Top 50 movie special effects shots

Odd List Martin Anderson 29 Dec 2008 - 09:03

There's more to a great visual effects shot than iconic status, and here are fifty that really paid their way...

CRITERIA FOR THIS LIST:
This is not a list of 'iconic' SFX shots, such as the opening shot in Star Wars or the final shot in Back To The Future, etc. There are many fantastic SFX shots in cinema history that are artistically 'awesome' without qualifying here. For the purposes of this list, a shot has to be either a) exceptionally convincing, b) ground-breaking or c) an exemplary execution of an oft-used technique. Only one shot is allowed per film.

A note about pagination (why the entries on this list are divided this way)

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50: Alien: Resurrection (1997) - Ripley clone matures

lien Resurrection (1997) - Ripley clone matures

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's quirky fourth entry to the Alien series boasts many eccentric touches worthy of mention, including an elegant solution for the astronaut who even has to carry his whiskey freeze-dried, as well as the first CGI examples of H.R. Giger's stunning creature design. But oddly it's Resurrection's use of a pretty old (and pretty cheap) CGI trick that really takes one's breath away, as the adolescent Ripley clone that those mad space-scientists are brewing up morphs into her adult state, with Sigourney Weaver's features. Both the child and adult maquettes were created by Tom Gillis and Alec Woodruff and morphed together by effects house Digiscope. Morphing was already old news from John Landis's video for Michael Jackson's Black And White, Casper (1995) and various others, but this was the first time the technique had ever been used as something more than a party-trick. Adolescent Ripley was created by Gillis and Woodruff using a base model onto which were imposed the features of young Weaver, and derived from pictures supplied by the actress.

49: Just Imagine (1930) - Descent to New York penthouse

Just Imagine (1930) - Descent to New York penthouse

David Butler's 'answer' to Germany's Metropolis (see below) apes Fritz Lang's astounding imagery whilst jettisoning its social message with utter abandon. This Buck Rogers-like tale finds briefly-popular US comedian El Brendel catapulted into New York, 1980, where the numbered citizenry get around in flying cars and where marriage is arranged by the state. Though the movie's early visuals are spectacular, they are strictly there to establish period, and Just Imagine soon descends into a poorly-written (and notoriously anti-Semitic) musical. One advancement on Metropolis is in evidence in this shot, however, as the camera actually begins to move around the city. Unfortunately the remarkable model-work and good camera-movement is unwisely used as a projection backdrop for a full-sized flying-car prop that is obviously too heavy to be suspended on wires. Nonetheless, the amount of motion in this shot, combined with excellent and mobile miniature-work, makes it perhaps the earliest predecessor to the 'Spinner' sequences in Blade Runner.

48: The Day After Tomorrow (2004) - Manhattan floods.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004) - Manhattan floods

Roland Emmerich continues to destroy the world in this ecological disaster-movie, and VFX house Digital Domain turned out some outstanding fluid simulation work in the flood sequences. For the shot in question, however, the fluid sim was provided by Tweak Films, with Christopher Horvath and Day After Tomorrow VFX supervisor Karen Goulekas overseeing the shot (one of five which Tweak contributed to the movie). Depicting water is one area of SFX where the CGI luddites tend, wisely, to shut up. SFX debacles such as those in Raise The Titanic (1980), The Dambusters (1955) and the 'Hoover Dam bust' in Superman (1978) only go to prove that water simply does not scale at anything but 1:1. Calculating (or impersonating) the confluences and counter-collisions that an incoming flood of water will make against the maze of Manhattan is a mind-bogglingly difficult task, and we can only pay this shot the compliment of saying that it 'looks right'.

47: Saving Private Ryan (1998) - Bullets in the water.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) - Bullets in the water

Just as efforts such as Cube (1997) and Robert Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her (1992) and Forrest Gump (1994, see #13) were beginning to bring 'body horror' into the CGI age, Steven Spielberg turned CGI mutilation to arguably its most serious use in recreating the visceral horror of the Normandy landings. If not the most violent film ever made, Saving Private Ryan must be in the top 10 somewhere, but has so sombre an ambit as to inspire respect instead of disgust. The shot in question was - at least for me - educational, since I had wondered before just how lethal a bullet could be through water. Soldiers fleeing into the sea from their decimated landing-craft found that the ocean was no protection against suitable artillery, and the zipping projectiles, complete with foamy trails, are totally convincing here.

46: The Fifth Element (1997) - Bruce Willis's air-taxi pulls out of the garage.

The Fifth Element (1997) - Bruce Willis's air-taxi pulls out of the garage

The surfaces and lighting are flawless in this shot of the flying yellow-cab setting off for work, but crucially it's the accuracy of the physics that sells it. As the cab brakes to avoid an oncoming vehicle, its weight settles back into its own suspension before forward-thrust takes it off again for a right turn. It's a little thing, but it makes a huge difference, and is arguably one of the biggest barriers CGI has yet to confront. Another excellent example of correct weight and movement in an exit is the 180-degree turn that the Millennium Falcon makes when exiting the Death Star in Star Wars (original 1977 release). That's ironic, since it's turning in zero-gravity and should have no weight. But then, there's no sound in space either.

45: Minority Report (2002) - Maglev hovership takes off

Minority Report (2002) - Maglev hovership takes off

As in #46, above, the sense of weight and resistance is what sells this astonishingly elegant shot from Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story. One common technique (though it is a bit of a blunt hammer) for blending an incongruous element into a canvas is to dictate a limited or particular colour-palette for the work, and it must be admitted that Spielberg's almost entirely desaturated movie has a black-and-white advantage in terms of achieving verisimilitude. The one unfortunate aspect of this shot is the clumsy addition of exit-vent haze, a real cancer among Hollywood CGI artists, who all need to be shipped off to wherever Britain sold the last of its Hawker Harriers and made to take reference footage.

44: Brazil (1985) - 'Harry' Tuttle makes a dramatic exit.

Brazil (1985) - 'Harry' Tuttle makes a dramatic exit

Robert De Niro's improbably heroic plumber (and 'freelance subversive') makes two exits-by-guy rope in Terry Gilliam's enjoyable perversion of Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four, but the second one is the real jaw-dropper. Gilliam stands with James Cameron (himself once a successful effects artist for Roger Corman) in the role of exemplary old-school FX guru, with a preference for build-and-film rather than adding anything later.

43: Dune (1984) - Worm attack.

Dune (1984) - Worm attack

Scaling sand is easier than scaling water, but even so this is an incredibly ambitious shot for the pre-CGI era. Part of the charm of the shot is Carlo Rambaldi's tripartite worm, which raises up its prey like a Venus flytrap before clamping down on it. Barry Nolan and Van Der Veer studios were in the firing line when much of the worm SFX was criticised on first release, but this shot would be ambitious even for current computer technology. Find out more about the worm SFX here.

42: The Abyss (1989) - loss of tension.

The Abyss (1989) - loss of tension

The idea of suspended fluid losing tension has been dabbled with in a number of science fiction movies over the years, including Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Event Horizon (1997). It's an effective trick which usually involves little more than a milliseconds' distortion of the composited element (sea-snake, blood droplets, water droplets, etc) before cutting into a horizontal split-screen where prop-water hits the floor, but it's one of those cases where a valuable connection is formed between an 'alien' (i.e. artificial) element and the real world. For The Abyss, James Cameron got to know all about transparency algorithms in 3D modelling, whereas the subsequent Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) was an object-lesson in reflection-mapping. One wonders what his third-stage would have been if Jurassic Park had not taken up the lead.

41: Howard The Duck (1986) - The Dark Overlord rises.

Howard The Duck (1986) - The Dark Overlord rises

Just as there haven't been any fundamental changes to the principles of the internal combustion engine in the last 100 years, neither has a century wrought that much change in the art of stop-motion animation. Legendary creature-maker Phil Tippett added one wrinkle, however, with his 'Go-motion' technique, which is rather unscientifically explained as 'twanging' the model armature at the moment of exposure when motion-blur is needed. Tippett's go-motion dinosaurs were the first to become extinct when ILM began some interesting CGI experiments for Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park. Tippett himself evolved very nicely as a specialist in CGI creatures with an unparalleled reputation for realistic movement inherited from years as a stop-motion animator. Star turkey Howard The Duck benefited from go-motion with an impressively animated finale.

40: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) - Entrance to V'Ger

Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979) - Entrance to V'Ger

The entrance to the inner heart of TMP's monstrous space-urchin follows the organic motif established so impressively in Douglas Trumbull's (perhaps excessively-used) footage of V'Ger. The thing is, it's very hard to tell how that organic aperture is actually working. Is it an iris of some kind or are the 'petals' actually changing shape? Truth is that the gate segments are actually cones spinning in unison. Since the camera remains perpendicular to the circular bases of the cones, the secret is hard to guess.

39: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) - The spores spread.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) - The spores spread

Very small-scale prop-work with moving parts is an incredible challenge often overcome by using an oversized environment. That trick was used to bring to life the plant-based alien life forms which arrive in spore-clouds to take over humanity in Philip Kaufman's atmospheric remake of the 1956 horror and sci-fi classic. The expansion of the tendrils is a reverse-effect (by SFX leader Howard Preston) that works because of the constancy of the zoom, and these are very convincing - if unwelcome - flora.

38: When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1970) - Leading the dinosaur.

When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1970) - Leading the dinosaur

Jim Danforth - twice nominated for an Oscar - was the powerhouse matte painter and animator called in by Hammer Films when Ray Harryhausen was too busy with The Valley Of Gwangi (1969) to take part in the studio's sequel to One Million Years BC (1966). Though not as quick as Harryhausen, Danforth - pre-empting 'go-motion' - experimented with motion blur and got better results out of his flying pterodactyls than the master himself. However, that's not why this shot is in here. What's exceptional about the dinosaur's pursuit of Victoria Vetri is how optical wiz Les Bowie has really inserted him into the environment, whereas so much stop-motion animation of the 1960s was clearly divided between freeze-framed background/foreground plates and the animator's work. It's a challenging piece of matting, particularly on one of Hammer's notoriously penny-pinching budgets.

37: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) - The party-crashers revealed.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) - The party-crashers revealed

Sometimes the oldest trick in the book is all you need. Thus reasoned Roman Polanski when his vampire-movie spoof required that the 'infiltrators' at a vampire ball be revealed as the only reflections in the ballroom mirror. Of course, the 'reflections' are out-of-focus doubles trying to 'mirror' principals Jack MacGowran, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, but once something works, anything more is pointless.

36: Dragonslayer (1981) - Vermithrax Pejorative rises.

Dragonslayer (1981) - Vermithrax Pejorative rises

Having made a notable foray into stop-motion in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Industrial Light & Magic produced arguably their most impressive work in the field for Disney's stab at the sword-and-sorcery genre. It must be admitted that one of the reasons Vermithrax is so amazing is that you have to wait such a long time to see him, but in truth the lighting and movement of the evil beast is unparalleled in the field. This dragon wasn't seriously challenged until the CGI dragon's 'crash-landing' shot in Rob Bowman's under-rated Reign Of Fire (2002).

35: Transformers (2007) - Slow-motion motorway pursuit.

Transformers (2007) - Slow-motion motorway pursuit

This is the only robot SFX shot in Michael Bay's harmless technological bash-fest that I totally buy, and the reason, I think, is to do with motion blur. Since this shot has been designed and rendered for slow-motion, the blur effect has been omitted (or at least greatly reduced, as one commenter suggested), and suddenly the robots really seem to be there, rather than impressively superimposed. Along with kinetics and physics, it's very early days yet for CGI artists as regards an understanding of motion blur in anything but a solid object constantly moving in one direction.

34: Fantastic Voyage (1966) - Journey into the alveoli.

Fantastic Voyage (1966) - Journey into the alveoli

Art Cruickshank and company created some spectacularly psychedelic special effects for Richard Fleischer's highly enjoyable tale of inner space, but the model work and filming of the interior of the lungs is really exceptional - if unlikely - stuff, and the difficulty of moving a camera down a totally enclosed set is handled with aplomb.

33: Jason and the Argonauts (1963) - Fighting the skeletal warriors.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) - Fighting the skeletal warriors

Ray Harryhausen's most celebrated feat of stop-motion remains enduringly impressive, not only for the sheer invention of the skeletal warriors that rise from the 'seeds' of dragons' teeth, but for the sheer number which the grand master assembled for a series of enormously complex shots. The shot seen in the video is a composite of one single set-up with the inserts removed.

32: Apollo 13 (1995) - Blast off.

Apollo 13 (1995) - Blast off

Derek Meddings (#5) has launched more orbital payload vehicles than NASA, but his efforts (in such films as Moonraker and Doppelganger) were finally capped by Digital Domain's superb recreation of the launch of ill-fated Apollo 13. Footage of the Apollo launches is part of the planet's iconography, so the challenge to recreate that experience is immense, and ultimately it's only the curse of the 'roving 3D camera' that turns an astonishingly detailed recreation slightly 'plastic'.

31: Diary Of The Dead (2007) - Acid to the head.

Diary Of The Dead (2007) - Acid to the head

Spin VFX turned in a superb combination of motion-capture and CGI grue in George Romero's otherwise disappointing follow-up to Land Of The Dead (2005). Here our heroes have attacked a zombie with sulphuric acid, and the 'citizen' camera lingers at great length on the revenant's demise. With the actor moving and the camera hand-held, there are two fields of relative motion to take into account when calculating the position of the CGI acid-melt, and this is the kind of naturalistic CGI footage that - together with the hand-held work in Cloverfield - at least supplies some kind of reason to pursue the 'amateur footage' angle.

30: Dead Ringers (1988) - Track in on the twins.

Dead Ringers (1988) - Track in on the twins

Actors playing dual roles is an old story in Hollywood, though the cheap double-exposures have given place to sophisticated motion-control work. What has yet to be done effectively is shooting a scene with a 'doubling' actor hand-held - or shooting a scene outdoors (the light is likely to have changed by the time the actor is in his or her 'other' make-up; the exterior shots of 'young' and 'old' Thomas F. Wilson in Back To The Future Part II show the difference in lighting conditions between the 'split' takes). In Dead Ringers David Cronenberg is standing on the achievements of many before him, and pre-empts Robert Zemeckis' exceptional actor-doubling in the Back To The Future sequels, which used the 'Vistaglide' roving motion-control camera designed by ILM. Most of Zemeckis' motion-control repeat passes occurred from a locked-off base (with the camera swivelling on several axes but not itself moving), but Cronenberg dares to move his camera fluidly around the sets. The fact that the technical aspects of production must have been so daunting can only add to Jeremy Irons' achievement in creating two distinct personalities for the disturbed gynaecologist twins without going all 'evil Kirk'.

29: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Entering the airlock without a space-helmet.

2001  A Space Odyssey (1968) - Entering the airlock without a space-suit.

The pioneering rotoscoping and miniature work of Douglas Trumbull, Wally Veevers and Les Bowie often overshadows one of the most effective zero-gravity shots ever filmed - and, unlike on Apollo 13, the film-makers had no need to hire NASA's 'vomit comet' to obtain it. In the movie Dave Bowman - Keir Dullea - is forced to re-enter a spaceship without a space-helmet, and does so by depressurising his lungs and blowing the explosive bolts of his EVA vehicle, which is pressed hard to the airlock. The shot was accomplished by positioning the camera directly beneath the pod and airlock set and ejecting a roped Dullea from the prop pod with an accompanying puff of propane. The angle hides the support wires, and the lack of any sound (until the cabin repressurises) is what really sells the shot. Arguably the ejection of the oxygen in one blast might have moved the pod away, but that's perhaps an unreasonable quibble. There are too many other SFX shot contenders from 2001 to even begin to list them here.

28: Gladiator (2000)- Entering the coliseum.

Gladiator (2000)- Entering the coliseum

A show reel shot for SFX company Mill Films and compelling trailer-fodder to boot, this recreation of gladiators entering the Roman coliseum is an exceptional meeting of superb cinematography and cutting-edge CGI effects. Arguably it's the fact that the actors are standing in front of a bit more than a green screen that really sells it - a large proportion of the lower sections of the coliseum were built on location in Malta, and blended seamlessly with the 3D architecture. Apart from anything else, this shot is a triumph of the rotoscoper's art, as Russell Crowe and company have had to be extracted from the 'missing' parts of the background on a frame-by-frame basis.

27: Blade Runner (1982) - Spinners in the rain.

Blade Runner (1982) - Spinners in the rain

Douglas Trumbull's work on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) took him out of the airless freedom of space and into the need to make flying saucers glow in the misty plains of Ohio. It was on CE3K that Trumbull perfected the very long exposures needed to get adequate and convincing depth-of-field in low-light conditions, combined with the use of a custom-built machine that dispersed fine oil mist into the air at a strictly regulated rate, which allowed the lights of the models to cut through a dense, Earth-like atmosphere. These techniques surfaced again in creating Philip K. Dick's bleak vision of the future for Ridley Scott, with flying police cars '('Spinners') floating through smog-drenched Los Angeles. Many beautiful city shots emerged, where Trumbull made the superimposition of stock rain footage realistic by obscuring areas of it that did not correspond to light sources in the background plate. For this particular shot Trumbull went the extra mile, and added a windshield with rain droplets as a foreground element to Deckard's journey to meet Eldon Tyrell. Such a shot should not have been possible in the days of photo-chemical SFX.

26: Forbidden Planet (1956) - Entering the Krell underground.

Forbidden Planet (1956) - Entering the Krell underground

Inserting real people into matte paintings or hanging miniatures is an SFX technique predating motion pictures, but A. Arnold Gillespie and colleagues went one better for this introductory shot to Leslie Nielson's tour of the vast underground labyrinth left behind by an alien civilisation in this sci-fi classic: the camera filming the large Metropolis-like miniature pans around to a pre-fixed position, at which point footage of actors Walter Pidgeon, Nielson and Warren Stevens walking through the MGM car park is matted in. The same technique is applied to later shots but with rostrum movement and slightly less convincingly (one can plainly see that the actors are moving in daylight and also discern the concrete of the car park). The initial movement of the camera in our featured footage sets up the conceit that it can move any time it likes, and reinforces the realism of the shot.

25: Aliens (1986) - Express elevator to hell.

Aliens (1986) - Express elevator to hell

James Cameron brought old Corman colleagues the Skotak brothers on to his production of the much lauded sequel to Alien. They had worked before on the SFX teams of Battle Beyond The Stars (1981) and Galaxy Of Terror (1982), and this reunion only re-iterated that it was a great partnership. Cameron and the Skotaks used the most appropriate technique for each shot, meticulously planning them with sawdust-and-string' animatics (later to become a habit in Hollywood). The very grainy Kodak film stock on which Aliens was shot permitted an extraordinary amount of practical model-on-wires footage, and the results rank amongst the best ever obtained by that method. This shot is a more traditional (by then) motion-control effort, but what makes it outstanding is Cameron's demanding vision of how much movement it should have, and the extraordinary sense of scale and drama. SFX shots as mobile as the deployment of Aliens' dropship were not to become common practice in Hollywood until the advent of CGI; this is a truly audacious and ambitious piece of film which the makers pull off with jaw-dropping effectiveness. It's almost a shame to look at it out of context.

24: Terminator 3 (2003) - Arnie's ruined terminator face.

Terminator 3 (2003) - Arnie's ruined terminator face

It's not every ILM shot that makes it into arguably the most esteemed show reel of any effects house on the planet, but the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger's half-man/half-robot face in T3 is unfaultable and a sure candidate. The camera lingers on it, and it can afford to. Similarly astonishing work was achieved with Aaron Eckhart's mutilated visage as Two Face in The Dark Knight, but unfortunately common sense kicks in after the shock and one realises that there's no way Eckhart's lower lip could maintain tension with that much damage to the left cheek. Here there are no such issues. With lighting, textures and fusion between actor and illusion absolutely pristine, it's a perfect 'trick', selling the reality of the Terminator character as never before.

23: Frenzy (1972) - Back to Bob's place.

Frenzy (1972) - Back to Bab's place

Poor Anna Massey unwittingly follows the 'necktie killer' (Barry Foster) back to his flat in Hitchcock's hard-hitting London-based thriller. Hitch follows the couple up the stairs but then backs away from the scene as they enter, as if sickened by the previous rape and murder of Barbara Leigh-Hunt, and not wanting to see any more. The huge camera seems to make an impossibly adroit and smooth retreat down the stairwell before backing out of the house entirely and out into the environs of Covent Garden. Except that by the time the camera has backed out completely, it is looking at a totally different house. Even though the shot is uninterrupted, the descent down the stairs takes place in the studio and the wider retreat into Covent Garden takes place on location. Can you see the join?

22: Dawn Of The Dead (2004) - The chaos sets in.

Dawn Of The Dead (2004) - The chaos sets in

Alfred Hitchcock set a precedent for looking down at chaos from above in his ariel shot of the birds gathering their forces over the besieged fishing village in The Birds (see #6). Zach Snyder takes a similarly remote view of the chaos Sarah Polley drives through in the pre-credits sequence of his excellent remake. Once again (see #45) injudicious use of exhaust distortion (on the helicopter) is the only carbuncle on this astonishing shot of a zombie-strewn world descending into chaos, and it's the incident at the petrol station (at the end of the sequence) that really drives home the sense of apocalypse.

21: The Ten Commandments (1956) - Moses parts the sea.

The Ten Commandments (1956) - Moses parts the sea

Cecil B. DeMille's second chance at parting the red sea (which he had first done with his prior version of The Ten Commandments in 1923) provides one of the great spectacles of the 1950s. Water had proved the bugbear of many an SFX artist, and here DeMille follows a similar technique as tried in The Dambusters (1955). The technique involves isolating suitable footage of cascading water in moving matte areas, and this it is that provides the great backward-moving flukes that reveal the impressive 'parted sea' model (a Hollywood attraction for many years afterwards). Considering that SFX artists were getting equal or worse results 20-30 years later, this is a ground-breaking and ambitious piece of footage greatly assisted by reverse photography.

20: Things To Come (1936) - Everytown.

Things To Come (1936) - Everytown

William Cameron Menzies' loose adaptation of H.G. Wells' vision of Britain's future is a patchy affair both in narrative and SFX terms, but this hanging miniature shot can't be faulted, particularly regarding its elaborate integration with the crowd below. This is a rather late answer to Metropolis (see #10) but also a more fluid integration of model architecture with real people. Hanging miniatures were used quite extensively in Aliens, providing both the upper 'alien-ised' architecture of the reactor centre and also 75% of the Sulaco's hangar bay.

19: Back To The Future Part II (1989) - Landing the DeLorean at night.

Back To The Future Part II (1989) - Landing the DeLorean at night

The secret to a good effects shot (at least one where you know that the shot is impossible in the real world) is psychologically integrating the impossible element with the parts of the scene that are manifestly real. Here the ever-ingenious Robert Zemeckis uses a street-lamp to mask the transition between model and real DeLorean. The matching of shadows and lights is extraordinary, and if it weren't for the fact that the car's headlights only have a road-reflection after they pass the street-light, it would be a perfect SFX illusion.

18: Total Recall (1990) - Doing her nails.

Total Recall (1990) - Doing her nails

This is an example of a simple effect that could probably have been achieved in the 1950s, if anyone had written a sci-fi script where a woman could change the colour of her nails with a tap on some future-gizmo. The nails are rotoscoped to provide an area for an animated colour transition to take place, and that's all there is to it. It's an elegant and not terribly expensive SFX shot that is 100% convincing.

17: The Road To Perdition (2002) - Entering Chicago.

The Road To Perdition (2002) - Entering Chicago

You don't have to recreate the whole damned world to 'sell' period, but you do need to pull out the stops on one shot that establishes era. SFX house Cinesite provide Sam Mendes with an unforgettable introduction to 1930s Chicago here, where cinematography, music and first-tier CGI work combine to take one's breath away. The convenient flock of birds throwing the skyscrapers into relief are gilding the lily a little, but otherwise this is flawless.

16: War Of The Worlds (2005) - Destroying the bridge.

War Of The Worlds (2005) - Destroying the bridge

This ILM shot was used to sell Spielberg's reimagining of both the 1953 George Pal production and H.G. Wells original book, and it's a marvel of frightening destructiveness custom-made to tap into the horrors of post-9/11 culture. The supposed camera operator sensibly moves towards areas of interest whilst not over-doing the manic camera shake. WoTW is actually quite a close-set and intimate film, and the relatively small clutch of 'hero' shots like this are intended to sell us the scenario so we'll understand the claustrophobia of Tom Cruise's plight as he searches for shelter. No-one could afford to make a film with very many labour-intensive shots like this, but WoTW could've used another 10-15. Nonetheless, you can really see where the money went in this footage.

15: The Last Starfighter (1984) - Starfighter leaves orbit.

The Last Starfighter (1984) - Starfighter leaves orbit

SFX wizard John Dykstra marks Nick Castle's CGI-laden adventure as the moment that it was clear where optical effects were heading. Only two years after TRON (see #9), even the Cray X-MP computer couldn't hope to integrate non-stylistic live footage seamlessly with computer-generated special effects, and the film's 'computer game' link (TRON's excuse for the low-res effects) was too tenuous to bridge the gap. Nonetheless we see advancements here in rendering phong shaders, huge advancements in transparency shaders and also diffused shadow rendering. There's still only very limited bitmap-texturing, but this shot is one of the most ambitious in Starfighter and it foreshadowed the SFX revolution of the 1990s by over six years.

14: King Kong (1933) - Kong wrecks the subway.

King Kong (1933) - Kong wrecks the subway

This shot, with inserts of screaming citizens removed, is one of the most elaborate in Willis O'Brien's fantasy classic, and a veritable masterpiece not only of animation but of compositing. Every part of the frame is alive with action - check out the strangely loitering gawpers at the windows, stage right. Note also that fleeing crowds pass both in front of and behind Kong. Also notice the animated passengers in the bottom left-hand corner of the frame who succeed in climbing down from the wrecked subway train and flee their furry persecutor. It's a shame no-one thought of the go-motion approach for the first train, which passes in a particularly stiff manner, but that doesn't take away credit for the evident weeks or months of work which went into this one shot.

13: Forrest Gump (1994) - Picking up Lt. Dan Taylor.

Forrest Gump (1994) - Picking up Lt. Dan Taylor

Once again Robert Zemeckis' knack for combining good storytelling skills with SFX know-how finds him deservedly in this list again. Presenting fully-limbed Gary Sinise as an amputee for this shot required Sinise to keep his blue-stockinged lower legs dangling through two holes in the bed, which were later substituted with a combination of plate and CGI model material, whilst the areas around his knees were elaborately substituted with CGI stumps. You can see the bed dip and rise as Sinise is lifted off, so it's no easy matte substitution, and the sheets even respond to the passing of one of his 'stumps'. Totally convincing.

12: Excalibur (1981) - Sword withdrawal.

Excalibur (1981) - Sword withdrawal

Having re-spun the Luke-Skywalker-fights-himself scene from the previous year's The Empire Strikes Back, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) extracts his own sword from the left side of his abdomen. Dazzlingly perfect, this is perhaps literally the oldest trick in the book: a retractable blade combines with a drop-away 'exit wound tip' to create a perfect illusion. This trick could have comfortably been performed at the court of the real King Arthur; but if it ain't broke...

11: Return Of The Jedi (1983) - 'There's too many of them!'

Return Of The Jedi (1983) - 'There's too many of them!'

To give some idea of how hard a composite matte shot with 40+ elements was in the days of photochemical special effects, check out our interview with John Dykstra (he discusses this at the bottom of page 1). Even with ILM's improved compositing techniques, getting that many elements to combine when the failure of only one could mean starting from scratch, is a huge achievement.

10: Metropolis (1926) - View down onto the main street.

Metropolis (1926) - View down onto the main street

Fritz Lang's truly seminal SF masterpiece boasts a number of SFX shots that were not only iconic but ground-breaking in their use of hanging miniatures, miniature sets and a makeshift method of compositing known as the "Schufftan Process", which involved removing strategic areas of silvering from a mirror and projecting 'live' footage onto the other side. But the film is best known for its astonishing model work, of which this shot is a particularly fine example. Note that the cars and vans of Lang's future city move at varying speeds and even veer a little to the left or right. Also, the use of bright sunlight truly captures the sense of scale of a grand metropolis, and this is less evident in some of the more widely-reproduced shots featuring flying machines.

9: TRON (1982) - Escape on the light-beam.

TRON (1982) - Escape on the light-beam

Having taken a sound thrashing at the box-office when pitting its old-style The Black Hole against Star Trek: The Motion Picture in Christmas of 1979, Disney was desperate to update its appeal for a generation of kids beginning to think of it in terms of 'old' movies. Consequently The Mouse leapt on Steven Lisberger's crazy idea for a semi-CGI adventure - even though CGI was a preserve mainly of theoretical labs at the time. The sails on the 'Solar Sailor' in this shot had a small amount of transparency to them throughout most of the movie, something that was going to add a fair chunk of cash to the rendering pipeline, but which Lisberger held out for. In this particular shot, the transparency has been filled in after a 'charge up', possibly due to the scope of the shot and the enormously increased rendering times for a transparent element within it. The shot itself presages the style of many a later CGI adventure, as well as clearly harking back to the holy grail of sci-fi movies - Star Wars.

8: Cloverfield (2008) - First look at the devastation.

Cloverfield (2008) - First look at the devastation

Matt Reeves' initial peek out into post-monster New York is a masterpiece of match-moving, with miles of virtual debris apparently available for the hand-held camera to zoom in on at will. Oddly, it's only the head of the statue of liberty that looks fake*. It would be a mistake to use the effectiveness of this technique as an excuse for yet more 'hand-held' Hollywood films, but advances in match-moving are likely to make this kind of seamless CGI integration far more affordable in the next few years.

*Thanks to VFX artist Riddick 1 for pointing out to me that the head was not a prop. Check out his comment below, and you'll see that - fake-looking or not - the CGI Lady Liberty fooled Paramount itself.

7: Hannibal (2001) - Brains for dinner.

Hannibal (2001) - Brains for dinner

Though utilising similar motion-capture/CGI combos to Terminator 3's 'ruined face' effect (see #24 ), it's fairly unlikely that any use of the technique has wrung more horror (or dinner) out of people than when a drugged Ray Liotta is served his own brain-tissue to eat in Ridley Scott's horrific sequel to Silence Of The Lambs (1991). An animatronic head was used for certain close-up sequences not directly involving Liotta's face, but this shot is all CGI and mo-cap. The only thing that potentially diminishes the effectiveness of the shot is the dark background, which rather gives the impression of sleight-of-hand or a magic show, when in fact the CGI doesn't need it in order to work.

6: The Birds (1963) - Destruction of Capitol Oil garage.

The Birds (1963) - Destruction of Capitol Oil garage

An extraordinarily complex piece of compositing (shown in the clip with inserts removed) which demonstrates Hitchcock's continuing urge to push the lackadaisical state of the art. The flapping of the birds' wings caused too much fringing for conventional blue-screen work to be utilised, and Hitchcock was forced to turn to the 'yellow screen' or 'sodium vapour process'. Only Walt Disney studios have ever been equipped for this process, and indeed only one camera has ever been rigged for it. SVP involves filming the subject against a screen lit with powerful sodium vapour lights utilising a very narrow spectrum of light. Unlike most compositing processes, SVP actually shoots two separate elements of the footage simultaneously using a beam-splitter; one reel exposed is regular photographic stock and the other an emulsion sensitive only to the sodium vapour wavelength. Very precise mattes are obtained from the latter, allowing the subject to be pulled out of the background and combined with any other in a later run through an optical printer. The fringing or 'matte line' effects are negligible compared to blue-screen work, but the very precise conditions under which the footage must be shot mitigated against its wide usage. Disney, to whom many shots in The Birds was farmed out, used the process in numerous films including Mary Poppins (1964), Freaky Friday (1976)and The Black Hole (1979).

5: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) - Heading for Stromberg's Lair.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) - Heading for Stromberg's Lair

Possibly the first successful example of match-moving in motion pictures, Derek Meddings' audacious attempt to co-ordinate the aquatic lair of Bond's latest adversary into hand-held footage was a real eye-opener at the time, and another extraordinary achievement for a franchise which has frequently pushed the boundaries of optical effects.

4: The Lost World (1997) - T-Rex takes a drink.

The Lost World (1997) - T-Rex takes a drink

Here the T-Rex from the hugely successful dinosaur franchise is so perfectly integrated into its environment that one initially assumes it is the Stan Winston animatronic. Only when its movements become a little bolder in warning off the barking dog do we realise that it must be CGI. Selling an element so incongruous in an environment so familiar represents an extraordinary work of lighting and movement. The Rex shifts its weight superbly, and there's very little to give it away, even on close examination.

3: Star Wars (1977) - Into the trench.

Star Wars (1977) - Into the trench

Though the opening shot of Star Wars remains the most iconic, it suffered sniffy criticism from some quarters for being a higher-speed re-run of Douglas Trumbull's initial pan on the Jupiter mission in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This shot, on the other hand is not only equally exciting but far more original, as we take the point of view of a rebel fighter diving into the Death Star's trench to take a shot at the reactors. The vast scale of the Death Star is revealed as soon as we have made our dizzying descent downward, and we see the walls of the trench extend for miles ahead. This three-element shot (model, laser-bolts and star background) relies on the flexibility (rather than the repeatability) of the Dykstraflex motion control system, and is still a stunner.

2: Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982) - The Genesis project.

Star Trek II The Wrath Of Khan (1982) - The Genesis project

While TRON (see #9) was going for the low-res marathon at the box-office, the first of Nick Meyer's very popular Star Trek entries was wowing cinema-goers with some truly advanced CGI sprint-work from ILM showing the effect of the life-giving 'genesis device' on a planetary scale. When the lengthy rendering process was well-advanced, someone spotted that the virtual camera was about to crash into one of the randomly created mountain ranges. So much time and work would have been lost starting from scratch that it was decided to magically introduce a valley to let the camera through (visible about 39 seconds into the clip). This extraordinary sequence showed the future both of ILM and visual effects, even if there was yet a long wait for the hardware bottlenecks to clear up.

1: Jurassic Park (1992) - T-Rex investigates the light.

Jurassic Park (1992) - T-Rex investigates the light

One of the oldest clips from the world of bitmap-textured CGI animation, and - to my mind - simply the most convincing 'impossible thing' ever committed to celluloid by Hollywood. The segue between the withdrawing of Stan Winston's animatronic head and the appearance of the CGI version is effective and seamless, playing both technologies to their strengths. The movement of the musculature in the T-Rex combines with the very prosaic illumination of the car headlights to sell the Rex, and the camera judder combines perfectly with the footfalls of the massive beast. Rain and darkness have sold many a special effect before, and they certainly do no harm here, but the result is pure movie history.


"Effects these days are in the hands of everyman. You can go shoot a movie of broadcast quality on your own. But it doesn't necessarily mean we're seeing better movies. Shakespeare didn't have a word-processor. When we got word-processors, we didn't get Shakespeare. We gotta separate the two out. There's creativity and there's technology, and the two are inter-related. But technology is not necessarily creative."

Harrison Ellenshaw
TRON - Visual Effects Supervisor, Associate Producer


Why these 'classics' aren't in here:

Planet Of The Apes (1968) - discovery of the Statue Of Liberty.
Charlton Heston stumbles upon a competent - but not superb - matte painting of a post-holocaust Lady Liberty at the end of the furry sixties classic. The shot is iconic because the idea is mind-twisting; it's a fantastic ending, but the SFX tech and execution behind it were not ground-breaking, totally convincing or even exceptional.

The Matrix (1999) - Bullet-Time.

An effect extraordinarily limited in what can usefully be done with it, it has nonetheless been flogged to death in the 10 years since The Matrix.

29th December 2008

Click here for a list of ALL the lists at Den Of Geek...

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I love Deep Rising - loads of great FX madness and funny as hell to boot. One of Treat Williams' finest hours.

Where exactly is Terminator 2 in this list!!?

interesting list, but why not including shots of davy jones, starship troopers, hollowman or A.I.?

The Dog Mutation. From John Carpenter´s "The Thing"

The Golum. I always believe the he is there.

Superman Saves The Helicopter.
From Richard Donner´s 1978 movie.

American Werefolf in London tranformation. Gee, that process harms the eye.

Lovely list - fascinating and thorough. I'm curious, though - why did you leave out any of the dozens of shots from "Citizen Kane," particularly the "live" newspaper photo? I always assumed Welles and his crew came up with some pretty innovative stuff, but maybe they were just recycling?

The Animal talk from Babe.

Re - bullet time.
I remember seeing it a year before The Matrix, in that godawful Lost in Space film.
Anyone remember seeing it being used before?

"47: Saving Private Ryan (1998) - Bullets in the water."

There was an episode of Mythbusters that looked at shooting bullets into water - I seem to remember that only the slowest bullets would have any penetration - faster bullets would simply disintegrate. You'd be pretty much safe (from bullets) in just a couple of feet of water.

wtf !!! where's the lord of the rings man ????(gollum) ????!!! and the matrix !!!!!!!!

Morphing was used as more than a "party trick" waaay before Resurrection in Willow. While it didn't look fantastic (neither does Resurrection btw) it was integral to the storyline and I believe the first time morphing was used to extensively. Also Gollum should be on here. I believe Episode I was the first to have a CG character interact with the other actors to such an extent but Jackson and crew perfected the technique.

King Kong's final battle on the building in Peter Jackson's remake is exemplary and so far without equal.

Gollum needed a lot of work in The Two Towers, and there is ONE shot in Return Of The King where he actually looks like he is 'on set'. It's very early days for any CGI character with eyes. - Martin

gollum is overrated. king kong looks much better.

Awesome list. I have to agree with most of it. However, I'd suggest replacing Dune's sandworm attack, with the far more realistic shots of the royal familty exiting their space craft when they first arrive on the planet. It's live action + large scale model + forced perspective and it's so real you almost don't notice it. Worth checking out.

Fragmentary - you're right to note that Dune shot - it really is amazing. However I could find a number of others to match it in terms of execution, and I think the worm attack is far more ambitious.

Most of these are visual effects.

Most of these are visual effects.



Does one then lump in 'CGI' shots with 'optical effects', which really refer to the photo-chemical world? 'Special effects' has very recently become a term used in movies and credit-rolls to denote on-set work (formerly 'practical effects'). For about 80 years prior, it had more the purview of 'optical effects', and I'm not ready to give the term up yet in its old context.

Gotta agree with the person, above, who suggested Davy Jones. Say what you will about the Pirates sequels but Jones was, IMHO, by far the most realistic CG character I've yet seen.

And what about the stained-glass window coming to life in Young Sherlock Holmes? Wasn't that a huge leap forward at its time?

What about "The Mist"



Superb SFX work in The Mist. But like Citizen Kane, first-class usage of established techniques without breaking any new ground.

So... many... mistakes...

The official line is that 'special' effects occur during production and 'visual' effects during post production. So these are definitely mostly visual effects. The phrases are most certainly not interchangeable.

You are using an awful lot of assertion and jargon without really understanding it. Take, for instance, your assertion for number 45 that the 'CGI artists' are misusing heat haze. Those sorts of decisions are made by the movie's director. They ask for an effect and provide reference for what it should look like, and don't final the shot until it looks how they want - so blame Spielberg! And what does this even mean - "transparency algorithms in 3D modelling"? Transparency is a rendering concern, not a modelling one. And, of course, we thoroughly understand motion blur, in spite of what you state for number 35. It's just a matter of the camera shutter being open for more than instantaneous time, and it is very unlikely that it would have been omitted for that sequence in Transformers (although I can't really tell from YouTube quality). No motion blur makes things look like Harryhausen stop-motion. Of course, the motion blur will be significantly lower during the sequence because of the change in framerate.

Theshadowalker is right to suggest that it's insane not to have included Young Sherlock Holmes - the knight was indeed the first CG character.

(Oh, and what in God's name is 'bitmapped CGI animation'?? Bitmapped? What does that even mean?)

Bitmapped? What does that even mean?



Renders using textures not derived from internal shaders but involving the use of external bitmaps (Wikipedia it if needs be).



The official line is that 'special' effects occur during production and 'visual' effects during post production.



Do tell this to those who now credit on-set practical-effects personnel as 'Special effects' technicians. Also, does this mean that the Skotak brothers were special effects technicians on Aliens because they were shooting modelwork next door to the live-action soundstage during principal photography? Would they have been 'Visual effects' technicians if they had done the modelwork in post-production?



Transparency is a rendering concern, not a modelling one.



Adimittedly badly-phrased.



the knight was indeed the first CG character



The first CG character appeared on a television commercial in 1968. If that's no good for you, check out David Warner's boss in Tron.



Those sorts of decisions are made by the movie's director.
Give him or her better material to okay - you're clearly in the business...and it gets plenty of stuff wrong. If only heat-haze were the sole concern. I'm sorry you think motion blur is some dial you wheel in Maya. It could be Maya's fault, yours or the director's - but it's something that isn't working 90% of the time.

For wire work, I don't think you can beat the aircraft runs in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "The Bridges at Toko-Ri", or the amazing P-40 shots in "1941". Also, for human wire work, the sheer complexity of Renewal in "Logan's Run" is pretty amazing, and the most elegant aerial ballet can be found in the otherwise forgettable "Supergirl".

Thanks J_Ordan, but apart from misphrasing 'transparency algorithms in 3D modelling' when I should have written 'transparency algorithms in 3D texturing' (rather than 'rendering', as BevS contends), I don't acknowledge her contention that I am 'bandying jargon about'. If you want a more complete history of CGI (excluding practical and optical effects), that's coming up soon - this was intended as a general list about cinematic illusions.

Who cares if the author made a few mistakes, it was a great list that was well thought out.

Go write your own list (BevS) before you have a jargon filled complaining session.

I am neither a soldier nor a ballistics expert, but I would like to point out that Mythbusters fired into water at point blank range (ie dissipating maximum energy) whilst the bullets fired at the soldiers going ashore in the D-day landings were various calibres and loads from a variety of weapons and, in some cases, quite long distances across the beach from the high ground. Perhaps some gun enthusiasts would like to comment on the distance a bullet remains supersonic after firing?

(Sorry, I don't know how to do the blockquotes and stuff...)

I am fully aware of what texture maps are, but then that's bitmapped texturing, not animation. I don't understand what you mean by 'tell this to those who now credit on-set practical-effects personnel as 'Special effects' technicians' because by the rule I've stated they are indeed special effects. My point is that you would never credit a CG artist as 'special' effects, ever. The difference is that special effects have to be filmed with an actual (not virtual) camera, which is what I meant by saying they take place during production. Visual effects, conversely, are post-processes on the filmed plates and do not involve a real camera, hence 'post production'. And, lastly, I just wish you'd explain what you mean by how motion blur doesn't work - it just isn't true! I don't think it's a 'dial you wheel in Maya' - that's very patronising.

.For wire work, I don't think you can beat the aircraft runs in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "The Bridges at Toko-Ri", or the amazing P-40 shots in "1941". Also, for human wire work, the sheer complexity of Renewal in "Logan's Run" is pretty amazing, and the most elegant aerial ballet can be found in the otherwise forgettable "Supergirl".



Can't argue with a one of these!

It's also very patronising to tell someone who has put a lot of work into an article that they are using jargon they don't understand. If I criticise the field in which you work (as a very accomplished VFX artist and leader) by saying that I believe CGI artists need to put more thought into motion blur and heat haze, I can expect some criticism, rather than being trashed in a patronising manner. I have as much right to criticise your research as you have mine.



by the rule I've stated they are indeed special effects



The distinction between Special Effects, Visual Effects, Optical Effects and Practical Effects has always been a semantic grab-bag, and not the neat little division that you claim.



Check out the IMDB listing for 2001: A Space Oddyssey at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt00... and you'll see that the 'Special Effects' category is occupied by those who, by your definition, should be 'Visual Effects' contributors, including Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Trumbull and Wally Veevers - the latter two artists at least are famed for their work on 2001's model effects using photo-chemical and animation processes in post-production. This 'special effects' category includes 12 listings under the sub-category 'special photographic effects' and 26 more under the sub-category of 'special effects'.



Why are these artists not listed again (or instead) in the 'Visual Effects' category underneath, where we find most of the rotoscopers and rostrum workers?



Now check out the listing for Hal Needham's Hooper at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt00... and you'll find three on-set 'practical effects' technicians listed under 'special effects'.



This blurring of the distinction between roles predates the rather more rigid SFX pipeline that you work in, and you'll find hundreds (if not thousands) of personnel listed in what you would consider the 'wrong' category over the history of cinema. I cannot write a piece like this without going further back in time than the advent of CGI, and if Hollywood itself wasn't consistent regarding terms, I can hardly be expected to do better.



but then that's bitmapped texturing, not animation



Here you have lost me. I don't understand your argument.



I just wish you'd explain what you mean by how motion blur doesn't work.



I can only speak as a punter here, a consumer of the work that you and your colleagues put out, and say that I frequently 'notice' motion blur as an effect. Not good. There are also many CGI shots I have enjoyed where the motion blur is so well done as to be a transparent part of a superb visual. My contention therefore is that not all motion blur is created equal, and that some VFX artists (or, if you prefer, the directors who okay their output) assume lazily that there is more formula than art to this aspect of CGI; I believe they are wrong about this, that the formula should be where the art begins, as it is with motion-capture.

Opening sequence/crash in Pitch Black anyone?

-wolfman

Fair point on the historical differences between special & visual FX - I'll freely admit that I'm talking about the current conventions, which have been in use for the duration of my own career. Since the advent of digital effects, the rule has always been that SFX are physical, perhaps because physical and digital effects are such vastly different disciplines now, requiring very different skills. There isn't really any overlap these days - people don't tend to work in both - but you're right in that this didn't use to be the case. Looking at Harryhausen, for instance - his techniques employed model-making and optical camera trickery, so at that point there couldn't have been the same distinction. These days, though, 'VFX' and 'SFX' are used as handy phrases to help us separate out what is and isn't physical. An example conversation would go, "Are we going to do that explosion?" "No, that'll be SFX," so to use these two phrases interchangeably now is very confusing.



As for 'bitmapped texturing' versus 'bitmapped animation'. It's a misconception that the CG process is all called animation. Animation is only the part in which a character or object rig is animated through 3D space. It does not produce an image sequence, but rather a virtual animated rig. After animation comes lighting, rendering, compositing etc., as I'm sure you are aware. The animation itself is not textured; very often the texture maps are produced after the animation has taken place. I was confused by your use of the phrase 'bitmapped animation' because animation does not involve bitmaps or any kind of texture. You could have said 'bitmapped CGI' or 'bitmapped rendering', although probably the most conventional phrase would be 'textured CG' or something along those lines.



With motion blur, as with everything else in CGI, we are often forced to cut corners to keep the FX work feasible. To explain, you could take a million subsamples every frame and get amazingly good quality motion blur, but the film would take 1000 years to render with current computer speeds (NB I am just pulling these figures out of my head, but you get the idea). If something is moving in a straight line, there would be no more advantage to taking a million samples than two, so obviously two is more sensible. With things that aren't moving in a straight line, we make an approximation... maybe three samples, maybe eight, maybe more, depending on the specific motion of the object. Of course, there's a potential loss of quality there, but this doesn't come down to a lack of understanding on behalf of the CG artists or developers, which you gave as the explanation. Rather it's a limitation of the budget. Personally, though, I would argue that the problem with a lot of the shots in Transformers comes down to the crazy speeds at which the robots are moving and the loony camera moves. All you end up seeing is a lot of (extremely impressive) CG metal whooshing around in front of the camera. Motion blur is a problem here, but not because ILM have cut corners: rather more because the relative motion between the object and camera is absolutely massive!



My contention therefore is that not all motion blur is created equal, and that some VFX artists (or, if you prefer, the directors who okay their output) assume lazily that there is more formula than art to this aspect of CGI; I believe they are wrong about this, that the formula should be where the art begins, as it is with motion-capture.



I don't really agree with this, I have to say. The difference is that there is no 'correct' answer to animation whereas there is a correct answer to motion blur. The 'correct' motion blur would be the image you would get if you had filmed that object doing that movement with that camera. Animation, of course, is a vastly creative and expressive discipline with no more of a 'right' result than there is a right way to paint a portrait or design a building. Of course there can be bad motion blur, but the CG artist's job is to get it as close to correct as possible in the time and budget allowed; this is not laziness on anybody's behalf.



(I am hazarding a guess at the format of the newline separator. I am more than prepared for this post to be full of little 'br's. Sorry if that turns out to be the case...)

I can understand the need to differentiate between VFX and SFX, and it's illuminating to hear how the distinction helps those in the industry. Unfortunately it makes it very hard to find consistent terms when writing about the history of cinematic illusions, as it risks to lump optical/photo-chemical effects in with practical effects, which isn't a fair grouping in my opinion - though it may seem so to someone who has grown up in the post-Jurassic Park era..



I was using the term 'animation' in the broader sense of 'final rendered/corrected output', rather than that specific part of the pipeline involving movement through X-Y-Z co-ordinates, expressions and kinetics etc, so I guess we weren't on the same page there.



Your comments on sampling are interesting. As someone who once left a computer rendering a clip for 9 days with selective16x sampling, my assumption that increased processor speeds have greatly improved render-times (and quality) didn't take into account several factors: a) That the increased scope of a shot will always match or exceed extra processing capacity (up to and beyond that science-fictional point where real-time, 8xAA, 32x sampled radiosity is possible in 'live' previews), b) that an increased number of shots will likewise soak up that spare capacity and c) that budgetary constraints can obviate the factor of increased processor time/capacity.



Is increased sampling all that motion blur needs to hit a home run every time? You might be right. Yet I note your later comment about there being no 'correct' answer to making animation look right, and the history of special effects (give me a break, I have to call it something) is full of examples where the 'right' look was obtained with the 'wrong' means. As you say. Part-art, part-science.



I wish I had had a week to research and write this piece, as you no doubt often wish you had a week to get one shot that's required in two days. If there's anything I can respect, it's the practical limitations of resources when you're trying hard to do good work.

From my experience the "extra processing capacity" will always be eaten up by new "rendering methods" you use (in which motion blur is just a small factor).
The images you generate now are 4k, 32 bit, with complex shaders, ultra high resolution textures in terms of size and bit depth and of course models get far more detail.
So the customer (director) is more demanding, but monetary and time dimensions during production don't stretch.
And of course: Motion blur is always a simple and cheap way to disguise flaws, where 99% of people don't notice anything - in the same way most sfx/vfx shots are planned in a dark setting, cause it's easier and cheaper.

my three picks out of there are Dawn of the Dead and Total Recall. not because they're incredible feats but because those 2 shots really did fuse into my brain as something special.. and i thought it was just me. and third being the transformers slowmo scene. as was said, its the only scene that really does it right.

As opposed to "special effects" (without putting too fine a line on it) I also like "real effects", those that replicate real experiences that the general viewer hasn't experienced. For example, "Das Boot" (1981), a WWII submarine story. As I understood it at the time, this was the most expensive movie that the then West Germany had ever made and 2/3's went into the sound track. So turn up the stereo and dim the the lights when you watch this.

joegeek - I LOVE Das Boot. It's not every subtitled film that can hold my attention for 5 hours.

Wow, what an interesting and non-obvious list! Thanks for the insightful descriptions, too. I don't know why you really excluded The Matrix, though - we're not judging on whether an effect has limited use, or whether it's been done to DEATH in the time since (it has) - just the quality of the effect itself.

You're wrong to exclude Gollum - even if he's not perfect, he's groundbreaking.

Finally, I'm gonna throw out the opening shot to Star Wars Episode III. It's quantity as much as quality, granted, but it's exquisitely done and it pulled even a jaded Lucas-hater like me straight into the movie.

I'm gonna throw out the opening shot to Star Wars Episode III



That was very nearly in it, I really thought about it for ages, and I'm still not sure I should have left it out. Regarding bullet-time, I find it to be an unbelievable white elephant in terms of movies - the best use for it would be in documentaries. Sometimes something comes 'out of the lab' which is amazing but pointless in cinematic terms, and I'm afraid I am judging on whether an effect has limited use, since I feel that effects are there to help a storyteller tell a great yarn, not to be shoehorned in because they're 'cool'.



I went back over about ten minutes of Gollum footage but couldn't find one shot that I really 'bought' enough to include it. Serkis and Jackson took mo-cap characters to a new level in LOTR and Kong but that WOW moment never happened in either. That's not to diminish the achievement, as I love these movies, but the result you're looking for is the one that the cop blurts out when he sees the 'agent' leaping a rooftop to pursue Carrie-Ann Moss in The Matrix - "That's impossible!". And that's the benchmark.

The only error that I can see is in the Cloverfield entry - the Statue of Liberty's head was also CGI throughout the scene. However, the studio (Paramount) thought it was a prop and called up the production asking to use it for the movie's premiere. They were rather upset to hear that it never existed and subsequently had to build a prop after the fact as it were! Trivia time: Lady Liberty's real head is a lot *smaller* than the one in Cloverfield.

Sorry - the rest of my post disappeared.

Here's what I wrote before:

Really interesting article - I am a VFX person in the film industry (I have no problem with the use of the term special effects in this context. However, on set it's daggers drawn with the SFX guys as they think we're trying to take their jobs and we think they just leave a lot of mess for us to sort out later on). I really liked the choices on the list - great to see "Just Imagine" in there. I'd probably have tried to fit something from 1940's "The Thief Of Baghdad" which features some really seminal VFX shots; perhaps the shot of the glowing red eye descending the darkened statue in the temple which is echoed in the tiny red jewel-like UFO in CE3K as well as in other places.

Trivia time: Lady Liberty's real head is a lot *smaller* than the one in Cloverfield.



Thanks for the errr heads-up about the CGI Lady Liberty. If you check out the interviews section here you'll find us discussing the matter of the incorrect head-size with John Carpenter (the first to set the head down in New York, if only for the poster to Escape From New York).

What about "The Mist"

its surprising this rather famous flub is not mentioned



I wouldn't say anything that happens in 1/8th of a second is ever going to get that famous, except for an assassination. I saw RotJ at the flicks three times when it first came out, and what with that sizzling glitch on the emperor's cheek, the huge matte-lines round the Rancor and the problematic Tatooine matting, I can't say I registered the TIE fighter glitch once.

I guess Benjamin Button hasn't been released in the UK yet? Get ready to change your list

There's only one problem with that shot from Return of the Jedi - it has a glaring error in it. Find an old laserdisc copy from before the special editions and watch the Millennium Falcon's underside. A group of 4 TIE fighers fly THROUGH the other ship.

Considering the other films on this list, its surprising this rather famous flub is not mentioned.

I guess Benjamin Button hasn't been released in the UK yet? Get ready to change your list.



Excited to see it, but it would be rather hard to illustrate with video at this early stage.

Great list, but I think you could have included any number of scenes from the original "Dawn of the Dead" (perhaps the helicopter blade effect?)as well as the vertigo shot from "Vertigo." And as long as I'm on horror films, I'd have to go watch it again to be sure, but I remember the arrow scene from "Sleepaway Camp" as being more convincing than the "Excalibur" one. One last thought...it's a crime that you didn't include a shot from Buster Keaton. C'mon..."The General"? What about multiple dancing Keatons in "Sherlock, Jr." (and any number of other shots from that film)? I'd say that predates Jeremy Irons. And my understanding is Keaton himself built a multiple exposure box to get the shot. Just a crime...

Very impressive, informative and entertaining list!

As an average viewer I tend to overlook some of the shots which you listed for their influence and artistry (or because they are so perfectly executed like both examples from "Jurassic Park" which are full of perfect shots.)

Although I dare say that I think that some examples from early, European cinema should have found a place on your list:

"La voyage dans la lune" (1902) by Georges Méliès is the first sci-fi film and features some of the earliest stop-motion scenes.

Anything from Jean Cocteau (from "Blood of a poet" to "La belle et la bete" and "Testament d´Orphee"). I think that the abundance of effects in these films qualify for being very convincing, inventive and well done.

I also wonder what you think about the "Maria turns to Robot"-transformation sequence in Metropolis. I always found this very impressive.

What about the club-scene in "Roger Rabbit", with all these penguin waiters and other characters running around wile the camera pans the room?

Nice list. I agree the Express Elevator to Hell from Aliens is worthy, but you missed the best special effects scene of the film - the crew of the rescue dropship is killed by the alien, forcing the ship to crash to the planet while the ground crew runs for cover.

you missed the best special effects scene of the film



Not at all. Limiting myself to one shot per film was painful, particularly in the case of Aliens and 2001. For Aliens there are several shots of the power loader that qualify, and the wire-work is just unbelievable. The shot you mention is another. Really, I'd like to do a shot-by-shot rundown of the whole damn film, as far as SFX goes.

What perhaps impressed me most is when CGI effects are used so expertly that it doesn't register that you're seeing CGI at all. Zemeckis blew me away with a number of such shots in "Castaway," but the scene where Hanks' character finally makes it to the top of the mountain and surveys the entire island is a sublime treat - especially once you see in the special features that Tom was standing on a mound of dirt in the studio lot. Wow. And the "nighttime" scenes that were actually all shot in the daytime. Don't forget the FedEx plan crash sequence that was quite riveting too.

Hello, my name is Christopher Horvath. I am a Computer Graphics Supervisor at ILM. Previously, I was a CG Supervisor at Weta Digital, and prior to that I was the Visual Effects Supervisor for a small effects company called Tweak Films.

First of all, I'd like to thank you for putting together such a well-thought out and thorough list. I disagree with some of your omissions, most particularly Gollum, however it your opinion and the presentation is impressive.

The correction I'd like to submit to you is regarding your Day After Tomorrow selection. That shot was actually a collaboration between three facilities. Digital Domain created the CG buildings (100% CG), Tweak Films created the fluid simulations, including the swept away cars and debris, and lastly HydraulX provided lightning bursts on the finished shot. Karen Goulekas was the studio VFX Supervisor, and I was the facility VFX supervisor for the now-hibernating Tweak Films. Tweak Films created fluid simulations for 5 shots in the film, with the rest being done by Digital Domain, as you stated. One of the shots Tweak contributed to was the Statue of Liberty shot, which won the Best Single Visual Effects Shot of the Year VES Award - I was one of the four recipients of that award.

Thank you again for your time and effort in putting together this entertaining list.

'Scanners.' Exploding head. Enough said.

just wondering your opinion about darby o'gill and the little people?



Fantastic stuff! To be honest, though many think Gollum should have been in here, the LoTR ommissions that I am beginning to regret are the Gandalf/Frodo/Baggins size-disparitry shots, particularly at the beginning of the first film.

One of my favorites (in a film filled with dozens of great moments) - Joel driving after Clementine in Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." A car falls from the sky, perspective goes all mobius, text disappears...and the core emotion of panic and loss still holds it own.

great list, and thank you so much for compiling it. we're all buzzing about it....just wondering your opinion about darby o'gill and the little people? some crazy forced perspective. it's just a crazy sequence, and i wonder what you think.

Im not versed in the technical aspects the article talks about, but after reading this I really want to study up a bit. I have to ask you opinion on one thing, but first i have to preface the question with a couple of caveats. 1) Spiderman 3 was largely crap, and 2) It pissed me off that they lifted the story device almost directly from Dr. Manhattan's genesis in Watchmen, but... Did anyone else think the Sandman's initial formation scene was really well done?

Nice Martin, I don't do the industry but this was a great lesson and fascinating.

Do agree about Gollum, *very* awesome and yet not quite at the caliber of others mentioned here. It was effective story-telling just not "that's not possible". Nice work and whoever compiled on the clips, many thanks (though in some cases I think it would have been nicer to get a little longer sequence for illustration purposes, still cool).

I have been wondering ever since I originally saw it in the theaters what that sizzling glitch on the emperor's cheek was covering!

Did anyone else think the Sandman's initial formation scene was really well done?



It was a superb sequence. Tough material to work with, too.

We seem to have had a few glitches on this post, and a few nice comments seem to have dropped off the end. Apologies to the posters, we're looking into it.

I would submit the reveal of a much digested Mamooli in Deep Rising was a better shot than the reveal of Arnold in Terminator 3. Something about his mouth always looked too convenient to me. Even more impressive, the shot in Deep Rising was done in Studio Max on a shoestring budget.

But that's just my two cents.

Didn't read the comments, but I do have to say that the Saving Private Ryan bullets in the water may be a great effects shot, but the actual experiences during the war tell a very different story. Being as little as a foot or two under provided protection from virtually everything. The Underwater Demolition teams- guys who swam to shore and then blew up fortifications before a landing, only ever lost one person while he was in the water. Through all the war, in both theaters. Say all you want about the shot, but it absolutely does not portray reality.

Add to that Mythbusters did a segment on bullets in water, they found that any supersonic round would shatter into harmless shrapnel upon hitting the water, angle or not.

Again, it's utter BS and should not be included.

I would have to argue almost every visual effects shot from The Lord of The Rings Trilogy are worthy to be on this list.

Especially in the final film, which has over thousand digital effect shots alone. The seamless integration of live action with CGI, Miniatures, and matte paintings/photo backdrops is mind blowing. It's so good in fact that it's too often taken for granted.

I'd disagree with you on that score, haveacookie. While the body of shots is truly awesome in the final film, it has more bad tracks and compositing errors then either of the preceeding films, especially at the end in Mount Doom.

I'd like to see another list:

"TOP 25 Champagne Special Effects Created on a Beer Budget!"

On other words, who did the most with the least.

"Time Bandits" had some great shots using limited resources.

CMfromCanada

Great idea for a list.
One ground beaking effect that you missed and had me stumped for years was the "invisibility shield" from Predator. Yeah, I know displacement mask etc...

Personally, (even though I am a digital FX artist), I would like to see a list of the top 50 effects created *without* the use of a computer. Bring back the heroes!: L.B.Abbot, Gordon Jennings, Ray Kellog, Les Bowie, Derek Meddings, Ray Harryhausen, Douglas Trumbull, Wally Veevers and many more.

Ashley - I've just bought the DVD of The Black Hole. Unfortunately it has no extras of any kind, and I suspect info on this would be limited to Cinefex and other magazine coverage of the time. But now you've got me curious, so I will look into it :) - Martin

Fascinating list. I'm still genuinely curious about one effects shot; the sequence from Disney's "The Black Hole", where the flaming asteroids pierce the hull of the Cygnus. You know the shot. Our heroes are being chased by robots, and they run over a bridge that crosses a trench, just as a giant ball of molten rock bounces towards the camera. How on earth was it done? I always assumed that the creators dropped an illuminated globe down a hole, and filmed looking upwards in slow-mo, but the effect is incredible even today.

Perhaps it has already been posted, but the shot in Jedi where the Falcon has just destroyed the main reactor and is exiting the chamber is one of the most amazing shots I've ever seen. The scale, and the change in perspective once the Falcon enters the tunnel is mesmerizing. So there.

Great list: excellent that lots of the choices aren't the obvious ones, and you've gone into a bit more technical detail than we usually see.

BUT...

Regarding bullet-time, I find it to be an unbelievable white elephant in terms of movies - the best use for it would be in documentaries. Sometimes something comes 'out of the lab' which is amazing but pointless in cinematic terms, and I'm afraid I am judging on whether an effect has limited use, since I feel that effects are there to help a storyteller tell a great yarn, not to be shoehorned in because they're 'cool'.

I think that far from being pointless, bullet-time in The Matix does serve the story in addition to being spectacular and technically impressive. In that film, it's the perfect way of illustrating the characters' heightened awareness and reaction times within the Matrix in comparison to normal humans. IIRC there's a good passage in the BFI Modern Classics book on the film that describes why the effect is so well-matched to the movie. So I think that bullet-time/time-slice/flow-motion/whatever-you-call it-should have a place on the list.

Of course I agree that it's been massively overused since then, and never as appropriately. So far it's mainly been used to illustrate superhuman reaction times, but I'm sure there must be other appropriate contexts, and I don't think it's a limitation that should prevent it from being listed here.

(It's pretty good for illustrating warped time and space, too, like travelling through hyperspace in Lost in Space. About the only decent bit of that movie! Of course, that was a less advanced version of the effect: in LIS it involved the camera moving through a completely frozen scene, whereas half of The Matrix's four bullet-time shots took the effect a step further by having the action continue to move forwards in slow-motion.)

Gahh, what happened to my line breaks there? :-(

Go write your own list (BevS) before you have a youtube filled complaining session.

I love Deep Rising - loads of great FX madness and funny as hell to boot. One of Treat Williams' finest hours.

Where exactly is Terminator 2 in this list!!?

interesting list, but why not including shots of davy jones, starship troopers, hollowman or A.I.?

The Dog Mutation. From John Carpenter´s "The Thing"

The Golum. I always believe the he is there.

Superman Saves The Helicopter.
From Richard Donner´s 1978 movie.

American Werefolf in London tranformation. Gee, that process harms the eye.

Lovely list - fascinating and thorough. I'm curious, though - why did you leave out any of the dozens of shots from "Citizen Kane," particularly the "live" newspaper photo? I always assumed Welles and his crew came up with some pretty innovative stuff, but maybe they were just recycling?

The Animal talk from Babe.

Re - bullet time.
I remember seeing it a year before The Matrix, in that godawful Lost in Space film.
Anyone remember seeing it being used before?

"47: Saving Private Ryan (1998) - Bullets in the water."

There was an episode of Mythbusters that looked at shooting bullets into water - I seem to remember that only the slowest bullets would have any penetration - faster bullets would simply disintegrate. You'd be pretty much safe (from bullets) in just a couple of feet of water.

wtf !!! where's the lord of the rings man ????(gollum) ????!!! and the matrix !!!!!!!!

Morphing was used as more than a "party trick" waaay before Resurrection in Willow. While it didn't look fantastic (neither does Resurrection btw) it was integral to the storyline and I believe the first time morphing was used to extensively. Also Gollum should be on here. I believe Episode I was the first to have a CG character interact with the other actors to such an extent but Jackson and crew perfected the technique.

King Kong's final battle on the building in Peter Jackson's remake is exemplary and so far without equal.

Gollum needed a lot of work in The Two Towers, and there is ONE shot in Return Of The King where he actually looks like he is 'on set'. It's very early days for any CGI character with eyes. - Martin

gollum is overrated. king kong looks much better.

Awesome list. I have to agree with most of it. However, I'd suggest replacing Dune's sandworm attack, with the far more realistic shots of the royal familty exiting their space craft when they first arrive on the planet. It's live action + large scale model + forced perspective and it's so real you almost don't notice it. Worth checking out.

Fragmentary - you're right to note that Dune shot - it really is amazing. However I could find a number of others to match it in terms of execution, and I think the worm attack is far more ambitious.

Most of these are visual effects.

Most of these are visual effects.



Does one then lump in 'CGI' shots with 'optical effects', which really refer to the photo-chemical world? 'Special effects' has very recently become a term used in movies and credit-rolls to denote on-set work (formerly 'practical effects'). For about 80 years prior, it had more the purview of 'optical effects', and I'm not ready to give the term up yet in its old context.

Gotta agree with the person, above, who suggested Davy Jones. Say what you will about the Pirates sequels but Jones was, IMHO, by far the most realistic CG character I've yet seen.

And what about the stained-glass window coming to life in Young Sherlock Holmes? Wasn't that a huge leap forward at its time?

What about "The Mist"



Superb SFX work in The Mist. But like Citizen Kane, first-class usage of established techniques without breaking any new ground.

So... many... mistakes...

The official line is that 'special' effects occur during production and 'visual' effects during post production. So these are definitely mostly visual effects. The phrases are most certainly not interchangeable.

You are using an awful lot of assertion and jargon without really understanding it. Take, for instance, your assertion for number 45 that the 'CGI artists' are misusing heat haze. Those sorts of decisions are made by the movie's director. They ask for an effect and provide reference for what it should look like, and don't final the shot until it looks how they want - so blame Spielberg! And what does this even mean - "transparency algorithms in 3D modelling"? Transparency is a rendering concern, not a modelling one. And, of course, we thoroughly understand motion blur, in spite of what you state for number 35. It's just a matter of the camera shutter being open for more than instantaneous time, and it is very unlikely that it would have been omitted for that sequence in Transformers (although I can't really tell from YouTube quality). No motion blur makes things look like Harryhausen stop-motion. Of course, the motion blur will be significantly lower during the sequence because of the change in framerate.

Theshadowalker is right to suggest that it's insane not to have included Young Sherlock Holmes - the knight was indeed the first CG character.

(Oh, and what in God's name is 'bitmapped CGI animation'?? Bitmapped? What does that even mean?)

Bitmapped? What does that even mean?



Renders using textures not derived from internal shaders but involving the use of external bitmaps (Wikipedia it if needs be).



The official line is that 'special' effects occur during production and 'visual' effects during post production.



Do tell this to those who now credit on-set practical-effects personnel as 'Special effects' technicians. Also, does this mean that the Skotak brothers were special effects technicians on Aliens because they were shooting modelwork next door to the live-action soundstage during principal photography? Would they have been 'Visual effects' technicians if they had done the modelwork in post-production?



Transparency is a rendering concern, not a modelling one.



Adimittedly badly-phrased.



the knight was indeed the first CG character



The first CG character appeared on a television commercial in 1968. If that's no good for you, check out David Warner's boss in Tron.



Those sorts of decisions are made by the movie's director.
Give him or her better material to okay - you're clearly in the business...and it gets plenty of stuff wrong. If only heat-haze were the sole concern. I'm sorry you think motion blur is some dial you wheel in Maya. It could be Maya's fault, yours or the director's - but it's something that isn't working 90% of the time.

For wire work, I don't think you can beat the aircraft runs in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "The Bridges at Toko-Ri", or the amazing P-40 shots in "1941". Also, for human wire work, the sheer complexity of Renewal in "Logan's Run" is pretty amazing, and the most elegant aerial ballet can be found in the otherwise forgettable "Supergirl".

Who cares if the author made a few mistakes, it was a great list that was well thought out.

Go write your own list (BevS) before you have a jargon filled complaining session.

Thanks J_Ordan, but apart from misphrasing 'transparency algorithms in 3D modelling' when I should have written 'transparency algorithms in 3D texturing' (rather than 'rendering', as BevS contends), I don't acknowledge her contention that I am 'bandying jargon about'. If you want a more complete history of CGI (excluding practical and optical effects), that's coming up soon - this was intended as a general list about cinematic illusions.

I am neither a soldier nor a ballistics expert, but I would like to point out that Mythbusters fired into water at point blank range (ie dissipating maximum energy) whilst the bullets fired at the soldiers going ashore in the D-day landings were various calibres and loads from a variety of weapons and, in some cases, quite long distances across the beach from the high ground. Perhaps some gun enthusiasts would like to comment on the distance a bullet remains supersonic after firing?

.For wire work, I don't think you can beat the aircraft runs in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "The Bridges at Toko-Ri", or the amazing P-40 shots in "1941". Also, for human wire work, the sheer complexity of Renewal in "Logan's Run" is pretty amazing, and the most elegant aerial ballet can be found in the otherwise forgettable "Supergirl".



Can't argue with a one of these!

(Sorry, I don't know how to do the blockquotes and stuff...)

I am fully aware of what texture maps are, but then that's bitmapped texturing, not animation. I don't understand what you mean by 'tell this to those who now credit on-set practical-effects personnel as 'Special effects' technicians' because by the rule I've stated they are indeed special effects. My point is that you would never credit a CG artist as 'special' effects, ever. The difference is that special effects have to be filmed with an actual (not virtual) camera, which is what I meant by saying they take place during production. Visual effects, conversely, are post-processes on the filmed plates and do not involve a real camera, hence 'post production'. And, lastly, I just wish you'd explain what you mean by how motion blur doesn't work - it just isn't true! I don't think it's a 'dial you wheel in Maya' - that's very patronising.

It's also very patronising to tell someone who has put a lot of work into an article that they are using jargon they don't understand. If I criticise the field in which you work (as a very accomplished VFX artist and leader) by saying that I believe CGI artists need to put more thought into motion blur and heat haze, I can expect some criticism, rather than being trashed in a patronising manner. I have as much right to criticise your research as you have mine.



by the rule I've stated they are indeed special effects



The distinction between Special Effects, Visual Effects, Optical Effects and Practical Effects has always been a semantic grab-bag, and not the neat little division that you claim.



Check out the IMDB listing for 2001: A Space Oddyssey at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt00... and you'll see that the 'Special Effects' category is occupied by those who, by your definition, should be 'Visual Effects' contributors, including Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Trumbull and Wally Veevers - the latter two artists at least are famed for their work on 2001's model effects using photo-chemical and animation processes in post-production. This 'special effects' category includes 12 listings under the sub-category 'special photographic effects' and 26 more under the sub-category of 'special effects'.



Why are these artists not listed again (or instead) in the 'Visual Effects' category underneath, where we find most of the rotoscopers and rostrum workers?



Now check out the listing for Hal Needham's Hooper at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt00... and you'll find three on-set 'practical effects' technicians listed under 'special effects'.



This blurring of the distinction between roles predates the rather more rigid SFX pipeline that you work in, and you'll find hundreds (if not thousands) of personnel listed in what you would consider the 'wrong' category over the history of cinema. I cannot write a piece like this without going further back in time than the advent of CGI, and if Hollywood itself wasn't consistent regarding terms, I can hardly be expected to do better.



but then that's bitmapped texturing, not animation



Here you have lost me. I don't understand your argument.



I just wish you'd explain what you mean by how motion blur doesn't work.



I can only speak as a punter here, a consumer of the work that you and your colleagues put out, and say that I frequently 'notice' motion blur as an effect. Not good. There are also many CGI shots I have enjoyed where the motion blur is so well done as to be a transparent part of a superb visual. My contention therefore is that not all motion blur is created equal, and that some VFX artists (or, if you prefer, the directors who okay their output) assume lazily that there is more formula than art to this aspect of CGI; I believe they are wrong about this, that the formula should be where the art begins, as it is with motion-capture.

Opening sequence/crash in Pitch Black anyone?

-wolfman

Fair point on the historical differences between special & visual FX - I'll freely admit that I'm talking about the current conventions, which have been in use for the duration of my own career. Since the advent of digital effects, the rule has always been that SFX are physical, perhaps because physical and digital effects are such vastly different disciplines now, requiring very different skills. There isn't really any overlap these days - people don't tend to work in both - but you're right in that this didn't use to be the case. Looking at Harryhausen, for instance - his techniques employed model-making and optical camera trickery, so at that point there couldn't have been the same distinction. These days, though, 'VFX' and 'SFX' are used as handy phrases to help us separate out what is and isn't physical. An example conversation would go, "Are we going to do that explosion?" "No, that'll be SFX," so to use these two phrases interchangeably now is very confusing.



As for 'bitmapped texturing' versus 'bitmapped animation'. It's a misconception that the CG process is all called animation. Animation is only the part in which a character or object rig is animated through 3D space. It does not produce an image sequence, but rather a virtual animated rig. After animation comes lighting, rendering, compositing etc., as I'm sure you are aware. The animation itself is not textured; very often the texture maps are produced after the animation has taken place. I was confused by your use of the phrase 'bitmapped animation' because animation does not involve bitmaps or any kind of texture. You could have said 'bitmapped CGI' or 'bitmapped rendering', although probably the most conventional phrase would be 'textured CG' or something along those lines.



With motion blur, as with everything else in CGI, we are often forced to cut corners to keep the FX work feasible. To explain, you could take a million subsamples every frame and get amazingly good quality motion blur, but the film would take 1000 years to render with current computer speeds (NB I am just pulling these figures out of my head, but you get the idea). If something is moving in a straight line, there would be no more advantage to taking a million samples than two, so obviously two is more sensible. With things that aren't moving in a straight line, we make an approximation... maybe three samples, maybe eight, maybe more, depending on the specific motion of the object. Of course, there's a potential loss of quality there, but this doesn't come down to a lack of understanding on behalf of the CG artists or developers, which you gave as the explanation. Rather it's a limitation of the budget. Personally, though, I would argue that the problem with a lot of the shots in Transformers comes down to the crazy speeds at which the robots are moving and the loony camera moves. All you end up seeing is a lot of (extremely impressive) CG metal whooshing around in front of the camera. Motion blur is a problem here, but not because ILM have cut corners: rather more because the relative motion between the object and camera is absolutely massive!



My contention therefore is that not all motion blur is created equal, and that some VFX artists (or, if you prefer, the directors who okay their output) assume lazily that there is more formula than art to this aspect of CGI; I believe they are wrong about this, that the formula should be where the art begins, as it is with motion-capture.



I don't really agree with this, I have to say. The difference is that there is no 'correct' answer to animation whereas there is a correct answer to motion blur. The 'correct' motion blur would be the image you would get if you had filmed that object doing that movement with that camera. Animation, of course, is a vastly creative and expressive discipline with no more of a 'right' result than there is a right way to paint a portrait or design a building. Of course there can be bad motion blur, but the CG artist's job is to get it as close to correct as possible in the time and budget allowed; this is not laziness on anybody's behalf.



(I am hazarding a guess at the format of the newline separator. I am more than prepared for this post to be full of little 'br's. Sorry if that turns out to be the case...)

I can understand the need to differentiate between VFX and SFX, and it's illuminating to hear how the distinction helps those in the industry. Unfortunately it makes it very hard to find consistent terms when writing about the history of cinematic illusions, as it risks to lump optical/photo-chemical effects in with practical effects, which isn't a fair grouping in my opinion - though it may seem so to someone who has grown up in the post-Jurassic Park era..



I was using the term 'animation' in the broader sense of 'final rendered/corrected output', rather than that specific part of the pipeline involving movement through X-Y-Z co-ordinates, expressions and kinetics etc, so I guess we weren't on the same page there.



Your comments on sampling are interesting. As someone who once left a computer rendering a clip for 9 days with selective16x sampling, my assumption that increased processor speeds have greatly improved render-times (and quality) didn't take into account several factors: a) That the increased scope of a shot will always match or exceed extra processing capacity (up to and beyond that science-fictional point where real-time, 8xAA, 32x sampled radiosity is possible in 'live' previews), b) that an increased number of shots will likewise soak up that spare capacity and c) that budgetary constraints can obviate the factor of increased processor time/capacity.



Is increased sampling all that motion blur needs to hit a home run every time? You might be right. Yet I note your later comment about there being no 'correct' answer to making animation look right, and the history of special effects (give me a break, I have to call it something) is full of examples where the 'right' look was obtained with the 'wrong' means. As you say. Part-art, part-science.



I wish I had had a week to research and write this piece, as you no doubt often wish you had a week to get one shot that's required in two days. If there's anything I can respect, it's the practical limitations of resources when you're trying hard to do good work.

From my experience the "extra processing capacity" will always be eaten up by new "rendering methods" you use (in which motion blur is just a small factor).
The images you generate now are 4k, 32 bit, with complex shaders, ultra high resolution textures in terms of size and bit depth and of course models get far more detail.
So the customer (director) is more demanding, but monetary and time dimensions during production don't stretch.
And of course: Motion blur is always a simple and cheap way to disguise flaws, where 99% of people don't notice anything - in the same way most sfx/vfx shots are planned in a dark setting, cause it's easier and cheaper.

my three picks out of there are Dawn of the Dead and Total Recall. not because they're incredible feats but because those 2 shots really did fuse into my brain as something special.. and i thought it was just me. and third being the transformers slowmo scene. as was said, its the only scene that really does it right.

As opposed to "special effects" (without putting too fine a line on it) I also like "real effects", those that replicate real experiences that the general viewer hasn't experienced. For example, "Das Boot" (1981), a WWII submarine story. As I understood it at the time, this was the most expensive movie that the then West Germany had ever made and 2/3's went into the sound track. So turn up the stereo and dim the the lights when you watch this.

joegeek - I LOVE Das Boot. It's not every subtitled film that can hold my attention for 5 hours.

Wow, what an interesting and non-obvious list! Thanks for the insightful descriptions, too. I don't know why you really excluded The Matrix, though - we're not judging on whether an effect has limited use, or whether it's been done to DEATH in the time since (it has) - just the quality of the effect itself.

You're wrong to exclude Gollum - even if he's not perfect, he's groundbreaking.

Finally, I'm gonna throw out the opening shot to Star Wars Episode III. It's quantity as much as quality, granted, but it's exquisitely done and it pulled even a jaded Lucas-hater like me straight into the movie.

I'm gonna throw out the opening shot to Star Wars Episode III



That was very nearly in it, I really thought about it for ages, and I'm still not sure I should have left it out. Regarding bullet-time, I find it to be an unbelievable white elephant in terms of movies - the best use for it would be in documentaries. Sometimes something comes 'out of the lab' which is amazing but pointless in cinematic terms, and I'm afraid I am judging on whether an effect has limited use, since I feel that effects are there to help a storyteller tell a great yarn, not to be shoehorned in because they're 'cool'.



I went back over about ten minutes of Gollum footage but couldn't find one shot that I really 'bought' enough to include it. Serkis and Jackson took mo-cap characters to a new level in LOTR and Kong but that WOW moment never happened in either. That's not to diminish the achievement, as I love these movies, but the result you're looking for is the one that the cop blurts out when he sees the 'agent' leaping a rooftop to pursue Carrie-Ann Moss in The Matrix - "That's impossible!". And that's the benchmark.

The only error that I can see is in the Cloverfield entry - the Statue of Liberty's head was also CGI throughout the scene. However, the studio (Paramount) thought it was a prop and called up the production asking to use it for the movie's premiere. They were rather upset to hear that it never existed and subsequently had to build a prop after the fact as it were! Trivia time: Lady Liberty's real head is a lot *smaller* than the one in Cloverfield.

Sorry - the rest of my post disappeared.

Here's what I wrote before:

Really interesting article - I am a VFX person in the film industry (I have no problem with the use of the term special effects in this context. However, on set it's daggers drawn with the SFX guys as they think we're trying to take their jobs and we think they just leave a lot of mess for us to sort out later on). I really liked the choices on the list - great to see "Just Imagine" in there. I'd probably have tried to fit something from 1940's "The Thief Of Baghdad" which features some really seminal VFX shots; perhaps the shot of the glowing red eye descending the darkened statue in the temple which is echoed in the tiny red jewel-like UFO in CE3K as well as in other places.

Trivia time: Lady Liberty's real head is a lot *smaller* than the one in Cloverfield.



Thanks for the errr heads-up about the CGI Lady Liberty. If you check out the interviews section here you'll find us discussing the matter of the incorrect head-size with John Carpenter (the first to set the head down in New York, if only for the poster to Escape From New York).

What about "The Mist"

There's only one problem with that shot from Return of the Jedi - it has a glaring error in it. Find an old laserdisc copy from before the special editions and watch the Millennium Falcon's underside. A group of 4 TIE fighers fly THROUGH the other ship.

Considering the other films on this list, its surprising this rather famous flub is not mentioned.

its surprising this rather famous flub is not mentioned



I wouldn't say anything that happens in 1/8th of a second is ever going to get that famous, except for an assassination. I saw RotJ at the flicks three times when it first came out, and what with that sizzling glitch on the emperor's cheek, the huge matte-lines round the Rancor and the problematic Tatooine matting, I can't say I registered the TIE fighter glitch once.

I guess Benjamin Button hasn't been released in the UK yet? Get ready to change your list

I guess Benjamin Button hasn't been released in the UK yet? Get ready to change your list.



Excited to see it, but it would be rather hard to illustrate with video at this early stage.

Very impressive, informative and entertaining list!

As an average viewer I tend to overlook some of the shots which you listed for their influence and artistry (or because they are so perfectly executed like both examples from "Jurassic Park" which are full of perfect shots.)

Although I dare say that I think that some examples from early, European cinema should have found a place on your list:

"La voyage dans la lune" (1902) by Georges Méliès is the first sci-fi film and features some of the earliest stop-motion scenes.

Anything from Jean Cocteau (from "Blood of a poet" to "La belle et la bete" and "Testament d´Orphee"). I think that the abundance of effects in these films qualify for being very convincing, inventive and well done.

I also wonder what you think about the "Maria turns to Robot"-transformation sequence in Metropolis. I always found this very impressive.

What about the club-scene in "Roger Rabbit", with all these penguin waiters and other characters running around wile the camera pans the room?

Great list, but I think you could have included any number of scenes from the original "Dawn of the Dead" (perhaps the helicopter blade effect?)as well as the vertigo shot from "Vertigo." And as long as I'm on horror films, I'd have to go watch it again to be sure, but I remember the arrow scene from "Sleepaway Camp" as being more convincing than the "Excalibur" one. One last thought...it's a crime that you didn't include a shot from Buster Keaton. C'mon..."The General"? What about multiple dancing Keatons in "Sherlock, Jr." (and any number of other shots from that film)? I'd say that predates Jeremy Irons. And my understanding is Keaton himself built a multiple exposure box to get the shot. Just a crime...

Nice list. I agree the Express Elevator to Hell from Aliens is worthy, but you missed the best special effects scene of the film - the crew of the rescue dropship is killed by the alien, forcing the ship to crash to the planet while the ground crew runs for cover.

you missed the best special effects scene of the film



Not at all. Limiting myself to one shot per film was painful, particularly in the case of Aliens and 2001. For Aliens there are several shots of the power loader that qualify, and the wire-work is just unbelievable. The shot you mention is another. Really, I'd like to do a shot-by-shot rundown of the whole damn film, as far as SFX goes.

What perhaps impressed me most is when CGI effects are used so expertly that it doesn't register that you're seeing CGI at all. Zemeckis blew me away with a number of such shots in "Castaway," but the scene where Hanks' character finally makes it to the top of the mountain and surveys the entire island is a sublime treat - especially once you see in the special features that Tom was standing on a mound of dirt in the studio lot. Wow. And the "nighttime" scenes that were actually all shot in the daytime. Don't forget the FedEx plan crash sequence that was quite riveting too.

'Scanners.' Exploding head. Enough said.

Hello, my name is Christopher Horvath. I am a Computer Graphics Supervisor at ILM. Previously, I was a CG Supervisor at Weta Digital, and prior to that I was the Visual Effects Supervisor for a small effects company called Tweak Films.

First of all, I'd like to thank you for putting together such a well-thought out and thorough list. I disagree with some of your omissions, most particularly Gollum, however it your opinion and the presentation is impressive.

The correction I'd like to submit to you is regarding your Day After Tomorrow selection. That shot was actually a collaboration between three facilities. Digital Domain created the CG buildings (100% CG), Tweak Films created the fluid simulations, including the swept away cars and debris, and lastly HydraulX provided lightning bursts on the finished shot. Karen Goulekas was the studio VFX Supervisor, and I was the facility VFX supervisor for the now-hibernating Tweak Films. Tweak Films created fluid simulations for 5 shots in the film, with the rest being done by Digital Domain, as you stated. One of the shots Tweak contributed to was the Statue of Liberty shot, which won the Best Single Visual Effects Shot of the Year VES Award - I was one of the four recipients of that award.

Thank you again for your time and effort in putting together this entertaining list.

just wondering your opinion about darby o'gill and the little people?



Fantastic stuff! To be honest, though many think Gollum should have been in here, the LoTR ommissions that I am beginning to regret are the Gandalf/Frodo/Baggins size-disparitry shots, particularly at the beginning of the first film.

One of my favorites (in a film filled with dozens of great moments) - Joel driving after Clementine in Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." A car falls from the sky, perspective goes all mobius, text disappears...and the core emotion of panic and loss still holds it own.

great list, and thank you so much for compiling it. we're all buzzing about it....just wondering your opinion about darby o'gill and the little people? some crazy forced perspective. it's just a crazy sequence, and i wonder what you think.

Im not versed in the technical aspects the article talks about, but after reading this I really want to study up a bit. I have to ask you opinion on one thing, but first i have to preface the question with a couple of caveats. 1) Spiderman 3 was largely crap, and 2) It pissed me off that they lifted the story device almost directly from Dr. Manhattan's genesis in Watchmen, but... Did anyone else think the Sandman's initial formation scene was really well done?

Nice Martin, I don't do the industry but this was a great lesson and fascinating.

Do agree about Gollum, *very* awesome and yet not quite at the caliber of others mentioned here. It was effective story-telling just not "that's not possible". Nice work and whoever compiled on the clips, many thanks (though in some cases I think it would have been nicer to get a little longer sequence for illustration purposes, still cool).

I have been wondering ever since I originally saw it in the theaters what that sizzling glitch on the emperor's cheek was covering!

Did anyone else think the Sandman's initial formation scene was really well done?



It was a superb sequence. Tough material to work with, too.

We seem to have had a few glitches on this post, and a few nice comments seem to have dropped off the end. Apologies to the posters, we're looking into it.

I would submit the reveal of a much digested Mamooli in Deep Rising was a better shot than the reveal of Arnold in Terminator 3. Something about his mouth always looked too convenient to me. Even more impressive, the shot in Deep Rising was done in Studio Max on a shoestring budget.

But that's just my two cents.

I would have to argue almost every visual effects shot from The Lord of The Rings Trilogy are worthy to be on this list.

Especially in the final film, which has over thousand digital effect shots alone. The seamless integration of live action with CGI, Miniatures, and matte paintings/photo backdrops is mind blowing. It's so good in fact that it's too often taken for granted.

Didn't read the comments, but I do have to say that the Saving Private Ryan bullets in the water may be a great effects shot, but the actual experiences during the war tell a very different story. Being as little as a foot or two under provided protection from virtually everything. The Underwater Demolition teams- guys who swam to shore and then blew up fortifications before a landing, only ever lost one person while he was in the water. Through all the war, in both theaters. Say all you want about the shot, but it absolutely does not portray reality.

Add to that Mythbusters did a segment on bullets in water, they found that any supersonic round would shatter into harmless shrapnel upon hitting the water, angle or not.

Again, it's utter BS and should not be included.

I'd disagree with you on that score, haveacookie. While the body of shots is truly awesome in the final film, it has more bad tracks and compositing errors then either of the preceeding films, especially at the end in Mount Doom.

I'd like to see another list:

"TOP 25 Champagne Special Effects Created on a Beer Budget!"

On other words, who did the most with the least.

"Time Bandits" had some great shots using limited resources.

CMfromCanada

Great idea for a list.
One ground beaking effect that you missed and had me stumped for years was the "invisibility shield" from Predator. Yeah, I know displacement mask etc...

Personally, (even though I am a digital FX artist), I would like to see a list of the top 50 effects created *without* the use of a computer. Bring back the heroes!: L.B.Abbot, Gordon Jennings, Ray Kellog, Les Bowie, Derek Meddings, Ray Harryhausen, Douglas Trumbull, Wally Veevers and many more.

Ashley - I've just bought the DVD of The Black Hole. Unfortunately it has no extras of any kind, and I suspect info on this would be limited to Cinefex and other magazine coverage of the time. But now you've got me curious, so I will look into it :) - Martin

Fascinating list. I'm still genuinely curious about one effects shot; the sequence from Disney's "The Black Hole", where the flaming asteroids pierce the hull of the Cygnus. You know the shot. Our heroes are being chased by robots, and they run over a bridge that crosses a trench, just as a giant ball of molten rock bounces towards the camera. How on earth was it done? I always assumed that the creators dropped an illuminated globe down a hole, and filmed looking upwards in slow-mo, but the effect is incredible even today.

Perhaps it has already been posted, but the shot in Jedi where the Falcon has just destroyed the main reactor and is exiting the chamber is one of the most amazing shots I've ever seen. The scale, and the change in perspective once the Falcon enters the tunnel is mesmerizing. So there.

Gahh, what happened to my line breaks there? :-(

Great list: excellent that lots of the choices aren't the obvious ones, and you've gone into a bit more technical detail than we usually see.

BUT...

Regarding bullet-time, I find it to be an unbelievable white elephant in terms of movies - the best use for it would be in documentaries. Sometimes something comes 'out of the lab' which is amazing but pointless in cinematic terms, and I'm afraid I am judging on whether an effect has limited use, since I feel that effects are there to help a storyteller tell a great yarn, not to be shoehorned in because they're 'cool'.

I think that far from being pointless, bullet-time in The Matix does serve the story in addition to being spectacular and technically impressive. In that film, it's the perfect way of illustrating the characters' heightened awareness and reaction times within the Matrix in comparison to normal humans. IIRC there's a good passage in the BFI Modern Classics book on the film that describes why the effect is so well-matched to the movie. So I think that bullet-time/time-slice/flow-motion/whatever-you-call it-should have a place on the list.

Of course I agree that it's been massively overused since then, and never as appropriately. So far it's mainly been used to illustrate superhuman reaction times, but I'm sure there must be other appropriate contexts, and I don't think it's a limitation that should prevent it from being listed here.

(It's pretty good for illustrating warped time and space, too, like travelling through hyperspace in Lost in Space. About the only decent bit of that movie! Of course, that was a less advanced version of the effect: in LIS it involved the camera moving through a completely frozen scene, whereas half of The Matrix's four bullet-time shots took the effect a step further by having the action continue to move forwards in slow-motion.)

I'm glad Ashley brought up that shot in 'The Black Hole' -- I don't know how groundbreaking it may or may not have been but it utterly dazzled me as a kid and holds up remarkably well three decades later!

Thanks, I found this list and the accompanying comments very interesting. (By the way, I think that Christopher Horvath's comment was deserving of response/acknowledgement.)

Go write your own list (BevS) before you have a youtube filled complaining session.

fallenness - Chris Horvath's comment inspired a rewrite of a section of this list. We corresponded and cleared up a few matters regarding credit, which led to the DoG interview with Karen Goulekas.

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