Celebrating Petro Vlahos, father of modern visual effects

Petro Vlahos, an unheralded genius of modern filmmaking, died yesterday at age 96. Though not a household name in special effects like James Cameron, Peter Jackson, or Michael Bay, Vlahos laid the foundation for all future filmmakers. Vlahos invented bluescreen (“chroma key”) technology, first used in 1940 for The Thief of Bagdad and still used today in nearly every film with a visual effects shot.

Vlahos’s initial uses of the bluescreen were fairly tame, allowing Charlton Heston to race chariots in Ben-Hur or letting Dick Van Dyke dance with animated penguins in Mary Poppins. Nowadays, entire sets are constructed from chroma key backdrops, and most video editing software supports some form of greenscreen technology. Vlahos’s work has been improved over the years but remains conceptually unchanged from his original idea 73 years ago.

It would be ridiculous to list every movie that uses some form of Vlahos’s chroma key technology, as it would probably include every major film of the last half-century. Instead, here are a few movies to which Petro Vlahos directly lent his visual effects wizardry. Each one of these won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Ben-Hur – HU DVD 3857
Mary Poppins – HU DVD 7850
The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy – HU DVD 8101

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