Film & video

The First Special Effects: From Méliès to Marvel

Discover the technology behind the first special effects in history

Destroyed cities, explosions, aliens: nothing is impossible in the world of special effects. We're used to seeing practically anything imaginable on our screens.

They're not only for action movies either: almost all films use digital elements to simplify production. But this isn't the end of "true cinema": film has always been a visual spectacle filled with special effects.

Discover in the video below how the first special effects were made:

Precursors and pioneers of cinema

Visual tricks have always captivated us. Whether it was mirror games, the magic lantern, or phantasmagoria, the theatre was fine, but seeing full-colour projections of images was much more fascinating. The first animations were very simple, but they finally made it possible to depict fantasy.

When it became possible to capture reality with a camera, from 1895, the first filmmakers developed made films to fill theatres. A production's success came from the astonishing nature of its images, so it's not surprising that a professional magician would become the father of special effects.

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'La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon', traditionally considered to be the first film in history

Science and magic: Georges Méliès

Georges Méliès attended the presentation of the cinematograph, the great invention of the Lumières, and immediately offered them 10,000 francs for the gadget. They refused: according to the brothers, their creation was for scientific purposes and they would not let a magician go away with one. But Méliès acquired a projector in the UK and converted it into a camera and begin his career as a filmmaker.

One day, filming a shot on the street, the camera stopped briefly, and then continued to roll. On seeing the footage, Méliès discovered that, when the film skipped, the objects had changed places: thus he discovered the jump cut. In 1895, the jump cut had already horrified spectators by showing the decapitation of Mary Stuart, but Méliès used this technique to transfer his magic tricks to the big screen.

Méliès built the first film studio, where his effects evolved: double exposure, composition with mattes, miniatures, puppets. What many don't know, is that his first competitor was a Spaniard.

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The iconic Moon in 'Le Voyage dans la Lune', one of Méliès most influential films

The legacy of Segundo de Chomón

At that time, a large group of craftsmen worked in Méliès' workshops, hand-coloring the frames of his films. One of them was Julienne Mathieu, whose husband, Segundo de Chomón, soon saw the potential of the magician's effects, and was hired by the French production company Pathé Frères, where he worked as an expert in stop motion animation and colorful visual effects.

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'Ah! La Barbe', a short film directed by Segundo de Chomón

You may be interested in:

- Introduction to VFX for Cinema, a course by Carolina Jiménez García
- Layout for VFX, Camera Narrative and Language, a course by Carolina Jiménez García
- Integration of 3D Elements Using VFX Techniques, a course by Xuan Prada
- Creation of Shots with VFX in Nuke, a course by Ramon Cervera


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