Besides being good for starting arguments—and even the occasional dust-up—“best of” film lists are invaluable excuses for revisiting, rethinking and reevaluating different aspects of and approaches to moviemaking.
In considering the Visual Effects Society’s VES 50—a list of the 50 most influential visual effects films of all time—our focus is on movies “peopled” with hobbits, leprechauns, battling skeletons, giant apes, ghastly aliens, plenty of flying saucers and even a scythe-swinging, singing Sean Connery, an action which (oddly enough) isn’t a special visual effect in Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
Earlier this year, the VES membership—which includes 1,500 artists, technologists, model-makers, educators, studio leaders, supervisors and PR and marketing specialists—selected the 50 films most worthy of such an honor (51, actually, because of a tie) via an online voting campaign. The purpose of the exercise? To give due credit to cinema’s visual effects innovators.
“Part of the VES’ mission is to educate people about the history of visual effects. This is a way of honoring our past,” says VES chair Jeffrey A. Okun, a visual effects supervisor who has worked on such films as Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Stargate and Red Planet. “It’s to remind people where things came from. We don’t want our history to be lost.”
While the VES 50 tends to skew toward more modern films (The Matrix and Jurassic Park both make the top five), this article takes a look at the 20 earliest films on the list, in the hope of introducing less familiar visual effects landmarks and helping to further the VES’ cause.
After screening films that range from George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), one of the prime lessons learned is that truly brilliant, effective special effects are always in the service of a film as a whole. In other words, the effects aren’t merely an excuse to “show off this gee-whiz technology.”
As Okun says: “The best special effects are organic. They should serve the overall story.” His personal approach to the craft? “I feel that my job is not to showcase what can be done with the technology, but to serve the story using visual effects where and when needed.”
As for the invariable questions about curious VES 50 omissions or inclusions, Okun says, “Everybody will have a favorite film not on the list. But that’s what these lists do—they start discussions.” (For the record, Okun would like to have seen The Time Machine and The Last Starfighter make the cut.)
Here, then, is a brief look at 20 of the VES 50. Let the arguments begin…
From the graceful movement of the docking spacecraft to visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull’s prolonged, hallucinogenic slit-screen journey toward infinity, 2001 “defined a whole new type of science-fiction movie,” according to Okun. “It set a whole new bar.” Introducing gyroscopically-regulated sets that moved around actors to mimic weightlessness and early, computer-controlled miniature shots, 2001 introduced innovative technologies that opened up a new world of possibilities for moviemakers. Kubrick’s hyper-meticulous preproduction and development, and inclusion of new technologies, yielded an otherworldly vision of space’s silent beauty not seen before or really bettered since.
King Kong (1933)
Directors: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
VES 50 Ranking: 7
Turner Home Entertainment, $12.98
Building upon 1925’s The Lost World (VES 50 Ranking: 46), chief effects technician Willis O’Brien created the iconic vision of Kong astride the Empire State Building. Using the laborious stop-motion process, King Kong was a turning point for effects—“a giant for its optical innovations,” according to Okun. From Ray Harryhausen’s crazily complex creations of the 1950s and 1960s to Peter Jackson’s fascination with the film, which ultimately led to his 2005 remake (VES Ranking: 38), the film’s influence cannot be understated. Its use of rear projection as well as miniature projection (projecting shots of live-action in miniature sets) created a convincing world without the deadly task of putting actors in monkey suits. Of special note is the work of Sydney Saunders and Fred Jackman, who developed a flexible screen for rear-projection work to replace the sand-blasted glass that was previously used.
Through in-camera combinations of miniatures and live action, Lang created a memorable landscape of the future. “It was a passing of the torch toward a different type of film, planting the seeds for 2001 and Star Wars,” notes Okun. The art deco-infused, multi-level cityscape miniatures provided an enormous sense of scale, and the inclusion of live action with the miniature landscapes via Eugen Schüfftan’s in-camera work is a wonder. “The Schüfftan Process,” as it became known, was achieved by using a half-slivered mirror to segment the film into live action and miniature. (Matte work eventually replaced Schüfftan’s invention.)
How appropriate that the earliest VES 50 film honored was created by a magician. Complete with the famous shot of a spaceship blasted into a human face that was double-exposed onto a painting of the moon (“one of the most famous visual effects images in film,” according to Okun), Méliès’ creation is considered by many to be the first “special effects film.” Méliès made the most of in-camera techniques and used painted backgrounds to provide the illusion of the landscape in perspective to great effect. It may all seem simple now, but it was revolutionary then.
Matte paintings don’t get any grander or more whimsical than the rendition of the Emerald City. “The matte work and other effects make the movie seem much bigger than the sound stages it was filmed on,” marvels Okun. “The work expands reality.” As a testament to the inventiveness of the moviemakers, the tornado sequence is still studied by contemporary pros as an example of a realistic looking storm. MGM’s inventive team of A. Arnold Gillespie and Douglas Shearer created the effect, in part, by hanging a 30-foot muslin windsock from a gantry on a sound stage. The windsock was rotated and dust and debris were blown about from below. Of course, the film also features flying monkeys, witches in bubbles and a horse of a different color.
These two films may have different directors, but they share one special effects mastermind: The inimitable Ray Harryhausen, who took stop-motion animation to unfathomable heights. He developed a process dubbed “Dynamation,” which combines live-action rear projection with his painstaking stop-motion efforts. Jason and the Argonauts’ highlights include shrieking harpies, a hydra and the famous four-minute fight between live-action characters and stop-animated skeletons. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad first introduced Harryhausen’s trademark skeleton work, in this case a single character carrying on a convincing fight in an appropriately gloomy underground fortress. It’s a useful exercise while watching a Harryhausen movie to keep reminding yourself that there is no computer-aided motion control; all of the effects are done by hand—24 frames per second.
Yes, it’s long (220 minutes) and, yes, it has DeMille’s pontifical “introduction.” But in the end, the parting of the Red Sea is a momentous money shot that “changed the way filmmakers look at the natural elements,” says Okun. The scene is a stunning composition that brings together footage of water
filling enormous dump tanks (the film was run in reverse for the parting), a blackening sky and live action. The ensuing composition offers furious spectacle. Other highlights include cell-animated pillars, blue-screen composites of miniature cities and live action and the Nile turning red—a combination of dye and animation. Of course, DeMille also includes an orgy scene that took four weeks to shoot. The Ten Commandments is grand even by DeMille’s standards, and a fitting career finale.
FX guru Gordon Jennings’ Martian Machines are imaginatively realized—designed with long, swan-like necks that culminate in a streamlined, metallic head with three lenses. The machines were copper-coated miniatures maneuvered via wires, which are visible at times. The death ray’s disintegration of people and weapons was achieved with a painstaking matte process. The destruction of Los Angeles is particularly effective, as “using familiar structures raises the bar for making things look realistic,” according to Okun.
What more can be said about this film that the shelves of books detailing every production detail and credit squabble don’t already tell us? While Gregg Toland’s deep focus camera work comes to mind first, it’s worth remembering and re-watching the complementary matte and optical printing efforts. The optical work on the shot of Jim Gettys (Ray Collins) looking down from the wings of a cavernous auditorium upon candidate Charles Foster Kane (Welles) is breathtaking. Composited from four shots—Kane on the stage, figures walking in the aisle, a matte painting of the cavernous hall and Gettys in the foreground—it doesn’t get much better than this. Of course there is much more, including lighting through visible ceilings and optical illusions created by in-camera perspective and disclosed for effect (Kane walks and is swallowed by an immense fireplace, which moments before seems modest in size). “People forget about all of the visual effects work in the movie because they don’t see it,” observes Okun.
Featuring some of the most effective sailing ship miniatures on film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea “took the imagination and made it doable,” says Okun. The underwater sequences shot in the Bahamas (complete with divers in “Victorian” diving suits) are exemplary, and even the dry-for-wet shots of Peter Lorre and Kirk Douglas in diving gear are plausible (thanks in part to being filmed with a small tank of water between camera and actor). Peter Ellenshaw’s rich matte paintings complete the picture—his work on the island of Volcania is particularly striking. With a cast that, in addition to Lorre and Douglas, includes James Mason, Disney excelled in its first full-length, live-action film.
Stepping through chalk drawings, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) and Bert (Dick Van Dyke) enter a magical world where animation and human characters interact seamlessly. The film pioneered the use of blue screen and color traveling matte, allowing the moviemakers to composite matte background, live-action and cell animation together in such a way that the live action moves against the background itself. The animators did the rest, resulting in penguins dancing with Van Dyke.
The first color CinemaScope science-fiction film, matte paintings effectively created a truly foreign world for the planet of Altair IV. Special note must be made of the matte work that shows the technological “lost world” of the Krell people to great effect. Additionally, cell animation contributes to the effective battle scene between Dr. Morbius’ Id (the film is an inventive retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and the ship’s crew. Finally, Okun reminds us not to forget Robbie, “the number one best robot of all time!”
More than just a simple sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which makes the most of subtle special effects, is a morality play and comment upon the dawning nuclear age. Particularly effective is the sequence illustrating a bird’s eye view of the effect of mechanical stoppages on familiar cities. Clever compositing freezes vehicles, while distant characters move freely in sectors of the screen. Of course Bernard Herrmann’s score, replete with Theramin, and a cast that includes Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie don’t hurt either. (Spencer Tracy was originally considered for the role of Klaatu, but Wise sagely argued that seeing Tracy’s visage emerge from the alien’s helmet might elicit an unwanted comic effect.)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Director: Franklin J. SchaffnerVES 50 Ranking: 39
20th Century Fox, $14.98
John Chambers immeasurably raised the standards of prosthetic makeup in Planet of the Apes, a movie that Okun deems “a great story helped with fantastic makeup.” Gone were the days of guys in primitive monkey suits hopping about; Roddy McDowall’s transformation into the ape “Cornelius” was a stunning achievement. Chambers’ medical experience in facial reconstruction during WWII provided him with an invaluable understanding of the human face, allowing him to create prosthetic makeup responsive enough to register emotions and allow for actual acting.
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Director: Richard Fleischer
VES 50 Ranking: 40
20th Century Fox, $19.98
Rear projection is used to great effect as the submarine Proteus and its crew make their way through a human body in Fantastic Voyage. Proving that some visual effects are the simplest (think of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz), the Proteus’ descent into a whirlpool was filmed using a punch bowl, strawberry milk and a miniature sub, with Cheerios functioning as blood cells. The film was “unique in that the visual effects people were at the forefront of the process,” notes Okun. “They worked every day on the film, instead of just working for a few days on a couple of scenes.” Art Cruickshank, a key contributor, continued to revolutionize the effects world; he worked on the groundbreaking Tron (VES 50 Ranking: 6) the year before his death in 1983.
Director: Steven Spielberg
VES 50 Ranking: 41
Universal Studios, $19.98
Jaws stands out as a bit of an oddity on the VES 50 list, and even Okun himself “can’t explain its inclusion.” At the time of filming, much was made of the use of a giant shark during at-sea shooting, but the monstrous facsimile was a nightmare to work with and helped contribute to the film’s escalating production costs. To compensate for Bruce (the animatronic shark’s nickname), Spielberg, editor Verna Fields and composer John Williams managed to create a terrifying monster primarily via suggestion.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Director: David Hand
VES 50 Ranking: 45
Walt Disney Video, $19.99
Disney’s first full-length film, which Okun calls a “cornerstone of modern animation,” developed and displayed the artistic possibilities of animation. The multi-plane camera animation process allowed numerous pieces of artwork to move past the camera at varying speeds and planes from each other, creating the illusion of depth and the ability to add more complex, interwoven moments on screen. Additionally, rotoscoping (filming and tracing live actors for animation) was used as a device to build more realistic/naturalistic animated characters.
This silent, once-thought-lost precursor to King Kong is where an uncredited Willis O’Brien honed his stop-motion skills. The film features plenty of dinosaur versus dinosaur action. Live-action characters appear on-screen along with the dinosaurs through masking techniques. The final rampage of the brontosaurus through London is effectively done using miniatures interspersed with live action.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1958)
Director: Robert Stevenson
VES 50 Ranking: 50
Walt Disney Video, $14.99
Finally, the movie where a very young Sean Connery sings. “I can’t say enough about this film,” exclaims Okun. “It’s close to magic. Imagine being able to see dailies the next day with the ‘effects’ already there.” As far as visual effects, Stevenson makes great use of forced perspective, a fascinating process of using optical illusion to make it appear that actors are of different size by filming simultaneously on the same set, to have humans and leprechauns share the same stage. It’s a technique that is still in use today; Peter Jackson used it to great effect in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (For a useful visual lesson, the extended DVD of The Lord of the Rings shows how the device worked in Bilbo’s interactions with Gandolph.) As usual, Peter Ellenshaw’s matte paintings set the standard. MM