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In 1903, French illusionist and filmmaker Georges Méliès revealed his silent film A Trip to the Moon to audiences. The fanciful tale used all sorts of unheard of (at the time) tricks to create a lunar landscape that people back in the early part of the 20th century could only dream of. It was a landmark piece of cinema, and helped give birth to the entire field of cinematic special effects. Méliès work would inspire generations of filmmakers and other artists – including men like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas – to try to create the impossible and capture it on film. PBS series' Nova looks back at the art of using special effects in this dated, but still entertaining, 1984 episode. Give it a watch above.
Titled The Magic of Special Effects, the hour-long episode spends a lot of its time with the Industrial Light & Magic team. The FX wizards, who created the astonishing visuals for films like Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, have long been at the forefront of technological innovation in their field, something you’ll witness firsthand in the video – posted recently over at Yahoo! Movies.
What should be really interesting to fans and cinema historians alike is just how far special effects have come in a really short time-frame. We went from Méliès' charming, in-camera tricks to full-blown CGI in the span of a century, a quantum evolutionary leap when you stop and think about it. Films today don’t need matte painters, or even elaborate sets, as computers and green screens can be used to create almost anything a screenwriter and director can imagine.
That’s both exhilarating, and a little bit sad. CGI allows filmmakers to create some breathtaking visuals and sequences, but there’s something really charming about the low-fi, old-school approach of prosthetics, miniatures, and stop motion animation. Watching the video and seeing how Industrial Light & Magic did the 150-ship battle scene in Return of the Jedi (it starts around the 39 minute mark) will give you a newfound appreciation for the art, craftsmanship and dedication that was required to make these amazing sequences come alive.
Of course, some of these practical effects techniques are still used today. CGI hasn’t entirely replaced classic FX work, as there’s room for the two artforms to co-exist, and even work in tandem to create movie magic. As tech continues to evolve, the things that filmmakers can create in their movies will move forward with it. Some day, in the not too distant future, the amazing visual tricks achieved by today’s effects legends will seem almost primitive, too. Hopefully, someone’s making a documentary like this one so future generations can see and appreciate the hard work of the artists who make all these impossible things real.