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The 24 Most Important Special Effects Movies Ever Made

The release of “Avatar” five years ago this month (on December 18, 2009) once again put the lie to Jean-Luc Godard’s adage that cinema is truth 24 times a second. In fact, all of cinema is a lie, a series of tricks that fool the eye, starting with the illusion of motion that comes from flashing 24 frames a second through the projector.

“Avatar” went to great lengths to fool the eye, with immersive 3D imagery designed to make viewers feel they were truly visiting a strange, new planet. It fueled a 3D boom in movies that persists to this day and set new standards in visual effects-driven filmmaking.

The innovations of “Avatar” fall on a continuum of advances in special effects going back all the way to the dawn of cinema. The tools and technology available to filmmakers keep evolving, but the impulse is the same: to use mechanical trickery to deceive the eye into seeing something that isn’t actually there. Indeed, as you’ll see from the gallery below of milestone visual effects movies, it’s an impulse that has its roots in the stage illusions and showmanship of the magician. Here, then, is a map of how cinema evolved from that 19th-century art to the 21st-century digital universes of “Avatar” and beyond.

Here’s a chronological map of how cinema evolved from a 19th-century art to the 21st-century digital universes of “Avatar” and beyond:

A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Georges Méliès had been a magician before turning to film, where he used a combination of old-school slight-of-hand and state-of-the-art illusions possible only with the then-new technology of movie cameras and film editing. In “A Trip to the Moon,” his most famous work (referenced throughout Martin Scorsese’s recent “Hugo”), he used split screens, jump cuts (to make characters disappear), double exposure and superimposition (to double actors within the frame), and other visual effects trickery still in use today. Plus, the 14-minute film contains one of the most iconic effects shots in screen history, that of a winking man-in-the-moon having a rocket land in his eye.

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Cartoonist Winsor McKay created the first live-action/animation hybrid in “Gertie the Dinosaur,” in which he filmed himself riding atop the title character, a creation of his own pen. The blend was accomplished by filming McKay’s vaudeville act, in which he appeared to interact with a screened version of his cartoon lizard on stage before a live audience.

The Ten Commandments (1923)
In the first of Cecil B. DeMille’s two swipes at the Exodus story, the effects extravaganza of the silent “Ten Commandments” climaxed, of course, with the parting of the Red Sea, accomplished by pouring water in a trough and running the footage backward. Shots of the Israelites walking on the dry sea bed were superimposed over the supposed walls of water — actually, a slab of Jell-o cut in half.

The Lost World (1925)
The first adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s dinosaur tale, “The Lost World” marked an early triumph for stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, who’d go on to animate the monsters and giant apes in “King Kong” and “Mighty Joe Young.” The sequence of a brontosaurus stomping through London and wreaking havoc with its tail is still impressive and scary today.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
“The Wizard of Oz” made sophisticated use of matte-painting backgrounds to suggest vast spaces and changing locations, but its most effective effect may have been the tornado sequence, which mixed real tornado footage with shots of a silk stocking twisted by a fan (in faraway shots) or a dusty burlap bag (in close-ups).

Bwana Devil (1952)
1953’s “House of Wax” is often remembered as the first 3D color film released by a major Hollywood studio, but independently produced jungle adventure “Bwana Devil” beat it to theaters by a year. Plus, “Bwana” was viewable through polarized lenses, rather than the red lens/blue/lens specs that “Wax” and other early 3D movies required.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
A protege of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen became the most celebrated practitioner of stop-motion animation in film history during a career that stretched nearly 40 years and included the entire “Sinbad” series and the original “Clash of the Titans” (1981). But his most celebrated film may have been “Jason and the Argonauts,” whose highlight has Jason fighting a platoon of skeletons. Harryhausen pioneered a technique called Dynamation that involved overlapping rear-projection screens and miniature posable figures built over intricate skeletal frames.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Douglas Trumbull’s legendary effects for “2001: A Space Odyssey” remain spellbinding and unsurpassed nearly half a century later. The outer-space shots, mostly done with slow-moving models, seem truly otherworldly and accurate. And the hallucinatory light-show that concludes the film — accomplished with camera filters, prisms, and chemical treatments of the footage — are still dazzling.

Futureworld (1976)
The sequel to the 1973 robots-gone-amok tale “Westworld,” “Futureworld” featured the very first use of 3D CGI, during a sequence showing a computer rendering of Peter Fonda’s face and hand.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
The original “Star Wars” may have been the most influential special effects film ever made, since it made the reputation of George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic F/X firm and determined the F/X-driven nature of mainstream Hollywood entertainment for the next 37 years (and counting). It featured the first extensive use of 3D computer animation (in the battle simulation of the trench-run tactic needed to destroy the Death Star) and introduced a complex, computer-controlled camera motion system called Dykstraflex, after the movie’s Oscar-winning F/X supervisor John Dykstra.

Tron (1982)
Set in a video-game world, “Tron” was the first movie to make extensive use of computer-generated imagery. There”s about 20 minutes of CGI in the movie, most notably, in the memorable light-cycle chase. The vivid, colorful effects were dubbed ineligible for an Oscar in 1982 because use of a computer was seen as a cheat. Seven years later, however, James Cameron’s “The Abyss” would win an Oscar for using similar computer-assisted graphics.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
“Young Sherlock Holmes” is generally credited with featuring the first photorealistic, color CGI character in a film — in this case, the Glass Knight, who emerges from the panes of a stained-glass window for 30 seconds of swordplay. The sequence, which took six months to create, was also the first instance of effects etched into a film print via laser.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Live-action/animation blends were nothing new in 1988, but “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” took the technique to new heights. A mix of hand-pained and computer-assisted animation was used to create the effect of humans and virtually three-dimensional cartoon characters sharing the same world.

Terminator 2:Judgment Day (1991)
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” wasn’t the first film to use morphing (the computer-assisted smooth transition of one figure into another). 1988’s “Willow” got there first, and “T2” director James Cameron’s own “The Abyss” had made modest use of the technique. But with Robert Patrick’s endlessly malleable T-1000 character, “T2” took morphing to a new level and made it the most popular and prevalent F/X technique of the 1990s.

Lawnmower Man (1992)
Nobody is likely to claim that “Lawnmower Man,” adapted from a Stephen King story, is a great film, but it did have landmark CGI-driven effects. It was the first film to feature an extensive virtual-reality sequence (and it was a cybersex sequence at that). It was also the first to make extensive use of body motion-capture technology, using sensors placed on the actors’ bodies to generate digital characters that moved as the actors did.

Jurassic Park (1993)
Twenty-one years later, the dinosaurs of “”Jurassic Park” remain impressively realistic and terrifying. They were among the first CGI characters made to look real by being given textured skin, as well as the first to interact extensively with live-action actors in the same frame.

Forrest Gump (1994)
The digital effects of “Forrest Gump” — splicing Tom Hanks into historical footage and making the mouths of historical figures move in order to utter new dialogue — look a bit creaky today, but they won the film an Oscar 20 years ago. More impressive were the film’s digital erasures — of Gary Sinise’s legs (to play an amputee, he wore blue-screen pants) and of the wires pulling that famous feather to and fro.

Casper (1995)
The friendly ghost was the first CGI character to star in his own movie, speak his own lines, and display a distinct personality. There are about 40 minutes of footage in “Casper” where the title spirit is shown interacting with Christina Ricci and other live-action actors.

The Matrix (1999)
What is “The Matrix”? For one thing, it’s the most influential F/X film of the last 15 years. Everyone, it seems, has copied (or parodied) its innovative techniques, from its flying kung fu (with the wires digitally erased) to its mix of freeze-frame and moving elements, to its pivoting shots of frozen action (achieved by placing multiple cameras around the action and using computers to smooth the transitions among their point-of-view shots). Most famously, there was the “bullet-time” effect, with Keanu Reeves dodging a bullet as it rippled through the air. As Reeves himself might say, “Whoa.”

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
The first all-motion-capture film, “Final Fantasy” is generally regarded as a failure today. It cost $137 million and earned back just $85 million. The story was nothing to write home about, and the digital characters suffered from an “uncanny valley” problem — not cute enough to avoid looking creepy, and not realistic enough to be convincingly human. Still, it was the first movie in which actors created characters who lived in a completely digital universe, with no real sets or props. In that, it foreshadowed Robert Zemeckis’s more fully realized motion capture efforts, “Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” and “A Christmas Carol.”

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
The individual films in Peter Jackson’s first Tolkien trilogy all won Oscars for their special effects, which put New Zealand’s WETA F/X shop on the map. The films were celebrated for their forced-perspective photography (making Gandalf look tall and the hobbits and dwarfs look small), their digital compositing (making armies of thousands out of a handful of extras), and especially for their motion-capture artistry, turning Andy Serkis into a convincing, soulful, tormented homunculus in his digital guise as Gollum.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Like “Final Fantasy,” “Sky Captain” didn’t impress on a storytelling level. Still, it was the first major Hollywood release to be shot entirely in a virtual studio, with real actors shooting in front of green screens. There were no actual sets, just backgrounds digitally added later. As a result, the film provided a model for other virtual-set films using live actors, including the “Sin City” and “300” movies.

Avatar (2009)
James Cameron once again upped the ante for special effects blockbusters with his creation of the world of Pandora, with its floating mountains, colorful predators, and tall blue cat-people with fiber-optic ponytails. The effects were a blend of motion-capture (including tiny cameras mounted on the actors’ heads to capture a full range of facial expressions) and digital cinematography that involved shooting 2D and 3D images simultaneously. Cameron used a virtual-camera system that allowed him to see the motion-capture performances rendered as digital characters in real time as he filmed. So far, no one else has succeeded in creating a new world as fully immersive as the one in “Avatar,” though studios have jumped with a vengeance on the 3D bandwagon.

Gravity (2013)
Alfonso Cuarón’s marooned-in-space epic contains just 156 shots (many of them very long takes), but it took him four and a half years to finish the film, due to the extensive effects work necessary. The film combined robotics (used to move Sandra Bullock around in a simulated zero-gravity environment), a lighting system with 1.8 million LED lights to simulate outer space, and multiple simultaneously operating digital cameras. Post-production work on “Gravity” added in Earth and the satellites via CGI and turned 2D shots into 3D shots. The Oscar-winning result made theatrical audiences feel the sensation of drifting in space and proved once again that the possibilities afforded to the movies by groundbreaking visual effects are limited only by the imaginations of visionary filmmakers.

Source: Gary Susman, Moviefone

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