The secret histories of the twenty-five best-ever movie special effects.
Director Luis Bunuel
Running time 16 minutes
Key VFX scene The opening is first horrific VFX movie scene
Originally billed as a calling card for both Bunuel and co-writer Salvador Dali, this 16 minute B-&-W French short contains a graphic opening effects scene that still retains its power 75-years later. Forget Hellraiser – Un Chien Andalou opens with Bunuel sharpening a razor, before pulling open wide a woman’s eye, and slicing through it in full view of the audience. The aim of the effect was to shock – even Bunuel was reported to be sickened by it – and for its time proved an intense viewing experience. It remains one of the earliest examples of visual effects in movies.
King Kong, 1933
Director: Merian Cooper
Running time: 100 minutes
Key VFX scene: Kong’s death atop the Empire State Building
Dubbed ‘The Most Awesome Thriller Of All Time’, its effects thrills were certainly groundbreaking for its day. Chief technician Willis O’Brien deployed detailed stop-motion animation and effects for Kong, and an army of then very-realistic dinosaurs – including a great fight-to-the-death scene between a T Rex and Kong. Perhaps the key scene is Kong’s battle and death on the top of the Empire State Building that cemented VFX in movies as a worthy ingredient. O’Brien had previously pioneered compositing in the earlier flick The Lost World in 1925, as well as the complex stop-motion of animals. The stop-motion took around 55 weeks to complete.
The Wizard of Oz, 1939
Director Victor Fleming
Key VFX scene The twister scene
The tornado scene at the beginning of the movie was one of the most sophisticated effects of its day – considering it’s a non-CG effect, it still stands up well today – and showed early progress in cinematic effects. Here’s how it was done. The tornado was made from a 35-foot-long muslin stocking, which was then rotated by a crane suspending it above the stage. Dust and debris were tossed in, and the audio created using compressed air. It was all created by a leading US mathematician, who created 200-pages of calculations to map out the effect. Incidentally, the scene was reused in later movies, including Cabin In The Sky (1943) and High Barbaree (1947).
Jason and the Argonauts, 1963
Director: Don Chaffey
Running time: 104 minutes
Key VFX scene: Attack of the skeletons
The seminal stop-motion effects movie that made a household name of Ray Harryhausen for his work in creating and animating a host of mythical creatures in Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. The effects scenes are numerous, involving decent compositing, and included a seven-headed hydra, giant statues that come to life, and screeching harpies attacking the blind oracle Phineas. However, the key scene so often quoted is the attack of the army of skeletons – which lasts four minutes on screen, but took nearly five months to choreograph. For such an influential film, it was oddly a flop in the US on its release.
Fantastic Voyage, 1966
Director: Richard Fleischer
Running time: 100 minutes
Awards: 2 Oscars (Set Direction; Best Effects)
Key VFX scene: Racquel Welch, wetsuit, antibodies
Racquel Welch and a surgical team are shrunk to the size of a full point, then embark on a voyage through a human body in a mini-sub, getting attacked by antibodies, sucked through the heart, and dodging chunks of tobacco residue along the way. Considering its age, the entire movie was one non-stop visual effect sequence. The miniaturization and special effects, created by Art Cruikschank, were amazing for their time – far better than the ‘homage movie’ Inner Space. Bonus fact: the effect to create the impression of the crew swimming in a blood flow was achieved by filming 50 per cent faster, then playing back at normal speed.
2001 – A Space Odyssey, 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Running time: 139 minutes
Awards: 1 Oscar (Best Effects); 3 BAFTAs (Art Direction; Cinematography; Sound)
Box office: $190 million
Key VFX scene: Stargate corridor sequence
Alternatively seen as the most over-rated movie ever, and a masterpiece that tackles a huge subject (everything), 2001 was clearly a milestone in visual effects. OK, so the moon shuttle might have been ropey, but the representation of space and Dave’s trip to the monolith orbiting Jupiter were skillfully done. Perhaps the biggest effect – and for many, the most confusing – is Dave’s trip into the unknown, complete with a kaleidoscope of visual effects showing Dave’s journey. Of note is the perfectionism that drove Kubrick in making 2001, and the slavish attention to detail, such as equipping the actors in monkey suits with baby chimpanzees for added authenticity – so much so that the Academy Awards board thought all the apes in the movie were real. A seminal piece that made space the new frontier for visual effects, and scooped an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
Notable for the use of early motion control, and the slit-scan technique used for the Stargate corridor sequence. Bonus fact: the Discovery was meant to head to Saturn, but the VFX crew couldn’t pull off a convincing representation – hence Jupiter.
Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977
Director: George Lucas
Running time: 121 minutes
Awards: 6 Oscars
Box office: $460 million (US)
Key VFX scene: The Death Star trench run, light sabres
Everything about Star Wars redefined the genre of space VFX. Before, space looked as if it was a flat, black board with pinpricks of light – Star Wars added depth to space, and placed beaten, rusting spacecraft in it for added believability. The biggest effect was possible with the first use of an innovative motion-controlled camera – invented by visual effects supervisor John Dykstra – to capture the flight down the trench of the Death Star by compositing together dozens of individual elements. The creation of light sabres as a visual effect is one that has become a coming-of-age effect for all film students to attempt the world over. Dykstra and the film scooped Oscars for effects.
An American Werewolf in London, 1981
Director: John Landis
Running time: 97 minutes
Awards: 1 Oscar (Best Makeup)
Box office: $19 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: The werewolf transformation
Just to prove you can’t teach an old werewolf new tricks, the original American Werewolf beats the CG-created 1997 follow-up hands-down. Thanks to then truly ground-breaking transformation effects – handled by Rick Baker, who scooped an Oscar for Best Make-up – and the fact the camera lingered over each stage of the hero’s change into the werewolf, this proved a terrifying entry into visual-effects history. While Baker went on to work his magic on movies such as Wolf, Gorillas in the Mist, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, American Werewolf was the first movie to pull off horror and transformation effects in a believable manner. The effects still stand up today, and show that CG is left howling at the moon in some areas.
Director: Steve Lisberger
Running time: 96 minutes
Box office: $33 million
Key VFX scene: Lightcycle race.
Widely seen as Year One for the use of computer graphics in movies, Tron featured over 30 minutes of computer animation at a time when 3D was still an experimental technology, and powerful computers were the size of fridges. Director Steve Lisberger had originally created the Tron character for a commercial spot, using the then-radical backlighting technique. Limitations in 3D creation meant that the characters and objects had to be stylized so they were built from as few polygons as possible. However, it still took ten minutes per frame to render – while today, a PlayStation 2 can produce better graphics in real-time. Without Tron, though, there’d be no Finding Nemo or Final Fantasy.
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 117 minutes
Awards: 3 BAFTAs (Costume; Cinematography; Art Direction)
Box office: $27 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: Deckard’s flight over a futuristic Los Angeles
Aside from capturing a dystopian vision of the future, Bladerunner delivered a complex story that merged stunning photography and a postmodern narrative, and delivered on its promise of a realistic, futuristic film noir.
The star of the movie isn’t Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, but the breath-taking cityscape that Deckard travels over in his admittedly cheesy flying cop car. The believable world, which sees Tokyo meet New York, was a departure from the usually radiant visions of the future – and proved a blueprint for every other sci-fi cityscape – from Judge Dredd to The Fifth Element.
The Last Starfighter, 1984
Director: Nick Castle
Running time: 101 minutes
Box office: $28 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: The CG-generated space battles
The first use of computer-generated models, rather than miniatures, for key parts of a scene meant that while The Last Starfighter wasn’t going to win an Oscar for its plot, at least it remains an historic moment in effects. It was also the first movie to do all its special effects – apart from make-up – using computers.
Director: John McTiernan
Running time: 107 minutes
Box office: $59 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: The alien invisibility suit, alien eyesight
Not seminal in that it used any form of creative technology for the first time, but what it did use it did very well – and placed an effects movie outside of futuristic space domes and into the more challenging jungle environment. The Predator was filmed as a person in a red suit (the green of the jungle, and blue of the sky ruling out traditional means), with Jean-Claude Van Damme originally cast as the uncredited special effect.
Who framed Roger Rabbit? 1988
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running time: 103 minutes
Awards: 4 Oscars (Sound Effects; Visual Effects; Editing; Special Award); 1 BAFTA (Best Special Effects)
Box office: $154 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: The climatic fight scene outside Toon Town
A landmark film in many ways – not just for its clever and technically accomplished merging of cel animation and live action (which had been done before in movies such as Bedknobs And Broomsticks) – but in its profound effect for the animation industry. The film, which cost $50 million to make, prompted Disney to leap back into animation following a fallow period for the industry where even Disney had considered abandoning animated features.
The Abyss, 1989
Director: James Cameron
Running time: 146 minutes
Awards: 1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
Box office: $54 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: The CG water creature emerging from the pool room
The first example on film of digitally animated water marks out The Abyss – and what a debut for liquid-motion effects, in the shape of an alien ‘pseudo pod’ constructed of CG water. The 3D character animation is top-drawer – and the first really convincing use of it – with the CG water mimicking actor’s faces and demonstrating facial movement that resembled expressions.
Terminator 2, 1991
Director: James Cameron
Running time: 137 minutes
Awards: 4 Oscars (Visual Effects; Sound Editing; Best Makeup; Best Sound); 2 BAFTAs (Best Sound; Best Visual Effects)
Box office: $204 million (US-only) - plus over $900 million in rentals
Key VFX scene: Morphing T1000 scenes
The liquid-metal cyborg T1000 sets audience pulses racing, with astounding CG effects, such as when the T1000 rises from the floor and morphs into the shape of a flesh-&-blood character. One five-and-a-half minute scene alone included over 100 elements of CG. And, for the first time, all the effects work is done digitally following six decades of optical printing.
Jurassic Park, 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 127 minutes
Awards: 3 Oscars, 1 BAFTA
Box office: $357 million (US)
Key VFX scene: First sighting of the full-size dinosaurs
Jurassic Park represents the first use of CG to depict live creatures that interacted with the cast – and it does it to staggering effect – but the film’s history is additionally fascinating. Originally, Spielberg didn’t want to use CG, but a viewing of a demo at ILM of a T-Rex changed his mind. The animation was originally mapped out of an Amiga running Video Toaster, fact fans, and the film contains a multitude of not-so-obvious effects: it was the first feature to use DTS digital surround sound; all full shots of dinosaurs were CG; and the glass of water was made to ripple thanks to a guitar string attached to its base and then twanged. Most bizarre fact – the digital animators were made to run along a road littered with obstacles with their hands close to their chest. The reason? To better understand how a herd of dinosaurs ran.
The Lawnmower Man, 1992
Director: Brett Leonard
Running time: 107 minutes
Box office: $32 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: Representation of sex in cyberspace
Aside from artificially raising the cinema-going public’s expectation of networked 3D – “Gee, so that’s what cyberspace will look like” – and a naff story, the film deserves all the accolades it gets for groundbreaking effects. It successfully manages to portray CG people interacting in a completely virtual environment, and uses fluid effects, facial animation, and lighting techniques to great effect.
Independence Day, 1996
Director: Roland Emmerich
Running time: 145 minutes
Awards: 1 Oscars (Best Visual Effects) - and an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss.
Box office: $306 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: Flying saucers hover over major cities
One of the blockbuster visual-effects movies that stretched the impact that VFX should have for cinemagoers. It unashamedly set out to dazzle with its effects, and create a believable vision of an alien invasion that was as far removed from the old flying saucer movies as possible. Understandably, it picked up an Oscar for Best Visual Effects – and the movie used over 500 effects shots, combining digital compositing, digital matte paintings, CG imagery, and traditional miniature model techniques. In short, it was the biggest effects film of the 1990s. It was also a milestone because it took a unique approach to effects creation. Rather than rely on one company to produce the effects, Emmerich pulled together different VFX professionals to create their own CG units, slashing the cost of production.
Director: James Cameron
Running time: 194 minutes
Awards: 10 Oscars (Visual Effects, plus most others)
Box office: $600 million (US-only) – plus over $900 million in rentals
Key VFX scene: The sinking of the Titanic
Got ten Oscars and brought on Cameron’s ‘I’m king of the world!’ acceptance speech. And, while everyone fawned over stars Winslet and DiCaprio, the real stars were the 450 effects shots created by Digital Domain and 16 other companies. These help lift Titanic to being the highest-grossing film of all time, and the most expensive to make at that time. Key effects included ocean generation, passengers on the ship’s deck and – little-known effects – compositing Kate Winslet’s iris onto one of Gloria Stuart’s eyes and the stars forming the Heart Of The Ocean necklace in the night sky. Showed that effects were becoming vital to box office success.
The Matrix, 1999
Director: Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski
Running time: 136 minutes
Awards: 4 Oscars (Visual Effects; Best Editing; Sound Editing; Best Sound); 2 BAFTAs (Best Visual Effects; Best Sound)
Box office: $171 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: Neo dodging bullets
Apart from a cracking story, the first installment of The Matrix trilogy defined a visual effect that has been copied, remixed, and repackaged by the movie and 3D games industry in a way that no other effect has been. Dubbed ‘bullet time’, or ‘flo-mo’, it allows filmmakers almost unlimited freedom in controlling the speed and movement of on-screen elements. It uses banks of still cameras placed on a path around the action that, when triggered, capture a single frame in succession around the action. The frames are then scanned into a computer, and stitched together much like animation cels, with the computer working out the in-between frames. The process can deliver 12,000 frames per second, which can be played back at a slower speed for stunning effect. Ground-breaking at the time, we do wish that VFX supervisors would give it a rest for a bit now, though.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000
Director: Ang Lee
Running time: 120 minutes
Awards: 4 Oscars (Art Direction; Cinematography; Foreign Language; Score); 3 BAFTAs (Film Music; Best Film; Direction)
Box office: $128 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: All fight scenes – dubbed ‘Wire Fu’
For sheer beauty and visual choreography, Crouching Tiger... was a movie that offered ballet-style scenes that saw fighters flit across rooftops and walls, skim across water, and battle on the tops of trees, defying gravity in the most intense, and complex, fight scenes to grace the silver screen. Variously described a ‘beautiful’ and ‘graceful’, it showed visual effects could turbo charge traditional fighting action without breaking out the lasers. It scored four Oscars, and 14 BAFTA nominations, many for its ‘wire fu’ effects of wire-guided fights. As the first Ang Lee movie to sport VFX (he later went on to make the lamentable Hulk), it revitalized the kung fu movie genre.
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 155 minutes
Awards: 5 Oscars (Actor; Costume Design;
Best Effects; Best Picture; Best Sound);
5 BAFTAs (Audience Award; Cinematography; Best Editing; Best Film; Production Design)
Box office: $187 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: The Coliseum crowds and tiger sequences
Visual effects made the backdrop to Gladiator possible – a movie of this historical magnitude simply wouldn’t have worked without the massive recreation of Rome, the Coliseum, and the sea of extras that number in the hundreds of thousands. Human extras numbered 2,000 – but visual-effects tricks boosted this to over 200,000. Gladiator defined digital crowd scenes in movies, and delivered a breathing metropolis of ancient Rome. Add in the use of digital tigers – which looked great due to the motion-blurring effect as they moved – and even a digital recreation of Oliver Reed, and Gladiator was a milestone not because of in-your-face effects, but because of how subtly they could be blended into a film. Took second place at the UK box office in 2000, below Toy Story 2.
Hollow Man, 2000
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Running time: 112 minutes
Box office: $73 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: Invisibility transformation sequence
The most stunning transformation from visible to invisible to ever appear on film – and not a bandage in sight. This Oscar-winning effects movie used the skill of Sony Imageworks and senior visual effects supervisor Scott Anderson to depict Kevin Bacon’s body undergoing a transformation to invisibility.
It was achieved by digitally stripping away the layers of an anatomically correct 3D model – which featured over 200 muscles on the torso alone – so that bone, blood, and muscle are revealed as invisibility grips. However, it’s the way the CG model acts and moves with Bacon’s mannerisms that make the effect a landmark in digital character creation. The movie sports over 550 effects shots, 65,000 procedural arteries, veins, and nerves, 50,000 muscle fibres, and 400 bones. No wonder it involved 300 people over a two-year period.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 179 minutes
Awards: 2 Oscars (Sound Editing; Visual Effects);
1 BAFTA (Best Special Effects)
Box office: $340 million (US-only)
Key VFX scene: “Precious, my Precious” – Gollum
What hasn’t already been written about the Lord Of The Rings trilogy in terms of effects probably isn’t worth writing about. The main effect introduced in the second movie was Gollum – an astonishingly well-acted CG character that blended some superb texturing tricks and motion-capture to deliver the ultimate in CG actors. Gollum certainly blows Star Wars’ Jar-Jar Binks out of the water.
Other noteworthy effects include the breath-taking battle of Helm’s Deep – with Weta’s crowd-generation software Massive being deployed to handle scenes with upwards of 100,000 characters in each frame, at 12 hours per frame. The scene rewrote what was possible for epic war movies – at least until the final installment arrived.
Other effects included the tree-giants – called Ents – which were pretty good, especially their attack on one of the two towers. The movie has seen Weta propel itself above ILM in terms of claiming the effects crown, with only The Return Of The King surpassing it.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 201 minutes
Awards: 11 Oscars (Best Visual Effects, pretty much everything else); 5 BAFTAs (Best Special Effects; Cinematography; Best Film; Screenplay; Audience Award)
Box office: $364 million (US-only, to date)
Key VFX scene: The Battle Of Pelennor Fields
The crowning glory of effects movies, the Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King is seen rightly as the best effects movie ever – and it certainly scored more Oscars than it’s nearest rival, Titanic. Every scene is laced with effects, but for sheer spectacle that will reverberate through the coming years of cinema, the climatic Battle Of Pelennor Fields scene is astounding. The hundreds of thousands of characters took 3,200 CPUs running at teraflop speeds to render. The entire movie not only contained more than 50 per cent more VFX shots than The Two Towers – roughly 1,500 – and twice as much digital data as the first two movies combined. The Return Of The King succeeds as an effects movie because it pulls together all the current VFX tricks, such as subsurface scattering for Gollum, artificial intelligence for animating crowds, complex facial animation, muscle systems for creatures, on set-motion capture, and delivered it all in a believable way.