Greatest Visual and
Special Effects (F/X) -
Milestones in Film


Film Milestones in Visual and Special Effects
Title Screen
Film Title/Year and Description of Visual-Special Effects

Fantasia (1940)

Disney's cinematic effort was the first serious, artistic-minded animated film, correlating animation with 8 segments of classical music, including the grim Rites of Spring featuring the life-and-death struggle of evolution, the magical The Sorceror's Apprentice starring Disney mascot Mickey Mouse, and Night on Bald Mountain featuring the demonic Chernobog.

It was the first film to be released in a multichannel stereo sound format called Fantasound - decades ahead of its time - requiring a special system devised for playback, although it was rarely shown that way due to the expense (and the fact that only 6 theaters were equipped to play Fantasound).

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Night on Bald Mountain

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

The most spectacular special-effects scene in this spy-thriller was aboard a trans-oceanic clipper airplane bound for America that was diving and about to crash. The dramatic crash itself was seen from the POV of the cockpit (over the shoulders of the two pilots) as the plane dramatically smashed into the surface of the water.

Thousands of gallons of water rushed into the cabin through the cockpit windows and the cracked fuselage of the plane. Passengers struggled for air and tried to escape as the aircraft filled with water, and some survivors made it out to the wing.

Cockpit POV of Crash

Surviving on the Fuselage

The Thief of Bagdad (1940, UK)

The Academy Award for Best Special Effects (photographic and sound) was awarded to this film. There were 14 nominees for the honor, including Boom Town, Dr. Cyclops, Foreign Correspondent, The Invisible Man Returns, One Million B.C., Rebecca, The Sea Hawk, Typhoon, and Swiss Family Robinson. It also won two other Oscars: Best Art Direction (Color), and Best Cinematography (Color). It was notable as the first film not nominated for Best Picture to win at least three Academy Awards.

Associate producer William Cameron Menzies designed some of the rich special effects for this imaginative Arabian Nights fantasy film produced by Alexander Korda, a loose remake of the original Douglas Fairbanks silent classic of 1924.

The effects included a flying magic carpet, a six-armed mechanical assassin, a toy horse that could fly, poor Bagdad thief Abu's (15 year-old Sabu) battle with a giant spider in its huge web, and the sight of 50 foot tall genie or Djinni (Rex Ingram) released from a tiny bottle.

Fanciful Elements
The Flying Horse
The "Silver Maid" - A Deadly, Multi-Armed Dancing Statue
Abu Caught In Spider Web
The Temple With Goddess (And an All-Seeing Eye Jewel)
Abu Arriving to Save Everyone On Magic Flying Carpet
Abu's Magic Crossbow and Arrow - Death to Jafar

The film was notable for being the first to use the 'blue-screen' technique (the chroma-key process), created by Special Effects director Lawrence Butler and Special Sound Effects crew member Jack Whitney, for the scene of the Sultan's horse-borne ride over the city.

Djinn Emerging From Bottle

Jafar Shot Off the Magical Flying Horse by Abu

Citizen Kane (1941)

This highly-rated classic masterpiece from director-star-producer Orson Welles brought together many cinematic and narrative techniques and experimental innovations (in photography, editing, and sound) to reconstruct the title character like building a jigsaw puzzle.

The innovative, bold film is still an acknowledged milestone in the development of cinematic technique, although it 'shared' some of its techniques from many earlier films. It showed a whole new way of film-making.

However, it was not among the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Special Effects, won this year by the little-known aviation drama I Wanted Wings (1941). Other nominees included: Flight Command, The Invisible Woman, The Sea Wolf, That Hamilton Woman, Topper Returns, A Yank in the R.A.F., and Aloma of the South Seas.

Its components brought together the following aspects:

  • use of a subjective camera
  • unconventional lighting, including chiaroscuro, backlighting and high-contrast lighting, prefiguring the darkness and low-key lighting of future film noirs
  • inventive use of shadows and strange camera angles, following in the tradition of German Expressionists
  • deep-focus shots with incredible depth-of field and focus from extreme foreground to extreme background (also found in cinematographer Gregg Toland's earlier work in Dead End (1937), John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940), and Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940)) that emphasized mise-en-scene; deep-focus shots included the scene in Mrs. Kane's boarding house as young Kane played outdoors in the snow, Susan's music lesson, Kane's firing of Leland, and Susan's attempted suicide
  • low-angled shots revealing ceilings in sets (a technique possibly borrowed from John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) which Welles screened numerous times)
  • sparse use of revealing facial close-ups
  • elaborate camera movements
  • over-lapping, talk-over dialogue (exhibited earlier in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940)) and layered sound
  • the sound technique termed "lightning-mix" in which a complex montage sequence was linked by related sounds
  • a cast of characters that aged throughout the film
  • a plot told from different perspectives
  • flashbacks, flashforwards, and non-linear story-telling (used in earlier films, including another rags-to-riches tale starring Spencer Tracy titled The Power and the Glory (1933) with a screenplay by Preston Sturges, and RKO's A Man to Remember (1938) from director Garson Kanin and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo); later adopted by many films including Pulp Fiction (1994) and Memento (2000)
  • the frequent use of transitionary dissolves or curtain wipes, as in the scene in which the camera ascended in the opera house into the rafters to show the workmen's disapproval of Mrs. Kane's operatic performance; also the famous 'breakfast' montage scene illustrating the disintegration of Kane's marriage in a brief time, or the dissolve when the camera passed down through the nightclub's roof coordinated with a lightning flash

"curtain wipe"

"Xanadu miniature" with dissolves, fades, superimpositions

low angle with view of ceiling

"in-camera matte shot"
with deep focus
  • the abrupt cut between the opening scene of Kane's death, and the beginning of the "News on the March" segment
  • long, uninterrupted shots or lengthy takes of sequences
  • continuity editing, such as the scene of Kane's anger by Susan's departure; also montage (or discontinuity) editing, such as Susan's opening night opera performance


strange camera angles


backlighting and
high contrast lighting

"deep focus"

"deep focus"
using optical printer

Munchhausen (1943, Ger.) (aka The Adventures of Baron Munchausen)

This colorful (Agfacolor), visually creative and extravagant film by director Josef von Báky ws adapted from the story by R.E. Raspe and based on the fabulous baron nobleman of the title who was known for telling tall tales.

The film opened in the 1940s where an alleged descendent of a Baron, Hieronymus von Munchhausen (Hans Albers) - entertained two guests with a tale told in flashback about the marvelous adventures of his famous ancestor Baron Munchhausen (also Hans Albers) in the 18th century.

It featured marvelous special effects, including:

  • dancing coats and trousers emerging from a wooden wardrobe (armoire)
  • the Baron (Hans Albers) atop a speeding cannonball through the clouds into the Turkish sultan’s palace
  • a hot-air balloon trip to the Moon
  • a lady of the moon - nothing more than a disembodied head growing on a plant
  • a life-like oil painting that moved and blew out a candle
Hot Air Balloon Landing on the Moon - With Moon Lady

The film was commissioned by the Nazi Third Reich’s Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Germany's UFA Studios. It was never released in the US. He had become inspired by the colorful fantasies of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) (also with a hot-air balloon sequence), as well as the lavish production quality of Gone with the Wind (1939) and the UK's The Thief of Bagdad (1940), and wanted to show off Germany's movie-making prowess.

Director Terry Gilliam's remake The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) featured the same fantastic adventures and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Dancing Clothes from an Armoire

The Baron Riding on a Cannonball

Life-Like Oil Painting

Blue Skies (1946)

This Technicolored Paramount production about a love triangle featured Fred Astaire's (as radio broadcaster Jed Potter) famous virtuoso and witty rendition of Puttin' on the Ritz, with his only prop being his cane (that he used in synchronized conjunction with his rat-a-tat tapping).

In one segment of the performance, he danced in counterpoint with a chorus line of ten miniature Astaires. This was achieved by filming three separate takes of Astaire (in the lead foreground and two background performances), and reproducing them.

Astaire Dancing With Ten Astaires in "Puttin' On the Ritz"

A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946, UK)

There were only two nominees in the category of Best Special Effects this year: the winner Blithe Spirit (1945), and A Stolen Life (1946).

UK directors Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's film was a technical marvel with Jack Cardiff's exquisite cinematography. It included:

  • the inventive transitions from Technicolor to black and white
  • an early use of the freeze-frame (of the table tennis ball frozen in mid-air)
  • the lengthy, monumental and endless ascending staircase linking heaven and earth (the heaven sequences were filmed in B/W) lined with statues of famous people (Lincoln, Plato, Richelieu, Solomon)
  • the startling POV shot through his huge closing eyelid when deceased pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) was on an operating table (facing surgery for a brain injury) and hovering between life and death
  • the panoramic view of the heavenly court room (filled with soldiers who lost their lives in war), revealed in a long pull-back shot as a gigantic arena - and then as the center of a swirling galaxy in space (an effects shot combining miniatures and artwork)

Heavenly Courtroom

Long Pull-Back Shot

Swirling Galaxy in Space

"Stairway to Heaven"

Closing Eyelid on Operating Table

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

This fantasy film featured state of the art special effects and won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Special Effects. [See later for the Hollywood updated version, Mighty Joe Young (1998).] Its only competing nominee for the Oscar was Walter Wanger's production of the romantic drama-western Tulsa (1949).

The legendary stop-motion master genius Willis O'Brien of The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) fame supervised the special effects. One of the effects technicians was a young Ray Harryhausen, who was working on his first full-length feature film and assisting Willis O'Brien. It turned out to be the last major animation film that O'Brien ever made.

Although the entire production took nine months to shoot, the animation alone required fourteen months. It seamlessly and smoothly composited stop-motion animation with live action and rear-projection, including various models, props, and sets. Special effects included:

  • rear-projection: a lion in a cage in one early shot, and live African lions in the glass-enclosed dioramas in the Los Angeles nightclub
  • the expressive eye movements, and fluid body movements of Joe, with more realistic, natural-looking 'fur'
  • the building and use of six or seven stop-motion models of the gorilla (between five and eighteen inches high), made of cotton, foam rubber and metal and with 150 moving parts, as well as miniature models for lions, cowboys, horses, 'Jill's' character, and orphan children, etc.
  • three different sized sets (full-sized, miniature, etc.) for the Golden Safari nightclub
  • the exciting burning orphanage sequence, with multiple visual effects - one of best examples of stop-motion animation in cinematic history

Rear Projection of Lion in Cage

Mighty Joe - Stop-Motion Animation

Burning Orphanage Sequence

Film Milestones in Visual/Special Effects (F/X)
(chronological order by film title)
Introduction | 1880s-1890s | 1900-1905 | 1906-1920 | 1921-1929 | 1930-1939 | 1940-1949 | 1950-1959
1960-1969 | 1970-1974 | 1975-1979 | 1980-1982 | 1983-1985 | 1986-1988 | 1989-1991 | 1992-1994
1995-1996 | 1997-1998 | 1999-2000 | 2001-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-2007 | 2008-2009 | 2010-Present

Previous Page Next Page