From Star Wars To Gravity: The Special Effects Milestones That Shaped Cinema

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As Sandra Bullock and George Clooney battled malfunctioning technology miles above the Earth, we got to thinking about other game-changing moments in special effects history, the films that did things in a new and innovative way. Here are our choices for the most significant moments between Star Wars and Gravity. As always, give us your own thoughts in the comments.

Year: 1976

Innovation: Steadicam

Significant because: OK, this is a year before Star Wars, but we’re going to allow it. Designer and camera operator Garrett Brown had been developing a system for taking smooth moving shots over rough terrain and through crowds since the early ‘70s, with a machine that requires its operator to be half-weight lifter and half-ballet dancer. Renamed from its original moniker of the Brown Stabiliser, the Steadicam made its debut here, in an immediately virtuoso three-minute sequence.

Led to: Rocky, Marathon Man, The Shining

Year: 1978

Innovation: A man can fly

Significant because: Outside animation, this most basic of superheroics had been impossible on-screen: George Reeves used to just dive out of a window and we’d cut to him “landing” elsewhere. Optical effects supervisor Roy Field solved the problem with a three-pronged assault: crane-suspended wire rigs for landings and take-offs; blue-screen mattes and zooms for static flying shots; and the “Zoptic” system in which special lenses are synchronised to cope with both a foreground actor and a front projection simultaneously. The result? You’ll believe a man can do anything.

Led to: The entire superhero genre

Year: 1982

Innovation: First entirely CG sequence

Significant because: The scene in which the Genesis Device transforms a barren rock into the Genesis planet was the first of its kind: sixty seconds of pure CGI. A team within Lucasfilm’s Computer Graphics division (then a subsidiary of ILM) was tasked with achieving the groundbreaking sequence, with effects that now look a little basic but which were astonishing for the time. Four years later, that team broke loose from Lucasfilm and became Pixar.

Led to: Jurassic Park, Life of Pi, Toy Story

Year: 1985

Innovation: First fully photorealistic CG character

Significant because: Proto-Pixar again: The ninety-second sequence with a stained glass knight attacking a priest is the first ever example of a fully realised, entirely CG character on-screen. Responsible for the effect – which took four months to achieve – was John Lasseter, ten years before he directed Toy Story, and the team at what would soon become Pixar.

Led to: Transformers, Ted, Jar-Jar Binks

Year: 1992

Innovation: Liquid morphing

Significant because: Arguably this entry could have been 1989’s The Abyss, but that film’s sequence of the face-mimicking “pseudopod” water tendril was essentially a proof of concept for the eventual liquid-metal T-1000 in Terminator 2. The “mimetic poly-alloy” money shots take up surprisingly little of the film’s lengthy run-time, but made an indelible impression, taking 35 artists ten months to produce. Part of the software used later formed a core component of Photoshop.

Led to: DS9’s Odo, Jurassic Park, Photoshop

Year: 1993

Innovation: Dinosaurs!

Significant because: Perhaps the point at which it finally seemed that, through CGI, anything was possible. We can now make convincing dinosaurs: what else is there to do? The practical aspects of the FX (most of the creatures were physically built) tend to get overlooked in favour of the astonishing digital makeover when it turned out that even the great Stan Winston couldn’t make the dinosaurs stampede. Understandably so: these were living, breathing, textured creatures giving performances. Nothing was ever the same again.

Led to: Dragonheart, Godzilla, The Lord of the Rings, Cloverfield

Year: 1995

Innovation: Talking animals

Significant because: Animating a talking jaw onto a dumb creature had been done as far back as Mr Ed, but it was Mad Max director George Miller’s seven-year process that finally cracked a photorealistic anthropomorphic animal. And he did it with an entire cast of characters! Real animals, animatronics and CGI are combined in the technique, but you’d be hard-pressed to see the joins.

Led to: Garfield, Dr Doolittle, Alvin and the Chipmunks. Maybe Miller shouldn’t have bothered.

Year: 1995

Innovation: First CG feature cartoon

Significant because: Following a series of pure-CG animated shorts, Toy Story proved that an entire CG-animated feature was tenable, to the tune of $350m in box office and a place in the top 100 highest grossing films of all time. It has formed the template for animated movies as we would know them subsequently. Happily though, it didn’t quite sound the death knell for 2D cell animation or stop-motion, which after an early ‘00s doldrums seem to have survived the upheaval.

Led to: Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Bee Movie

Year: 1999

Innovation: Bullet time

Significant because: Essentially a synthesis of several pre-existing techniques and effects, The Matrix’s use of bullet-time nevertheless stopped Hollywood in its tracks, as if its like had never been seen before. To all intents and purposes it hadn’t, although designer John Gaeta credits John Woo, Katsuhiro Otomo and Michel Gondry as important predecessors. The process drops the onscreen action into slow-motion as the camera rotates around the actors, combining mo-cap technology and multiple stationary cameras firing in sequence.

Led to: Blade, Underworld, Equilibrium, Max Payne

Year: 2000

Innovation: The Colosseum

Significant because: Building on the virtual set extensions and digital crowds of Titanic, Gladiator achieved the impossible by recreating Ancient Rome and its inhabitants, combining CGI with a moving camera to create an effect unthinkable in the days of Spartacus and Ben Hur. Maximus’ entry into the Colosseum turns through 540 degrees and lasts 30 seconds. The Colosseum itself was a one-story set in Malta, until VFX supervisor John Nelson and his team worked their magic.

Led to: Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, Alexander, Noah

Year: 2001

Innovation: First full mo-cap

Significant because: Actually, calling The Spirits Within the first fully motion-captured animated feature film is doing a disservice to Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists. But the Final Fantasy film was the first mo-cap feature to get a wide mainstream theatrical release. Before it tanked at the box-office there were plans for the film’s central character Aki Ross to be the first photo-real digital actress, appearing in multiple films. In this case the voice actors were not the mo-cap actors, however: Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi et al were not required to goon around in the grey pyjamas.

Led to: The Polar Express, Gollum, Davey Jones, Rise of the Apes

Year: 2004

Innovation: Digital backlot

Significant because: The first feature film ever to place real actors entirely against virtual, blue-screen, digital “sets” (bar a single scene in an office, shot with actual props due to time constraints). Animatics of the whole film were shot with stand-in actors before principal photography took place. Shot in digital HD, it was churned through Macs running Final Cut Pro and After Effects. For good measure, it also threw in a posthumous “performance” by Laurence Olivier, the technique for which resurfaced in Superman Returns two years later.

Led to: Sin City, Casshern, 300

Year: 2008

Innovation: IMAX

Significant because: IMAX has been around since at least the 1970s, and studios had been experimenting with upscaled IMAX releases of conventionally filmed movies since the early 2000s. But amazingly, it took Christopher Nolan to make the first-ever leap into partially filming a mainstream blockbuster using IMAX cameras. 30 minutes of The Dark Knight was shot in the mega-format, rising to more than an hour of The Dark Knight Rises. Unconvinced by 3D, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister see the future in 65mm.

Led to: Transformers 2, Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol, Star Trek Into Darkness

Year: 2009

Innovation: The Volume

Significant because: Besides the obvious physical performance capture advances (cameras right in front of actors’ faces etc.) and 3D innovations, Avatar also employed a motion capture stage six times the size of any used previously. The unprecedented size of the volume allowed space for 102 cameras to capture every conceivable shred of movement data.

Led to: Tron Legacy, John Carter, Tintin, Green Lantern, virtually everything 3D

Year: 2010

Innovation: The Corridor

Significant because: Inception, on the whole, eschewed CGI and attempted to achieve all its astonishing effects as practically as possible. So while digital FX are used in the corridor sequence to subtly bend elements, it was principally achieved by the building of a massive spinning set in an airship hangar – a similar set-up to the one Stanley Kubrick used in 2001. “We run the fight scene for as long as the actors can pull it off," explained Wally Pfister. "We begin with a camera that's not fixed to the set and shows a bit of the rotation, and then you quickly jump to where you're rotating with the set. It's an exhausting process for the actors: really quite challenging and strange to get used to. If you jump at the wrong time, you could be falling twelve feet through the air.”

Led to: The Dark Knight Rises (which used thousands of real extras instead of Gladiator-type CG ones), Interstellar (whatever that turns out to be…)

Year: 2012

Innovation: Digital oceans

Significant because: Water has been simulated digitally before – most notably on The Abyss’s pseudopod – but it had taken six ground-breaking months of ILM labour to create those 75 seconds of aquatic magic. Ang Lee’s Pi featured 12 minutes of digital ocean and required a totally immersive subsea environment Piscine Molitor could plunge into. Predominantly the handiwork of MPC and Rhythm & Hues, the results were staggering and, ultimately, Oscar-winning.

Led to: Watch this space; the imitators will take a while to come through the pipeline.

Year**: **1977

Innovation:** **The Dykstraflex rig

Significant because: Effects guru John Dykstra and his team invented this computer-controlled camera rig to give precisely repeatable camera movements, which made it much easier to composite images of miniatures, actors and backgrounds together as necessary. That's how he was able to create lightsabers, holograms, spaceships and dog-fighting TIE fighters - even if, in the end, the brand-new processes involved nearly proved disastrous and ended up with ILM having to do a year's worth of work in six months to get it right.

Led to: A huge number of effects blockbusters, from the Star Trek series to Gravity.

Year: 2013

Innovation: The Light Box

Significant because**:** Gravity runs the effects gamut, using virtually every technique out there to simulate zero-G (technically, micro-gravity) and accurately recreate fast-moving objects in a space lit by two light sources, the sun and the earth. One very cool innovation (among many) was the light box, a cube made of low-res LED screens that allowed the effects men who Sandra Bullock called her "row of geek" to simulate the lighting effect on an astronaut spinning rapidly into space. Instead of spinning Bullock at high-speed away from a steady light (bit dangerous and difficult), a robotic camera arm and screens broadcasting an Earth spinning around her as she moved a little allowed the techs to capture the right lighting conditions for their work with director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki.

Year:* *2001-2003

Innovation: Massive

Significant because: This software package allowed thousands, and with enough processing power even millions, of individual agents in the programme to act independently, so that you can create huge orc armies, say, that will fight within set perameters. It means that you can be pretty sure that your soldiers will respond to their environment and each other in a realistic way, rather than running into one another and stopping like characters in a bad video game. It's been the industry go-to for stadium crowds, riots and battles ever since.

Led to: The Chronicles Of Narnia, King Kong, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Avatar, Life Of Pi, Up.