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VFX Milestone Events That Shaped the Industry

VFX Milestone Events That Shaped the Industry

Much can be said about the evolution of visual effects and how they have changed through the years. Computers have unquestionably transformed how VFX are made and the quality of what is seen on screen. Technological innovations have made possibilities of unexplored new worlds come to life on the big screen like never before.

It is difficult to map out the exact history of modern day Visual Effects because like any other art form, it has always been evolving and countless artists have contributed to the success and failures of the industry. But what are some key points in history that brought us to the point where we are today? To answer that we have to look back to the early 80’s, shortly after the original Star Wars trilogy concluded.

The World is introduced to Computer Graphics

George Lucas and his newly created special effects division, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), became highly desired after the success of the 
Star Wars movies. In 1985 ILM took the world by storm when they created an entirely CGI character for a scene in Young Sherlock Holmes.

The impressive Visual Effects created in the computer won an academy award and opened the flood gates for studios to begin entertaining the idea of computer generated VFX. With this success, came the concern of artists who dedicated their life to practical effects and props that they would soon be put out of a job. Nevertheless, the digital era had been ushered in.

Jurassic Park

In 1993 computer animated dinosaurs were composited in postproduction to create the illusion of living and breathing photorealistic dinosaurs on screen. This was a milestone in the modern VFX era. 

Steven Spielberg’s first assumption going into production of the movie was that they would use standard stop motion and animatronics for all of the dinosaurs in the film. After seeing a computer animation test made by ILM of a running dinosaur, Spielberg was convinced CGI could replace stop motion. While plenty of practical effects were used in the movie, Jurassic Park forever changed the way effects would be made for movies.


Born out of a division of Lucasfilm, Pixar eventually achieved its long term goal of creating a full length computer animated film. With director John Lasseter at the helm, Pixar displayed some of the true potential of just how visually engaging computer graphics can be by making the 1995 film Toy Story

Not only was this the first ever computer animated film, but Pixar began leading the way for story telling visuals that were created literally from nothing, and audiences accepted it.

Particle systems

Character animation or 3D models became routine for Visual Effects studios. With the invention of particle systems, movies now had the ability to display complex visual effects such as the tornado in the 1996 film, 

Twister. Particle systems in the computer allow for the computer to simulate where a group of small points flow or move about on the screen. 

The VFX artist or animator sets the settings and parameters for the system, and the software simulates the rest. The particles can then be replaced with any sort of substance such as dust, smoke, water, or fire. With the ability to create more and more photorealistic effects, the computer has been relied upon for more and more of these complex effects shots.

Motion Capture

Weta Digital created the incredible technology behind what eventually would become Gollum in Peter Jackson’s early 2000’s saga, The Lord of the Rings.

This has been one of the largest milestone’s in the modern age of visual effects, as motion capture or performance capture is now used on a regular basis to bring life to creatures or monsters by allowing an actual actor to perform on set and capture the motion of what will eventually be seen on screen.

The Future

What is the future of visual effects? It is hard to say for sure. Computer animation has always played a side by side role with VFX, and I suspect that will continue even more in the future. Hologram technology will surely make its way on to the scene, and I’m confident virtual reality will display its truest potential. 

Still, the future presents unchartered territory with unknowns in the world of technology and entertainment. But knowing where we came from, is the perfect place to start in creating a new and brighter future of visual effects.

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