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Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man, The Lord of the Rings—these are the
kinds of movies that people think of when the subject of “special effects”comes up. The blue Na’vi of the planet Pandora, fl ying atop giant wingedbeasts; the diminutive Alice tumbling into a 3D wonderland; a superhero inan iron suit; wizards and Orcs battling for Middle-earth—in these story situations,filmmakers use visual effects to open doors onto imaginary lands andcharacters. Indeed, common wisdom holds that “special effects” take moviesfar away from realistic characters, situations, and locations. According to ourcustomary way of thinking about cinema, this dichotomy in fi lm, betweenthe real and the fantastic, is nothing new. The progenitors of cinema includedAuguste and Louis Lumière, who fi lmed actualities, slices of lifethat wereportraits of everyday events, and Georges Méliès, a magician who mademovies about fabulous trips to the moon or to the bottom of the sea. Again,according to conventional wisdom, “special effects” belong to the domainof fantasy that Méliès helped to establish rather than to the actuality-basedlineage of the Lumières. As we shall see, however, “special effects” are more profoundly connected with cinema than conventional wisdom supposes.

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