Do visual effects in films today all look the same to you? Is there one movie in recent memory that stands out and says, “That was a visual masterpiece.”? Film technology is constantly evolving and so are the techniques that help produce visual effects as well. We’re becoming more efficient in how we work and constantly improving the level of realism that is being perceived by the audience.
Being a visual effects artist, I’m occasionally asked if there’s one film I could pick that represents a turning point in the visual effects industry. There are too many to just choose one. So, here are my top 50 picks (in chronological order) of films that helped pave the way for the visual effects we see today.
50. ‘La Voyage Dans La Lune’ (A Trip to the Moon) – George Melies (1902)
Reason: Regarded as one of the first science fiction films with the earliest use of miniatures. Also standardized using 24/frames per second in order to sync sound
49. ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’ – Willis O’Brien (1925)
Reason: First major use of stop motion animation and use of a travelling matte painting – adding a moving element to a frame with a different background.
48. ‘Metropolis’ – Fritz Lang (1927)
Reason: Successfully used the German Schufftan process, which was a precursor to blue screen – used mirrors that created the illusion actors were on huge sets, but were really miniature sets.
47. ‘King Kong – Willis O’Brien (1933)
Reason: Used an array of techniques such as miniatures, matte paintings and rear projection.
46. ‘Wizard of Oz’ – Arnold Gillespie (1939)
Reason: The great creation of the twister in this movie deserves it due. Far away shots of the twister were live shots of actual tornados, but the up close shot that we remember so vividly was created using a burlap sack filled with sand that coiled as a fan was blown off screen. This caused the appearance of a dust cloud formation while the ‘twister’ was spinning.
45. H.G. Wells ‘War of the Worlds’ – George Pal – (1953)
Reason: Created the ‘popcorn’ effect we see in films today – using vibrant colors and the partial destruction of cities in film.
44. ’20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ – Richard Fleischer (1954)
Reason: Giant squid fight. Need we say more?
43. ‘Forbidden Planet’ – Fred Wilcox (1956)
Reason: An adaptation of ‘The Tempest’, it was the first film in full color and cinemascope. Also had the most expensive film prop ever constructed to date at its time - $125,000.
42. ‘The Ten Commandments’ – Cecil B. DeMille (1956)
Reason: A remake of his own film, which was silent – the parting of the Red Sea was a great visual undertaking. A 32 foot high water tank was built to pour out 300,000 gallons of water. After filming, to create the infamous scene, the shot was played backwards.
41. ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ – Peter Ellenshaw (1959)
Reason: The use of ‘forced perspective’ was implemented in order to create the ‘little people’ we see on screen. The camera was place in the foreground making the actors seem larger than they are, while placing the ‘little people’ at a relative distance to pull off the effect.
40. ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ – Ray Harryhausen (1963)
Reason: The skeleton fight scene was created using stop motion animation and rear projection. The scene took four and a half months to film.
39. ‘Mary Poppins’ – Harrison Ellenshaw (1964)
Reason: Used the sodium vapor technique, which became a new green screen model.
38. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – Douglas Trumball (1968)
Reason: Realistic space sequences and the incredible slit scan that we would see once again in many films over time.
37. ‘Silent Running’ – Douglas Trumball (1972)
Reason: The precursor to R2-D2…his parents are present in this film. Ha!
36. ‘Close Encounter of the 3rd Kind’ – Douglas Trumball (1977)
Reason: The alien ship was a 400lb fiberglass model approximately 4’ x 5’ and was lit with neon tubing and fiber optics.
35. ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ – John Dykstra (1977)
Reason: Welcome to Industrial Light and Magic.
34. ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ – Douglas Trumball (1979)
Reason: Though the effects used had been around for awhile, the wormhole effect created in Star Trek was one of a kind.
33. ‘An American Werewolf in London’ – Rick Baker (1981)
Reason: The transformation scene in this movie was incredible for its time, using a combination of robotics and prosthetics.
32. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ – Richard Edlund (1981)
Reason: Famous scene showing the power of the Ark of the Covenant, this including the ‘face-melting’ shot.
31. ‘Poltergeist’ – Tobe Hooper (1982)
Reason: No ground breaking visuals created, but a unique usage of what was currently in play to create the grand illusion of menacing poltergeists.
30. ‘Blade Runner’ – Syd Mead (1982)
Reason: Referencing ‘Metropolis’ the dark and gritty cityscape of Los Angeles was created using many painted backgrounds and several model shots. This futuristic vision of the world is one to remember for sure.
29. ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ – Jim Veilleux (1982)
Reason: The ‘Genesis’ scene was the first completely computer generated sequence used in film (Tron gets all the credit). It was also a film notably that used partial particle rendering effects and landscapes.
28. ‘Tron’ – Steven Lisberger (1982)
Reason: First film of its kind to use CGI for any lengthy period of time. In this film, about 20 minutes of footage was all computer generated. This marked a new milestone in the era of visual effects. We all love that light cycle sequence right? One of my personal favorites right here!
27. ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ – Godfrey Reggio (1982)
Reason: ‘Life in Balance’ used an array of film techniques; a feature length documentary combining slow motion and hyper-speed photography together.
26. ‘The Last Starfighter’ – (1984)
Reason: Used integrated photo-realistic CGI models such as spaceships, planet shots, and vehicles. If you haven’t seen this film, get on it! It’s still a great film to watch again and again!
25. ‘Back to the Future’ – Ken Ralston (1985)
Reason: A film that defies generations and still holds up today. Do we need a reason? Honestly now.
24. ‘Aliens’ – Robert Skotak (1986)
Reason: Combined multiple special effects techniques into one shot.
23. ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ – Richard Edlund (1986)
Reason: Use of hand animated visual effects brought the film to life in many respects. Just a great film all around.
22.’Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ – Richard Williams (1988)
Reason: Hand-drawn animated characters to look almost 3 dimensional with the use of computer generated shadowing and lighting when alongside live action people.
21. ‘The Abyss’ – John Knoll (1989)
Reason: It took 8 months to create and render the 75 second psuedopod shot.
20. ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ – Michael McAlister (1989)
Reason: The morphing elements used in this film showed a complete digital composite of rapid aging during one of the film’s end scenes.
19. ‘Terminator 2’ – Dennis Muren (1991)
Reason: The liquid metal of the T-1000 was an amazing feat of CGI. Definitely one for the books to remember! There was over 16 minutes of film used for this character in about 300 shots.
18. ‘Jurassic Park’ – Dennis Muren (1993)
Reason: A film that brought a turning point to visual effects. This film was the first using photorealistic creatures created by CGI. An incredible combination of animatronics and CG characters to make a film masterpiece.
17. ‘The Crow’ – Tim Landry (1994)
Reason: With the untimely death of Brandon Lee, the film was left incomplete. A double was used to fill in the remaining scenes and a computer generated digital composite was created to replace the stand in.
16. ‘Contact’ – Robert Zemeckis (1997)
Reason: Inspired by ‘The Power of Ten’ – the opening sequence of the movie was the longest continuous digital shot of its kind.
15. ‘Titanic’ – Robert Legato (1997)
Reason: Combined various miniature models and CGI models to film the epic ship splitting sequence at the end of the movie.
14. ‘Event Horizon’ – Richard Yuricich (1997)
Reason: Motion control photography.
13. ‘What Dreams May Come’ – Joel Hynek (1998)
Reason: A film shot with a Fuji Velvia – the characteristics of this film bring extremely vibrant color and saturation during the expressionistic world of heaven.
12. ‘Dark City’ – Bruce Hunt (1998)
Reason: Paying homage to Metropolis in various shots, the lighting and warping sequences were created in CGI effortlessly. Very closely judged with The Matrix that came out a year later; this film holds its own.
11. ‘Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ – Joe Letteri (2001 – 2003)
Reason: The entire trilogy is one large visual spectacle. I don’t think anyone can argue that – but the magnificent motion capture control for Gollum was something that brought realism to Andy Serkis’s character like no other.
10. ‘Star Wars: Attack of the Clones:’ – John Knoll (2002)
Reason: Love it or hate it, this was the first big-budgeted movie to film with completely digital cameras.
9. ‘Children of Men’ – Alfonso Curon (2006)
Reason: The use of one continuous camera take gave way to break taking visuals and filmography.
9. ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ – David Fincher (2008)
Reason: Some groundbreaking work on transforming Brad Pitt’s character over the course of the movie.
7. ‘Avatar’ – Joe Letteri (2009)
Reason: Another beautifully crafted film by James Cameron, actors wore body suits with dots attached to them and tiny helmet rigs in order to capture facial expressions and body motion. The use of this technology had been done before, but not quite as extensively as what the sequences in this film required.
6. ‘Inception’ – Paul Franklin (2010)
Reason: Christopher Nolan brings us yet another grand film with amazing visuals. The most compelling visuals are witnessed in the dreamscape sequences.
5. ‘Tron Legacy’ – Eric Barba (2010)
Reason: Over two years of post production with roughly 1500 effect shots, there are many reasons Tron Legacy belongs on this list. The digitally imagery needed to create the younger Jeff Bridges required 134 dots placed on Bridge’s face captured by micro-cameras and infrared sensors.
4. ‘Hugo’ – Robert Legato (2011)
Reason: The look of the film was meant to be reminiscent of the early days of cinema. In the opening scene in the city of Paris, that shot require a year of filming and roughly 1000 computers to render each frame. Whew. That’s a lot of processing power required.
3. ‘Prometheus’ – Richard Stammers (2012)
Reason: From extraterrestrial creatures to vast environment shots, Prometheus brings another level of visuals to us. Ridley Scott’s prequel to Alien left us wanting more and with effects utilized in this film bridging live action and CGI seamlessly together.
2. ‘Terminator Genisys’ - Sheldon Stopsack (2015)
Reason: While the movie itself was not a hit at the box office, it’s worth a watch just to see the jaw dropping visual effects magic in creating the younger Arnold. It was no small feat to bring this character back to life.
1. ‘The Martian’ - Richard Stammers (2015)
Reason: The Martian doesn’t need a reason. It was a damn fine film.
And that’s a wrap! My top 50 picks for films that helped revolutionize the visual effects industry.