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Special effects in movies: 10 stunning examples

Most people have their favourite examples of special effects in movies. Creating the best visual effects is an integral and exciting part of film making, and every so often a movie comes out that’s a VFX game-changer.

We asked the readers of Creative Bloq and 3D World which VFX films had most impressed them, or defined or changed the industry, and their top 10 movies are listed below, in descending order.

Whether your favourite is one of the best 3d movies, a film with incredible explosions or character design, or even one containing invisible VFX that most viewers won’t notice – there will be something for you in this list.

10. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Special effects in movies: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Building on the success of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this tale of humans and super-intelligent apes battling for survival in a post-apocalyptic near-future is a technological masterpiece. Weta Digital’s CG creatures are very much the stars of the show, and have minutes of screen time with no human interaction. It feels unfair to single out individual scenes, as the effects are incredible throughout.

But it’s the intimate moments that really stand out. Those shots in which human actors react to computer-generated apes carry genuine emotional depth. For once, CG characters are not simply there to advance the action but to perform: to carry a narrative arc.

The digital apes – 12 hero characters, plus around 20 ‘extras’ – were created using a mixture of hand animation and motion-capture footage of Andy Serkis and the other actors portraying the creatures.

Much of the mocap was shot on location, which meant an overhaul of the technology. This kit needed to be hauled up mountains, rained on, and generally abused, as Weta Digital sought to capture the most authentic performances possible.

09. Pacific Rim

Special effects in movies: still from pacific rim
Director Guillermo del Toro’s epic blockbuster tells the tale of badass robots saving humankind from monstrous sea creatures. For the work, del Toro assembled a ‘dream team’ of concept designers, including veteran sci-fi artist Wayne Barlowe, also commissioning maquettes of all the major Kaiju (the sea monsters) and Jaeger (the humanoid war machines) from practical effects firm Spectral Motion.

Industrial Light & Magic led the CG work, along with supporting facilities including Ghost FX, Hybride, Rodeo FX and Base FX.

“We put a lot of time into the [Jaegers] Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka, because they have the most screen time and the most actions,” says ILM animation supervisor Hal Hickel. “We focused on how the shoulders and hips would work and how all the mechanisms would fit together. Along the way we’d adjust proportions and other things [based on] Guillermo’s input, and we’d then start to move them and see what they looked like in various poses. We focused on how all the mechanisms would fit together.

“Once we’d built them in the computer, we were able to start animating them and figuring out things like whether arms needed to be longer or see if the legs looked a little stumpy on a given lens and from a certain angle. There were tons of decisions like this.”

In total, ILM spent months working on Gipsy Danger. “We put a lot of detail into the model, but carefully planned where it was needed and when,” says Hickel. “We’d look ahead at a sequence and would dress the amount of detail accordingly.”

They spent their time wisely – the Pacific Rim creatures instantly joined the canon of beloved movie monsters that audiences love to hate and fear in equal measure, while the visual effects landed six VES Award nominations, one of them for Hickel himself.

08. Gravity

Special effects in movies: Alfonso Cuarón created event cinema with Gravity
Some films are bogged down with effects; others are light fare. But Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, set in the weightlessness of space, is a rare union of ethereal CG work and a heavyweight emotional storyline.

Anchored by Sandra Bullock’s central performance – or facial performance, at least: for much of the movie, her spacesuit-clad body is animated digitally – as stranded astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone, Framestore’s artists created an entire digital world.

“Gravity is a hybrid: it’s partly live-action, but is similar to [an animated feature] in many respects,” says animation supervisor Max Solomon. “Very large parts of it are fully CG.”

Those ‘parts’ include the space shuttles, the Hubble Telescope, the International Space Station, and the Earth itself. All are on screen for long periods of time: the opening tracking shot alone lasts 13 minutes.

07. Avengers: Age of Ultron
The sequel to 2012 hit Avengers Assemble, Age of Ultron was Marvel Studios’ biggest cinematic thrill ride to date. Joss Whedon returned to write and direct, along with visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend, who managed over 10 studios for the last Avengers film and approximately 20 studios this time around.

Industrial Light & Magic handled 800 of the VFX shots, including the opening and closing battles, and the three main CG characters – Hulk, Iron Man in all his forms, and new anti-hero Ultron – dividing the work between teams in San Francisco, Singapore, Vancouver and London.

As in the previous movie, Hulk is a highlight of the visual effects. With the digital character appearing in 50 per cent more shots than in the previous film, the studio took a new approach to the green giant’s muscles and flesh. Typically, ILM’s artists model the final form for a character’s body, then put muscles inside and skin simulations on top. For Ultron, character TDs Sean Comer and Abs Jahromi worked with a professor of medicine to devise a new multi-layer muscle system.

06. The Matrix
Released in spring 1999, The Matrix was the surprise science fiction hit that beat The Phantom Menace to the finish line in the race for the Academy Award for Visual Effects. It launched the career of first-time visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, then just 34, and goes down in history as the film that raised the bar for the choreography of fight sequences and reinvented cinematography.

Its most iconic scene is a frozen moment that has become known as ‘bullet time’, in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) dodges bullets fired at him by an agent, while the camera circles around. The sequence still captivates today.

05. Interstellar
Collaborating once more with director Christopher Nolan, Interstellar challenged Double Negative to visualise the un-visualisable: realistic alien worlds, a mathematically accurate black hole, and the Tesseract, a four-dimensional space with time as a physical dimension. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne provided the maths, the studio’s artists delivered the visuals, and Hollywood awarded them an Oscar.
For many viewers, the most memorable shot from the movie is the depiction of the black hole Gargantua, for which Double Negative needed to show the realistic behaviour of the black hole and a wormhole, right down to the lighting – or lack thereof.

04. Inception
With Inception, director Christopher Nolan did the unthinkable: produced a blockbuster movie with an arthouse aesthetic. While the visuals are on a scale equal to his Batman movies, at its heart, the story is as tricksy as his celebrated low-budget debut Memento.

Rather than rely on multiple vendors to furnish the 500-odd digital effects shots (accounting for some 25 per cent of the movie’s running time), Nolan was keen to let Double Negative handle all the CG work, says VFX supervisor Paul Franklin. “Usually you’ll have an independent VFX supervisor who divides the work across several studios, sometimes all over the world. Chris wanted to simplify the relationship. He described it more like a 1970s model, where the VFX department would operate within a film studio.”

03. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
“I think Terminator 2 was more groundbreaking than Jurassic Park,” says Dennis Muren, visual effects supervisor on – and VFX Oscar winner for – the classic sci-fi movie. “We had to put a lot of things in place for Terminator 2: complex rendering, compositing, and so on. But no one saw it until Jurassic Park.”

After finishing work on the The Abyss in 1989, Muren took a year off. During that time, he read a 1,200-page book on CG. “I couldn’t figure out how it worked, but I wasn’t afraid of it,” he says. “I could tell Jim [director James Cameron], ‘Yep, we can do this.'”

The ‘this’ in question was the T-1000, Terminator 2’s iconic liquid metal cyborg. Compositing it with correct reflection maps to anchor it in the frame was difficult. “We had background plates and that environment needed to reflect in the character,” says Muren. “The distortions had to remain consistent without creating big tears in the maps.”

02. Jurassic Park
Why is Jurassic Park remembered so fondly for its visual effects? No-one knows the answer to that question better than Dennis Muren at Industrial Light & Magic, who won one of his eight visual effects Oscars for the film. “It was the first time we had been able to put living, breathing synthetic animals in a live-action movie,” says Muren. “No-one had seen anything like it. The reality hadn’t been done before; the naturalism.”

Muren credits dinosaur supervisor Phil Tippett and, of course, director Steven Spielberg for pushing the unsafe documentary film style. “We wanted the animals to create the feeling that we wouldn’t know what was going to happen next,” Muren says.

Because creating CG animals was so new, Muren set up two systems: stop motion and CG. “The animators hadn’t worked on real animals,” he says. “No-one had.” Even though the CG animals soon proved themselves, Stan Winston’s puppets starred in close-ups in most of the film. “When we started, I didn’t think we could do anything closer than a full-length dinosaur in CG. But we pushed closer and closer. Near the end of the film, in the rotunda sequence when the T rex walks in and the raptor jumps on its back, I was confident enough to try close-ups.”

01. Avatar
Back in 1996, James Cameron announced that he would be creating a science-fiction film called Avatar that would feature photorealistic computer-generated characters. Soon after, it had to be shelved as the technology of the time could not satisfy the creative desires of the director. But by 2009, things had caught up and Cameron, with help from a range of VFX studios, was about to make movie history.

Avatar wasn’t just a film, but a whole new, fantastical CG world – and the level of detail was astonishing. “James Cameron and his team spent a lot of time designing the horticulture of the environment,” says Dan Lemmon, VFX supervisor at Weta Digital, which created over 1,800 effects shots for the movie. “There are very detailed and very exotic plants, many modelled by hand. Most of them were executed at fairly high detail. Larger trees had up to 1.2 million polygons.”