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

The Abyss (1989)

Special FX brought this epic James Cameron film recognition by the Academy - Best Achievement in Visual Effects for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), defeating The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and Back to the Future Part II (1989).

Underwater visual effects, especially of the watery, snake-like alien creature, a 'pseudopod,' were the first example of digitally-animated, CGI water. This was the first computer generated three-dimensional (3-D) character. The film exhibited seamless and convincing compositing of 3-D animation together with 70 mm live-action footage.

In the alien water-probe sequence lasting about 75 seconds (requiring 8 months of work), the water-based life form called a pseudopod, with a realistic watery tentacle, replicated (or emulated) Lindsey Brigman's (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) facial expressions and appeared to communicate by movements that resembled her facial expressions. She also touched the virtual creature with her hand.

Back to the Future, Part II (1989)

Computer-controlled camera work, called VistaGlide, allowed three characters (all performed by one actor, Michael J. Fox) to match up and interact seamlessly in the same scene (the "instant pizza" dinner scene), through impressive split-screen photography.

Fox played three characters in the same scene, with a moving boundary between the three sections of the split-screen. It was the first film to accomplish interaction between the same actor on the screen as more than one character.

Another special F/X sequence was the airborne hoverboard chase scene -- the hoverboards were fictional futuristic skateboards without wheels -- merely special F/X creations. Actors (standing on glued-on or attached hoverboards) were held up in the air by a rig on the back of a truck and driven around - pulled on wires (later digitally removed), making them appear to be floating and sailing in mid-air. In some scenes requiring closeups, the action was filmed in front of a bluescreen, to later be filled in with matching background footage.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The first all-digital composite shot, to demonstrate rapid aging (and death), was during Nazi sympathizer Walter Donovan's (Julian Glover) death sequence in the film's conclusion.

ILM scanned several filmed makeup transformations of his facial demise and "morphed" the elements together digitally - it sent the output back to film rather than arranging film elements with an optical printer.

Dick Tracy (1990)

This was the first major feature film release with a digital soundtrack.


Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)

This was the first instance of a digitally-manipulated matte painting.

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

Disney's The Rescuers Down Under (1990), the sequel to their hit The Rescuers (1977), was the studio's very first, theatrically-released animated sequel. It was noteworthy for two other milestones.

The animated feature film was the first 100% completely-digital feature film ever produced and released - it included impressive flight-aerial action sequences using rotoscoping and multi-plane cameras -- especially in the scene of Cody (voice of (Adam Ryen) setting free and riding the magnificent golden eagle Marahute.

It was also the first animated feature film fully using CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) - the first digital (or computerized) ink-and-paint system (developed by Disney and Pixar), to color the film with computerized ink and paint (not using acetate cels or traditional paint).

RoboCop 2 (1990)

This feature film demonstrated the first use of real-time computer graphics or "digital puppetry" to create a character's face. (Digital puppetry is the manipulation and performance of digitally animated 2D or 3D figures and objects in a virtual environment that are rendered in real-time by computers.)

In the film, a CG representation or version of the face of nuke cult leader/villain Cain (Tom Noonan) merged and was seen on the robot's screen. The facial movements were manipulated by a computer operator, in real-time, rather than using pre-programmed commands.

Total Recall (1990)

The film won a "Special Achievement Award" for its Visual Effects by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The revolutionary use of motion capture was accomplished for the skeletal CGI characters (moving behind an X-ray screen) in the subway shootout scene.


Backdraft (1991)

This film featured the first use of photorealistic CG fire in a motion picture.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast (1991) was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

It was noted for the integration of traditionally hand-drawn cels and computer-generated animation, especially in the ballroom scene in which Belle and the Beast danced. Computers were used to assist in adding colors and shadows to create 3-D like images within a completely 3-D rendered background, and to simulate complex movements (by tweening motion between frames) in 3-D space.

[Note: This new digital technology was tested in Disney's earlier films The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and Oliver and Company (1988).]

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Digital morphing was used in this film, in the scene of the shape-changing alien prisoner Marta (Iman), who eventually morphed into Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), culminating in a fist-fight between the two (shown right).

The film also featured zero-gravity, CG Klingon blood (a pink-purple color).

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

This film won the year's Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, defeating Backdraft (1991) and Hook (1991).

Terminator 2 was the first mainstream blockbuster movie with multiple morphing effects and simulated natural human motion and realistic movements for a major CG character. It was the first film to use 'personal' computers to create its special effects.

The lethal, liquid-metal, chrome T-1000 cyborg terminator (Robert Patrick) was the first computer graphic-generated main character to be used in a film. This was the first major instance of a CG character in a film since Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). He was capable of 'morphing' into any person or object. The liquifying-solidifying robot's humanoid texture was layered onto a CG model to create the effect. Over 300 special effects shots made up 16 minutes of the film's running time.

The seemingly-indestructible Terminator android composed of morphing liquid metal was a killing, shape-shifting terminator with no emotional intelligence, usually exemplified as a policeman. The sleek, modern android was composed of poly-mimetic metal, meaning it could take on the shape, color, and texture of anything it touched (such as a porcelain-tiled floor or metal bars), and could also mimic human behavior, such as imitating the voices of its victims. It could transform its hands into jaw-like blades for impalement, and completely absorb shotgun blasts to its midsection or head. After a fiery big-rig crash in the LA flood channel, the T-1000 walked unscathed out of the flames - revealing his metallic frame before reverting back to humanoid form. In another remarkable scene, the T-1000 was shattered into pieces, but then the pieces reassembled themselves.

The morphing effect was first used in director Ron Howard's Willow (1988), but not to such an extent. Also, in post-production work, the truck crashing through the wall was flipped from left to right to create a better angle. In the same year, Michael Jackson's promo music video Black or White (1991), directed by John Landis, also used morphing (in its final sequence) - the first video to do so.

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

Previous Page Next Page