TV has come a long way over the years. There have been some incredible highs that have almost literally gotten the whole world talking, as well as some abysmal lows populated with shows that are better left unmentioned.
As things have progressed, so too has the job of the visual effects artist, a job which has changed dramatically over the years and appears to be following an adaptation of Moore’s Law; where the future lies is open to speculation, but it’s always worth taking a minute to review what lead us to where we are today.
So, without further ado, let’s begin our tour of visual effects by going right the way back to the late 50s…
Visual Effects in Television: 13 of the Most Groundbreaking Shows
The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964)
Almost every episode of the enduring pop classic, The Twilight Zone, saw the visual effects becoming increasingly inventive, being driven by ever stranger storylines that pushed the effects team’s abilities to the very limits of what was achievable.
More often than not, they met their mark and set the bar high for sci-fi to follow, especially in an age when nobody was convinced a sci-fi/speculative fiction show would work.
But of course, along came…
Dr. Who (1963 – present)
In the early 60s, a little sci-fi show featuring a time-traveling telephone box appeared on British screens on the same day as John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It arrived with little fanfare – partly due to the breaking assassination news, partly because half the country suffered a power outage that evening – and came very close to being permanently axed from the BBC’s production schedule.
Given the long-lasting impact it would have on not just sci-fi serials and the visual effects therein, but also pop culture in general, the world would be a very different place if it had been dropped in the first series all those decades ago.
Thunderbirds (1964 – 1966)
In the mid-sixties, children’s television was undergoing something of a revolution in the U.K and the release of Thunderbirds marked its apex.
Subsequently released in over 60 countries, it was arguably the most popular British TV export at the time (since Dr. Who had yet to find an overseas audience) and went on to inspire numerous other “supermarionation” shows, none of which quite lived up to the bar set by the original puppeteers.
Star Trek: TOS (1966 – 1969)
While all of the Star Trek series could be considered as boundary-pushing when it comes to TV visual effects, it was the 1966 magnum opus that laid the foundation for what would become one of the most popular and influential shows ever made.
As with all of the early entries in this list, you’ll need to apply a little historical perspective to fully appreciate how mind-blowing the effects were to a TV audience of 50 years ago, but The Original Series was way ahead of its time even in the 60s.
From iconic explorations of a fantastical universe to the very real one we find ourselves in, the original Cosmos series was a landmark in public science education. Bolstered by the late, great Carl Sagan and special effects that beautifully brought abstract concepts and cosmological events to life, Cosmos set a precedent that hadn’t really been met until the show’s gorgeous resurrection last year (under the helm of Sagan admirer Neil DeGrasse Tyson).
It’s little wonder the 80s show looked so exquisite, either – the 13 part series was given a $6.3 million production budget, which in today’s money equates to around $20 million (or one and a half million dollars per episode).
The Simpsons (1989 – Present)
While animated sitcoms go back as far as the 1960 (kickstarted by such Hanna-Barbera shows as The Flintstones and The Jetsons), it was a little short debuting on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 that would thrust the genre into the mainstream, and revolutionized animation made specifically for TV.
The Simpsons is now the longest running U.S sitcom and animation, and arguably the most celebrated with The A.V. Club dubbing it “television’s crowning achievement, regardless of format.”
Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991)
We could fill volumes discussing the cinematography merits and visual effects mastery in Twin Peaks, but it’s best summed up – and left – with three simple words…
… It’s David Lynch.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003)
A seminal 90s series that brought makeup artistry to the forefront of the small screen, and even earned numerous Emmy Awards for Outstanding Visual Effects and Makeup during its run.
Sure, it may look a little hammy by today’s standards, but it’s the humor and acting that have aged a lot more than the visual effects that brought the occult to our screens like never before (provoking critic Robert Moore to proclaim “TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards”).
Band of Brothers (2001)
By many measures, Band of Brothers was quite possibly the finest WWII miniseries of the past few decades, and particularly when judged upon its dedication to real (and often harrowing) visual effects.
Then again, could we expect any less from Steven Spielberg?
24 (2001 – 2010)
The premise behind 24 was bold, and the set pieces peppered throughout the groundbreaking show even more so.
Often overshadowed by the incredible performances, the ingenuity displayed by the special effects team who have worked on the past nine seasons is particularly worthy of praise: from the all-too-realistic portrayal of Jack Bauer lopping off a guy’s hand to the makeup department stepping up to the plate for every brutal interrogation scene, 24 is a visual feast that will endure for some time to come.
Peep Show (2003 – Present)
From seemingly out of nowhere came a small-budget, British comedy which fully realized the art of POV-shooting as a regular feature in a way never before (or since) mastered, becoming a huge cult success in the process.
At the time of writing, the longest-running comedy on the UK’s Channel 4 is currently filming its ninth and final series, having been at the risk of cancellation due to low viewer numbers (and saved through high DVD sales) since the very first episode.
While it sagged a little in the third act of the series, it’s been heralded by many as a near-perfect example of how superhero-centric TV shows should be executed. Particular praise was given to Daredevil for its grit and masterful cinematography (which was very reminiscent of Wally Pfister‘s work on The Dark Knight trilogy), as well as the visual effects employed throughout the show.
Perhaps the beauty of Daredevil‘s visual effects is they were fairly understated. Fully-blown CGI sequences are traded with simple effects that demonstrate how the blind Mat Murdoch’s “powers” work, and fight scenes are driven by nothing more than excellent choreography and stunt performance than overwrought trickery.
Take for instance the 3-minute, single shot fight scene that had many a Netflix viewer picking their jaws off the carpet. If this doesn’t make Daredevil a worthy addition to this list, we don’t know what does:
If anything, Daredevil will hopefully see the action TV genre following suit and going back to basics, which is a savvy tactic if you don’t have $6 million dollars of budget to blow on each episode…
… and speaking of which:
Game of Thrones (2011 – Present)
From a visual production standpoint, TV shows don’t get much bigger than this, and it’s likely to be quite some time before we see a rival fantasy series of this scale…
… and the scale is indeed huge, with the last two episodes of the fourth season being formatted for IMAX (the only TV show we can think of which has had the super-big screen treatment.) Given that it’s officially the most expensive TV show ever produced, we can safely shut the book on the age old argument “what costs more: the cast of Friends or CGI dragons?”
So there we have it – a whistle stop tour of the finest shows to have advanced special effects in television. Any particular titles that you feel should have made the cut? You know where to drop your suggestion… see you in the comments below!