Photograph of special features

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It’s safe to say the use of special effects in movies has come a long way. From a time when special effects were rare and used sparingly  to now when the majority of films have been (at least partly) computer generated. However, with new technology most viewers probably don’t even notice it being used, for example most backgrounds in films are now more likely to be created using a green screen rather than being shot in the actual location. With movies being produced more than ever before they have to be bigger and better than the last, meaning the next movie you watch will most probably feature some form of special effects.

But where did it all begin?

We will look back to when special effects first came about in the film industry and how it has evolved over the years, shaping the way films are made.


First Film to use CGI

Michael Crichton’s 1973 ‘Westworld’  will  always be remembered as the first movie to use 2D computer animation. With only a small budget of $1.25 million the sci-fi thriller has gained over $10 million in the box office. The movie centres around two friends who visit a futuristic, adult themed amusement park where visitors can experience different worlds and live out their fantasies while being assisted by robots. After a robot named ‘Gunslinger’ malfunctions, creating terror in the park the visitors must fight to survive. Crichton’s idea for a 2 minute long computer generated clip allowing audiences to see through Gunslinger’s point of view didn’t come without its difficulties. The film’s producer Paul Lazarus stated  “There were no effects houses around that knew what to do,”. They finally found aspiring filmmaker John Whitney, Jr. who agreed to take on the project, suggesting that by  breaking down the scene images into blocks and manipulating the colours it would give the effect of seeing through a robots point of view. Although a long task, Crichton’s vision was finally made a reality with the film being released on November 21 1973, opening to great reviews and receiving its sequel ‘Futureworld’ in 1976.


First Fully CGI Character

The First ever CGI character on a live background to feature in a film came about in 1985’s ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’. Now it would be considered the simplest form of computer animation but when released back in the mid-80’s it was a huge step forward in terms of CGI in movies. Animator John Lassester and his team worked for over 6 months to create the 30 second scene that would change the future of film. The historic scene features a holy man hallucinating about a knight jumping from a stained glass window, then proceeding to stalk him. The knight was digitally created “using a Polhemus Three-Space Digitizer”. This type of technology was unheard of at the time, however it was soon being used to create more ground-breaking visual effects in the movie industry and changing the way we make and view films.


The First Feature-Length Computer-Animated Movie

When animation studio Pixar released Toy Story in 1996 it captured hearts everywhere, with its captivating storyline and lovable characters it was no surprise when the film went on to be nominated for four Oscars and named one of the best movies of the 90’s. Not only was it recognised for its original soundtrack and charming script that appealed to all ages, it is also because it was the first feature-length computer-animated movie. Responsible for the films successes is again animator John Lassester who came up with the idea that  “animation could be taking to a whole new level if it was combined and developed with the aid of computers.”. Soon gone was the traditional animation, where each frame was required to be drawn by hand and in place came computer animation which allowed for more detailed, better quality images. Although still a long process, this rapid progression of special effects allowed for a new era of both films and technology. Pixar has since gone on to create some of the most beautiful, digitally creative films in cinematic visual effects such as Finding Nemo, UP and Brave.


Visual effects in movies has come a long way in the last 100 years, from a time when movies consisted of no sound or colour to now when the limits of what can be done with a computer is forever being tested. Although not historically worthy in terms of being the first, there are many films that have refined VFX in film.

Alfonso Cuarón 2013’s ‘Gravity’ is a cinematic masterpiece with extraordinary visual effects. The iconic 13 minute long opening scene was made by hooking up the actors to wire rigs and  placing them in a lightbox creating the illusion of them floating in space.  The film was a great success,  winning 7 of the 10 Oscars they were nominated for, one being Best achievement in visual effects.

After actor Paul Walker tragically died in 2013, only a few months into filming the seventh instalment in the fast and furious franchise people began to wonder how and if the movie would ever be completed. With help from walker’s brother as a body double and the use of digital effects the creators were able to produce a digital version of Paul Walkers character, giving him a honourable exit.

Many other films have been praised for their use of visual effects such as Star Wars, Avatar, Inception and Interstellar. It is clear that over the years special effects has drastically changed the way films are made and with each new release we never know what to expect, except the special effects will keep expanding and developing to create bigger and better pieces of cinematic art.