Greatest Visual and
Special Effects (F/X) -
Milestones in Film


Film Milestones in Visual and Special Effects
Film Title/Year and Description of Visual-Special Effects

Aliens (1986)

This was a superb big-budget action film, a seven-time Oscar nominee, and two-time winner (Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Effects Editing).

James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's original film Alien (1979) was notable for the way it combined numerous in-camera special-effects elements and techniques into the same shot.

Live action, models (full-sized and scale miniatures of the alien Queen), matte paintings, composites, front and rear projection, and various other elements were brought together through a beam-splitter.

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

This was the first feature film to use 'reflection mapping' to provide digital gloss -- for the shiny, silvery surface or reflective metallic skin of the flying CGI alien spaceship as it zoomed over the landscape and reflected airports, fields, buildings, and oceans.

[This technique was also used in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and also for the reflective Naboo spacecraft in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).]

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

This film (Disney's 26th full-length animated feature film, four years in the making) marked the first time in a feature-length film that traditionally-animated 2-D characters were placed in the foreground, against a CG background. It blended computer-generated (CG) animation with hand-drawn characters.

During the complex chase scene at the end of the film within London's famed bell tower Big Ben, the images of the turning, interlocking cogs/gears of the clock (in the background) were modeled and animated with 3-D computer animation techniques. The wireframes were output to animation cells (or drawings) on paper with a pen plotter, and then hand-painted. They were then integrated with the foreground hand-drawn characters during the production process.

Howard the Duck (1986)

This George Lucas film was the first film to use digital wire removal or deletion, a technique pioneered by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).

Wires were used in live-action filming to simulate either flying actors or miniatures. Howard the Duck was portrayed by stunt men in a duck suit.

[The technique was also used in Back to the Future Part II (1989), and Hook (1991).]

Labyrinth (1986)

The memorable CGI opening credits/title sequence featured a glass ball and a flying digital owl - the first realistic CGI animal.

The film also featured M.C. Escher-style production design, including the final "stairway sequence".

Luxo Jr. (1986)

This two minute short from Pixar about Luxo and his son - a pair of digital desk lamps - was directed by John Lasseter (of Toy Story fame) and William Reeves. It was the company's first official production after breaking off from LucasFilms.

It was notable as the first fully computer-generated, computer-animated (or CGI) film, and the first to use shadows in CGI (made possible by Renderman software).

It was also the first computer (CG) animation short to be nominated for an Academy Award. The desk lamp later became the corporate or trademark symbol for Pixar.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

This was the first groundbreaking, cinematic use of 3D scanning by Cyberware scanning software. [Cyberware pioneered the market for three-dimensional detailed scans of people and objects. The laser- and video-based technology can scan complex objects in only seconds to produce a detailed three-dimensional data-set of the facial features and a detailed texture map of the surface color.]

This type of 3D scanning was first used on the heads of Star Trek actors when ILM digitized them for a short time-warp travel scene. The CG heads of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were too complex for conventional modeling techniques at the time - instead they were scanned by the first Cyberware 3D Scanner, to produce disembodied cyber-sculptures of their heads.

In the film, the Enterprise officers were forced to sling-shot themselves around the Sun in order to time-travel back to the late 20th century from the 23rd century - their objective was to locate humpback whales and bring them forward in time to save the doomed planet Earth from a destructive, power-sucking probe.

The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Based on the popular weekday afternoon cartoon series during the 80s, this film was another early melding of traditional and computer animation, using TRON-style backlighting.

The film was notable for both being Orson Welles' last film (voice) role as Unicron, a planet-sized computer, and for its downbeat, apocalyptic plot in which all of the series regulars were killed off.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987) - TV

This was the first TV series (of 22 episodes) with CG characters.

It told about "Bio-Dreads - monstrous creations that hunt down human survivors and digitize them!"

Robocop (1987)

Stop-motion special effects were used for the incompetent, robotic ED (Enforcement Droid) -209 prototype which performed poorly during a product demonstration ("I'm sure it's only a glitch, a temporary setback").

This old-fashioned technique was soon to be overtaken by computer-generated imagery.

Akira (1988, Jp.)

An excellent example of a feature-length, science-fiction Japanese anime - "Japanimation" - from director Katsuhiro Otomo, and based on his science-fiction comic book (manga) of the same name.

Akira has often been considered the greatest animated film of all time, with advanced technical features, such as highly-detailed scenes (with textures, shadows, unusual colors), and seamless animation with over 160,000 animation cels. At its time, it was the most expensive film ever produced in Japan ($8 million).

Tin Toy (1988)

Pixar's and director John Lasseter's 5-minute short film was the first fully computer animated film to win an Academy Award Oscar - for Animated Short Film.

Billy, the drooling baby character in the short film, marked the first time that a CG character had realistic human qualities. Tinny, the one-man-band tin toy hero of Tin Toy, was to be the central character in Toy Story (1995) - until Buzz Lightyear was created.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

This milestone film won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, defeating the other nominees Willow (1988) and Die Hard (1988).

It was a coordinated effort (produced by Disney, live-action directed by Robert Zemeckis, and animated by Richard Williams) - a remarkable blend of animated imagery (hand drawn and painted), and hand matched to the live action human characters, and filmed as a tribute to the entire pantheon of cartoon characters from Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM, and other studios in the 1940s.

The remarkable computer animation included sophisticated shading, lighting and shadows to dramatically make the hand-drawn animated characters appear very 3-D and lifelike as they interacted with real-world objects and people.

Willow (1988)

Very crude and primitive morphing could be found in earlier films, such as The Golden Child (1986) and in the Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) time-travel sequence, but the live-action fantasy film Willow was the first to extensively use the groundbreaking effect of digital morphing (the seamless change from one character or image to another, often called shape-shifting).

The film's most detailed and fluid morph was in the scene of a halfling farmer and inept magician named Willow (Warwick Davis) finally turning Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) back into her original human form as an old sorceress woman.

She went through various animal changes in the film, from a rodent to a crow, then to a goat, ostrich, and lastly into a roaring tiger before becoming a human shape. This morphing was revolutionary because the shape-shifting occurred between real objects, not just between CG creations.

The same 'morphing' effect was used much more extensively in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and in the conclusion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) - see below.

[Note: Digital morphing was also later used in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).]

Film Milestones in Visual/Special Effects (F/X)
(chronological order by film title)
Introduction | 1880s-1890s | 1900-1905 | 1906-1920 | 1921-1929 | 1930-1939 | 1940-1949 | 1950-1959
1960-1969 | 1970-1974 | 1975-1979 | 1980-1982 | 1983-1985 | 1986-1988 | 1989-1991 | 1992-1994
1995-1996 | 1997-1998 | 1999-2000 | 2001-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-2007 | 2008-2009 | 2010-Present

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