History of VFX

From HandWiki

The History of Visual Effects (VFX) is intertwined with that of cinematography, special effects, animation and computer-generated imagery.

Early developments

The Man with the Rubber Head

In 1857, Oscar Rejlander created the world's first "special effects" image by combining different sections of 32 negatives into a single image, making a montaged combination print. In 1895, Alfred Clark created what is commonly accepted as the first-ever motion picture special effect. While filming a reenactment of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, Clark instructed an actor to step up to the block in Mary's costume. As the executioner brought the axe above his head, Clark stopped the camera, had all of the actors freeze, and had the person playing Mary step off the set. He placed a Mary dummy in the actor's place, restarted filming, and allowed the executioner to bring the axe down, severing the dummy's head. Techniques like these would dominate the production of special effects for a century.[1]

It was not only the first use of trickery in cinema, it was also the first type of photographic trickery that was only possible in a motion picture, and referred to as the "stop trick". Georges Méliès, an early motion picture pioneer, accidentally discovered the same "stop trick."

According to Méliès, his camera jammed while filming a street scene in Paris. When he screened the film, he found that the "stop trick" had caused a truck to turn into a hearse, pedestrians to change direction, and men to turn into women. Méliès, the stage manager at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, was inspired to develop a series of more than 500 short films, between 1914, in the process developing or inventing such techniques as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand painted color.

Because of his ability to seemingly manipulate and transform reality with the cinematograph, the prolific Méliès is sometimes referred to as the "Cinemagician." His most famous film, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), a whimsical parody of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, featured a combination of live action and animation, and also incorporated extensive miniature and matte painting work.

Effects continued to grow for the next 20 years. The technique of using Matte painting was seen in films like The Great Train Robbery and The '?' Motorist (1906).


1920s–40s early effects

Things began to change by mid 1920s. Schüfftan process was used in movies like the Metropolis (1927). Such techniques were also used by modern movies like the Lord of The Rings and Armageddon (1998). Other than this, the Complete Reduction Process was developed by MGM. The usage of this process can be seen in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.

Effects continued with films like King Kong and Gone with the Wind, being the iconic films of the era. 1937 saw the arrival of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ushering a new industry of theatrical animated films. In 1939, the first Academy Award for Effects was given to The Rains Came which featured a flood. The other nominees being Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

Other films that noticeably used effects during this era were:

  • What Price Glory? (1926) had first mention of special effect
  • The Crowd (1928) & Just Imagine (1930) used miniatures
  • Die Nibelungen (1924) used 60-foot dragon with Schüfftan process
  • Thief of Bagdad (1924) used wires for flying carpet
  • Frankenstein (1931) used electrical effects
  • Citizen Kane (1941) used advanced optical printing along with matte painting and miniatures


The motion control rig was developed. The first Interactive computer graphics were provided with creation of Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE). Movie attendance dropped during this period with the arrival of television. Noticeable films of 50s include: Destination Moon, War of the Worlds (1953), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1959) and Forbidden Planet (1956). The first ever use of Blue screen was seen in Ten Commandments (film).

1960s saw the arrival of Jason and the Argonauts which included the famous stop motion skeleton battle sequence which inspired movies like The Mummy. The first Academy Award for Best Visual Effects was won by Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds in 1963. In 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 film) used some new visual effects. Notable films of 60s include Cleopatra, Fantastic Voyage (1966) with wire-suspended actors, and Planet of the Apes.

Though the effects industry didn't make many technical developments in early 60s, computer graphics made numerous advancements. In 1962, Ivan Sutherland invented Sketchpad Interactive Software and the University of Utah opened the first Cg department in 1966. The technique of Mapping and Bump Mapping were developed in 1976 and 78 respectively by James Blinn . 1968 saw the formation of world's first cg company called Evans and Sutherland created by Ivan Sutherland and David Evans, 1968 also saw the development of Ray tracing (graphics) by Bell Labs and Cornell University.

1970s–80s arrival of computer graphics

See also: History of computer graphics.

In the 1970s, Bezier curves (1970) were invented along with Gouraud shading (1971) and Phong shading (1975). 1975 saw the first development of CG teapot which as now become computer graphics icon. Other developments included: Texture mapping by Ed Catmul refined by James Blinn, and Paintbox was introduced by Quantel. George Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic in 1975. He was joined by Dennis Muren John Dykstra, Richard Edlund and in 1979 Ed Catmul also joined. Many films began using CG during this time including The Black Hole, Jaws, Superman, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien (1979).

In the 1980s, Disney's Tron was first use of extensive 3D CG, while Industrial Light & Magic produced first ever CG image for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).


See: Academy Award for Best Visual Effects

The usage of VFX became very common. In 2000, Gladiator won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists (2000) was the first feature-length film to be made primarily in Motion capture. In 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released, the film used the famous Schüfftan process along with other famous techniques and also won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Landmark films of 2000s include; The Lord of the Rings (film series), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Avatar.

Films that won an Oscar for best visual effects in 2010s include; Inception (2010), Hugo (2011 film), Life of Pi (2012 film), Gravity, Interstellar (2014 film), Ex Machina (2015 film), The Jungle Book, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), First Man (2018 film) and 1917. VFX today is heavily used in almost all movies produced. The Highest-grossing film of all time, Avengers: Endgame (2019), used VFX extensively. Around ninety percent of the film used VFX and CGI. Other than films, television series and web series are also known to use VFX.[2] In 2019, Disney's The Mandalorian revolutionized filmmaking by using LED screens instead of Green Screen. This technique provided them more convincing lighting.[3]


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