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Don Chaffey

1963

Jason and the Argonauts

Stop Motion

In 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, a pack of lethal skeletons rise from the ground for one heck of a heart-pounding skirmish. The dueling bones were achieved by stop-motion photography, which uses realistic puppets or models that are manipulated and photographed one frame at a time. First used in the late 1890s, stop motion was one of the earliest animation techniques. Notable uses of stop motion include 1933's King Kong, the claymation TV explosion of the 1960s and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), in which the franchise's snow-hardy AT-AT walkers were filmed in stop motion using miniatures and matte paintings.

Don Chaffey

Jason and
the Argonauts

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Fritz Lang

1927

Metropolis

Miniatures

In his landmark 1927 film, director Fritz Lang created the dystopian world of Metropolis using intricately detailed miniature models. Full-scale cityscapes were used alongside perspective techniques to create otherwise nonexistent environments. George Méliès' Trip to the Moon (1902) was the first to use miniatures — including a model spaceship — a technique that would continue in classic sci-fi franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek until digitally created counterparts were thrown into the mix. Unlike most effects of films past, miniatures are still used in modern cinema. While filming his Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson created miniature buildings and cities shot with digital backgrounds to create J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Fritz Lang

Metropolis

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Victor Fleming

1939

The Wizard of Oz

Matte Paintings

If you've seen a movie, you've likely seen a matte painting. An essential part of many films produced before the CGI era, matte paintings were actual projections or paintings placed behind foreground objects to trick audiences into believing the actors were in a different location. Without these pieces of art, there would be no Statue of Liberty jutting out from the sand in the shattering last scene of 1968's Planet of the Apes, no Emerald City awaiting Dorothy at the end of the yellow brick road — even the majestic mansion Tara from 1939's Gone with the Wind was half matte. Through most of the 20th century, studios housed their own matte departments, which dutifully painted around the confinements of reality until the early 1990s, when digital matting techniques became the norm.

Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz

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David Swift

1961

The Parent Trap

Matte Paintings

If you've seen a movie, you've likely seen a matte painting. An essential part of many films produced before the CGI era, matte paintings were actual projections or paintings placed behind foreground objects to trick audiences into believing the actors were in a different location. Without these pieces of art, there would be no Statue of Liberty jutting out from the sand in the shattering last scene of 1968's Planet of the Apes, no Emerald City awaiting Dorothy at the end of the yellow brick road — even the majestic mansion Tara from 1939's Gone with the Wind was half matte. Through most of the 20th century, studios housed their own matte departments, which dutifully painted around the confinements of reality until the early 1990s, when digital matting techniques became the norm.

David Swift

The Parent Trap

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George Lucas

1977

Star Wars IV

Motion Control

While George Lucas' Star Wars films will remain lodged in the pop-culture pantheon for a variety of reasons, the movies' advanced special effects have earned them a place in tech history. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was the first film to deploy a motion-controlled camera (for which it also won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects). Hooked up to a computer, the Dykstraflex motion-control system (named after special-effects supervisor John Dykstra) issued a complicated series of movements to a camera, which allowed filmmakers like Lucas to create shots unlike any previously seen in movie theaters. The effect also marked the debut of Lucas' visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic.

George Lucas

Star Wars IV

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Barry Levinson

1985

Young Sherlock Holmes

CGI

It won't come as a surprise that the earliest adopters of CGI were some of sci-fi's greatest films. Yet while Star Wars, Star Trek and Tron were all early adopters of CGI effects, it is Steven Spielberg and Pixar (a part of Lucasfilm at the time) who are credited with the very first realistic yet fully CGI-animated character, seen in 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes. Known as the "stained-glass man," the knight comes to life for a 30-second sword fight that took six months to produce.

Barry Levinson

Young
Sherlock Holmes

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Steven Spielberg

1993

Jurassic Park

Movie Monsters

In 1912 director George Melies built a 23-foot tall Ice Giant puppet for his film Conquest of the Pole. Made of plaster, wood and papier-mache and controlled by a crew of puppeteers directing pulleys, winches and capstans, Melies' mechanical beast was the first in a long line of engineered Hollywood monsters. By 1925, a life-sized Brontosaurus tail was built for the set of dinosaur flick The Lost World, a triumph of visual effects that sent filmmakers into a frenzy to create even scarier movie monsters. The beasts of 1993's Jurassic Park were part animatronic and part CGI. Out of the 14 minutes of the film's dinosaur footage, only four were rendered with computer graphics. The rest were shot using animatronic models — including a 20-foot T-Rex that weighed more than 13,000 pounds — and men in rubber Velociraptors costumes.

Steven Spielberg

Jurassic Park

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John Lasseter

1995

Toy Story

Animated CGI

Since Disney's first major movies in the late 1930s, its animators had gone on to perfect the hand-drawn film. Then came 1995, when the company released Toy Story, the first feature-length animated film to be created with CGI. A joint project with animation studio Pixar, the film took four years to create, generated 1,000 gigabytes of data (the average computer only holds between 80 and 160 gigabytes) and required 800,000 machine hours of editing. Since the success of Toy Story, Pixar has gone on to produce 10 more critically acclaimed feature films, which have garnered the company 24 Academy Awards and more than $6 billion.

John Lasseter

Toy Story

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Wachowski Brothers

1999

Matrix

Bullet Time

More than just an ode to the hacker culture of the 1990s, The Matrix was a stunning advancement in digital visual effects. Developed in the early 1900s by Austrian clergyman and physicist August Musger, slow motion has been used in film to accentuate everything from dramatic leaps to heroic game-winning moments in sports — it's even been used to capture the very, um, lively running style of TV lifeguards. With a single series of gunshots, The Matrix was able to turn previous slow-motion effects into carnival tricks. Called bullet time, the film's effect used the slowed, rotating action of the camera to show characters evading bullets.

Wachowski Brothers

Matrix

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Peter Jackson

2001

The Lord of the Rings

Motion Capture

Gollum was easily the most memorable creature of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though the precious-obsessed being was digitally created by director Peter Jackson's FX team, Gollum's performance was driven by actor Andy Serkis. Donning a specially created motion-capture suit, Gollum was digitally created by using 13 cameras pointed at different sensors attached to Serkis' costume. These sensors produced a 3-D image of Serkis' movements, allowing animators to create a more realistically moving character. This and the films' other colossal effects earned Jackson and his team Academy Awards for each of the Rings films.

Peter Jackson

The Lord
of the Rings

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Kathryn Bigelow

1963

The Hurt Locker

Explosions

Fans might flock to a Michael Bay flick for the pyrotechnics, but in 2009 it was director Kathryn Bigelow who changed the landscape of film explosions with her Academy Award–winning film The Hurt Locker. Using the high-speed Phantom camera, Bigelow's team was able to break down every detail of an IED explosion with the device's 2,000-frames-per-second capability. With the HD footage slowed, the audience is able to focus on any detail of the seconds-long explosion, bringing a much celebrated degree of authenticity to the film.

Kathryn Bigelow

The Hurt
Locker

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James Cameron

2009

Avatar

3D

In 2009, director James Cameron didn't necessarily recreate the wheel, but he did recreate the camera. For Avatar, Cameron teamed up with Sony to pioneer a specially designed camera built into a six-inch boom that allowed the facial expressions of the actors to be captured with sensors and digitally recorded for animators to use later. Tucked into tight bodysuits speckled with tiny reflectors, the actors were filmed as infrared light bounced off the reflectors, which was then captured in 3-D by up to 140 digital cameras positioned around the set. Nicknamed the "holy grail," Cameron's camera system used lightweight, dual-lens and hi-definition digital imaging to create an insanely advanced 3-D picture.

James Cameron

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