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Films have always relied on visual magic, on camera and laboratory tricks, never more than today. Special photographic visual effects existed for a century before the advent of computer-generated imagery, and often play a part in our fondest memories of favorite movies. There were few electronically created effects of any kind before the Eighties, and we’ll eventually get to the CGI era, but first, a guide to the classic processes and trade secrets that made the magic that most of us loved, from Metropolis through 2001, from Inside the Third Reich through Back to the Future. It’s the story of a distinctive twentieth century craft that still has relevance today.
Every history of special effects starts with George Melies, who was a fairground illusionist who brought trick photography to audiences in Paris. Other early films mostly ignored effects, except for a perennial fantasy favorite, ghosts, easy to do with a double exposure. Silent films began using glass shots: painting an elaborate setting on a sheet of glass and filming through it. Simple, but if you’ve ever seen the YouTube clip of Charlie Chaplin roller-skating in a department store, getting “dangerously” close to a “sheer drop”, you’ve seen how good it could look, even back then, if you lined it up right.