The Evolution of VFX in Movies: The 60s Till Now
courtesy of Digital Duffers
The movie industry has consistently relied on some type of visual effects even in the early years of film making. Whether it was the fake blood in 1965’s Battle of the Bulge or the continually impressive Kong in King Kong (1933). As time progressed, it’s really no surprise that the amount of special effects utilized in films is constantly increasing. Special effects help to create the fantastic, the things that simply do not exist in our world, or to help create a completely unique visual experience like in Sin City or 300. The early years of film making relied on practical effects, now the majority of effects are created through the use of a computer. Let’s take a look at the evolution of VFX in movies, looking back on the great moments of effects that helped to push the art form into what it is today.
The 60s were the decade of some truly impressive practical effects that had moviegoers in complete “aw” at what was transpiring on the screen. One of those ground-breaking moments were with the infamous skeleton battle scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Created by Ray Harryhausen and done in complete stop-motion animation, he was able to bring these skeletons to life in the film, and integrate them with the real actor. This is a very famous sequence in the effects industry that many artists look back on even today. While it certainly doesn’t stand up to do today’s visual effects, it was a ground-breaking sequence for its time and helped pave the way for what was to come. There’s a reason Pixar paid homage to Ray Harryhausen in their film Monsters Inc. (The prestigious restaurant is named “Harryhausen’s”)
The film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was another film that pushed special effects in movies to a whole new level, utilizing various techniques like miniatures for many set pieces and hand-drawn rotoscopes to combine everything for the final shot. The director of 2001: A Space Odyssey assembled his own effects team to create the film and to bring his vision to life.
The 70s were another decade of advancements in effects. However, it was also a time when effects houses got a hit from the industry’s recession in the early 1970s, with many closing shop. It wasn’t until 1977 when the first Star Wars was released and finally took a turn for the better. Star Wars introduced some advancements in special effects technology, and the sheer amount of effects in the film were staggering, from aliens to spaceships and planets. The film also spawned a new special effects house, Industrial Light and Magic, which are one of the most popular visual effects studios today.
Not only was Star Wars a film that is still impressive to the VFX industry today, but 70s films like The Hindenburg, The Poseidon Adventure and the horror classic The Exorcist brought together many different techniques, like matte paintings, which is a technique still heavily utilized in the VFX industry. The horrifying effects in The Exorcist like the 360 degree head rotation and many other grotesque effects made the 70s a very impressive decade in terms of visual effects.
The 80s saw a massive leap forward in visual effects with movies like Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Blade Runner featured a beautiful futuristic city with flying cars, floating advertisements and more. Everything you’d expect to see in a futuristic city, right? The movie took place in 2019, so we’re about four years away, hopefully we’ll get our flying cars soon!
Ray Harryhousen also showed off more of his considerable skill with Clash of the Titans which features some amazing stop-motion work.
Beyond these great movies of the 80s, there were actually even larger advancements that lead to what visual effects are today. The 80s introduced the first computer generated images in a movie. Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan was the initial film to feature a completely computer-generated scene. Right after Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and the first CGI elements in a movie, Tron took this a step further and featured extensive sequences created entirely by the computer.
After that, more and more movies in the 80s featured various CGI elements like The Last Starfighter which featured detailed 3D models, whereas before this type of spaceship was created with miniature models, like in Star Wars. The first ever 3D animated short film was released in 1984 with the title, The Adventures of André and Wally B. If you’re familiar with the history of Pixar you may recognize this as one of the original things created by John Lasseter and his team.
After the introduction of CG in the 80s, this only led to more and more films utilizing this technique. If the 80s were the spawn of CG in movies, 90s were the explosion. You can probably think of a few game-changing feature films that many VFX artists refer to as the reason they got into the Industry. Jurassic Park is one of them. Spielberg had a team of experts and combined CG with animatronics to create several different breathtaking sequences that gave a new look into what is possible with CG.
There were also many other advancements with CG in the 90s, including the first time motion capture technology was used in the film Total Recall, for a very short x-ray sequence. Terminator 2: Judgment Day featured many distinctive visual effects shots, as the liquid metal terminator could morph into any character. Shots like when the terminator was shattered into many different pieces and those pieces reassembled back together were just a few of the amazing VFX sequences in the film.
Of course, likely the biggest advancement in terms of CG was the first feature film created entirely in CG, which was Toy Story. This led to the success of Pixar and the spawn and popularity of many different completely 3D animated films. Not only that, but the technology used to create these films also helped to push the quality of the CG elements integrated into feature films.
The Matrix achieved numerous different innovative visual effects elements making up a large portion of the film. Of course, the bullet dodging scenes are very iconic utilizing various techniques to achieve this effect.
As we’re inching closer to where visual effects are today, the quality is constantly increasing. Films like The Lord of The Rings took motion capture technology to a totally new level with the creature, Gollum. One of the first films to heavily utilize motion capture, they were able to infuse an actor’s performance onto a entirely CG creature. This of course led to many other movies perfecting this technique even further, like The Polar Express.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest also pushed motion capture with the award-winning visual effects on Davy Jones, using facial motion capture technology to push the actor’s performance and capture realistic movements. This technology was pushed yet again in James Cameron’s Avatar, with advancements in facial and body motion capture.
The world of effects in films has definitely come a long way from special effects to the dominated realm of visual effects. In the past few years, we’ve seen movies constantly trying to push the boundaries of visual effects, trying to achieve more realistic and believable visual effects that can hold up next to the real actors and not know the difference.
To get a great glimpse into where we’ve come just in the past decade, take a look at Gollum in The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers and compare him to Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As technology advances and the tools used to create these out of this world characters so do the quality of what is on screen.
The recent release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features extremely realistic apes, and many advancements in terms of motion capture and the visual aesthetics of the apes like the rendering of the fur. For example, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of the first films to use motion capture on location, and not in a specifically designed motion capture studio.
More films are being shot largely on green screen stages, leaving the rest of the film up to the VFX artists. VFX is as much of a part as many blockbusters like The Avengers or Pacific Rim as the actors themselves. While VFX is often seen as icing on the cake of a film, it’s becoming more of a center piece.