Computer Generated Imagery can be an incredibly useful tool in realizing something that’s simply unable to achieve practically. Motion-capture suits can help bring characters to life, while other artists are able to create (or recreate in some cases) new worlds and settings. It’s also easy to abuse, and it’s easy to see how that gives CGI a bad reputation.
When I read that a film’s main criticism also includes VFX — most notably CGI — it’s really bittersweet to hear, since effects are usually done by multiple companies and underpaid workers. Like editing, the more one notices the strings being pulled, then the illusion is completely lost. But for this list, we want to highlight some of those moments in a positive way.
Other than the basic descriptions, the films listed below don’t go too deep into their special effects processes. These are mostly solid live-action films that incorporate CGI in meaningful ways.
While I do love me some practical effects and puppetry, sometimes a multiple puppeteers just can’t and won’t cut it. They might be able to make Doc. Ock’s tentacle have weight in the slower scenes with dialogue, but it’s CGI that puts those things to use against Spidey.
Best case scenario: it combines all sorts of visual trickery — practical and digital — to not only pull off the effect, but creating something totally unique and inventive in the process, personalizing the effect for a specific title. As I learn more and more about the process of animation and special effects, I’m slowly starting to realize that just like making a good film, good special effects require the same amount of care and attention, sometimes more.
I love reading about VFX on sites like fxguide.com, but I’m also a huge sucker for those VFX breakdown videos online as well. If you think there’s a film missing from this list, please comment below!
15. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
Based on true events, David Fincher’s “Zodiac” follows the infamous murder-spree committed in 1970s San-Fransisco by a serial killer who taunted the police and press with cryptic and mysterious letters. The film follows a cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective (Mark Ruffalo), and a crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) as their search for the “Zodiac Killer” leads them down a dangerous path of obsession that threatens to ruin them all.
On first glance, Fincher’s films don’t seem that overtly reliant on CGI. One can make the case for something like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but his newer releases such as “The Social Network,” “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and “Gone Girl” all use CGI in small and subtle ways. Whether it’s swapping actors faces (“The Social Network,” “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) or building the environment (“Gone Girl”), Fincher has adopted CGI in creating the dark atmosphere that haunt most his characters.
With “Zodiac” taking place in San Fransisco during the 70s, Fincher had to rely heavily on CGI to recreate the setting when it came to the exterior shots, specifically buildings and streets. It’s a subtle and unrecognizable compared to most of the filmmakers on the list, but still quite important when considering how important how atmosphere is in Fincher’s films. While he can maybe double certain interiors to represent an interrogation room or a newsroom, the larger environment had to be fabricated.
14. Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)
Waiting at a bus-stop bench, the simple Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) talks to nearby strangers about his life leading to that very moment. As he begins to tell his story, it’s understood immediately that Forrest’s physical and mental shortcomings had brought a difficult childhood. However, as he grows older, Forrest and the viewer become a part of the big and small moments that helped shaped Forrest and America.
Compositing wasn’t always done on in a computer, but “Forrest Gump” took the concept to another level. Combining CGI, archival-footage, and blue-screen shots, “Forrest Gump” recreated some of America’s most culturally and historically iconic moments with the country’s most beloved individuals.
With the help from the folk over at ILM, Robert Zemeckis was able to not only able to make Forrest meet three U.S. Presidents, but also replicate seamless the era’s visual aesthetic to add another level of immersion. CGI was also used to help Forrest play ping-pong on a professional level. Both effects (even the ping-pong ball) were utilized in other films. By the end, 150 effects artists logged about 50,000 hours in completing the film.
13. Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982)
Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a hacker who runs an arcade, stumbling into the data stream of software pirate Master Control. Flynn is broken and remade within the computer, occupying 3-dimensional unlike anything he’s seen before. There, Flynn joins forces with Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) to take down the Master Computer through his twisted, arcade-type games.
“Tron” might not be the easiest film to watch on the list, since the pacing is quite slow. But the tone is undoubtedly appropriate for the subject matter at the time, which I felt was highly contemplative for a narrative feature. Despite it’s failure in the box-office, what makes “Tron” memorable is the world Flynn (or Clu) enters in the computer.
The colorful lines were created using “backlit” animation and CGI, while the actors (shot in B&W film) were carefully layered into the shots. Some of the game sequences had to be animated separately — combining CGI and hand-drawn animation — later added with shots of the performers acting like they’re playing.
What’s funny about this film is that Academy Awards and Disney Animators at the time thought computers were a shameful shortcut. Although John Lasseter was able to keep hand-drawn animation alive, “Tron” was the first big sign in the company’s shift to fully computer generate imagery.
As a film though, “Tron” helped bring video-games into the mainstream, stated by the filmmakers that the film was also influenced by Space Invaders. It doesn’t have the excitement or energy of playing the game, but it does convey how deep gaming can also be apart of the narrative. Two years later, “The Last Starfighter” will somewhat carry the “Tron’s” legacy, but taking the pacing of something like “Star Wars.”
12. District 9 (Neil Blomkamp, 2009)
This mockumentary follows South African government official Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlito Copley) as he’s assigned by his munitions cooperation to oversee the mass eviction of the ghetto labeled District 9. While there are a few human refugees at the site, the area was designated to a race of disordered aliens nicknamed “The Prawns” after they first arrived to Earth almost 20 years ago.
During the process, Wikus gets accidentally exposed to an alien chemical, which starts affecting him physically. As his transformation makes him an enemy in the face organization that he once worked under, Wikus forms an uneasy alliance with a father and son “Prawn” to help him escape.
While originally meant to direct the live-action film adaption for the video game series “Halo,” the project fell through and Peter Jackson, who was the producer at the time, gave Blomkamp the budget to make whatever film he wanted. While “District 9” deserves the praise for it’s resonating story, the CGI in the film is quite marvelous in making said story work emotionally.
Performed by actor Jason Cope in a CGI suit, Blomkamp and the team over at Weta Workshop was able to bring to life these convincingly disgusting aliens that seem like a nightmarish mix between a shrimp and cockroach, with the height of a basketball player. The performance provided through CGI, however, is ultimately what makes the story work.
If Christopher Johnson and Wikus’s relationship don’t resonate with audiences, the film falls apart by the end. Despite appearances, Blomkamp and his team was able to create a sympathetic character that should immediately disgust. Instead, through expert character design and animation, “District 9” not only provides a character to root for, but also source for the protagonist’s redemption.
11. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
In the future, Earth is run by a fascist, military government that do interplanetary battle with alien bugs. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his friends enlists right out of high school, facing the ups and downs of basic training. When his home at Buenos Aires gets attacked, Rico and the rest of his infantry come face-to-face with a horde of gigantic bugs.
“Starship Troopers” is not only a fun science-fiction film, but it’s also pretty great satire. Verhoeven’s films are usually quite violent and chaotic, in sync with his heightened personality. When shooting the action scenes, he would stand in place of the bugs, yelling and screaming at his performers to elicit the right response.
The bugs themselves were a combination of CGI and live-action animatronics. For the close-ups, they brought in the animatronics (built to scale) to provide the smaller details all its disgusting glory, while the wide shots featuring hundreds of bugs were created with CGI. That Spielberg-ian approach gave way to some of the most exciting, but unnerving battles imaginable. That’s not counting the large beetle monster or the flies, who are also made possible through CGI.
There’s a lot of reasons to like this film outside the CGI, but story relies on our heroes getting closer to the source that controls the bugs, which would be silly if the bugs themselves didn’t feel real. They do, and the special effects in “Starship Troopers” not only brings the enemies to life, but also make them a force to be reckoned with.
10. The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)
“The Avengers” is the culmination of all the single Marvel films leading up to it’s release. Featuring Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) — the film follows Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) finally enacting the “Avengers Initiative” after the Norse trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plans to invade Earth with the power of the Tesseract.
Geeks and comic book nerds have waited years — if not their lifetime — to finally see their superhero team-up realized on the big screen. Even after forced to sit through five films, “The Avengers” was worth the wait. Whedon’s script, dialogue, and direction might’ve made the character’s interaction outside the action just full of wit and charisma, fans leave the film remembering the action — since it easily contains the film’s most memorable moments.
It took over a dozen visual effects companies, over 2200 effects shots, and months of pre-visuals to get the action right, specifically with the Hulk. This is the first time that the actor playing Bruce Banner also did the motion-capture for the creature as well. The performance in combination with the animation provided by ILM resulted in the best depiction of the character onscreen.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s iconic Hellicarrier also gets it’s glorious onscreen debut thanks to joint effort of several different companies. Next time you wait for a post-credit stinger, notice the HUGE block of names that make up the VFX crew. That wall only seems to be growing with “Avengers: The Age of Ultron.”
9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) / Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)
The reimagined/reboot of the franchise follows the growth of the young ape Caesar (Andy Serkis). Starting with “Rise,” the audience follows Caesar from birth, born somewhat genetically enhanced from his genetically modified mother. When a mistake forces a young Caesar into a corrupt sanctuary, he leads a rebellion after giving the apes the same chemicals that made him and his mother smarter creatures. With “Dawn,” the story follows the apes almost a decade after their escape.
Caesar now leads a large community of apes in the Redwood, living a peaceful, hunter-gatherer existence. It isn’t until the unexpected arrival of human’s in their space that reignites old tensions.
The two reimagined “Apes” films are prime examples on how useful CGI has evolved in the past decade. For starters, Wyatt made the mandate clear regarding his apes: no live apes shall be used in the film, hence every ape character be realized through the effort of Weta Digital.
While some of the apes don’t look as photo-realistic as desired, it was still a step in the right direction regarding modern filmmaking involving animals. It worked out so well that PETA also awarded Rupert and the film for not only using CGI instead of actual apes, but to commend the film for it’s pro-animal rights message.
With “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the CGI showed progression. The apes look better in this film, photo-realistic in their actions and movements. Since the second film takes the characters — both human and apes — to a more naturalistic setting, Weta Digital also digitally created the other species of animals in the film as well, even the horses that the apes ride on.
This was also one of the first films to shoot most of the motion-capture on location as opposed to a closed stage. The film’s highlight action sequence involving a turret gun and tank took over one year and over 1000 iterations before Reeves was satisfied with the finished product. It’s hands down the best shot in the film.
And it must also be mentioned: Andy Serkis deserves all the praise directed toward him. Not only is the man a fantastic actor, but one who’s embraced the future of performance. To say he embodies the role seems oddly understating of the man’s talent, but without his dedication to the story and filmmaking technologies, we would not have had the best CGI characters in the last ten years. He’s that good. In “Dawn” Toby Kebell takes a page from Serkis and injects a wicked personality in the film’s antagonist Koba.