Technology has come a long way in improving the production value of modern films, making the artform almost unrecognizable from what it was a mere forty years ago. Computer-Generated Imagery, or CGI, has allowed moviemakers to bring their ideas to life in ways that were inconceivable just a few decades ago.
James Cameron himself had some grandiose concepts, but for over a decade the necessary technology was not yet available to realise his epic ideas. Seeds which were planted by Cameron in 1999 became – 10 years and some huge technological advancements later – the cinematic achievement that is Avatar.
The history of computer-generated visual effects in movies has seen some hits and many misses. As the technology becomes more widely disseminated – and cheaper – movies are often criticised for their over-reliance on CGI. It’s hard to deny, however, the excitement and enjoyment a brilliantly executed special effect can provoke in the viewer. It allows moviegoers to see magic happen, as dreams become a visual reality.
CGI can breathe life into mythical creatures and dinosaurs, can realise full-blown, physically impossible action scenes and explosions. From something as vain and pointless as chiseled abs to the creation of entirely new planets and mysterious worlds, humble beginnings have now led to stunning, fully computer-animated films. The following twenty moments are the twenty most glittering examples of incredible computer generated imagery in modern cinema.
20. Statue of Liberty Head – Cloverfield (2008)
When a few New Yorkers attend a friend’s going away party, the last thing they imagined happening was a giant monster attack on their beloved city. What better way to make a visual impact than to have the Statue of Liberty’s head blast through a building and fall right near the group of friends? Cloverfield set the bar high for found footage films with its amazing special effects and epic scale.
19. The Owl – Labyrinth (1986)
Although nothing too astonishing by today’s standards, the Owl from the opening credits of Labyrinth was the first ever animal developed in full CGI in a movie. It flutters about gracefully as the credits roll, leaving audiences in the ‘80s with mouths agape, stunned at the digital achievement.
18. Davy Jones – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
A character as terrifying as Davy Jones needs to look the part in order to justify the fear he instills in other pirates. Collecting the souls of dead sailors to serve him aboard the Flying Dutchman, Davy Jones was once human, but after locking his heart away in a chest, he became a freakishly strange and frightening anthropomorphic sea creature with octopus and lobster parts. The visual design team nailed it with his portrayal here, combining an other-worldly, freakish appearance with surprisingly life-life reactions and emotions.
17. Pod Racing – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi along with Queen Amidala land on the desert planet Tatooine to repair their ship. There, they find a slave boy named Anakin Skywalker, a talented engineer and a skilled Pod racer pilot.
He enters a pod race for them – with his freedom and ship parts on the line. What follows is fast and frenetic action, with racers travelling at blistering speeds and turbines working at maximum capacity. It’s a dangerous sport with beautiful and, at the time, unprecedented CGI visuals.
16. The Ship Atop Johannesburg – District 9 (2009)
In this 2009 Sci-fi flick, a massive alien spaceship arrives on Earth and hovers above the city of Johannesburg in South Africa. Humans investigate the ship and find sick, malnourished aliens that they relocate to District 9, keeping them confined within its walls. It’s truly a visual spectacle to see this colossal spacecraft hovering atop the city.
15. The Colosseum – Gladiator (2000)
While some parts of this scene were in fact real sets designed for the movie, the Colosseum in Gladiator was entirely digitally crafted with some never-seen-before computer generated effects on a huge scale. Watching Maximus fight for his life in front of an audience consisting of thousands of CGI spectators was a marvel to behold.
14. Let’s Get Invisible – Hollow Man (2000)
One of the coolest CGI scenes ever sees Kevin Bacon slowly becoming invisible. He is Sebastian Cane, a scientist who has developed a serum that can make a living being invisible. He becomes his own human test subject, making his team of scientists perform the procedure. What happens next is glorious, as skin, organs, blood vessels and eventually bones start to disappear in front of viewers’ very eyes.
13. Manhattan Tsunami – The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
A film that boasts many awesome special effects in depicting the second coming of the Ice Age, The Day After Tomorrow is a visual delight. The best scene in this disaster movie involves a tsunami hitting Manhattan, New York. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character finds refuge inside the New York Public Library as the storm rages and a massive wave hits. The water simulation is uncanny; the city so familiar to movie viewers is unrecognizable as it becomes digitally flooded.
12. Flint Marko Becomes the Sandman – Spiderman 3 (2007)
While this movie was painfully mediocre with too many villains and lacking direction, one of the brighter spots of Spiderman 3 was Thomas Haden Church’s villainous Sandman. More specifically, his transformation into said villain has an extraordinary visual impact.
The three-minute sequence is jaw-dropping, topping any of the other special effects in the movie. Flint Marko stumbles into an experimental particle physics site, where he is turned into the Sandman when sand bonds to his molecular structure.
11. The Driller – Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Any discerning movie goer will recognize that Transformers: Dark of the Moon was certainly not the greatest film ever made. Even the biggest Michael Bay hater, however, will agree that the special effects which created Driller were stunning.
Rampaging through the city, this Decepticon behemoth no doubt stretched and tested the abilities of the studio’s special effects wizards. With mechanical tentacles tearing through buildings, the Driller stands tall as one of the brightest spots in the film series.
10. The Light Cycles – Tron (1982)
We head back to the ‘80s for our next entry. Tron may not have aged well, but it’s considered a revolutionary film for its extensive use of special effects and CGI. The best of all the effects were the light cycles. Driven on the Grid, these incredibly fast bikes leave a solid wall behind them, moving only in straight lines and only capable of turning in 90 degree angles.
9. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Giant elephant-like creatures and Orcs battle against an army of humans, Elves and Dwarves. The Battle of Pelennor Fields is one of the most epic battle scenes of all time, all with the help of CGI.
It’s an impressive sight to watch these animals and digital creations stomp through the battleground while hundreds of Sauron’s forces fight Middle Earth’s last hope to the death. This digital marvel led the visual design team to its third Oscar win.
8. Ape Vs. Dino – King Kong (2005)
King Kong versus three descendants of the T-Rex? Yes, really. When the dino predators, known as Vastatosaurus Rex, try to eat poor Naomi Watts, King Kong makes the save. What follows is an epic 10-minute fight sequence filled with beautifully chaotic visuals. Not only do viewers witness the monstrous power of the giant ape, they also have a chance to see the full might of the dangers lurking within Skull Island. The King obviously wins with a snap of a jaw.
7. Paris Folded – Inception (2010)
Everything about Inception is mind-bending, from the dreams within dreams to the “kicks”. Once inside someone’s head, the architect can shape and manipulate everything around them. When Leo nabs Ellen Page’s Ariadne to do be his architect, she starts bending and folding France’s capital as if it was made of paper. It’s a surreal sight to behold in all its CGI glory.
6. The Aquatic Alien Makes Contact – The Abyss (1989)
The very first digitally-animated water effect was introduced in James Cameron’s The Abyss. An obvious movie milestone, the film’s aquatic alien makes contact with our heroes as it mirrors what it sees before it in awe-inspiring fashion. Even the water physics were spot-on as the physical contact made with the creature oozed with realism – unheard of in 1989.
5. Gollum – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Another movie milestone, in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers the character of Gollum was the first CGI movie character which had an actor performing every movement while being digitally animated.
Capturing Andy Serkis’ movement and voice led to Gollum’s life-like character. Serkis had become the pitiful creature that accompanied Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom, all with the help of some computers.
4. Bullet Time – The Matrix (1999)
A monumental moment in CGI history in one of the greatest Sci-fi movies ever made, Neo’s “bullet time” involves several cameras filming a single movement that is shown in two-dimensional slices in a three-dimensional whole. Sounding a lot more complicated than it looks, the effect was praised in the entire industry, even awarding the team behind it with an Oscar. In this instance, “bullet-time” shows the viewer how bullets are dodged by varying the speed and camera angle of their trajectory with Neo’s maneuvers. Agent Smith has no chance against the One.
3. The Destruction of Hometree – Avatar (2009)
While it may not have the most original story, Avatar is one of the greatest movies ever based solely on how beautiful it really is. The result of years and years of hard work by the CGI wizards, James Cameron’s vision of Pandora and all its inhabitants came to life in splendid fashion.
The most emotionally difficult scene was also a digital marvel to behold as the Resources Development Administration blasts away at Hometree, the local Na’vi’s home. Vivid imagery and luscious environments were burned to the ground by roaring, digital fires.
2. T-1000 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron’s name is inextricably linked to revolutions in computer generated movie making. In true Cameron form, his 1991 sci-fi classic Terminator 2 challenged everything that had been done before it.
The ridiculously ambitious project sought to create a dangerously complex and unpredictable villain. Thus, the T-1000 was born, a Terminator made of malleable, liquid metal. Emerging from a fiery explosion revealed his true nature as his entire silver body casually walked away from the flames. It was a truly masterful sequence that garnered the animation team an Oscar win for Best Visual Effects.
1. Humans Walking Among Dinosaurs – Jurassic Park (1993)
There are so few moments in movies that make your jaw drop, knowing you’re witnessing movie history while suspending your disbelief for just a simple second, living and feeling what was being presented before you.
Viewers shared Dr. Grant’s disbelief and total awe as he saw a living, breathing dinosaur graze before him. The mammoth, computer generated brachiosaurus stood majestically before it hopped on its hind legs to reach the leaves on the tree. Although it may not be the most complex use of visual effects, it will go down in history as the most memorable CGI sequence ever. Heck, it was one of the greatest movie scenes ever, period.
Honorable Mention: The Glass Knight – Young Sherlock (1985)
A quick nod here to the first ever fully-rendered character to appear in a movie. After getting poisoned, the priest starts hallucinating and sees the stained glass knight come to life before him.