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As the history and techniques of film visual effects have filled many vast tomes, any analysis here is going to fail to cover all that could be considered noteworthy.

Indeed, readers are warmly encouraged towards Richard Rickitt’s Special Effects: The History & Technique, though it is notoriously difficult to get hold of (and no, you can’t have mine – it’s special to me). Having said that, as what would previously have blown the socks off audiences now becomes the state of the art and we become increasingly difficult to impress as audiences, it would undoubtedly be worthwhile to consider some of the more impressive milestones and achievements in special effects over the past 120-odd years of cinema history.

Constraints of space mean that much will slip through the net (2001’s star gate, ILM’s impressive work with computer-controlled camera rigs and models), but the hope is that this will avoid reducing special effects advances to ILM and Weta and instead credit those who, from the dawn of cinema, crafted sequences that thrilled and amazed – many without the incredible tools that F/X engineers work with today.

Creativity will find a way and the story of special effects is that it always has.

The Invisible Man – Claude Rains

The Invisible ManHow to make someone appear see-through, without merely suspending their costume from a series of fishing lines? That was the question and the solution involved a number of ingenious techniques, long before John Carpenter’s Memoirs or Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man.

Claude Raines, in the ever-thankless role of an Invisible Man who is heard, but rarely seen, was filmed in front of a black velvet background (to absorb as much light as possible without reflecting anything back), with the parts of his body that were to appear invisible also covered in black. Often this was his face, which was covered with a stifling mask that necessitated breathing tubes passing up into the mask from below, making naturalistic movement even trickier for an actor (or stand-in) who already could neither see, hear nor breathe properly.

Traveling mattes were then employed to remove anything black and the remaining footage (essentially floating clothes) was layered over the otherwise empty background to create the final composite. Clever, laborious and incredibly effective given the era in which the film was made and the accompanying technical challenges.

As with so many of the milestones and achievements recognised in this article, it can be difficult for modern audiences to appreciate them, so used are we to seeing seamless CGI render the previously impossible on a daily basis. But decades before anyone became able to manipulate a digital image pixel by pixel, indefatigable technicians like John P. Fulton were toiling away to give us an Invisible Man and (twenty years later) a sensationally parted Red Sea.

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