5 Greatest special effects movies ever!

For about as long as there have been movies, there have been special effects. That’s no exaggeration: The medium was only a few years old when people began finding ways to toy with the reality of what the motion-picture camera was capturing, creating tricks from quirks in photographic science. A century later, the technology has drastically evolved, but the function remains the same: to make the audience believe the unbelievable. Not that it’s all about fooling us. Yes, some of the best effects blur the line between reality and fantasy. Others simply show us something so cool—so wild or imaginative or beautiful—that we accept the new reality they create, even when we know it’s all make believe. So what makes a special effect special? Maybe it comes down to the effect.

The father of special effects, the French illusionist and movie pioneer Georges Méliès brought a stage magician’s know-how and sense of wonder to the new art of film, creating a cinema of the impossible, filled with alchemists and Jules Verne-ian contraptions, imps and wayward body parts. His effects artistry wasn’t limited to so-called “trick films,” but it was there that his self-referential dream logic and technical ingenuity ran wild. The actor-director’s bald head was often the butt of his multiple-exposure gags (see: The Four Troublesome HeadsThe Melomaniac); in the surreal “The Man With The Rubber Head,” Méliès pulls a spare noggin out of a box and inflates it like a balloon before handing off the bellows to a clown doppelgänger. Like so much of Méliès’ most lasting work, it’s a trip into a weirder reality that could only exist on film—or in dreams.

Within a decade of cinema’s invention, filmmakers like Georges Méliès (to whom Scorsese’s Hugo is in part a tribute) were seeking means of creating astonishing effects unique to the medium. “A Trip To The Moon” employs a fair number of eye-popping devices that originated in the theater, but Méliès truly wowed audiences with seemingly impossible transformations facilitated by that simplest of cinematic techniques: the cut. An astronaut’s umbrella, planted into the ground of a cavern, instantly becomes a giant mushroom (note: this film is not scientifically accurate), by means of splicing a shot of one to a shot of the other. Seems elementary today, but for viewers still unaccustomed to the sight, it was pure magic.

For the early trick filmmakers, a haunted house movie was part chamber symphony, part portfolio—a three-sided room of painted flats, waiting to be crammed with handmade effects. Second only to Méliès in his mastery of early special effects, the Spanish-born cinematographer and director Segundo de Chomón tosses a lengthy stop-motion animated sequence and the illusion of a rolling set into this entry in the genre. Wacky and flippantly experimental, films like The House Of Ghosts have more in common with cult freak-outs like House than with the Amityvilles and Conjurings of the world; they are realities where the whims of the effects artist are the only authority.

Light and darkness fight for a man’s soul in a conjured, phantasmal world of miniatures, grotesque sets, forced perspectives, puppets, double exposures, fireballs, and literal smoke and mirrors. Although his 1922 horror classic Nosferatu is better known to modern viewers, the final German film by F.W. Murnau, the silent era’s premier rhapsodist of night, is an expressionist tour de force and the culmination of the early special effects films’ fascination with alchemy and stage magic. The images resemble engravings printed into soot, and their power to transport the viewer hasn’t faded.

Fritz Lang’s dystopian masterpiece provoked mixed reactions from critics and audiences when it was initially released in 1927. A few decades and several re-masterings later, it’s now considered one of the most influential films in cinematic history, in no small part due its innovative special effects. The mesmerizing Art Deco city was built from the ground up using hand-drawn backdrops and three-dimensional miniatures and populated using the Schüfftan process, a technique that angles partially reflective mirrors in front of the camera to combine life-size actors and miniature models into a single, to-scale frame. Appropriately, for a film about a futuristic world lorded over by a wealthy tyrant from his own personal tower, Metropolis was way ahead of its time.

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