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11 Groundbreaking Special Effects “Firsts” in Movie History

One of the beautiful things about watching the evolution of film is how the special effects seemingly get better year after year. We started out practical (read: blowing stuff up), and then we got into computer-enhanced images, and then some serious magic happened when both methods were combined. But everything has to start somewhere, and that’s what we’re here to talk about. We wanted to talk about some of our favorite special effects “firsts” that deserve a look. From zooming in really close to puppets, to blowing up a whole lot of infrastructure, and everything in between, we wanted to highlight some of the coolest “firsts” we’ve seen, and share them with you!

Related: 8 Older Movies With Surprisingly Good Special Effects


11 Tron (1982)

Tron 1982 1200 x 630
Buena Vista Distribution

With the use of CGI being so ubiquitous these days, it’s hard to imagine filmmaking without it. But in the case of Tron, new grounds were being explored. Tron was the first movie to incorporate long sequences of entirely computer-generated imagery, and was truly groundbreaking in this regard. Sure, some movies these days are entirely CGI, but the 15-minute stretch that we witnessed in 1982 is where it all started. Donald Kushner and Walt Disney Productions really had their fingers on the pulse, because they anticipated where technology would ultimately take us in filmmaking, and they blew the doors wide open when they showed us what they could pull off. Tron walked so Avatar could run.

10 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992)

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Tri-Star Pictures

Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the first of its kind. James Cameron and his crew really outdid themselves with this one when they were able to successfully capture natural human motion for a computer-generated character. To accomplish the liquid metal scenes, Robert Patrick had to wear a grid of tape while shooting so the special effects crew could capture his movements accurately and work their studio magic. We can go on for days about how the nuclear blast scene cost more than the entire first Terminator film, or how the helicopter chase scenes were shot, or how Arnold Schwarzenegger spent five hours a day for several weeks getting all of his prosthetics while they were filming. Let’s put it this way: Terminator 2 still looks amazing in 2023, over 30 years since its release.

9 Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park 1200 x 630

We might make some people mad with this one, but it has to be said. The dinosaurs in 1993’s Jurassic Park look superior to the dinosaurs in the Jurassic World films. Listen, CGI has come a long way over the years, but part of what made the original Jurassic Park so terrifying was that they were giant animatronic dinosaurs on the actual movie set. Sure, the dinosaur’s movements in Jurassic World are on point, but it’s gotta be hard to act some of these scenes out when so much of the film is computer generated.

8 Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

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Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Nowadays, seeing cartoon animation superimposed over live-action is kind of old hat, but back in the day it was unheard of. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was the first of its kind in the sense that it successfully pulled off this sort of juxtaposition. Not only did Roger look great, but the chemistry in the film seemed so… real! Not only was Who Framed Roger Rabbit a monumental accomplishment in combining two different art forms, the movie stands on its own as if it were all live action, or all animated. In other words, you can still watch the movie today without being taken out of it.

7 The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix 1200 x 630
Warner Bros.

Of course, we have to mention the slow motion panoramic shots in The Matrix. How they set up the iconic “Neo dodging bullets” shots is actually kind of ingenious. It’s one of those “better to have and not need, than need and not have” kind of situations. For those that are not technically driven, here’s how they did it. They used a startling amount of cameras from an even more insane amount of angles to set up these shots. By having a seemingly endless amount of raw material to edit down, we’re left with the iconic imagery that will go down in history as one of the coolest action scenes of our generation.

6 Jaws (1975)

Jaws 1200 x 630
Universal Pictures

An important thing to remember about Jaws is that it came out in 1975. Let that sink in for a second. The fact that it’s just as terrifying today as it was almost 50 years ago is a testament to Steven Spielberg’s use of effects, and also knowing his limitations. Yes, the robotic shark used to film Jaws was terrifying, but what’s more terrifying than that is our imaginations. Spielberg knew this, and that’s why we don’t see the full shark shots until well into the third act. We saw fins, and we saw body parts washing up on shore, but we don’t see Jaws until Jaws is at its climax. It’s the expert use of practical effects combined with our own imaginations that make the movie hold up so well.

5 Star Wars – Episodes IV-V-VI

Star Wars a New Hope
20th Century Fox

Say what you want about the Star Wars Franchise, but the original trilogy came out of nowhere. George Lucas went so far as to set up his own in-house effects shop, now known as Industrial Light and Magic. Star Wars pioneered the use of computers in filmmaking in a way that no other film before it could have pulled off. It’s not just the use of computers that made Star Wars so great, though. The use of miniatures and puppets that are integrated seamlessly into full scale sets are what makes Star Wars so impressive.

4 Avatar (2009)

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20th Century Fox

Avatar was so innovative when it came out that most theaters had to update their projection systems to handle it. And production for Avatar was no picnic. James Cameron started working on Avatar in the early ’90s. Think about that. Avatar was a concept in the works when Terminator 2 was well underway, and before Titanic was filmed. We can only speculate that Cameron was waiting for the right time in technology, while coming up with innovations of his own to film Avatar, which boasts 60 percent CGI imagery that is blended in expertly with the remaining 40 of live action sequences. But the hard work paid off. The world of Pandora is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and it’s so easy to get sucked into this movie.

3 District 9 (2009)

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Sony Pictures Releasing

While District 9 isn’t necessarily the most groundbreaking of science fiction films, it deserves a look for how they handled their budget. $30 million is considered chump change compared to some productions that come out these days, and Director Neill Blomkamp successfully created an entire city of absolutely heinous looking aliens with only a few actors running the show. It goes to show you that you don’t need a (comparatively) large budget to pull off some amazing special effects, and that at the end of the day, it’s patience, vision, and imagination that can truly carry a story.

Related: Best Special Effects in ‘80s Horror Movies, Ranked

2 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Roadshow Entertainment

Mad Max: Fury Road is widely considered to be an extraordinary undertaking in the sense that 90 percent of its special effects were practical, and not computer-generated. This is especially impressive considering that the movie is basically a two-hour chase sequence with more pyrotechnics than a KISS concert. Fury Road made the impossible seem possible, and has since inspired filmmakers to step up their practical effects game, because it just looks so cool. If you want to stare in awe as you watch the world burn, give Mad Max: Fury Road a look.

1 Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times Roller Skate 1200 x 630
United Artists

Okay, so this one is really fun. Back in the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin was a force to be reckoned with. One scene we really want to talk about is the roller skating scene from Modern Times. Setting up the shot was ingenious… Chaplin rolls back on his skates over a railing on the top floor, and it looks like he’s about to go over the railing and fall, but he catches himself. But when you see how the shot was actually set up, it was actually a painted background on glass set in front of the camera, and the whole lower floor wasn’t even there. It may not be a nitro truck driving through the desert, but for 1936 technology, this scene looked real, and for that we salute Chaplin for his iconic role.

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