The crew on Christopher Reeve's first Superman film started crying when they saw the flying effect for the first time. At that moment, they believed a man could fly.
In an age full of absurdly-detailed CG worlds and AI-generated art winning art contests, it’s hard to remember what a big deal a simple bluescreen was in the film industry. Director Richard Donner set Christopher Reeve in front of one such bluescreen for 1978’s Superman to make it look like he was flying. While the effect looks dated (and maybe even a little hokey) to modern audiences, GeekTyrant reports that seeing the effect in action caused some crew members to break down in tears.
Of course, it wasn’t simply the use of bluescreen alone that made it seem like Christopher Reeve was flying as Superman. Bluescreens have been around since the 1930s, and Superman was far from the first movie to use them to create a flying effect. However, Richard Donner felt that other movies’ flying effects were horrible, so he searched for a way to make audiences believe that a man could fly.
The world of 1978 took place long before you could adjust your bluescreen effect by messing with some sliders in Adobe Premiere. The process involved combining two images with optical printers, projectors, and beam splitters. Richard Donner felt that Warner Bros.’s effects weren’t good enough to convince the world that Christopher Reeve was Superman.
One of the big problems with bluescreen back then was that the projectors needed were massive, couldn’t be moved around, and couldn’t create a zoom effect — meaning that the effects often looked static and fake. However, a visual effects artist named Zoran Perisic had devised an idea for a smaller, 40-lb projector that they could move all around, making Christopher Reeve look less like a man in front of a screen and more like Superman himself. With help from Warner Bros., they funded the completion of the invention and made the effect real.
The new technique earned Zoran Perisic an honorary Academy Award for technical achievement — however, it wasn’t just his brilliance that made the effect work. Richard Donner chose to cast Christopher Reeve as Superman instead of a big-name actor like Paul Newman or Sylvester Stallone since he thought nobody would believe the magic of the film if it were a well-known face doing all the flying.
Donner’s choice of using Christopher Reeve paid off, as the man has been associated with Superman ever since. Though he stared in other movies, he became almost synonymous with the character. Reeve starred in three more Superman films before tragically breaking his neck and being forced to use a wheelchair and ventilator for the rest of his life.
With Christopher Reeve out of commission, no more Superman movies were made for almost 20 years. The character eventually was taken up by other actors such as Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill, but neither actor became as synonymous with Superman as Reeve. Whoever the next Superman actor is, he has some big shoes to fill.