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VFX Milestones in film history

Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion (1878), and Primitive Motion Studies (from 1884-1887)

One of a number of early achievements that helped pave the way for animation was by Briton Eadweard Muybridge who famously photographed The Horse in Motion in 1878.
In a series of pictures, he captured frame by frame, how a horse’s four hoofs were actually off the ground at the same time.
In other test footage, including The Human Figure in Motion – Descending Stairs and Turning Around, he photographed cinematic glimpses of naked men and women in motion, such as this female and male walking up and down stairs

La Voyage Dans la Lune (1902, Fr.), (aka A Trip to the Moon)

Turn-of-the-century Frenchman/magician Georges Melies developed the art of magical special effects (and film editing) in earlier films and then perfected them and used them in later films, such as in this classic and pioneering science-fiction film – a 14 minute ground-breaking masterpiece (nearly one reel in length (about 825 feet)).
He made up and invented the film medium as he directed. It contained 30 separate tableaus (scenes) with innovative, illusionary cinematic ‘editing’ techniques (trick photography with superimposed images, double-exposures, dissolves and stop-motion jump cuts), live-action, animation, the use of matte paintings, the substitution shot, actors performing with themselves over split screens, and miniature models.
He depicted many memorable, whimsical old-fashioned images, such as a modern-looking, projectile-style rocket ship blasting off into space from a rocket-launching cannon (gunpowder powered?), a crash landing into the eye of the winking ‘man in the moon’, a dream sequence with a dissolve, the appearance of fantastic moon inhabitants (Selenites, acrobats from the Folies Bergere) on the lunar surface who disappeared in a puff of smoke (jump cut), a scene in the court of the moon king, and a miraculous last minute escape back to Earth.

Fantasmagorie (1908, Fr.)

Emile Cohl’s animated short film was considered the first fully animated film. It consisted solely of simple line drawings that blended, transformed or morphed from one image into another. In one early live-action sequence, the animator’s hand entered the scene to draw a clown-like stick figure.
The dream-like film was created by placing each drawing on an illuminated glass plate and then tracing the next drawing – with variations – on top of it until the animator had about 700 drawings, all of which were double-exposed to make the film run longer. The black lines on white paper were printed in negative reverse, making it appear as if the action was on a blackboard.

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

Newspaper cartoonist/animator Winsor McCay created the first major North American animated character – Gertie the Dinosaur. Gertie was originally part of a vaudeville stage show (called a “chalk talk”) in early 1914. By late 1914, McCay (self-proclaimed as “America’s Greatest Cartoonist”) created a theatrical release version of the cartoon that included a “live action” segment that book-ended the cartoon.
In the animation, McCay introduced the brontosaurus dinosaur, who then walked out onto the screen. Appearing to ‘interact’ with Gertie, McCay directed his creation from stage right – telling Gertie to do a little dance, take a bow, and raise her right foot, to the audience’s astonishment. Then, McCay ‘walked into’ the animation by disappearing behind the screen, and then appeared in cartoon form as a ‘live action figure’ on the screen to ride on the back of the dinosaur into the distance.
It was the earliest example of combined ‘live action’ and animation — and the first “interactive” animated cartoon. The film’s advertisement called it the “Greatest Animal Act in the World.”

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924, Ger.)

Director Fritz Lang’s two-part fantasy epic film was based on German legends – it was noted for its special effects creation of a giant, 50-foot fire-breathing dragon named Fafnir. The slow-moving mechanical creature required seventeen technicians to operate.

…to be continued