The release of "Avatar" five years ago this month (on December 18, 2009) once again put the lie to Jean-Luc Godard's adage that cinema is truth 24 times a second. In fact, all of cinema is a lie, a series of tricks that fool the eye, starting with the illusion of motion that comes from flashing 24 frames a second through the projector.
"Avatar" went to great lengths to fool the eye, with immersive 3D imagery designed to make viewers feel they were truly visiting a strange, new planet. It fueled a 3D boom in movies that persists to this day and set new standards in visual effects-driven filmmaking.
The innovations of "Avatar" fall on a continuum of advances in special effects going back all the way to the dawn of cinema. The tools and technology available to filmmakers keep evolving, but the impulse is the same: to use mechanical trickery to deceive the eye into seeing something that isn't actually there. Indeed, as you'll see from the gallery below of milestone visual effects movies, it's an impulse that has its roots in the stage illusions and showmanship of the magician. Here, then, is a map of how cinema evolved from that 19th-century art to the 21st-century digital universes of "Avatar" and beyond.