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The Development of Special Effects in Film

From Melies image of the man in the moon, DeMille’s astonishing parting of the Red Sea or Cuaron’s depiction of astronauts floating in space, the history of film has been one long progression of remarkable innovations in special effects to create worlds, heighten tension and generally make jaws drop.

Here are some of the pivotal techniques and moments in the evolution of special effects in film.


It’s been around since the dawn of the film industry and continues to thrive in the 21st Century.

Early animation existed as hand-drawn single images put together and projected at high speed. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) is just about the earliest example of an entirely animated film.

Animation has evolved throughout the years and produced some of the classic moments of cinema. At its forefronts has been the Disney Studios, embracing new techniques from hand-drawn classics like Snow White to computer enhanced drawings such as the Lion King. In more recent times, pioneered by Pixar, animation has continued to break new ground with the CGI used for, among many others, Toy Story.

The Stop Trick

Believed to have been created accidentally by George Melies, this simple trick involves turning the camera off and on to make an object seemingly disappear. Melies himself would use the technique in his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.

Double Exposure

Another early example of film special effects this follows a photographic technique of superimposing one image upon another to create, for example, ghost like imagery. George Albert Smith’s Photographing A Ghost is an example.

Stop Motion

A technique that was first developed in the 1890s Stop Motion is the craft of making a physical object (such as a model) appear as though it is moving of its own accord. Used throughout movie history in films such as King Kong (1933) to the Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit (2005). 

The Shufftan Process

Named after creator Eugen Shufftan, the process is the use of miniature models filmed with specially-crafter mirrors to create the illusion of huge scenery in which the actors are performing.

Created when Shufftan was working on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) this was a staple special effect in the first half-century of filmmaking.

In more recent times the process has been used on the filming of Star Wars (1977) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (1999-2002)

Matte Painting

The use of large painted scenery, projected behind the actors and physical props to create a sense of location or place. Used prominently since the 1930s on films such as Wizard of Oz (1939) and Blade Runner (1982).

In recent times this technique has been superseded by digital enhanced backgrounds and green screen.

Animatronics, Make-Up & Prosthetics

Where would any monster movie or horror film be without these?

From Frankenstein and Nosferatu to American Werewolf in London and The Thing, the use of make-up and other image altering devices have been shocking audiences for decades

Motion Capture

Recording the movement of an actor and then using those actions for lifelike digital animation.

This is one of the more ground-breaking special effects of recent years in films such as Polar Express and latterly Avatar.

Perhaps most famous however, is Andy Serkis’ performance in Lord of the Rings when creating Gollum.