Greatest Visual and
Special Effects (F/X) -
Milestones in Film


1921-1929

Film Milestones in Visual and Special Effects
Film Title/Year and Description of Visual-Special Effects
Screenshots

The Toll of the Sea (1922)

This five-reel film (approx. 54 minutes) debuted as the first general release (widely-distributed or commercial) Hollywood feature film to be projected in color and to use the improved two-tone Technicolor process.

The leading lady in the film was Anna May Wong -- the first big-name Chinese-American actress - who played the role of Lotus Flower.


The Power of Love (1922)

This was the first 3-D feature film shown to a paying film audience (not Bwana Devil (1952)). It was projected dual-strip in the red/green anaglyph format, making it both the earliest known film that utilized dual strip projection and the earliest known film in which anaglyph glasses were used.

The film utilized and may have been the only commercial film produced in the dual-camera, dual-projector system developed by Harry K. Fairhall and Robert F. Elder. The film is now considered lost.

 

The Ten Commandments (1923)

This early Cecil B. DeMille epic used primitive special effects techniques - the parting of the Red Sea was accomplished by filming water as it poured down two sides of a U-shaped tank, and then running the film backwards - to make the water appear to divide. The illusion of keeping the walls of water separated was accomplished by slicing a slab of jello in two and filming it in closeup - and then combining (or double-exposing) it with live-action footage of the Israelites walking into the distance and the Egyptian chariots in pursuit.

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.

Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes (1924-27)

The Fleischer Brothers made the first animated films (cartoons) that featured a soundtrack, a series of 36 films released in the mid-1920s that were the precursors to karaoke. The first sound cartoon was one of the Song Car-Tunes -- Mother Pin a Rose on Me.

They were also the first audience participation films, with sing-along lyrics and a 'bouncing-ball' helper. They included Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly? (1926), When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam' (1926), Comin' Tho' The Rye (1926), Margie (1926), My Old Kentucky Home (1926), Tramp, Tramp, Tramp-The Boys Are Marching (1927), By The Light Of The Silvery Moon (1927).

In My Old Kentucky Home, Bimbo said to the audience: “Follow the ball and join in everybody." Twelve of the 36 Car-Tunes films were produced with the actual DeForest sound on film process.


The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

This classic Arabian nights tale by director Raoul Walsh showed off state of the art, revolutionary visual effects
and displayed legendary production design.

The astounding visual effects included:

  • a smoke-belching dragon and underwater spider
  • a flying horse
  • the famed flying carpet
  • magic armies arising from the dust



Battleship Potemkin (1925, USSR)

Sergei Eisenstein's Russian film was famous for its pioneering, revolutionary and innovative use of montage - a rhythmic juxtaposition of unrelated, cross-cut images that created associations in the audience's mind of a violent massacre - although mostly unseen.

The famed Odessa Steps sequence contained 155 separate shots, using editing and cutting to convey heightened emotion and dramatic meaning, with close ups (some extreme), long shots, camera pans in every direction and subtle time shifts.


Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

This expensive sword-and-sandal epic (costing between $4-6 million, making it one of the most expensive silent films ever made) was notable for its use of a hanging miniature - to fill in the upper tier portion of the coliseum (with fake spectators) for the famed chariot race sequence.

It was filmed with some two-color Technicolor sequences (e.g., the triumphant processional sequence).


The Lost World (1925)

This was a notable, ground-breaking film in establishing its genre - 'live' and life-like giant monsters-dinosaurs, later replicated in Gojira (1954, Jp.), Jurassic Park (1993) and Godzilla (1998). It was the first feature-length dinosaur-oriented science-fiction film to be released. The 'creature feature' story was based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 adventure/romance fantasy.

Willis O'Brien, later famed for King Kong (1933), was responsible for this pioneering film's first major use (primitive) of stop-motion animation in a feature film - especially the sight of a brontosaurus running wild in the streets of London, and knocking down people with its tail. O'Brien used small-scale puppet models that were filmed frame-by-frame on miniature sets and landscapes. Live action and stop-motion animation would be combined by putting the two negatives together using split-screens.

This film also used the technique of a traveling matte (the process of adding a moving element to a frame so that it could be separated as an element and combined with a different background) - for example, in one sequence (top image), actress Bessie Love was matted into the frame as she cowered below the Tyrannosaurus.


The Black Pirate (1926)

Actor-producer-star Douglas Fairbanks' ultimate pirate film (silent) was historically significant - the adventure swashbuckler was the first full-length blockbuster color film. (The two-color process was first introduced in The Toll of the Sea (1922) - see above, and in some sequences of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) - also see above.)

It boasted the use of an experimental early Technicolor (two-color) process, although it was also filmed in black and white.


Don Juan (1926)

Using its newly developed Vitaphone (sound-on-disk) process, Warners Studios added a score and sound effects to this John Barrymore silent already in production, beginning a revolution in sound.

It was the first mainstream film that replaced the traditional use of a live orchestra or organ for the soundtrack (a recorded musical score of the New York Philharmonic), and successfully coordinated audio sound on a recorded disc synchronized to play in conjunction with a projected motion picture. The sounds in the film consisted of some sound effects and music, but no dialogue.

 

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Although this film was not the first sound film, nor the first 'talkie' film or the first movie musical, it was the first feature-length Hollywood "talkie" film in which spoken dialogue (synchronized) was used as part of the dramatic action.

Audiences were wildly enthusiastic when America's favorite jazz singer and superstar Al Jolson broke into song, ad-libbed extemporaneously with his mother at the piano while singing "Blue Skies", and proclaimed the famous line to introduce a musical number: "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!"


Metropolis (1927, Ger.)

Fritz Lang significantly advanced the art of using elaborate model miniatures to create vast city-scapes. In the film's opening, animated airplanes fly above the futuristic dystopian city filled with more animated automobiles. Miniatures were first used in Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon (1902, Fr.).

Other perspective techniques created the illusion of distance and size.

The film also employed matte paintings, complex compositing, and back or rear projection (for example, the scene of ruling Master Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) speaking to his foreman Grot on a video-phone TV screen).

It was the first film to successfully use the German Schufftan process -- an in-camera, optical special effect that was an early precursor of the bluescreen. The process used mirrors to create the illusion of live actors in huge sets (that were actually miniatures of scenery composed of painted or modeled backgrounds), such as the scene set in the sports stadium. This early process was soon replaced by the simpler, more efficient matte method and by bluescreen effects. This technique was also used in Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959).




Napoleon (1927, Fr.)

This milestone film from Abel Gance was the first in stereo sound. Two years after its release, it was first shown on triple screens using three projectors in Paris in January of 1929 - a foreshadowing of Cinerama or 'widescreen' films. The finale was a spectacular triptych played on three screens that, together, measured about 90 feet wide. Three different images were projected in synchronization by three separate cameras, a technique known as Polyvision.

It was a remarkable masterpiece, innovatively overlaying double exposures and dissolves, and composing multiple images in the same frame. It was also famous for its use of split screens, ultra-wide scenes, a moving camera (Gance mounted cameras on horses, elevators--even guillotines--to achieve unusual effects), and color tinting to illustrate setting or mood: blue tones for night and red-orange for the battle of Toulon.

Noah's Ark (1928/29)

This melodramatic epic silent film epic (part-talkie) directed by Michael Curtiz featured a climactic flood sequence - that mixed minatures, double-exposures, and the full-scale destruction of actual sets. Earlier, in a scene reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1923), Noah (Paul McAllister) went on a mountain trek where in one dramatic scene he experienced a burning bush and the creation of giant tablets on a mountainside with flaming letters - warning of a Flood ("to destroy all flesh") and commissioning him to build an Ark.

In the massive flood sequence, a fierce storm and lightning bolts destroyed the Temple of Moloch and torrents of water caused a massive flood that ravaged everything. Tanks of stored water were opened and released during filming of the disaster sequence, dumping a torrent of water upon hundreds of unsuspecting extras. Reportedly, three extras died by drowning, and many others were severely injured.




Steamboat Willie (1928)

The 7-minute Steamboat Willie was first released (on a limited basis) on July 29, 1928, with Mickey as a roustabout on Pegleg Pete's river steamer, but without his trademark white gloves. It was then re-released on November 18, 1928 with sound and premiered at the 79th Street Colony Theatre in New York - it was the first cartoon with a post-produced synchronized soundtrack (of music, dialogue, and sound effects) and was considered Mickey Mouse's screen debut performance and birthdate.

Although it was Mickey's second film (the first was Plane Crazy (1928)), it was his first with sound. The Fleischer Brothers' were earlier credited with the first animated films with sound, in their mid-1920s series of Song Car-Tunes.


Applause (1929)

This early film from director Rouben Mamoulian was visually stylistic (with dramatic light and shadows), with exceptionally-striking and graceful camera work -- it marked the first use of a moving sound camera instead of using long static shots.

Also it had interesting, unusual, and revolutionary camera angles (from above and below) including a triangulated shot showing two simultaneous actions, the first innovative use of background sound, and it was the first film made with a two-channel or two-track monophonic mix.





Blackmail (1929, UK)

Hitchcock's first talkie (and the UK's first full-length talkie also) was exceptionally ahead of its time, with an innovative use of sound to heighten the tension in this thriller.

In the famed breakfast scene, the word "knife" was repeated and amplified in the everyday conversation for the guilt-ridden heroine Alice White (Anny Ondra) after she had stabbed her assailant Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard) with a large bread knife when he sexually assaulted her.

The film also used the German Schufftan process (first used in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)), an early blue-screen precursor, in the police's chase scene of blackmailer Tracy (Donald Calthrup) through the Library/Reading Room and the Egyptian wing of the British Museum and across its domed rooftop.


Man with a Movie Camera (1929, USSR)

Soviet director Dziga Vertov's quintessential experimental, avante-garde film was an excellent example of a "city symphony" documentary.

Regarded as "pure" visual cinema, its views of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and of Soviet workers and machines contained radical editing techniques, special visual effects, wild juxtapositions of images, freeze frames and double exposures.



Film Milestones in Visual/Special Effects (F/X)
(chronological order by film title)
Introduction | 1880s-1890s | 1900-1905 | 1906-1920 | 1921-1929 | 1930-1939 | 1940-1949 | 1950-1959
1960-1969 | 1970-1974 | 1975-1979 | 1980-1982 | 1983-1985 | 1986-1988 | 1989-1991 | 1992-1994
1995-1996 | 1997-1998 | 1999-2000 | 2001-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-2007 | 2008-2009 | 2010-Present

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