VFX, or visual effects, is a concept we are all familiar with in this day and age: it is the process of integrating generated or created imagery into ‘real’ or live-action footage, and is commonly used in the sphere of filmmaking to portray environments that would be dangerous, impractical, expensive or even impossible to capture on camera.
The widespread use of computers now allows for the creation of such environments digitally with a great degree of creative flexibility to produce such films as Om Shanti Om, Ra.One or Bajirao Mastani.. or, in a global context, Transformers, Avatar or Harry Potter.
Turning back in time, we find that visual effects predate the use of computer generated imagery (or CGI) or even computers by decades. In fact, the first people to use these effects in presentations and performances were – you guessed it – magicians. It’s no wonder, then, that one of the most prolific VFX studios in the world today – ILM – has the word ‘magic’ in its name!
Pinpointing an exact time for when visual effects – or special effects, as they were known back in the day – began to be used is difficult.
However, a study of film history provides some clues on how it became so popular. Optical illusions like the Pepper’s ghost were used to amaze the audiences at magic shows in the nineteenth century.
Eventually, as films began to be made, techniques like multiple exposure (which was first used by Oscar Rejlander in 1857) came into play.
The next breakthrough came with the discovery of the stop motion or substitution cut technique in 1895 by Alfred Clark, which was further perfected by the French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Also known as the Cinemagician for his ingenuous use of special effects in films – including multiple exposure, stop motion, time lapse and hand-painted mattes in addition to actual sets – Méliès is considered a pioneer of special effects.
His most widely recognised works include 1902’s A Trip To The Moon and 1904’s The Impossible Voyage, which are among the earliest science fiction-fantasy films.
As filmmakers experimented further in subsequent years, special effects began to play an increasingly important role in films. People wanted more of the fantastic and extraordinary, and filmmakers had to find ways to provide for their audience.
Matte composites (painted elements that were combined into an environment), rear projection (where a filmed scene would be projected onto a screen in the background), puppets and animatronics, and miniatures were used more and more frequently and in unique ways to produce better and more impressive films.
Some landmark films include 1925’s The Lost World, 1927’s Metropolis, 1933’s King Kong, 1941’s Citizen Kane and 1956’s Forbidden Planet.
In time, the genres of science fiction and fantasy began to be associated with a need for special effects, leading to masterpieces like 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1977’s Star Wars and 1982’s Android.
As the decades progressed, what was once called ‘special effects’ began to be known as ‘visual effects’ and is today such an essential part of filmmaking that over three-fourths of all movies made use it in some form. VFX – especially photorealistic effects – is responsible for most of the magic we see on screen these days, and needless to say it’s only getting better.