9 Best Visual Effects Movies of the 21st Century
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- February 21, 2022
How do special effects make a movie better?
Special effects can make us believe that Neo can dodge bullets, Yoda can lift a ship wing with his mind, and that hobbits are real.
There has been stark progress and innovation in visual effects over the last 20 years. Virtual effects have been positively bringing meaning to the words ‘movie magic’ for the past two decades.
It has been a result of the challenges directors have been taking on in the shape of fantastical screenplays bringing an imaginary world to life.
Filmmakers like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Peter Jackson have really been pushing the limits of innovative storytelling that sends the spark running from the screen through the viewers’ minds.
From motion capture technologies to computer-generated imagery, there have been techniques that materialize the stuff of our wildest imagination.
There are some examples of the best visual effects movies that come out every few years that can be easily regarded as VFX game-changers in the film industry.
Below you’ll find our pick of the best visual effects movies for you.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
From the very talented team that brought us Lord of The Rings and Avatar, Dawn Of The Planet Of Apes is one of the best movies to be nominated for the visual effects movies in the Academy and BAFTA Awards.
The thing that stands out is that it is from the point of view of a sentimental animal, Caesar.
The apes in this movie, made from computer-generated imagery, exhibit a wide range of emotion and intelligence—an extremely challenging task to pull off.
Caesar came to us through a motion-capture performance of the same actor who gave the stellar performance as Gollum, Andy Serkis.
One of the main reasons for using CGI visual effects is the compassionate choice director Rupert Wyatt made of not using any real animals for capturing the imagery.
He stated that the entertainment industry’s apes are ripped from their mothers as infants and subjected to fear-based training methods, both psychologically traumatizing aspects.
Peta hailed Wyatt’s ethical decision making through awards and recognition.
A story about artificial and non-artificial intelligence, love and trust, sincerity and parenthood, ethics of surveillance, and most importantly, beer. This film secured an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects Movies.
A programmer is awarded an opportunity to spend a week with the CEO of his company only to find out that he is selected to determine the human component of a fem-bot that turns out to be a lot more layered than any of them expected.
The thing that stands out in the VFX of this movie is live-action without a green screen or tracking markers, and the special effects were all added in the post.
All scenes with Ava were shot twice, once with and once without her presence, allowing the cinematographer to capture the background. A painstaking process that paid off.
The visual effects were sophisticated to the point that only the hands and the face of the actress, Alicia Vikander, were rotoscoped on the frame later on, with the rest of her body digitally erased and replaced with CGI robot body parts and movement. Even the back of her head.
They carried out the movements with animation data. It is safe to say that this has all the makings of stellar VFX works, no obtrusion present.
At no point would you question that Ava was authentic. A canny combination of live-action and VFX.
When it comes to VFX, there is a name known to turn images into the most natural form of reality, Paul Franklin. He has brought several other outstanding films like Batman Begins and Dark Knight Rises.
Imagine someone like Paul Franklin working with someone like Chris Nolan, the product is bound to be brilliant. So was Inception.
He populated Nolan’s cinematic world with spectacular CGI larger than life, be it an entire street in Paris folding or buildings appearing out of thin air.
Inception was also a balanced proportion of live-action and digital animation.
In addition to that, there was a fair share of straightforward old real-world physics in miniature technique, which Franklin believes gave an effect of a chaotic reality that digital was unable to achieve at that point.
This film’s incredible visual effects give the enigmatic aura to Chris Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream premise of this movie.
The ability to bend the surroundings to control in the most unexpected places, be it the visual allure of an entire room turned upside down or a maze expanded to the whole city space, are all things that need incredible dexterity in VFX.
When you think of a movie with heavy visual effects treatment, it is natural to assume it will lose a bit of its emotional touch.
While being a VFX game-changer, Avatar was an incredibly emotionally immersive experience. It was stereoscopic cinema at its most refined—something well-expected of James Cameron as a director.
A blend of digital and live-action coupled with E-Motion capture and simulcam. Cameron watched the entire recording of CGI characters interact with the Pandora environment play out on the screen in real-time.
Designing the characters and the alien world’s habitat was another challenge entirely accomplished by facial solves, optical solves, and tracking.
To ensure the element of reality, all of the settings were hand-painted. They placed special care in the detail of lighting in spherical spaces and recreated that
All of this attention to detail paid off when Avatar was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Production Design.
Gravity is regarded as the 2001 Space Odyssey of the 21st Century, and rightly so. The visual effects to pull this film off were monumental. This film revolutionized VFX in a whole different way.
Just the filming went over four and a half years. They designed the mechanical equipment with utmost importance to precision.
The Cauron brothers conceived the plot of two astronauts stuck in outer space. To be able to recreate that with reality, there was a very lengthy visual research process involved.
They could not enjoy the benefit of the doubt because this was not a space fantasy. It was a present-day film.
The visual effects lead to grilled real astronauts and scroll through countless NASA photo archives for graphic detail.
They built a contraption called the lightbox containing 4000 LED light bulbs, dedicated to recreating the sun’s background lighting and stars in outer space.
This box was ten feet tall and ten feet wide. Clooney and Bullock strapped in the box. They filmed almost all the shots like that, with the box swaying about.
Imagine having to bring naturality to your acting in those circumstances, yet the leads managed. Apart from that, the cameras mounted on computer-controlled robotic arms.
About 80% of the elements that we saw on the screen were visual effects work, and the remaining shots also had quite a bit of special effects work done on them.
All of the virtual environments were designed and animated before time, and the faces of the actors were then superimposed on the backgrounds.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
This movie was an adaptation of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The reverse-aging protagonist you see for the first 52 minutes of the film is not Brad Pitt.
When studying movies with high-intensity VFX treatment, you see a new technique emerging for every new film. For The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it was an emotional capture. They superimposed Pitt’s expressions on other actors from the neck up.
Apart from the reverse-aging process, there was significant VFX work done on the lightning strike scenes and the hummingbird’s reverse flight.
This film deservedly acquired an Oscar for the Best Visual Effects Movies and was nominated in thirteen categories.
You can expect nothing less of a director like David Fincher.
The Lord of the Rings Franchise
One would argue that the creature’s design from Gollum, Uruk-hai, the orcs, and the Nazgul are the best things to come out of the VFX of this multi-million-dollar franchise.
The look and textures of their skin, the emotional exhibition, the movements, they were all just perfect. Especially Gollum.
The visual effects supervisor, Jim Rygiel, elaborated on his technique, saying that they had a prosthetic guy paint a rubber mask using classical techniques to elaborate detail. Then, they scanned it.
They used this scan as a texture map. It revealed thick layers of transparent skin to convey the underlying veins of the skin.
They used rotomation to replicate Andy Serkis’s movements using keyframe tracking for Gollum’s motion. They also collected data through a motion capture technique.
When they got to The Return of The King, they decided to do a little something extra. They put sensors on Andy Serkis. They used the real-time data from the sensors to synch up his motion with the other co-stars.
An example of a scene like that would be when Gollum rolls down the hill with Sean Astin. Dressing Andy in a skin-colored suit with tracking markers placed on it in ping pong balls. They painted Andy out in the post and replaced him with Gollum.
The Lord of The Rings has been a favorite classic for decades, with a large following before its motion picture adaptation. Naturally, the audience had expectations from it. Not one character or place in any part of the movie fails to rise to the highest imaginative standards.
On to more straightforward techniques, to show the comparative difference in hobbits and humans’ height, they used forced perspective, whereby place one actor much closer to the camera than the other.
They used motion-controlled rigs and a moving camera to move different scaled props and the actors at the same speed but in the camera’s opposite direction.
There was also excessive use of giant costumes and scale doubles with respective props and costumes to pull off the variation in different races’ heights.
That solves the problem for characters, but what about the locations? Larger-than-life and fantastical sites are present throughout the trilogy, with no real-world architecture to stand-in for filming.
So, in some cases like the Shire or the Edoras, large-scale sets were built on New Zealand locations. However, whenever the size was too daunting to recreate, they made miniature sets with incredible attention to detail.
Many other smaller sections of sets that were to have the cast members standing on them were built in actual size to appear in the shot’s foreground.
However, there was miniature footage with matte paintings in the background of these shots for full effect. They had to accomplish laces like Rivendell and Lothorean like that.
You will be surprised to find out that places like the Dead Marshes were also brought to life almost entirely by special effects.
Blade Runner 2049
Even though the film did not prove to be a success at the box office, it still received an Academy Award for the Best Visual Effects Movies.
There was 1 hour and 45 minutes’ worth of special effects scenes in Blade Runner 2049. However, these were not the scenes that got them the Oscar.
In the film’s final scenes, the makers of this film brought back Rachael, the love interest of Harrison Ford in the first movie.
The Rachael was identical to Sean Young, who played Rachael in the original Blade Runner, and she looked like she had not aged a day.
This uncanny replica of Sean Young was, however, a CGI face on a body double. De-ageing actors are not exactly ground-breaking in movies and have been done several times, including the appearance of a deceased Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: A New Hope as Princess Leia.
The VFX experts on this film took it up a few notches. They scanned the shape of Young’s head and made a CGI skull. Then they de-aged the crown using the footage in the original Blade Runner.
They made the actual shot with a body double with face markers, and they superimposed the de-aged digital skull of Sean Young on the face of the double.
The actual Sean Young supervised the entire scene and coached her body double on body-language etc.
With all this work, the CGI Rachael was believable as the actual Sean Young from the original film.
It has to be one of the most meticulous and believable CGI character attempts of all time. See for yourself.
Life of Pi
The most important thing that stands out in the VFX treatment of this movie is the tiger. Ang Lee put a lot of thought into making the CGI tiger exhibit natural and realistic tiger behavior.
He decided early on the importance of a real tiger working with them. He was shown seven tigers, out of which he almost instantly chose King. A seven-year-old, 450-pound tiger with the Japanese symbol of ‘king’ on his forehead.
Lee said that it is not about having the animal do what we want him to do. You want to learn from their behavior. They observed the live-action double of Richard Parker for 12 weeks, after which it took about nine months to create the CGI Richard Parker.
Out of the total shots, only 23 had King in them. Everything else was a CGI double of him.
In the scene where Pi fights the tiger with the stick, it is a couple of blue men and sometimes even Ang Li himself on the other end of the post.
The flying fish has got to be my favorite sequence in all of the films. The CGI experts used a special software called Massive that gave each of these fish a separate brain of their own, deciding which direction to fly off to show their motion a more realistically random feel.