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How Visual Effects Have Improved Over the Years

Visual effects have been important in movies since about the 1960s and can be used to create an environment or depict an action that cannot be done practically, or that is too expensive to create. For instance, if a movie is to be set on a ship that sinks, then it is cheaper and easier to use a miniature ship for the scenes showing the ship actually sinking into the ocean. This clever use of miniatures and photography can help to create a scene that could not be generated without great expense. Before computers, visual effects had to be done in a practical way, taking the form of fake blood and gore or by the use of miniatures and models to mimic the desired effect.

The Start

By the 1970s there was even more use of special effects as was evident in the “Star Wars” trilogy. These three movies really showcased a great range of visual effects and many advances in procedure and technique were developed during their production. The visual effects supervisor at the time created a computer-controlled motion camera known as the “Dykstraflex” which involved the camera moving around a model set against a blue screen which would create the sense of movement. Other elements were then combined and added to this footage to make for a realistic scene.


In time other items could be filmed with similar equipment that was being controlled by a computer and when all these separate elements were combined together, it made it feel like a continuous single shot even if it wasn’t. It was about this time that the visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), was created by George Lucas and went on to develop many more visual effects techniques, including filming scenes and then integrating backgrounds using various motion capture techniques. In the 1983 movie “Return of the Jedi” the film makers cleverly shot scenes in the redwood forests of California then show the characters against a blue screen. They combined all of this to make it look like the characters were speeding through a forest of trees.


The advent of computers had a significant impact on the creation of visual effects in movies as evident in “Terminator 2” and “The Matrix” which really showed how the versatility and range had progressed. It wasn’t long before computer-generated imagery (CGI) was being integrated into many movies and the first one to be completely made by CGI was the animated movie “Toy Story”.

Motion capture techniques and CGI advanced even further by the 2000s, as demonstrated in such works as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar”. Typically, more movies are now being filmed mainly on green screen and this footage combined later with visual effects. Audiences now expect to see impressive visual effects including CGI in movies and most blockbuster movies are popular because of the exciting visual effects that are included. Without a doubt the advent of technology and in particular that of the computer has greatly enhanced the use and quality of visual effects in movies. It will be interesting to see where this technology goes from here and what trends will emerge in the ever-evolving movie industry.