The 25 biggest innovations in genre storytelling

Contributed by
Sep 17, 2017

September 2017 is Syfy’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments! 

Sci-fi storytelling is about pushing the envelope, and the way we consume those stories has always been rooted in the pursuit of the bleeding edge. The fusion of ideas and fiction manifesting with new techniques and inventive technologies gives artists a profound amount of freedom in presenting their vision. Audiences are spoiled for choice, and given access to an almost limitless amount of experiences.

How a 4D Cinema Works

4D Viewing

The innovation of 4D viewing is not about huge technological breakthroughs, but in bringing simple techniques long utilized by amusement parks and haunted houses into the movie theater. 4D viewing immerses audiences in the world of a film by stimulating additional senses and deepening the experience. Water can spray. Seats can move. Pneumatic system can activate other subtle effects. These in-house flourishes add another dimension to the viewing experience, one that can’t be replicated on your couch at home no matter how great your television set

Game of Thrones: The Frozen Lake (HBO)

All green screen background film

Novelists have long enjoyed the ability to set their stories anywhere and in any time. If they can imagine it, it is. Filmmakers, however, must contend with the limitations of budgets, sets, and locations. With green screen backgrounds, filmmakers gained a potent and versatile tool that let them push past some of the traditional barriers of the medium. Without the green screen, Game of Thrones (and a horde of other movies and TV shows) just wouldn’t work. 

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality has likely yet to directly affect your life (unless you’ve opted into it.) Inevitably, though, it will. Imagine having a face to face conversation with the digital avatar of someone half way around the world. Picture showing up to a black-tie event in jeans and a tee-shirt and suddenly being properly attired at the push of a button. Instead of looking to your phone for directions when traveling, you could just have an AR overlay direct you to your destination. If you’ve ever played an open world game you know quest markers and point of interest icons are incredibly useful. Pro-tip: Try and avoid your boss if they have an exclamation mark over their head.

The Matrix - Bullet time + Helipad Fight Scene Super High Quality

Bullet Time

The Matrix is a film about warping reality and bending it to your will. The film, itself, transformed the conventions cinema and activated the public imagination with its introduction of bullet time. Time around an action changes, usually slowing down or pausing while presenting different perspectives of the shot to the audience. First employed to allow Keanu Reeves to dodge bullets, this effect became a pop culture touchstone. Directors had utilized slow motion to great effect before The Matrix, but the deft skill the Wachowski’s employed while manipulating time and space resulted in a unique visual language and framework that is still firing sci-fi imaginations two decades later.

Monster Inc - In the Appartments with Boo, Mikey and Sully

CG 3D

Traditional animation required every frame to be hand-drawn. But through use of 3D animation, animators need only create a few key frames. From there the computer generates the linking frames, eliminating the need for painstakingly crafted individual cells. Without CG 3D, the magic of Sully’s amazing blue and purple pelt in Monsters Inc. wouldn’t have been possible. As each subsequent Pixar film demonstrates, the technology just keeps improving.

Behind the Magic: The Visual Effects of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

CG/Animatronic Blending

A great liar knows that the best way to sell a falsehood is to slip in a little truth. By merging practical effects with digital ones, animatronic blending allows a digital experience to feel real. If you watched the Star Wars prequels, you probably thought the special FX were impressive but strangely flat. Flash forward to The Force Awakens and you can see what a difference it makes to synthesize flesh, blood, metal, and wood with digital touch-ups and flourishes.  

Creepypasta

Creepypasta evolved along the edge of the underbelly of the Internet. Initially blurring the line between reality and fiction, it refers to viral copy and pasted text and images steeped in horror or urban legend (it is a portmanteau of copypastae) Ted the Caver and the Slender Man are the most well-known creepypastas, although Petscop gives them both a more recent run for their money. Over time, this label has come to represent any sort of horror story or experience developed over the Internet.

Star Wars Episode II - Battle of Geonosis HD

Digital Filmmaking

Film has always had an economic barrier to entry: Celluloid and cameras are both prohibitively expensive. Cutting film together is a slow and challenging process that requires the services of specialized technicians and experts. The digital filmmaking revolution has upended the industry, simply by making the tools of cinema accessible. There are still gatekeepers and obstacles to mainstream Hollywood success, of course, but digital cameras have empowered a new generation of artists. 

Digital Comics

Not relegated just to filmmaking, the digital revolution has provided new tools across many different disciplines, solving distribution issues through the democracy of the internet. Putting a comic out into the world at large in 1977 required inking (zing!) a deal with a publisher or a newspaper. Getting a comic out into the world in 2017 requires a website. Period. Matt Inman might be spending his time schmoozing editors and sifting through rejection letters instead of writing The Oatmeal if he hadn’t gone digital and self-produced.

Brave Movie CLIP #4 - The Suitors (2012) Pixar Movie HD

Dolby Atmos

A filmmaker has lots of tools to work with to produce an effect on an audience. Dolby Atmos provide the opportunity to consider sound design in three hundred in sixty degrees. These speakers increase immersion in the onscreen world for audiences. Seeing characters wander through a forest at night is one thing. Hearing the crickets chirping all around you can place you right in the scene. First used in Pixar’s Brave in 2012, Dolby Atmos are another mechanism that deepens the movie watching experience. 

Dinner at the Wheelers 1x02 [Stranger Things]

Dropping entire seasons at once

Netflix has shaken up the way we consume media on many fronts, but, most importantly, it invented the full season drop. Conventional logic historically dictated that suspending dramatic tension with weekly episodes cemented viewing behaviors. Television shows became commitments and advertisers could plan accordingly. This negates the importance of a critical part of the equation – the desires of the audience. Not only is a weekly commitment undesirable to many viewers, but the promise of instant gratification just makes a whole lot of sense. It dulls the impact of spoilers and empowers audiences to consume the content they want on their own time frame. 

A Bug's Life - The City and Circus Bug's

Every Pixar movie ever made

We don’t expect baseball players to bat 1.000, heck, we don’t expect them to bat .400! Pixar is like a baseball player who hits who a homerun in every at-bat. Masterpieces should be rare. But the creative minds at Pixar have discovered the secret sauce to making audiences of all ages connect profoundly to their material. The fish, toys, monsters, and robots that anchor Pixar’s films are so relatable, so thoroughly human, that we can’t help but see our emotional truth reflected in them. When paired and partnered with the technological advances that are the backbone of the studio, a Pixar movie experience is both a feast for the eyes and the soul. 

Back to the Future Part 2 (1/12) Movie CLIP - We Don't Need Roads (1989) HD

Filming sequels simultaneously

After the success of Back to the Future, Universal green-lit parts two and three, which were then shot back to back. This had been attempted before with Superman: The Movie and Superman 2, but production issues forced a hiatus on the second movie while the first was completed. Lord of the Rings famously perfected this technique, with New Line Cinema taking a $281 million-dollar risk on three epic films in a genre that hadn’t yet broken into the mainstream. There are plenty of hidden advantages for this kind of up-front investment. Crewing up a film takes time and resources, but by treating multiple individual films as one big endeavor, studios save a ton of money on the front end. There are also clear advantages for an audience – they get a consistency throughout a franchise and an opportunity to see bigger and more ambitious stories.

FPS Gaming

When Wolfenstein 3D released in 1992, it birthed a whole new genre of gaming, one that would dominate the next two decades: The First-Person Shooter. Flight sims and dungeon crawlers had both utilized the first-person perspective to great effect, and games like Ultima Underworld had dabbled in first-person action, but Wolfenstein mixed in the fast pace of platformers with its own unique run-and-shoot mechanics to create something new. Doom came out the following year, further popularizing the genre and opening the door for more legendary titles, including Call of Duty, Halo, and Half-Life.

Orphan Black Finale 4 Clone Dance Scene

Invisible Man using green suit and motion control

Invisible people in green suits and motion control cameras are the peanut butter and jelly of special effects. The green suit gives crew members the ability to sneak right into a shot and manipulate whatever needs manipulating. Motion control lets a camera repeat precise movements, which doesn’t sound like much but consider the Clone Club. Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany can be in a scene with herself because the camera can recreate a precise shot repeatedly, and then those shots can be combined to create a scene between Tatiana Maslany and Tatiana Maslany. In fact, there’s no known limit to the amount of Tatiana Maslanys that can be added to a shot.  

Marketing as Narrative

Offer a man a fish and he might purchase it once. Tell the man a story about Fishy McFisherson, a fisherman/detective who solves ocean-related mysteries and delivers the best, freshest fish to the market and suddenly you have a lifetime of brand loyalty. Stories offer emotional anchors and give consumers something to latch on to and believe in outside of the product itself. Starting notably with The Blair Witch Project (remember how the advertising was purposefully designed to make you think the flm was real?), genre properties have started to use elaborate narratives and world building to market the properties they want people to consume. 

MUDs and Persistent World Gaming

One of the markers of transition from childhood to adulthood is the realization that things continue to happen even when you leave a place, and that other people exist even when they are not around you. As such, the prevalence of game worlds that move forward with or without the influence of any single player is a surefire sign that gaming is at least entering adolescence. Persistent world gaming wouldn’t be possible without the MUD though. Multi-User Domains (originally Multi-User Dungeons) allowed groups of players to engage with the same game world at once. To understand the impact MUDs and persistent world gaming have had on the medium, look no further than real world economic impact of EVE Online space battles.  

War for the Planet of the Apes | Making History | 20th Century FOX

Performance Capture

Andy Serkis, king of performance capture acting, once described the process as “digital make-up.” His genius portrayal of Gollum is the first example brought up in any debate about whether a performance capture role is as worthy of recognition as any more conventional portrayal. Ultimately, this digital make-up provides another powerful tool to transform human actors into any type of creature, limited only by imagination. 

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Photorealistic Computer-Generated Imaging

CGI has become so believable and ubiquitous that it is constantly employed in film, TV, and commercials. Most casual viewers absorb countless CGI effects without realizing that they are seeing a digitally created image. To see just how rapidly the technology has evolved, try watching the CGI scenes in Babylon 5, which ran from 1994-1998, and then compare those to effects to the ones in Transformers: The Last Knight. No need to compare the content – just look at the CGI.   

Joker ( Heath Ledger ) Mob Scene

Prosthetic Makeup

In a world where CGI can replace actual faces of actual actors (looking at you, Tarkin), the art of actually creating a natural look with prosthetics is a continued innovation process. Take for example, the hobbit feet in Lord of the Rings, or Heath Ledger’s cheeks in The Dark Knight. Even more recently, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was lauded for its use of prosthetic make up on the Snoke and Unkar Plutt characters. Digitally creating these things (and yes, sometimes there definitely a blend) can be wildly expensive, so the innovation required to create the same look that can be shot practically will sometimes save a production millions of dollars in digitizing cost. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot more crafty. 

Avengers: Age of Ultron - Lifting Thor's Hammer - Movie CLIP HD

Shared Cinematic Universe

Once the domain of novels and comics, the idea of sprawling, shared universes have spread into film & television, providing cinematic storytellers the opportunity to create worlds that live and breathe beyond any single series. Shared cinematic universes have space for all kinds of stories to exist under one umbrella, and bring a sense of intention and cohesion to well-beloved disparate properties across mediums. The Marvel Cinematic Universe does a phenomenal job spanning multiple films and series, fusing scores of storylines into the same epic reality.   

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales - Official Trailer

Sony RED camera/digital cinematography

Though the rise of digital cameras shook up the industry, DSLR cameras had clear limitations. Though suitable for online videos, their depth of field limitations prevented them from replacing traditional cameras. Enter the Sony RED. An affordable digital camera with 4K capabilities, the image the RED produced held its own next to 35mm. The RED has become the industry standard and has been used to shoot countless films, including The Hobbit, Pirates of the Caribbean, and every installation in The Fast and the Furious franchise.

Cloverfield (1/9) Movie CLIP - The Statue of Liberty's Head (2008) HD

Use of found footage

Found footage is a potent story telling tool that hides the possibility of fiction in its very conceit. When deftly employed, found footage can render a fantastical idea into a believable reality. Cloverfield draws most of its power in this fashion. Had it been shot in a more conventional style, the film wouldn’t have succeeded. The entire experience of the monster attack was believable because of the found footage delivery.

VR

A general assumption used to be that Virtual Reality would change the gaming world. What’s happened, instead, is it is changing the world. Doctors can practice complex surgeries in virtual spaces. Airbnb renters can take a virtual tour of a prospective vacation destination before laying down any money. Architects can render spaces for clients to walk through and experience without having to break ground. Ironically, gaming is still struggling to find its most effective use for VR, but there is no doubt that VR will continue to change the world as technology evolves.

Wii Sports

Ask someone what the top three best-selling video games of all time are and they might guess that Tetris and Minecraft top that list. The surprise? Wii Sports is number three. With 83 million copies sold, Wii Sports is one of the most popular video games of all time. Mario and Zelda are thought to be the pillars of Nintendo, but neither venerable franchise has had a game that approaches the popularity of Wii Sports. The original 1985 Super Mario Brothers comes closest with 40 million copies sold. Wii Sports is also one of the few non-VR games that counts as exercise, something that neither Tetris nor Minecraft can claim. 

Those were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Remember, we’re not saying these are all time, just since 1992. Let us know in the comments which innovations have changed how you watch or think about stories in the last 25 years.

And check out our complete "25 Greatest" lists here.