8. Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004)
Set in a 1940s China, Sing (Stephen Chow) is a dumb street thug, aspiring to be a member of the notorious crime group “The Axe Gang.” He decides to make his mark in a small slum, where he encounters the landlord (Wah Yuen) and landlady (Qiu Yuen), who happen to be kung-fu masters.
Essentially looked down by both parties, Sing manages to stir up some conflict and action between two sides, even so far as bringing in the notorious kung-fu master The Beast (Siu-lung Leung) from captivity. As Sing realizes he may be in over his head, he struggles with the choices he’s made, hoping to achieve redemption.
Stephen Chow’s comedies aren’t shy in using special effects. His earlier films used practical effects in the way filmmakers like Tsui Hark would employ in his really early Wuxia films — with wires, camera tricks, and pyrotechnics when needed. When he did “Shaolin Soccer” in 2001, Chow began experimenting with CGI, visible especially in the climactic final match.
With “Kung Fu Hustle,” Chow essentially uses CGI to enhance the action sequences, nailing the fun and comedic tone of the film. The action therefore comes off a bit loony in a film that’s essentially a live-action cartoon. The jokes themselves are well written and performed, with the effect just pushing the joke to another level of zaniness.
When Bruce Leung’s The Beast uses his final move — unleashing his “true form” — the sequence is straight out of something like “Dragonball Z.” But it works, because “Kung Fu Hustle” aims to be silly. If not, he wouldn’t added pinball sound-effects when Sing repeatedly kicks henchmen after henchmen into the horizon. His films following “Kung Fu Hustle” might over-rely on CGI in some departments, but with this one, Chow provides his masterpiece.
7. Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)
Based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, “Life of Pi” is about amazing life-threatening adventure of Pi Patel. As an adult (Irrfan Khan), Pi recounts to a writer about his youth (Suraj Sharma) spent wandering the sea on a lifeboat, with his companion being being only a ferocious bengal tiger.
While the film was a success in many regards, the story behind the CGI is bittersweet. Rhythm & Hues, the company responsible for the film’s CGI, won the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year two weeks after declaring bankruptcy. The studio’s shutdown is symptomatic of a larger problem of the industry, one that usually underpays the visual-effects artists for their work. They take the job in fear of losing it to outsourcing.
Despite all that, the studio did a fantastic job in bringing not only the life-like tiger Richard Parker onscreen, but the more impressionistic moments regarding the world-building, such as the floating island of meerkats, or even the whale jump. Lee did a great job directing a film that despite some of the dialogue, can be seen almost by anyone due to the compelling visuals.
But much of that majesty and wonder in those moments are lost without the work of Rhythm & Hues, even preventing the production of certain hazards that come with shooting with actual, trained animals.
6. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) joins a small crew aboard a NASA space shuttle on her first mission to outer space. During their repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope, Stone and the crew are warned by Mission Control in Houston of oncoming debris that could be disastrous to the crew and the mission.
Stone and her team struggle to react as the debris begins to strike, ultimately losing contact with Mission Control. Soon enough, it becomes a fight for survival as members of the crew are quickly killed off for being unable to react.
Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is an amazing technical achievement. Done in a minimal set — with effects mainly provided by Framestore — Cuaron was able to pull off shots that many would’ve once considered impossible due to the lengthy takes the director is known to employ. Effects artists usually work with a certain number of shots at a time, so to work a film that’s comprised with only a handful of long tracking shots leaves little room for error.
As a result, new technology had to be invented and implemented in achieving the film’s ambitious vision. While the background elements of the film were all made and rendered using conventional methods in CGI, the 3D implemented during certain scenes had to use technology called View-D (developed by Prime Focus), allowing full integration of VFX and the conversion process to take place simultaneously, not in post. Hence, the 3D here is not post-conversion. This is not including the digital recreation in the pre-visual phase.
To be perfectly honest, out of all the films listed, reading about the VFX behind making “Gravity” was the most difficult to comprehend. Some of the technology is quite advanced, still new to many filmmakers and effects artist. However, the research and articles regarding “Gravity’s” VFX are fascinating for those interested. It’s quite dense and isn’t as showy as other VFX breakdowns online, definitely worth the read.
5. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
A paraplegic marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is recruited by the military group on Pandora that his twin brother worked for before his death. With the promise of a new pair of legs, Jake is tasked to shift his subconsciousness into a manmade Na’Vi, hoping to infiltrate the native race to gather intel for the trigger-happy Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). The closer Jake becomes with his Na’vi guide, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he finds it harder to complete his mission, agitating both sides.
Despite the weaker story elements of “Avatar,” it’s tough to deny the technical achievement brought upon by the film. It’s not only the highest-grossing film of all time, it’s probably recognized as the best 3D film to be released in theaters. Cameron had plans to make this film in the mid-90s, but couldn’t due to technology at the time unable to achieve his ambitious vision (and budget).
After waiting long enough — and being marveled at the character Gollum from “LOTR”— the world of Pandora is realized and rendered into something that’s rarely that detailed in the world-building, despite how simplistic nature in the way life operates. As a result, the film is reportedly 40% live action, while the remainder is all photo-realistic CGI.
The story of “Avatar” is a slog to get through, but we can’t deny how impressively realized the world Cameron has built. Some audiences fell into depression when realizing that they would never reach a place like Pandora. It feels incredibly real, and for the story to have any impact, the audience needs to feel how precious the world is too. With two sequels on the way, we wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron made a nature documentary of Pandora somewhere in the process.
4. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Archeologists Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neil) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) get invited to preview a theme park that features genetic re-creations of dinosaurs. Run by mogul John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the preview intrigues and piques the interest of all the guests, despite certain hesitations regarding the experiment. When the security system shuts down during a rainy night, the park’s guests struggle to survive the ordeal, especially when some creatures are out to consume them.
Spielberg unfortunately didn’t John Hammond’s breakthrough to bring dinosaurs to his set, so he went about a different way to bring the creatures back to life. With the help of ILM, Spielberg brought to us the iconic moments that have yet to be topped in thrills. Even though he also used CGI in combination with practical creations and people in suits, some of the purely CGI shots still hold up almost 20 years later.
The T-rex attack on the jeep mixes between CGI and practical, but even the pure CGI shots of the T-rex picking at the flipped jeep feels incredibly real. There’s weight to the moment and the action, something that I think wouldn’t have worked if Spielberg went one way. For the sharp eye, some of the dinosaurs are visibly CGI, but the filmmaking does enough to really convince the audience that they’re no longer at the top of the food-chain.
Not every filmmaker is fortunate enough to get Spielberg’s budgets, but sometimes it requires a lot to have an effect work gangbusters for the film, but also stand the test of time. Plus, it also helps if you were one of the best filmmakers of all time.
3. The Matrix (Andy and Lana Wachowski, 1999)
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a programmer during the day, but is a hacker named “Neo” on his spare time. When another hacker named “Trinity” (Carrie-Anne Moss) offers to explain what “The Matrix” is — something Neo has encountered while online — he’s ambushed by three suited agents led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). Trinity eventually introduces Neo to the one named “Morpheus” (Laurence Fishburne), who offers Neo the truth to his world and the Matrix if he’s ready to accept.
Two words: Bullet time. Since the film’s release in 1999, countless genre films have used a variation of the technique in their action sequences. While an impressive effect, it’s been copied and parodied to the point of death, still showing up in 2014. But none of the imitators have done it as well as “The Matrix” since — like many of the examples on the list — it was a combined effort of practical effects combined with CG manipulation.
What’s also amazing about this film is that rather than simply inventing some of these effects and concepts (which they did), the Wachowski’s made an effort to realize effects seemingly specific for animation — specifically the work of Mamoru Oshii and Katsuhiro Otomo — translated for live-action.
The two sequels that followed essentially not only relied on CGI to deepen the mythology introduced in the first film, but also in the action sequence. What we got visually was somewhat new, but didn’t feel as fresh as some of the more inventive action sequences in the first film. The fact that the script for the sequels weren’t as strong too is an indication that good effects can only do so much.
2. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)
The sequel to 1984’s “The Terminator” sees our heroine Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) locked in a mental institution, while her son, John Connor (Edward Furlong), is a teenage rebel causing havoc for his foster parents in suburbia. From the future, a similar T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenneger) from the first film is sent back once again. This time, the machines have also sent back the more advanced T-1000 (Robert Patrick), deadlier and more unrelenting.
James Cameron brought to the sequel the same CGI technology that he used in “The Abyss” to help perfect the movements and actions of the shape-shifting T-1000. Morphing, dissolves, and composite had to be combined with practical elements such as a foil-suit or latex rubber to provide the T-1000 in action. Whereas many editing/special effects programs today will have the basic functions to achieve a similar effect,
“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” had to combine several different techniques in the special-effects to pull of what seemed impossible in 1991. It isn’t the first film to do the shifting/transformation effect, but T2’s effect of the liquid metal is quite influential, so much so that at least two more “Terminator” films essentially re-used this concept for their villain rather than create a new one.
1. Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, and 2003)
Based on the beloved novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, the story follows the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) on a quest through Middle-Earth to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, destroying the dark lord Sauron in the process.
In his journey, he is joined by fellow hobbits, fighting alongside the rogue Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) while also under the care and instruction of the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). During their journey, they’ll see new lands and meet a cast of interesting characters, assuming they aren’t slaughtered by Sauron’s evil Orc army.
Starting with “Fellowship of the Ring,” Peter Jackson and Weta Digital used a bit of CGI to create Middle-Earth using the New Zealand landscape, as well as some of the larger creature designs, most notably the fight with the large troll. At times, they’d simply digitally recreate some of the interiors. By hooking a steadicam to a VR projector, this gave Jackson a virtual camera that he can physically control outside the computer.
That process only grew with “The Two Towers,” bringing audiences not only the forest of Treebeard, but the climactic battle of Helm’s Deep onscreen. With “The Two Towers,” it also introduced the franchise’s most idiosyncratic personality in the form of Gollum (Andy Serkis).
With “The Return of the King,” Jackson and Weta essentially take the foundation of the previous film to present the final battle for Middle-Earth. Now, while there is a lot of CGI within the third installment, it still retains some of the practical effects and stuntwork that the prequel trilogy seemingly abandons. Whether or not the prequels will stand the test of time, the original trilogy are a fine example of proper filmmaking, deserving of all the Oscars the trilogy won, even beyond the Visual Effects Category.
Honorable Mention: Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)
When watching a classic historical film such as William Wyler’s “Ben Hur” or Cecil B. DeMile’s “Cleopatra,” it’s quite outstanding to see the amount of resources that was put into realizing the ancient world on screen — where pageantry is an absolute must. There’s a grandness to those films, especially during scenes of large-scale parading or the events taking place in the colosseum.
It wasn’t until Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” in which that scope was felt again. Using CGI, Scott was able to really make those memorable battles in the arena come alive. He built half of the colosseum set while using CGI to fill the rest. It’s also an early form of digitally completing an actor’s performance due to the performers passing before completion.
Here, it’s legendary actor Oliver Reed. Much like in “Forrest Gump,” they took existing footage of Reed’s character, Proximo, from the start of the film, and digitally manipulated the lips to have him perform his dialogue against Crowe for a later scene. Usually this technique has provided less than stellar results, but here it wasn’t that distracting, with the uncanny valley only present if you really look for the area where the effect was stitched onto the performer.
Author Bio: Hanajun Chung is a geek and struggling writer. Once he got his degree, he found work mainly in post-production. But after studying journalism, he gained a newfound appreciation in writing about the things he loves, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.