The History of Special Effects


The Motion Picture Industry has been a part of American society since the early part of the 20th century. And through the ages filmmakers have always tried to do their best to “wow” their audiences, and make them wonder how it’s done. Who could forget the towering ape holding Fay Wray in “King Kong”, or Stanley Kubrick’s impressive space station in “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Both of these movies were real giants of their times, and left audiences wondering “How did they do it?” Also as impressive were the works of Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered the technique of stop motion effects. His works included “Jason and the Argonauts”, “Clash of the Titans”, and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”. Later George Lucas made “Star Wars”. He took a small $11 million budget and made one of the most impressive movies of all time, both by means of special effects and storyline. Of course its sequels were even more impressive, with bigger budgets and more elaborate special effects than the original. The most recent movies to “break the mold” of special effects, were Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. He and his team at Weta used the most advanced technologies to bring Tolkien’s classic to life. Not all movies made displayed good use of special effects. Movies like “The Screaming Skull”, “The Phantom Planet”, and “Track of the Moon Beast” absolutely obliterate the meaning of special effect. They, as well as many other bad movies, have appropriately been named “B-Movies”. Special effects have contributed huge amounts of money to the movie business over the last 70 years. This paper explores the good, the bad, and the ugly of those landmark movies in each category.


In the early 1930s the times were poor and so were the people. Until then the movie industry had relied upon magician type illusions rather than true special effects. Everything changed when special effects guru Willis O’Brien released his soon to be masterpiece King Kong in 1933. King Kong was momentous both on screen and off. O’Brien had to utilize his knowledge from previous movies to bring the giant ape to life through the use of stop motion and animatronics. He built a life size bust, hand, and foot for the giant ape. The hand was to scoop up Fay Wray while the foot was to trample island natives. To give the illusion of a full size Kong interacting with small people O’Brien first filmed all of the Ape’s movements through stop motion then added in Wray’s performance using a rear-screen projection. This in effect made the viewers think that Wray was actually on screen with King Kong. Audiences loved it. (Willis O’Brien Special Effects Pioneer. Online. Netdoor.com. 4/13/04)


King Kong set the standard for stop motion animation in films. Special effects of the 30s, 40s, and 50s relied heavily on makeup, camera tricks, and stop motion. In the 1950s Ray Harryhausen, a protégé of Willis O’Brien, released a film that surpassed all previous efforts including his own. The film was “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”. He used knowledge from previous projects to make his newest concoction. This time around he had more than one creature to animate, in contrast to his other films which only had one. His creatures included a Cyclops, a serpent woman, a dragon, the two-headed rocs, and the skeleton. Although stop-motion remained a tool of Harryhausen other directors embraced newer techniques. (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad: Behind the Scenes. Online. Fortunecity.com. 4/13/04)


Barely a decade later Stanley Kubrick released his brain child “2001: A Space Odyssey”. His unique design of the movie left many audiences confused, yet the younger generation loved it. Kubrick made the science fiction movie from a different angle, in comparison previous attempts. He made the film as technically credible as possible, where as prior efforts tried to make science fiction “streamlined” and futuristic. He used $6.5 million (out of $10.5 million) to use on special affects alone. The end result was amazing and even today it still holds up as a great technical achievement. (George C. Demet. The Special Effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Online. Palantir.net. 3/04)


Yet another “leap” in the area of special effects was “Star Wars” in 1977. George Lucas produced a film