For about as long as there have been movies, there have been special effects. That’s no exaggeration: The medium was only a few years old when people began finding ways to toy with the reality of what the motion-picture camera was capturing, creating tricks from quirks in photographic science. A century later, the technology has drastically evolved, but the function remains the same: to make the audience believe the unbelievable. Not that it’s all about fooling us. Yes, some of the best effects blur the line between reality and fantasy. Others simply show us something so cool—so wild or imaginative or beautiful—that we accept the new reality they create, even when we know it’s all make believe. So what makes a special effect special? Maybe it comes down to the effect.

Summer, of course, is the unofficial special effects season, and to commemorate the winding down of Hollywood’s annual parade of CGI-heavy blockbusters, The A.V. Club has picked the highlights from a whole history of cinematic illusion, from the Méliès “trick films” of the early 20th century to the superhero phenomena of today. Note that this is not a list of the most advanced effects work, because as anyone who’s sat through an X-Men movie can attest, even the most state-of-the-art spectacles can look shockingly lousy. Furthermore, not all once-remarkable effects achievements have retained their luster, which is why some of the biggest box office hits of all time are absent from our rundown. (Sorry Titanic stans.) Consider this, instead, a chronological cataloguing of the movies that still dazzle and amaze and disgust us; whether achieved through purely physical/organic means, through the digital magic available at a mouse click, or through something as simple as a cut, the effects within them hold a monopoly on our imaginations.


“The Man With A Rubber Head” (1901)

The father of special effects, the French illusionist and movie pioneer Georges Méliès brought a stage magician’s know-how and sense of wonder to the new art of film, creating a cinema of the impossible, filled with alchemists and Jules Verne-ian contraptions, imps and wayward body parts. His effects artistry wasn’t limited to so-called “trick films,” but it was there that his self-referential dream logic and technical ingenuity ran wild. The actor-director’s bald head was often the butt of his multiple-exposure gags (see: The Four Troublesome Heads, The Melomaniac); in the surreal “The Man With The Rubber Head,” Méliès pulls a spare noggin out of a box and inflates it like a balloon before handing off the bellows to a clown doppelgänger. Like so much of Méliès’ most lasting work, it’s a trip into a weirder reality that could only exist on film—or in dreams. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


“A Trip To The Moon” (1902)

Within a decade of cinema’s invention, filmmakers like Georges Méliès (to whom Scorsese’s Hugo is in part a tribute) were seeking means of creating astonishing effects unique to the medium. “A Trip To The Moon” employs a fair number of eye-popping devices that originated in the theater, but Méliès truly wowed audiences with seemingly impossible transformations facilitated by that simplest of cinematic techniques: the cut. An astronaut’s umbrella, planted into the ground of a cavern, instantly becomes a giant mushroom (note: this film is not scientifically accurate), by means of splicing a shot of one to a shot of the other. Seems elementary today, but for viewers still unaccustomed to the sight, it was pure magic. [Mike D’Angelo]

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“The House Of Ghosts” (1908)

For the early trick filmmakers, a haunted house movie was part chamber symphony, part portfolio—a three-sided room of painted flats, waiting to be crammed with handmade effects. Second only to Méliès in his mastery of early special effects, the Spanish-born cinematographer and director Segundo de Chomón tosses a lengthy stop-motion animated sequence and the illusion of a rolling set into this entry in the genre. Wacky and flippantly experimental, films like The House Of Ghosts have more in common with cult freak-outs like House than with the Amityvilles and Conjurings of the world; they are realities where the whims of the effects artist are the only authority. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Faust (1926)

Light and darkness fight for a man’s soul in a conjured, phantasmal world of miniatures, grotesque sets, forced perspectives, puppets, double exposures, fireballs, and literal smoke and mirrors. Although his 1922 horror classic Nosferatu is better known to modern viewers, the final German film by F.W. Murnau, the silent era’s premier rhapsodist of night, is an expressionist tour de force and the culmination of the early special effects films’ fascination with alchemy and stage magic. The images resemble engravings printed into soot, and their power to transport the viewer hasn’t faded. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s dystopian masterpiece provoked mixed reactions from critics and audiences when it was initially released in 1927. A few decades and several re-masterings later, it’s now considered one of the most influential films in cinematic history, in no small part due its innovative special effects. The mesmerizing Art Deco city was built from the ground up using hand-drawn backdrops and three-dimensional miniatures and populated using the Schüfftan process, a technique that angles partially reflective mirrors in front of the camera to combine life-size actors and miniature models into a single, to-scale frame. Appropriately, for a film about a futuristic world lorded over by a wealthy tyrant from his own personal tower, Metropolis was way ahead of its time. [Maggie Donahue]

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King Kong (1933)

Every mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster owes a debt of influence to this creature feature par excellence, which combined all the major effects strategies of its era—matte paintings, rear projection, Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking stop-motion work—to explode the possibilities of what a big-screen spectacle could show us. Far from creaky museum relics, King Kong’s primitive prehistoric attractions still boast a lifelike tactility missing from many of their decades-later descendants (including those of both the 1976 remake and the 2005 one). The film’s greatest illusion is its star attraction: Brought to life through rubber, latex, glass, animal fur, and more, Kong remains a special effect with a soul—one still capable, in his handmade personality, of conquering ours. [A.A. Dowd]


Things To Come (1936)

The most ambitious science fiction epic of the 1930s, the H.G. Wells-scripted Things To Come is really three sci-fi movies for the price of one: It begins with the coming world war (an obvious but still eerie prediction) before moving on to the new dark age of post-apocalyptic 1970s Britain and then to a technocracy in the 21st century. One of the greatest production designers of Hollywood’s golden age, director William Cameron Menzies marshals a spectacular range of optical and miniature effects to depict the nighttime bombing of a British town in the near-tomorrow and the society of a subterranean, modern-art metropolis a century later. The imagery is as extravagant as the speculations. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

MGM’s musical adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz is one indelible image after another: sepia-toned Kansas giving way to Technicolor Oz, a horse of a different color (actually four different horses coated in four different flavors of gelatin powder), Margaret Hamilton melting into a steaming pile of black fabric. And yet one of in-house special effects whiz A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie’s biggest master strokes is possibly the easiest to overlook: the 35 feet of muslin winding across tiny plains in a credible, dust-kicking facsimile of a twister. (A twister!) Gillespie’s original tornado concept, a rubber cone, put the studio out $8,000—just one of the many, many setbacks that kept The Wizard Of Oz from turning a profit until its 1949 re-release. Watching his backup plan nearly 80 years later, it was worth every wasted penny. [Erik Adams]

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Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles was a lifelong magic buff, and his gobsmacking debut feature is (among many other things) a masterpiece of illusions, a study of power and memory orchestrated around Maurice Seiderman’s legendary aging makeup and the seamless relationship between the cinematography of Gregg Toland and the effects work of Vernon L. Walker and Linwood G. Dunn; most of the movie’s celebrated deep focus compositions and long takes are actually effects shots. Kane’s use of optically printed composites and rear projection is more or less unparalleled, and for every impossible camera move or trick of lighting that catches the audience’s attention, there are probably a dozen hiding in plain sight. Sure, the breakfast montage is a triumph of editing, makeup, and performance—but have you ever wondered how the room behind Jed Leland dissolves into the scene before he does? [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Although 1955’s The Dam Busters has secured a place in the history of special effects thanks to its blatant influence on Star Wars, this classic Spencer Tracy war movie is superior in many respects. The awesomely huge, hyper-realistic naval miniatures, cityscapes, and model planes represent the pinnacle of the craft. But attention to detail only gets you so far. In this age of digital annihilation, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo’s miniature camerawork remains thrilling—whether it’s an overhead god’s-eye-view of an exploding factory or an exhilarating “handheld” shot out back of a B-25 bomber, leaving destruction in its wake. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)

Rivaled only by Dracula in terms of sleekness and allure, the Gill-man from 1954’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon represents the pinnacle of creature design for Universal’s famous monsters. Painstakingly assembled by hand every day by gluing foam-rubber scales to a latex body suit, the costume could be worn on land or underwater, where two champion swimmers performed as the Creature without any sort of breathing apparatus. After the filming of two sequels, the Gill-man costume was unceremoniously thrown out, and pieces of it only exist today thanks to the recovery efforts of late Famous Monsters Of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman. But that’s not the only indignity suffered by the Creature: Its original designer, Millicent Patrick, was omitted from the film’s credits at the insistence of makeup artist Bud Westmore, and her contributions weren’t recognized until decades later. Ironically, Patrick based the creature’s original silhouette on that of an Oscar statuette, which is exactly what Guillermo del Toro collected for his romantic take on the monster, The Shape Of Water, earlier this year. [Katie Rife]

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Godzilla (1954)

Even in 1954, Godzilla’s special effects weren’t exactly state-of-the-art: While FX guru Eiji Tsuburaya had his heart set on stop-motion, he settled for the cheaper and less time-consuming suitmation, a.k.a. letting a stuntman in a rubber monster getup stomp all over a miniature, wood-and-plaster facsimile of Tokyo. But the creature design itself was instantly iconic, and director Ishirō Honda staged the reptile’s rampages with such ingenuity—cutting seamlessly between panoramas of chintzy destruction and overhead shots of scrambling extras—that audiences easily, happily suspended their disbelief. The most somber of kaiju flicks, the original Godzilla proved that effects need not be sophisticated, or even especially convincing, to capture the imagination. [A.A. Dowd]


The Ten Commandments (1956)

Cecil B. DeMille first made The Ten Commandments in 1923, when the parting of the Red Sea could only be achieved via primitive optical compositing that saw the Israelites safely walk between two quivering slabs of Jell-O. (It looks more convincing than you’d think!) Three decades later, DeMille, working with visual effects supervisor John P. Fulton (who would win an Oscar), took a second stab at the spectacle, combining multiple elements—footage shot on the shores of the actual Red Sea; a man-made waterfall created on the Paramount backlot; some 360,000 gallons of water released into a giant tank (and then projected in reverse)—to create a genuinely grandiose vision of the Old Testament’s key miracle. [Mike D’Angelo]


Jason And The Argonauts (1963)

The impact of Ray Harryhausen on the craft of visual effects, and particularly stop-motion animation, cannot be overstated. Harryhausen brought wonder and magic to a number of films based on Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern mythology, but his favorite, as he wrote in his 2003 autobiography, was Jason And The Argonauts. The film’s groundbreaking battle between Jason and his men and an army of reanimated skeletons was made possible by Harryhausen’s signature Dynamation technique, which used both rear projection and split screen to more fluidly combine stop-motion and live-action footage. Matching the skeletons’ movements to those of actors in live-action footage projected behind the miniature set, Harryhausen would make up to 35 movements on seven skeletons (six new and one repurposed from The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad) for each frame of film. It was extremely painstaking work, and Harryhausen, who always worked alone, would sometimes complete no more than 13 frames (a little more than half a second) of film per day. [Katie Rife]

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

So believable are the interstellar passages of Stanley Kubrick’s mind-blowing sci-fi classic that they’ve inspired an enduring conspiracy theory: If the director could make space travel look this authentic in 1968, maybe he could have faked the moon landing, too. Half a century has done little to diminish 2001’s technological verisimilitude; the strings still don’t show, literally or figuratively, during its zero-gravity ballet. But the film reaches past realism to sublime surrealism during the awe-inspiring “Star Gate” finale, when special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull uses sophisticated slit-scan photography to pilot a path across a new frontier—a noble ideal for scientists and filmmakers alike. [A.A. Dowd]


Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968)

Using techniques and materials innovated in the West—rear projection, optical printing, matte painting, foam latex—Japanese effects artists of the 1960s created effects that rivaled or even surpassed their Hollywood counterparts in terms of creativity, even if they weren’t on the bleeding edge of technology. One film that transcends its low budget by virtue of sheer pulpy weirdness is 1968’s Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell, perhaps the only film to feature both a pulsating vampire blob who crawls straight into its victims’ brains through not-so-subtly vaginal gashes in their foreheads and a strong anti-Vietnam War message. Memorable both for the repulsive stylization of its makeup and a color palette bright enough to singe your corneas, Goke received the ultimate tribute for a B-movie in 2003, when Quentin Tarantino lifted one of the matte paintings from the film wholesale and used it in the airplane scene in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. [Katie Rife]


Eraserhead (1977)

Certainly one of the most cheaply produced films on this list, Eraserhead—“one of those sell-your-own-plasma-to-buy-the-film-stock masterpieces,” in the words of David Foster Wallace—was a labor of artistic love for David Lynch, and the effects are a marvel as much for how they managed to happen in the first place as for their disturbing, transportive magic. Strange, hypnotic, and unlike any other cinematic creations, his dark effects include communicative worms and pancake-faced ladies in radiators, but the apex is a baby that resembles the love child of a fetus and the Alien Xenomorph, whose lifelike surreality rarely inspires anything less than uncanny awe. (Lynch, ever cryptic about his process, has never explained how they made the damn thing, either.) [Alex McLevy]

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Star Wars (1977)

Perhaps you’ve heard of a scrappy little FX house called Industrial Light & Magic? Created by George Lucas in 1975, specifically to tackle his forthcoming sci-fi saga, ILM (headed by John Dykstra) painstakingly built scores of detailed miniatures that looked orders of magnitude more realistic than those of any predecessor. In part, that’s because many of them were expressly designed to look old, shabby, beat-up—a radical break from the then-prevailing aesthetic, in which anything futuristic showed no signs of wear and tear. ILM’s groundbreaking work helped turn Star Wars into a paradigm-shifting phenomenon, and the company quickly became a household name. It may just show up on this list a few more times below. [Mike D’Angelo]


Alien (1979)

If the poor, doomed crew of the Nostromo never stumbled upon the universe’s most lethal hitchhiker, Alien would still look like a watershed moment for visions of the future. (Its lived-in starship, more floating big-rig than Enterprise, was nearly as influential as anything in 2001 or Star Wars.) But the film’s grand effects achievement is its namesake: the organic deep-space killing machine designed by Swiss painter H.R. Giger, and worn as a remarkably detailed, full-body latex costume by a very tall Nigerian artist. Part cockroach, part shark, part jet-black motorcycle, the Xenomorph forever changed how the genre envisioned hostile extraterrestrial life, all while giving our collective anxiety about the unknown a sleek, gooey, and very phallic makeover. [A.A. Dowd]


The Beyond (1981)

All of Lucio Fulci’s movies are gross. It’s kind of his thing. The effects in his films never achieved anything even close to realism—or, indeed, really even tried—instead using their very cheapness and artificiality as an aesthetic in itself. It’s not Fulci’s goriest film, but 1981’s The Beyond demonstrates this principle at its goopy, gooey, flesh-melting best. Featuring multiple scenes of bodies being dissolved by acid and melting into rainbow foam, an army of tarantulas graphically eating a man’s face, a vicious dog attack, zombies covered in layers of flaking skin, a juicy head explosion that still retains the power to shock, and, of course, one of Fulci’s signature eyeball-gouging scenes, the film makes up for its lack of big-budget wonder with the squishy enthusiasm of Giannetto De Rossi’s effects, leading the way for an entire subgenre of effects-forward gorehound horror. [Katie Rife]

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An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Rick Baker won the very first Best Makeup And Hairstyling Oscar for his ingenious practical effects work on An American Werewolf In London. His big showcase: the scene where a bitten American tourist becomes a creature of the night—a hilarious/horrifying set piece that required star David Naughton to undergo several different prosthetic permutations (a 10-hour-a-day ordeal), each shot progressing him into a new stage somewhere between man and wolf, while the makeup team stretched rubber torsos and limbs to capture the agonizing, bone-cracking physicality of the change. Interestingly, to do American Werewolf, Baker had to leave The Howling, that other half-comic werewolf movie from 1981; it boasts its own incredible transformation scene, overseen by the artist responsible for the effects of the next film on this very list. [A.A. Dowd]


The Thing (1982)

There’s an argument to be made that special effects peaked in the 1980s, before advances in digital technology crippled the art of practically achieved wonderment. John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing may be the jaw-dropping pinnacle of that era. Effects creator and designer Rob Bottin spent a whole hospitalizing year laboring way on the movie’s shape-shifting alien terror. It was worth his exhaustion: Through one resourceful, ingenious technique after another—puppets, mechanical apparatuses, prosthetics, pyrotechnics, creamed corn—he made flesh a Lovecraftian organism straight out of a nightmare. As the CG-dependent remake-of-the-remake later demonstrated, monsters built from 1s and 0s just don’t have the same dripping, quivering life as those forged from latex and elbow grease. [A.A. Dowd]


The Dark Crystal (1982)

The entirety of Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s first non-Muppet (and completely human-less) movie is a special effect, a high-fantasy illusion supplemented by miniatures and composites but built almost entirely to scale on the stages of Elstree Studios. From the uncommonly textured fantasy illustrations of Brian Froud came the weathered, gnarled, and lumpy denizens of the planet Thra, a complete 180 from Kermit The Frog and friends—mechanized, radio-controlled creations that led to the establishment of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Yet nothing that ever leaped from its shelves since—nor any genre film before or after—would feel as authentically otherworldly as The Dark Crystal. [Erik Adams]

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Day Of The Dead (1985)

No history of special effects is complete without mention of Tom Savini, the “Godfather Of Gore” who convincingly put an arrow through Kevin Bacon’s throat in the original Friday The 13th and blew a noggin to smithereens in Maniac. His Grand Guignol masterpiece is the climax of George Romero’s Day Of The Dead, which boasts some of the most revoltingly graphic dismemberment ever put to film: torsos pulled apart, faces torn off, heads ripped clean from bodies. Zombie makeup has gotten more sophisticated in the decades since (Greg Nicotero, a Savini disciple, has kept the art form alive on The Walking Dead), but Day stands tall for its economically elaborate mayhem. Who needs a nine-digit budget when you have rubber, wax, and real pig intestines? [A.A. Dowd]


Brazil (1985)

Brazil’s London is one of the great cities of science fiction, full of chittering animatronic eyes and gleaming Art Deco grandeur, with explosive riots casually unfolding in the background. But Terry Gilliam, working with an apparently endless surplus of imagination, takes it one step further, and deigns to conceive of what a person in this bleary, comic hell might dream of. The result is dazzling fantasy sequences full of bulbous, orange clouds, low-poly skyscrapers, neon samurai, and baby-faced monsters, all of which Jonathan Pryce soars and sword-fights through in pursuit of a floating, ethereal maiden. These worlds finally collapse in the film’s final stretch, a sequence of restless visual invention containing one of the most, um, damp funerals ever filmed. [Clayton Purdom]


The Fly (1986)

Most of the time, you’re lucky to get one good monster design out of a monster movie. The Fly, David Cronenberg’s remake of the ’50s sci-fi schlock programmer, offers half a dozen: all stages of horrific deterioration experienced by scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) after he accidentally splices his DNA with that of a housefly. Chris Walas’ Oscar-winning makeup work—all deformed flesh and detaching body parts—is unforgettably repulsive. But even as The Fly makes very literal the real-life horror of looking in the mirror and not recognizing what you see, the effects keep Goldblum himself recognizable even as he becomes more insect than man. In other words, he’s still able to act under all those prosthetics, which makes this the rare “special effects movie” that will drop your jaw and break your heart. [A.A. Dowd]

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Set in a fantastical 1940s Los Angeles where cartoons are real, Robert Zemeckis’ uproarious dual homage to the Golden Age of hardboiled detective stories and American animation remains the gold standard for combining live-action and animated characters—a mindbogglingly complicated process that involved motion-controlled cameras, animatronic armatures, and more than a year of painstaking post-production. The secret ingredient is Bob Hoskins’ winning turn as the toon-hating gumshoe Eddie Valiant; his ability to act opposite metal rods, empty space, and blue screens (all while maintaining eye contact and miming interactions with invisible, elastic cartoon characters) is itself a technical marvel. Nothing sells a great effect like a great performance. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Dead Ringers (1988)

While the oeuvre of David Cronenberg is better known for its grotesque and deformed imagery (see: The Fly, two entries back), this psychological thriller about a pair of identical twin gynecologists stands apart as his most elegantly unsettling film. With the help of some groundbreaking motion-controlled camerawork and an ingenious matte system, Jeremy Irons plays both twins; the surgically precise dual performance is in a class of its own. For once, Cronenberg makes you forget that you’re watching an effect—and still uses it to make your skin crawl. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Society (1989)

The late ’80s were a golden age of practical horror effects, with films like Hellraiser (1987) and Pumpkinhead (1988) pushing the boundaries of gore and creature design in innovative and exciting ways. But the insane orgy that caps director Brian Yuzna’s often-overlooked satirical horror-comedy Society is unparalleled in its scope and repulsive creativity. The effects in the film were created by Japanese artist Screaming Mad George, who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and soon gained a reputation as one of the most out-there effects artists in the business, thanks to his cartoonishly surreal work on films like Big Trouble In Little China. With Society, he unleashed the writhing mass of latex and lube that forms when the hero’s yuppie family and their upper-crust neighbors merge into a slimy, amorphous blob of incestuous flesh in a disgustingly sexual ritual known as “The Shunting.” Faces melt and limbs pass through bodies like fingers through Jell-O, in the most sickening bit of commentary on the depravity of the rich since Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal. [Katie Rife]

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

James Cameron ushered audiences into the modern effects era with a perfect metaphor for the endless possibilities of CGI: the liquid-metal T-1000, a relentless digital bogeyman capable of assuming any shape or form. But the enduringly exhilarating Terminator 2, which boasts work from future Jurassic Park effects guru Stan Winston, doesn’t entrust all the spectacle to computers; it instead employs its then-brand-new technology only for what couldn’t be done with old-fashioned (and reliably awesome) stunt work and pyrotechnics, to say nothing of living special effect Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cameron, alas, would eventually put all his faith in the machines, which is why Avatar, as cutting-edge as it once was, hasn’t held up quite as well as this seminal summer blockbuster. [A.A. Dowd]


Batman Returns (1992)

While The Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises used effects to ground Batman in realism (the former’s Lower Wacker chase scene is an underappreciated marvel of miniature work), Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader put the vigilante into the world of the expressionist fantasy. One of two weird, Gothic blockbusters to come out in 1992, Batman Returns is, in some respects, as fundamentally irrational as the next film on this list, Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the plot is Swiss cheese and dream logic, held together by animatronic penguins, swooping shots of miniatures, and Danny DeVito’s grotesque makeup. It’s the quintessential special effects superhero film; the world it creates is the only one where Batman makes sense. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola’s reimagining of the vampire classic is an extravaganza of strikingly creative and delirious visual effects, made without computers or optical printers, using practical and in-camera techniques that dated back to the silent era: multiple exposures, miniatures, mattes, projectors, forced perspectives, even shadow puppets. The result is a sumptuously artificial world that draws a parallel between the arrival of the blood-sucking Transylvanian count in Victorian London and the dawn of cinema—and, by extension, between the vampire’s seductive powers and the spell that even the most primitive effects can cast on an audience’s imagination. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Jurassic Park (1993)

A master class in the use of special effects, Steven Spielberg’s monster hit about a theme park run amok combined computer-generated and animatronic dinosaurs with the director’s mastery of composition, pace, scale, and reaction shots; it’s an impeccable piece of entertainment and a self-reflexive cautionary tale (directed more at movie brats than at science nerds) about the perils of using technology without thinking things through. Even after 25 years, the rain-swept, rumbling T. rex set piece still thrills. But the dewey-eyed sentimental notes—the John Williams theme, the initial reveal of the dinosaurs—haven’t depreciated either. It’s all about the relationship between different parts: the ripple in the plastic cup of water, a simple effect created with a guitar string, is as important to the whole as the dino’s ear-splitting roar. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Forrest Gump (1994)

Upon release, Forrest Gump’s big-ticket effects were those that inserted its lead character into archival footage of historical figures, letting Tom Hanks act, however briefly and virtually, alongside the likes of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Those scenes still look fine, but they’re also just digitally updated versions of Zelig’s similar parlor trick from 1983. The real effects feats of Gump are less immediately visible, and far more influential: the digital removal of Gary Sinise’s legs so he could convincingly play a man with paraplegia, the digital sweetening of particularly gorgeous sunsets, and plenty more trickery that subtly adds both a heightened storybook richness and a larger sense of scale to this Robert Zemeckis boomer fantasia. Despite some narrative nostalgia, Gump portends a future Hollywood where every movie is an effects movie. [Jesse Hassenger]


Independence Day (1996)

Digital effects from the mid-’90s have aged notoriously poorly, but Roland Emmerich’s 1996 blockbuster extravaganza of sci-fi destruction has fared better than most thanks to its strategy of using CGI as a supplement to a more old-fashioned technique: blowing shit up real good. Visual effects supervisor Volker Engel estimates that 95 percent of the film’s effects were achieved by actually blowing up miniatures—a 15-foot-wide, five-foot-tall plaster model filled with dollhouse furniture was built for the film’s famous White House explosion—shot with motion-control cameras to maximize the flaming bombast. At the time, Independence Day was the most visual-effects heavy film of its decade, with more than 500 effects shots. Some of them have aged better than others; the practical explosions retain a certain analog charm, while the film’s creature effects—which, thankfully, are minimal—are now positively silly. [Katie Rife]

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The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix didn’t invent “bullet-time” special effects—1998’s Blade beat it to the punch, as well as countless animes in decades prior—but it did execute the technique with greater panache than anyone before or, arguably, since. It helped that the Wachowskis justified the liquid-cool gunfights narratively, via a pop-philosophy dystopia explained in flashes of white-screen exposition. But over and above its central effect, the movie got a lot of mileage by merely bending reality: high-wire jumps, seamless camera transitions through a monitor, a high kick requiring exaggerated parkour. This blend of practical and digital holds up beautifully today, and whenever it doesn’t, the film’s fiction explains it away. We’re all just streaming lines of code, anyway. [Clayton Purdom]


The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

To bring Tolkien to the screen, Peter Jackson took a page from the classic monster movie he’d later remake and tried out a spectrum of techniques, from miniatures to simple forced perspective to the army of orcs and goblins cooked up by his makeup department. In terms of effects, the highlight of his trilogy is probably The Two Towers, with its massive rain-soaked battle, combining fight choreography with a new animation system, MASSIVE, that seemed to give CGI soldiers a mind of their own. The real landmark, of course, was simpering, scheming, wholly alive Gollum—the first true performance by way of special effects, courtesy the future Marlon Brando of motion-capture, Andy Serkis. [A.A. Dowd]


Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)

Michel Gondry is an analog dreamer in a digital world. The papier-mâché-loving French fabulist prefers to pack his whimsical fantasias with practical effects, with CGI there to augment (or mask) sleight-of-hand that dates back to the early years of cinema. In Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Gondry uses inventive in-camera effects, frame-by-frame rotoscopy, disguised transitions, forced perspective, flipped shots, wire work, double exposure, and, yes, a little digital trickery to drag viewers through the vanishing memories of Jim Carrey’s heartbroken hero. The effects are casually, sometimes subtly magical—a perfectly intimate (and affordable) approach for a sci-fi relationship drama scaled to the mundane joys and hardships of modern romance. [A.A. Dowd]

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Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro’s films all feature remarkably crafted, meticulously detailed production design and special effects. But Pan’s Labyrinth still stands as a personal best for the director in terms of creature design, expertly blending fairy-tale wonder and terror, practical and digital effects. Famed suit actor Doug Jones played the film’s “El Fauno” character, using the character’s feet as stilts upon which he stood wearing green-screen leggings; Jones’ actual legs were removed in post-production, creating the illusion of legs that bent at an inhuman angle. Similarly, the film’s “Pale Man”—also played by Jones—was a full-body costume, designed to resemble both a manta ray and the rolls of skin that come with extreme weight loss; GI was later added to give movement to the character’s instantly iconic eyeball hands. [Katie Rife]


Children Of Men (2006)

The subject of special effects is the impossible; whether they’re one-reel trick films or modern fantasy blockbusters, the best special effects movies turn it into a reality of its own. One of the great sci-fi films of the 2000s, Alfonso Cuarón’s vision of humanity’s demise immerses the audience in the bedraggled, isolationist future from its opening scene. The technique of following a character and discovering the sights, sounds, and implied smells of their world is a classic (the tricky wide-angle camerawork owes a debt to I Am Cuba); the clever digital effects—including long takes composited together from different shots—further the illusion of a bleak world that exists in depth, continuing beyond the edges of the frame. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Speed Racer (2008)

You know a film’s special effects are something unusual when the net result is so unlike anything seen before that they actively repel audiences. The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer has plenty of flaws, but outsize ambition in its effects isn’t one of them. Like a live-action anime combined with the freneticism and hypercolor unreality of its Saturday-morning-cartoon source material, the film provides a dizzying array of constantly moving imagery, from massive shape-shifting CGI backgrounds to car races that defy the laws of physics. The combined effect can be a bit overwhelming, but nothing comparable has been achieved in the decade since. [Alex McLevy]

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The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, like its similarly Eric Roth-adapted cousin Forrest Gump, has some ostentatious and high-quality effects work chased by subtler stunners. The former takes the form of imagining what a reverse-aging human might look like as an infirm baby and old-man kid. But perhaps even more impressive is how, later in the film, the Brad Pitt of 2008 is, through some motion-capture and computer work, made to look like the Brad Pitt of 1994. This may not seem entirely necessary for the slow-aging, well-preserved Pitt, but similar processes (sometimes but not always as seamless) are now routinely used to unmoor Marvel’s older actors from their present-day bodies, and will doubtless continue to give stars an uncanny flexibility through many years of aging to come. In Benjamin Button, it serves as a reminder that time has uncanny effects all its own. [Jesse Hassenger]


Enter The Void (2009)

Nobody could have predicted that one of the best effects of the 2000s would turn up in a three-hour French arthouse experiment. Gasper Noé’s literal head-trip Enter The Void contains the finest use of first-person camera effects yet filmed, allowing audiences to enter the head of a young American drug dealer as he witnesses the events of his life unfold in flashback, combined with a miasma of free-floating observations of the city, seen from the perspective of a camera that swoops and soars above the ground, over others’ shoulders, and even inside the protagonist’s own brain. Marked by hazy drug-induced visuals, it’s a film whose technological wonders can’t be denied, even by detractors. [Alex McLevy]


Inception (2010)

Most of Christopher Nolan’s movies involve elaborate special effects, but they’re often described as fundamentalist exercises in the rejection (or, more accurately, quieter use) of CG. Inception has some of his most obviously digital creations ever; by all accounts, he didn’t go so far as to actually fold a city onto itself for one signature moment in his dreams-within-dreams thriller. But Nolan’s commitment to mixing some practical in-camera tricks (like the famous gravity-defying hallway fight) with the spectacular CG cityscapes gives the whole movie a surprising weight and tactility—a crucial and counterintuitive ingredient of a movie that spends a lot of time inside people’s minds. The imagery is dreamlike, but the intensity feels real. [Jesse Hassenger]

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The Tree Of Life (2011)

No, the dinosaurs don’t look great. But every other aspect of the extended dawn-of-time detour in Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life is transcendentally transfixing. For the roughly 20-minute sequence, which depicts nothing less than the birth of the universe and the first appearance (and evolution) of life on Earth, Malick lured 2001’s Douglas Trumbull out of retirement; together with effects supervisor Dan Glass, they alternated computer-generated imagery with real space photography and simple chemical techniques, like pouring fluorescent dyes into a tank of water to visualize the mysterious, abstract cosmic processes of the Big Bang. The resulting symphony may be the most dazzling, brain-bending effects sequence since, well, the end of 2001. [A.A. Dowd]


Gravity (2013)

Instantly recognized for its special effects thaumaturgy, Gravity is a nearly film-length demonstration of just how far cinema has come in its ability to depict the physics of outer space. Filming in 3D with his usual “can you top this” bravado, director Alfonso Cuarón takes the story of a greenhorn astronaut trapped in orbit above the Earth and turns it into a testament to his ability to artfully and elegantly convey a plausible sense of zero-gravity movement. As Sandra Bullock’s struggle to survive moves from one eye-popping obstacle to the next, the camera swirls around her as though it, too, were untethered to the pull of the earth. It’s an immersive experience that sells the reality of the situation—an impressively grounded accomplishment for such an ungrounded predicament. [Alex McLevy]


Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)

A commanding performance that’s also a cutting-edge special effect, Andy Serkis’ sapient, pseudo-Shakespearean motion-capture chimp Caesar is the center of the three movies (to date) of the rebooted Planet Of The Apes series. But while last year’s War For The Planet Of The Apes is both more polished and more audacious in its genre-mashing and its anti-humanism, we here at The A.V. Club feel that the second film gives the character more dramatic range. The ape characters are technical marvels of digital hair, skin, and movement—but how often is nuance the most impressive thing about a special effect? [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

By the time it hit theaters, George Miller’s long-awaited, extremely expensive (the budget ended up somewhere north of $150 million) Mad Max: Fury Road was heavily color-corrected and enhanced with seamlessly blended CGI landscapes, dust storms, and flames—all of which, if you’ve ever seen a low-budget attempt to create a CGI fire, are extremely impressive in themselves. But what really establishes Fury Road as the absolute pinnacle of contemporary special effects spectacle is its creative, death-defying practical stunt work, which Miller says made up 90 percent of the effects used in the film. Raw footage from the production shows absolutely insane crashes, explosions, and flips, all performed on custom-made, post-apocalyptic moving vehicles. That’s a real stuntman strapped to the front of a wall of speakers playing a guitar outfitted with a real flamethrower, and real people precariously careening back and forth on flexible poles as tons of raw metal zoom over the unforgiving desert beneath them. Witness! [Katie Rife]


The Walk (2015)

With his usual mastery of cutting-edge technology, Robert Zemeckis dramatizes the famous walk high-wire artist Philippe Petit made between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Employing 3D technology in the most awe-inspiring manner yet, Zemeckis takes his cameras and carries the viewer high above the ground, placing them atop the wire and delivering a jaw-drop of perspective, the heights of Petit’s walk made viscerally real with the kind of you-are-there intensity so rarely achieved with the device. It turns a spectacle you couldn’t forget into an experience you wouldn’t want to. [Alex McLevy]


Doctor Strange (2016)

Superhero movies have become the dominant form of mega-budget Hollywood entertainment. But for all that’s regularly spent on their spectacle, the genre rarely offers particularly memorable or extraordinary effects. Set in a world of powerful sorcerers, the kaleidoscopic Doctor Strange is the exception: a blockbuster that frequently puts its enormous resources toward truly astonishing eye candy, like a “magical mystery tour” that thrusts the title character through multiple planes of reality, or the Inception-indebted fight scenes, which fold whole cityscapes in on themselves. Time will tell how well these grand illusions hold up, but for now, Doctor Strange is, in all senses of the word, the most wizardly of comic book extravaganzas. [A.A. Dowd]