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


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

Contact (1997)

Robert Zemeckis' film contained, reportedly, the longest ever, continuous single digital FX shot created - the opening shot (Powers of Ten).

It began with an image of the Earth, and then the virtual camera slowly pulled back to reveal the Moon, the rest of the solar system, various layers of nebula and stellar debris, and the Milky Way. The shot moved deeper into space to reveal hundreds of other galaxies...and then pulled back to reveal that the light from all of these stars was actually the highlight in a young girl's eye.

The color of the girl's eyes were digitally altered to match the eye-color of actress Jodie Foster (who portrayed the girl as an adult).

Conceiving Ada (1997)

This was the first film with 2D all-CGI backgrounds (virtual sets) before which live actors performed.

The filmmakers used a new bluescreen filming process in which a number of photographs, taken in Victorian bed and breakfasts in the San Francisco Bay area, were placed into the main protagonist's world as backgrounds.

They were composited or inserted into the film in real time (not in post-production), so that the actors could see their interactions with the background on set.

The Fifth Element (1997, Fr.)

There were an extra-ordinary number of individual FXs in this film, including a futuristic New York City skyline, and a regeneration sequence during the creation of Leeloo (Mila Jovovich) in which a sophisticated machine built her skeleton and strapped muscle tissue onto the bones.

Its most celebrated sequence was the cab chase with flying cars. The cars were created both as motion-control models and CGI versions. The immense 2000 foot long pleasure cruiser - the Fhlostin Paradise - was a motion-control model.

[Note: The film also referenced Heavy Metal (1981).]

Marvin the Martian in the 3rd Dimension (1997)

This 12 minute Warner Bros. film was the first computer-animated CG film that was to be viewed with 3-D glasses. Its main characters were soft-spoken Marvin, and Martian hunter Daffy Duck.

It combined the experience of watching a fully CGI film with polarized/anaglyphic glasses, and was a feature of the Warner Bros.' theme park "Movie World" in Australia.


Red Corner (1997)

Digital visual effects allowed the production to appear to have been completely shot in actual Chinese locations, but that was in fact disallowed by the Chinese government.

Many of the landscape and Beijing city shots were comprised of 2D and 3D matte paintings based on still photographs of the Chinese city.

Spawn (1997)

The flowing, dynamic dark red cape of the title character in this comic-book adaptation was impressively created or simulated as a CGI effect by ILM. It was first designed as a wireframe model and then fully rendered and placed on top of the live-action background.

There were also very photo-real, fully 3D creature transformations, and full screen digital stunt doubles.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Director Paul Verhoeven's science-fiction action film was the first to feature a large-scale, interstellar CGI military battle between alien insectoid creatures and the military.

An army of futuristic soldiers was locked in visceral, gory combat against a frightening array of thousands of giant alien, spider-like bugs or arachnids (aka archies), from the distant world or planet of Klendathu.

The swarming creatures were entirely created with CGI technology (although some of the monstrous insects were robotic models).

Titanic (1997)

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, defeating Starship Troopers (1997) and The Lost World (1997).

James Cameron's film was the most expensive film ever made - up to its time, at approximately $200 million. It was noted for its large scale use of motion-capture and 3D digital crowd extras.

With stunning, costly digital effects in a historical epic/drama - computers were used to create:

  • the digital passengers seen on the ship's deck
  • the ship's launch
  • the Titanic's engine room
  • the helicopter fly-bys
  • the transition shot of the two lovers at the front of the ship transformed to an underwater shot
  • even Kate Winslet's iris that was digitally inserted and morphed into one of Gloria Stuart's eyes

Both CG and miniature models (and lots of stuntpeople) were used to portray the ocean-liner as it tilted (on a massive set), split in two, and sank in the tragic finale - into enhanced CG water.

Antz (1998)

Following Toy Story (1995), this DreamWorks film was the second fully computer-animated feature, preceding the release of Disney's/Pixar's all-CGI insect epic A Bug's Life by seven weeks.

This was also the first CGI film to feature over 10,000 individually-animated characters in various crowd scenes (such as the Starship Troopers-like battle).

It was the first computer-animated film to receive a PG rating, and the first computer-animated feature film to use computer software to create and simulate the properties of water -- hence, digital water, especially in its flood sequence.

Godzilla (1998)

The vast majority of the film's giant monster/lizard was computer-generated, including the terrifying monster's baby hatchlings, the helicopter shot of the beached tanker found on the Panamanian coast, and the finale's Brooklyn Bridge scene.

There were about 400 visual effects shots in the film, including about 235 Godzilla CGI shots.

Mighty Joe Young (1998)

This remake of the original 1949 adventure film was noteworthy for the creation of groundbreaking "hair, fur and feathers" technology for the CGI gorilla (sometimes portrayed in CG, and other times by actors in a gorilla suit).

Pleasantville (1998)

According to Guinness, Pleasantville had the most computer generated effects in a film to date - 1,700 digital visual effect shots, compared to the average Hollywood film which had 50 at the time.

Most of the effects involved selectively de-saturating the color film to create striking images of 'colorful' characters in black and white scenes.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

This DreamWorks SKG's' animated musical feature/epic about the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt was the most expensive, classically-animated feature film at the time, budgeted at $60 million. It took four years to bring to the screen.

The film included 1,192 special effects -- its three most spectacular and breath-taking moments were:

  • the Burning Bush
  • the series of Plagues
  • the 7 minute parting of the Red Sea sequence

One of its technological milestones was bringing together CG 3-D models and traditionally-drawn 2-D characters and settings in a single shot, using a revolutionary piece of software known as the "Exposure Tool."

For example, in the chariot chase (or race) sequence between the young Pharaoh Rameses (voice of Ralph Fiennes) and Moses (voice of Val Kilmer), the chariots and background were 3-D CG models, while the characters were 2-D classically animated (or hand-drawn).

The film also created an animated crane shot that looked very much like a live-action shot - as the camera lifted up to the sky to reveal the wide horizon of the Egyptian Empire.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

This Oscar winner for Best Achievement in Visual Effects defeated the disaster film Armageddon (1998) and Mighty Joe Young (1998).

It depicted an imaginative and impressionistic visuals and landscapes of the after-life world, especially the "paint world" in which the entire heavenly world was an expressionistic landscape literally made of paint, from the imagination of deceased pediatrician Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), whose "soulmate" wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) was a painter. Chris' concept of the great afterworld was also manifested in his wife's art.

In the scenes of an Expressionist painting world in Chris' imagined heaven (using surreal Oscar-winning CGI effects) he was told:

"Nice place you got here...You're making all of this. See, we're all pretty insecure at first, so we see ourselves somewhere safe, comforting. We all paint our own surroundings, Chris, but you're the first guy I know to use real paint."

In this idyllic world, he subconsciously created his own eternity as a landscape acrylic still in the process of being painted. While his vision continued to be fashioned and created, he could squish a blue flower in his hand and see the wet paint goo.

There were equally impressive and imaginative vistas and scenarios in an imprisoning dark Hell.

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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