50 greatest special effects of all time

Time Out ranks the most awe-inducing moments of our dreams and nightmares

50 greatest special effects of all time

Star Wars (1977)

20 | THE THING (1982)
For decades, the unspoken rule of horror was: Always keep the creature in the shadows. John Carpenter and FX artist Rob Bottin flew in the face of wisdom and offered up the most gory, Lovecraftian puppeteering ever committed to film. Bottin’s seven-day-a-week grind (sustained for more than a year) necessitated his hospitalisation for exhaustion after the shoot.

Parting the Red Sea was a given, but the techniques Cecil B. DeMille used were secret ones, closely guarded by their spectacle-savvy director. Fans ultimately learned that this awe-inspiring effect was achieved via optical insertion of reversed footage and some industrial-sized tubs. In any case, it’s definitely a watershed moment (sorry, God).

18 | SCANNERS (1981)
Any Fangoria fan will tell you that the money shot in David Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror classic – in which a psychic’s Excedrin headache ends with an extraordinary cranial kaboom – is a key moment in ’80s gore FX. It may have been as simple as blasting a shotgun at a prop body, but the film’s pièce de résistance remains the standard for onscreen head explosions.

17 | GODZILLA (1954)
Special-effects man Eiji Tsuburaya’s brilliant idea – let’s put a guy in a rubber suit and have him walk on cardboard buildings – redefined the Japanese movie industry and came to be known as 'suitmation.' The process is still used in today’s films, like Where the Wild Things Are.

16 | STAR WARS (1977)
George Lucas’s epic space fantasy was a watershed for effects work: Tried-and-true methods like stop-motion animation and opticals were used alongside on-the-fly techniques (Ben Burtt discovered the iconic sound for the awe-inspiring lightsabers accidentally). It all changed the face of moviemaking; suddenly FX-heavy blockbusters became a Hollywood staple.

Industry giant Ray Harryhausen, a master of the laborious technique of stop-motion animation, inspired more moguls-to-be than anyone; he’s the beginning of the FX artist as celebrity. Harryhausen topped himself with this three-man-on-seven-skeleton throwdown, a scene that took more than four months to produce.

14 | THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979)
There’s no shortage of sleight-of-hand puppetry – or rather, Muppetry – in the feature debut of Jim Henson’s felt-skinned superstars. But the sight of Kermit the Frog riding a bike unaided (!) remains the movie’s most impressive feat. It’s not easy being green, but it’s even harder to make an amphibian peddling away on a Schwinn look like the most natural thing in the world.

13 | THE MATRIX (1999)
Watching Carrie–Anne Moss hover in the air while the camera rotated around her was only the tip of the 'bullet-time' iceberg; by combining sequential still photography with computer software, the Wachowski brothers froze actors in mid-dodge and made speeding bullets visible to the human eye. Action cinema had reached a whole new level of hyperreality.

This futuristic take on The Tempest became a landmark for using visual effects to make ’50s sci-fi seem believable. Its sophisticated miniatures and groundbreaking matte paintings redefined the word otherworldly, while such optical tricks as vapourizing a tiger became the template for how to merge the intergalactic with the fantastic.

11 | ZELIG (1983)
Working with ace cinematographer Gordon Willis, writer-director-star Woody Allen utillized antique cameras and worn film stock to sell the illusion that his chameleonic title character was really hanging out with Calvin Coolidge and Al Capone. It was impressive in its PG (pre-Gump) day, and still holds up now.

The 50 greatest special effects of all time
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By David Fear
By Joshua Rothkopf
By Keith Uhlich
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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