Visual effects technology has become so advanced over the last few decades that it’s easy for movie fans to take everything for granted. It was only 1975 when Steven Spielberg was using a malfunctioning mechanical shark to film Jaws and today directors can use programs to animate photorealistic settings and characters to fulfill their wildest dreams (for better or worse).
It’s become common for moviegoers to expect high quality work from big budgeted films – but every once in a while, we are witnesses to a rare film that pushes the current boundaries of filmmaking and revolutionizes the industry.
Gravity is being hailed as the latest groundbreaking film, and its success got us thinking about some of the other “game changers” throughout history.
Special effects designer Willis O’Brien had pioneered the concept of stop motion animation for the 1925 film The Lost World, but the movie that truly put the technique on the map was the original 1933 version of King Kong. Several models were built for the project, including one to bring the titular gorilla to the screen. Despite only having “limited” resources, O’Brien was able to make its movements believable, which caused viewers to become invested in the character. After the success of King Kong, other films of the period used O’Brien’s methods to bring fantasy creatures to life.
While Kong was the most memorable aspect of the film, a different revelatory effect called rear screen projection won a special achievement award. This is when live-action footage is projected against a small screen on set and was primarily used to enhance scenery while filming models. The practice was used in several movies during the 1930s and 40s, such as Mighty Joe Young.
The obvious groundbreaking achievement for The Wizard of Oz was that it was the first film to incorporate color during production. The use of color in movies added a new artistic element to the filmmaking process, as directors made stylistic choices to symbolize different aspects of characters or set the tone for certain scenes. However, this film’s Oscar winning effects also brought about a much more subtle evolution in a long-standing technique called the matte painting.
Matte paintings had been used since the early 1900s, but with the addition of color, they started to become more developed. A precursor to the green screen “digital mattes” we are accustomed to today, matte paintings were used to fill in parts of a scene’s environment. Enduring for several decades, they were used throughout the 1970s and 80s, blending in with the live action shots so well that even trained eyes couldn’t tell the difference.
Long before Gravity came around, Stanley Kubrick was the one that wowed moviegoers with a groundbreaking interpretation of space in film. In order to portray weightlessness in space, Kubrick attached his actors to wires that were positioned at the top of the set. Since the bodies were blocking the wires in camera, it created the illusion that people were actually floating. For the “centrifuge,” Kubrick commissioned the construction of a rotating set, which helped give the film a heightened sense of realism. Rotating sets are still used today, most notably for the hotel fight sequence in Inception.
2001 also introduced the motion control camera system, which allowed filmmakers to save precise camera moves to a computer and repeat them if necessary. Used primarily for photography of small-scale models, this revolutionary technique was instrumental for several films that followed. While the practice is rare today, there are some who still use it to film their effects as realistically as possible.
The original Star Wars film is famous for its iconic characters and memorable story, but the film was an astonishing technical achievement as well. George Lucas formed his own effects company called Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in order to create sequences that had never been seen before. Advancing the motion control system from 2001, Star Wars set a new standard for what was possible with models and miniatures as audiences were treated to new planets and exciting dogfights in space. It was an easy choice for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars.
The success of Star Wars ushered in a new wave of effects-driven blockbusters that dominated the box office in the 1970s and 80s, many of which were made possible by this film’s revolutions. ILM also went on to become the most well-known special effects house, having served on over 300 films. The Star Wars sequels had their own innovations (Yoda puppet), but for many, the original is ground zero for modern effects.
1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day took big steps in the evolution of CGI via the T-1000. Still, the technology was not seen as a viable solution for filmmakers, due to fears that it would not look as realistic as models. Leave it to Steven Spielberg to prove everyone wrong.
Combining practical effects with computer imagery, Spielberg gave an entire generation of moviegoers the thrill of a lifetime by bringing dinosaurs back to Earth. The photorealistic creatures were extremely believable on screen and a big reason why the film was a hit. Seeing that anything was possible via digital effects, several filmmakers used them after Jurassic Park’s success in order to animate characters and environments in live action films.
Despite 20 years of evolution, the effects from Jurassic Park are still used to judge the blockbusters of today as they hold up remarkably well.
For several ’90s babies, Toy Story was a seminal film when it was released in 1995, but it became a landmark accomplishment in the eyes of adults as well – albeit for a different reason. It was the first full-length feature film entirely animated with computers.
Representing an evolution from traditional hand-drawn animation, the creative team at Pixar underwent an arduous and complex process to get their film on the big screen. A single frame took anywhere between 45 minutes to 30 hours to render. Despite the challenging work, it proved to be worth the trouble as computer animation featured benefits not available in cell animation. The 3D objects created richer environments and character models, allowing the movie to feel more cinematic and realistic.
The success of Toy Story paved the way for computer animation to be the norm. Pixar went on to release a string of acclaimed movies and other studios such as DreamWorks developed their own animation divisions.
Peter Jackson’s epic adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic literature provided a new groundbreaking technology to advance special effects. It was during the second installment, The Two Towers, that motion-capture and Andy Serkis were introduced to mainstream audiences.
Serkis famously wore a motion-capture suit while on set and his movements were recorded into a computer program, creating a guide for the digital model used in the film. This allowed the CG character to be extremely life-like, and the practice benefited actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin as they had someone to act with during filming.
The method is now the go-to way for animating CG characters. Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (also played by Serkis) wouldn’t be possible without it.
James Cameron’s latest may have been criticized for its heavy-handed message and clichéd story, but one thing all viewers agreed on was that the film was an amazing technical achievement. Advancing the motion capture technology from Lord of the Rings, Cameron developed an updated system with notable innovations like improved facial expression capture and cameras that could display CGI models in real-time with filming.
Of course, Avatar also launched a new wave of 3D and literally change our perceptions of the format by making the world of Pandora immersive. While most 3D films since have been cash grabs, there are select ones (Life of Pi) that made good use of Cameron’s new technology to craft engrossing theatrical experiences.
With the sequel set to take place underwater, there’s a chance Cameron could revolutionize movies again.
It’s amazing to see how far visual effects have come and with technology always evolving, and it’s only a matter of time before we see the next film that introduces a groundbreaking tool for future directors to use. It’s becoming harder to impress viewers with special effects, so it will have to take something like Gravity – which looks like it could have been filmed in space – to provide us with those “did I just see that?” thrills.
Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to name your picks for groundbreaking films in the comments section below.
Gravity is now playing in theaters.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.