (illustrated), History of Film by Decade, and Milestones and Turning Points in Film History.

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