Posted June 1, 2012 by Myke Friscia in Movies

Movie History: The Birth of Special Effects

The biggest blockbusters of our generation are all special effects driven.  From Star Wars to Battleship and The Avengers and everything in between.  Audiences are now desensitized to effects that used to blow movie goers’ minds.  Audiences expectations are high and the blockbuster success of today’s films are dependant on cool explosions, awesome alien battles, and computer generated images that can only be seen on the big screen.

When did this special effects craze start?  As far as the special effects era, there’s pre-Star Wars and post Star Wars.  SW was the movie that set the bar so high for Hollywood.  Movie budgets were taken to a whole new level, as well as box office numbers.

The first movie to heavily use special effects was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  At the time of it’s release in 1968, it became known as the greatest special effects movie ever made, employing 205 special effects, many which had never been used before.  While it’s images blew movie goers away, the story left many of them leaving the theatre thinking “What the @#$! was that?”


“Do you know what this movie is about?”

When Lucas set out to produce his “Empire of Dreams” trilogy in 1975, he knew he was going to need a great deal of special effects for the movies to live up to his vision.  But at this time, studios didn’t even have a special effects department.  So he created his own, Industrial Light and Magic.  New filming techniques, special effects, and optical effects were innovated to film what could not be filmed before.  Among its many innovations, Star Wars was the first film to use motion controlled cameras or the Dykstraflex System.  It employed the use of every special effect Hollywood had known, like the Vistavision, which hadn’t been used since 1961, matte paintings, miniatures, pyrotechnics, and the blue screen used on a scale like never before.  Even foley artists created original sounds that had never been used before like the laser gun and light saber.  In all, 365 effects were used and set the bar for the future of movies.  The film of course went on to win 6 oscars including the one for visual effects and a special achievement award for best sound.



But when was the very first time special effects were ever used in a movie?  It was back in 1895.  Thomas Edison produced an 18 second film entitled “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scotts”.  The film depicts the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scotts.  In order to film this, Edison was going to have to do something that had never been done before.

In the film, just as the axe is about to be lowered on Mary’s head, the camera stopped rolling.  The unknown actress playing Mary stepped out, and a mannequin then replaced her.  The cameras rolled again and the axe lowered, cutting off Mary’s head.  This film is officially recognized as the first film ever to use a special effect.  It was also the first film to use trained actors.

When the film was shown in Kinetoscope parlors, most people were fooled by the effect and were convinced they had actually seen a beheading.  The film stirred up quite a controversy.  Edison embraced the publicity for his film and was amused by the attention.  The public however was not amused and even called it the first “snuff” film ever made.

What do you think?  See the 18 second film here!    The Exectuion of Mary, Queen of Scotts

Myke Friscia

Myke Friscia

Screenplay Analyst, Writer, Director of Development for Gallagher Literary Management, Little Monster. "Words are my Passion".