Introduction to VFX and a VFX Timeline

What are Visual Effects?

Visual effects is the term used to describe any imagery created, altered, or enhanced for a film or other moving media that cannot be accomplished during live-action shooting. In other words, much of the art of visual effects takes place in post-production, after primary image capture is complete.

(Zwerman, Okun and Visual Effects Society., 2010, p.2)

Visual effects are often mistaken for special effects, with the main difference being visual effects are applied with-in post-production, while special effects are done whilst the scene is being captured (also known as practical effects).

Special effects is best described below:

“Special effects are generally described as effects that can be done while the scene is being captured and are commonly called practical effects. Special effects go hand in hand with visual effects in current methodology, such that it is often difficult to determine what was a special effect and what was a visual effect.”

(Zwerman, Okun and Visual Effects Society., 2010, p. 2)

VFX Timeline

Visual effects have developed and improved over the years including a number milestones along the way which we consider key moments in the industry. These techniques and contributions are continued to be used in modern VFX today.

A selection of VFX milestones are listed below:

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (Alfred Clark, 1895)

Many acknowledge this moment as the first use of visual effects, using a technique of suspending recording on the camera to allow them to replace the actor portray the queen with a dummy, where they could safely detach the head from its body to give the effect of a beheading.

Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby, 1976)

Bound for Glory was the first motion picture to use the then new invention, Steadicam created by Garrett Brown when filming moving scenes. The Steadicam allows the cameraman to move freely whilst recording with the normal shaking of a regular handheld camera.

This invention and technique has had a long lasting effect on the film industry and is famously later used in the Rocky film series during training sequences and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, where the Steadicam was used to shoot at 1 frame-per-second to a create the illusion of the high-speed motion during the speed bike scene.

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

At the time, Star Wars was recognised for raising the bar for visual and special effects.  The creation of the film also saw the creation of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), who would go on to become the industry leaders in visual effects.

Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)

Superman introduced the invention and use of the Zoptic System and was the chosen recording method for shooting Christopher Reeve’s flying scenes.  The Zoptic process pantented by Zoran Perisic, is a refined version of a front projection effect which combines a foreground performance with pre-filmed background footage which resulted with the illusion of Superman flying.

The technique is further explained below:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982)

In 1982, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) completed the first completely CGI (Computer Generated cinematic Image) sequence in a film within Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a sequence which lasted sixty seconds.

The group responsible for creating the “Genesis Demonstration” would later develop to form Pixar, founded by George Lucas.

Young Sherlock Holmes (Barry Levinson, 1985)

Young Sherlock Holmes is often overlooked but contains The Glass Knight, the first entirely CGI character to appear in film. Also, its creators including animator John Lasseter, would later go on to create Pixar.

The Abyss (James Cameron, 1989)

Whilst Young Sherlock Holmes contains the first fully CGI Character, The Abyss saw the creation of the first fully CGI “soft bodied” character, a creature completely made up with water.  The 75 second sequence took more than six months to produce, with ILM taking on the bulk of the work and designing a program capable of simulating water. A program which would later be known as Adobe Photoshop.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)

Similar to The Abyss, Terminator 2 also made use of an early form of digital imaging software which would be later developed into Adobe Photoshop, as mentioned above.

The bulk of the VFX was again completed by ILM and is considered the first mainstream film with multiple morphing effects, simulated human motion and realistic movements for a major CG character.

Terminator 2 was also the first film to use ‘personal’ computers to create its visual effects.

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

dinosaur-t-rex-jurassic park

Not surprisingly produced by Industrial Light and Magic, Jurassic Park saw the first creation of fully CGI animals. However, whilst there was  14 minutes of footage of dinosaurs within the film, only 4 minutes were fully CGI. The film was originally planned to make use of stop frame animation but after the creation of test footage CGI was implemented instead.

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Produced by Pixar and released by Walt Disney Pictures, Toy Story was the first feature film completely created using computer generated images  and entirely in 3D.

“To this day, it’s the hardest, most exhausting, and still most fun I’ve ever done at Pixar. We were essentially kick-starting an industry in terms of CG films.”

(Bill Reeves, Toy Story’s supervising technical director)


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