Special effects have always been a major ingredient in filmmaking, from illusions created with mirrors and shadows in the early 1900s, all the way to the groundbreaking technologies of CGI. The Academy Awards have been recognizing such efforts since 1928, when it awarded Wings with a plaque for Best Engineering Effects. By the late 70s, awards for visual effects had become more and more valued, often being given as a Special Recognition and by 2007, the award became a standard at the Oscars. With all of the advances within the digitization of cinema, the subject has become not only a hot topic, but quite controversial with many believing CGI to be a detriment to the art of filmmaking.
What can’t be denied is that in the last 20 years, many critically acclaimed films have been praised for both their innovative use of special effects and makeup, to create the characters we have come to know and love. Here is a list of films from the last two decades, featuring some of the most amazing transformations. Not all of the films have been critical or commercial successes, but they have all been praised for how they go about bringing their characters to life.
10. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
This adaptation of the classic Gothic horror novel of the same title, was nominated for Best Makeup for its transformation of Robert De Niro into Frankenstein’s monster. Although the film received mixed reviews, it did better commercially in the Global market than in its domestic market. Overall, it garnered nine award nominations, but did not win any.
9. The Nutty Professor (1996)
This sci-fi rom-com took home the Oscar for Best Makeup, and was also nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy. In it, star Eddie Murphy portrays an obese scientist who creates a drug to miraculously shed pounds in order to impress his crush. The film was generally well received.
8. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
This fantasy comedy is an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s 1957 children’s book of the same title. The film was first brought to the screen as an animated, half-hour TV special, which still plays regularly during the holiday season. This feature length live-action version, however, explored the darker side of the story. It gave an extensive backstory to The Grinch, making him a sympathetic character. Despite mixed reviews, Jim Carrey’s transformation into the Grinch got Oscar nominations for Best Makeup, along with Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. Moreover, the film did win a Saturn for Best Music.
7. Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
After leaving behind the crude British horror-comedies, like Braindead, Peter Jackson became one of the most successful Hollywood figures for his masterful adaptations of the much loved, Lord of the Rings book series. The films pioneered many amazing visual effect technologies, both practical and digital. Perhaps most impressively in the way of character transformation, was the innovated utilization of size doubles – the film used two scale sets and cast according to height, in order to better create the illusion of the world’s many creatures and their sizes. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King both won Oscars for Best Makeup. Furthermore, all three films of the trilogy won Oscars for Best Visual Effects, among many other awards.
6. Star Wars Episode III (2005)
While this was the only Star Wars film not nominated for Best Visual Effects, it did get a nomination for Best Makeup. The film was a critical success, being nominated for many other awards, and retaining a Star Wars legacy as the winner of the Saturn Award’s Best Sci-Fi, an honor that has been given to every Star Wars film made.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
This dark fantasy was written and directed by Spanish filmmaker, Guillermo Del Toro. With a Grimm’s Fairytale-esque theme and atmosphere, this was an international blockbuster with much critical acclaim. Among its many accolades, the film won for Best Makeup at both the Academy Awards and the Saturn Awards. At the Goya Awards, (Spain’s equivalent to the Academy Awards) it won Best Makeup, as well as for Special Effects. The fantastical creatures in this one are not only incredibly well done, but are brought to life in such a way that they are sure to give you a shudder.
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
This fantasy drama is loosely based on a short story of the same name, and went on to receive 15 Oscar nominations, three of which it won. These included, Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects. Its transformation of the lead character, portrayed by Brad Pitt, was such an outstanding achievement that it remains one of the main reasons people see the film. Outside of the Academy, the film garnered another 20 Awards, many of which are related to makeup and visual effects, as well as Pitt’s performance.
3. Avatar (2009)
James Cameron’s long anticipated sci-fi epic earned a place in history, with its technological innovations in motion capture, in order to bring the concept of CGI characters to a whole new level of realism. Aside from his admiration for its Green and anti-war messages, Roger Ebert praised the film for technical breakthrough, likening it to Star Wars (1977). Not surprisingly, the film won for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars, along with Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. Its box office success was so great it broke several records, had an extended run, and grossed almost $3 billion.
2. The Wolfman (2010)
This remake of a 1941 horror classic of the same name may have received mixed reviews, but that did not take away from its amazing creation of the wolfman itself. The film won an Academy Award for Best Makeup and a Saturn for the same category, but critical responses to the use of CGI were harsh. Benicio del Toro’s transformation to the Wolfman is outstanding, but it’s likely the only reason to see this one. In fact, the President of Universal Studios, legendary for its pioneering of the Monster movie, stated that The Wolfman is one of the worst movies ever made.
1. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
With a makeup budget of only $250.00, and an aspiration to make a serious film about (essentially) the body, as it deals in great depth with the subjects of AIDS and sexuality, one might consider this film quite a challenge. Still, Robin Matthews took that 250 bucks and created a masterpiece. Matthew McConoughay transformed his body, losing an exceptional amount of weight, to play a man with AIDS. Meanwhile, Jared Leto allowed his look to be drastically transformed, when he took on the role of a trans person. Both paid off as they received Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively, with this film becoming the first film in 10 years to win both. Furthermore, Robin’s efforts paid off and she took home an Oscar for Best Makeup.
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