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


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

Fantasia (1940)

Disney's cinematic effort was the first serious, artistic-minded animated film, correlating animation with classical music, including the grim Rites of Spring featuring the life-and-death struggle of evolution, the magical The Sorceror's Apprentice starring Disney mascot Mickey Mouse, and Night on Bald Mountain featuring the demonic Chernobog.

It was the first film to be released in a multichannel stereo sound format called Fantasound - decades ahead of its time - requiring a special system devised for playback, although it was rarely shown that way due to the expense (and the fact that only 6 theaters were equipped to play Fantasound).

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

The most spectacular special-effects scene in this film was aboard a trans-oceanic clipper airplane bound for America that was diving and about to crash. The dramatic crash itself was seen from the POV of the cockpit (over the shoulders of the two pilots) as the plane dramatically smashed into the surface of the water.

Thousands of gallons of water rushed into the cabin through the windows of the plane. Passengers struggled for air and tried to escape as the aircraft filled with water, and some survivors made it out to the wing.

Thief of Bagdad (1940, UK)

The Academy Award for Special Effects (photographic and sound) was awarded to this film. Associate producer William Cameron Menzies designed some of the rich special effects for this imaginative Arabian Nights fantasy film produced by Alexander Korda, a loose remake of the original Douglas Fairbanks silent classic of 1924.

The effects included a flying magic carpet, a six-armed mechanical assassin, a toy horse that could fly, poor Bagdad thief Abu's (15 year-old Sabu) battle with a giant spider in its huge web, and the sight of 50 foot tall genie or Djinni (Rex Ingram) released from a tiny bottle.

Citizen Kane (1941)

This highly-rated classic masterpiece from director-star-producer Orson Welles brought together many cinematic and narrative techniques and experimental innovations (in photography, editing, and sound) to reconstruct the title character like building a jigsaw puzzle.

The innovative, bold film is still an acknowledged milestone in the development of cinematic technique, although it 'shared' some of its techniques from many earlier films; its components brought together the following aspects:

  • use of a subjective camera
  • unconventional lighting, including chiaroscuro, backlighting and high-contrast lighting, prefiguring the darkness and low-key lighting of future film noirs
  • inventive use of shadows and strange camera angles, following in the tradition of German Expressionists
  • deep-focus shots with incredible depth-of field and focus from extreme foreground to extreme background (also found in cinematographer Gregg Toland's earlier work in Dead End (1937), John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940), and Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940)) that emphasized mise-en-scene; deep-focus shots included the scene in Mrs. Kane's boarding house as young Kane played outdoors in the snow, Susan's music lesson, Kane's firing of Leland, and Susan's attempted suicide
  • low-angled shots revealing ceilings in sets (a technique possibly borrowed from John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) which Welles screened numerous times)
  • sparse use of revealing facial close-ups
  • elaborate camera movements
  • over-lapping, talk-over dialogue (exhibited earlier in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940)) and layered sound
  • the sound technique termed "lightning-mix" in which a complex montage sequence was linked by related sounds
  • a cast of characters that aged throughout the film
  • flashbacks, flashforwards, and non-linear story-telling (used in earlier films, including another rags-to-riches tale starring Spencer Tracy titled The Power and the Glory (1933) with a screenplay by Preston Sturges, and RKO's A Man to Remember (1938) from director Garson Kanin and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo); later adopted by many films including Pulp Fiction (1994) and Memento (2000)
  • the frequent use of transitionary dissolves or curtain wipes, as in the scene in which the camera ascended in the opera house into the rafters to show the workmen's disapproval of Mrs. Kane's operatic performance; also the famous 'breakfast' montage scene illustrating the disintegration of Kane's marriage in a brief time, or the dissolve when the camera passed down through the nightclub's roof coordinated with a lightning flash
  • the abrupt cut between the opening scene of Kane's death, and the beginning of the "News on the March" segment
  • long, uninterrupted shots or lengthy takes of sequences
  • continuity editing, such as the scene of Kane's anger by Susan's departure; also montage (or discontinuity) editing, such as Susan's opening night opera performance


strange camera angles


backlighting and
high contrast lighting

"deep focus"

"deep focus"
using optical printer

"curtain wipe"

"Xanadu miniature" with dissolves, fades, superimpositions

low angle with view of ceiling

"in-camera matte shot"
with deep focus

Munchhausen (1943, Ger.)

This colorful (Agfacolor), visually creative and extravagant film by director Josef von Báky, adapted from the story by R.E. Raspe and based on the fabulous baron nobleman of the title who was known for telling tall tales, featured marvelous special effects, including:

  • a life-like oil painting
  • a hot-air balloon trip to the Moon
  • dancing coats and trousers
  • a lady of the moon - nothing more than a head growing on a plant
  • the Baron (Hans Albers) atop a speeding cannonball through the clouds into the Turkish sultan’s palace

The film was commissioned by the Nazi Third Reich’s Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Germany's UFA Studios.

Director Terry Gilliam's remake The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) featured the same fantastic adventures and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Blue Skies (1946)

This Technicolored Paramount production about a love triangle featured Fred Astaire's (as radio broadcaster Jed Potter) famous virtuoso and witty rendition of Puttin' on the Ritz, with his only prop being his cane (that he used in synchronized conjunction with his rat-a-tat tapping).

In one segment of the performance, he danced in counterpoint with a chorus line of ten miniature Astaires. This was achieved by filming three separate takes of Astaire (in the lead foreground and two background performances), and reproducing them.

A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946, UK)

A technical marvel with Jack Cardiff's exquisite cinematography, this UK film included:

  • an early use of the freeze-frame (of the table tennis ball frozen in mid-air)
  • the lengthy, monumental and endless staircase linking heaven and earth
  • the panoramic view of the heavenly court room
  • the inventive transitions from Technicolor to black and white

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

This fantasy film featured state of the art special effects and won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Special Effects. It seamlessly and smoothly composited stop-motion animation with live action and rear-projection.

The legendary stop-motion master genius Willis O'Brien of The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) fame supervised the special effects. (The lion in the cage was inserted by rear-projection.)

One of the effects technicians was a young Ray Harryhausen, who was working on his first full-length feature film and assisting Willis O'Brien.

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

Previous Page Next Page