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Missy Broome

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Fooling Fans: The Evolution of Visual Effects

In the 1950s and 60s, Ray Harryhausen amazed audiences with his innovative stop-motion work. His sword-fighting skeletons in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts are still highly regarded today and often used as an example of stop-motion done right.

In the 70s and 80s, artists such as Frank Oz, Jim Henson and Phil Tippett carried on and expanded Harryhausen’s work, with life-like puppets and creative use of miniature models.

In 1991, however, Jurassic Park changed everything, showing the world that computers could produce life-like, believable images and create creatures no model or puppet would be able to match. It opened the floodgates, and started a revolution in visual effects.

But dinosaurs and alien creatures are one thing. The real challenge for visual effects producers has always been the more mundane. It is relatively easy to fool viewers with images of things no one has ever seen, but fooling them with images of things they see every day is something else entirely.

Things like fire and fur gave animators headaches for years. Although those challenges have largely been met, there is still the ultimate challenge of producing a completely animated person that viewers cannot distinguish from the real thing.

Technologies like motion-capture allow animators to assign the movements of an actor to a digital model. But that alone isn’t enough. The model must look real, or no matter how natural its movements the audience will not be fooled.

One man currently working to produce believable human models is John Textor. In 2014, Textor and his team at Pulse Evolution produced a fully digital model of Michael Jackson that danced on stage with live performers during the Billboard Music Awards. Although Jackson was arguably the most recogizable performer in history, the model created for the performance both looked and moved like him and is considered a major success.

Believable, fully digital characters are not yet the norm, but with men like John Textor constantly pushing the boundaries, they may not be far away.

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