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

Fight Club (1999)

This film was noted as having extensive and revolutionary use of photogrammetry, a CGI first-person image-based modeling technique. Wire-frame 3-D models were created from photographs or real, still objects. The photos were then reemployed as texture maps, augmented with additional paint work. This allowed for high-speed, photo-realistic camera movements around (or inside and through) objects - and other seemingly impossible feats.

Examples can be seen in the following scenes:

  • the opening credits reversed pull-back shot (from the "Fear Center" of the protagonist's brain backward alongside various neurons, when the main character had a gun shoved down his mouth)
  • in the pull-back tour of the wastepaper basket and its contents
  • in the sequence of the kitchen explosion in the Narrator's (Edward Norton) condo when the connection between the gas leak on the stove's burner to the spark on the refrigerator compressor was visualized

[Note: The technique was used in The Cell (2000) and Godzilla (1998).]

The Matrix (1999)

This kinetic, action-oriented, science-fiction virtual reality film combined many innovative visual and special effects elements comprising about 20 percent of the entire film. It came from the directorial writing team of the Wachowski brothers, and included incredible Oscar-winning Visual-Effects (defeating Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) and Stuart Little (1999)).

This popular, imaginative, visually-stunning film made reference to prototypical elements of the 21st century high-tech culture, such as hacking and virtual reality, and included bullet-dodging.

Digital effects dubbed "flow-mo" and "bullet time" - slowed-down, rotating action - were created with suspending actors on wires, using motion capture, and filming segments with multiple still cameras shooting from multiple angles, and then enhancing the pictures with CG interpolation.

Other features included time-freezing, camera tracking around frozen action, shoot-outs, wall-scaling, virtual backgrounds, biomechanical monsters with tentacles known as Sentinels, and airborne kung fu between computer hacker Thomas Anderson/Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).

These tremendous visual effects were combined with Eastern world-denying philosophy, metaphysical Zen statements, Japanese anime, Greek mythology, cyberpunk chic, neo-Cartesian plot twists, film noir, Biblical and Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) references.

The Mummy (1999)

About a fifth of this action film's budget was spent on special effects.

It had the most realistic digital human character ever seen, with totally computer-generated layers of muscles, sinew and tissue.

Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) used a combination of motion capture, live-action, and computer graphics to create the menacing, 'undead' high priest character of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) as a mummy - progressively regenerated.

It also reprised the pioneering Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animated scene of fighting skeletons (Jason and the Argonauts (1963)) now as fighting mummy-priests and guards, along with hordes of computer-generated flesh-eating scarabs, and swirling dust-storms.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

George Lucas' fourth film in the series undoubtedly contained more computer animation and special effects than any previous film - over 90%. Only 12 minutes of the 133 minute film had no special effects. There were over 2,000 digital visual effects in the film, and over 60 different digital characters.

It also featured a completely CGI-generated (all digital), fully-articulated main humanoid character named Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best), a widely-derided aspect of the feature film. Jar Jar was a "Gungan", an alien indigenous to the planet Naboo.

[Note: The annoying character was reprised in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002).]

Star Wars: Special Editions (1997 and after)

George Lucas decided to add CG - digital effects to hundreds of shots, mostly in his original Star Wars trilogy, including:

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Attack of the Clones (2002)

Stuart Little (1999)

This live-action film, derived from the children's book, featured the CGI character of Stuart Little (voiced by Michael J. Fox), another CGI character integrated seamlessly. It led to a sequel in 2002.

[Note: It featured the same animal-talking effects as in Babe (1995).]

Tarzan (1999)

Technologically-advanced animation effects, with extensive use of the "deep canvas" animation effect, created a remarkable 3-Dimensional depth, in this Disney animated musical adventure film.

The Cell (2000)

Director Tarsem Singh's stylish and innovative sci-fi thriller (his first feature film) told about the empathic journey of a child psychotherapist Dr. Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) into the minds of comatose individuals, including sadomasochistic, blond-haired, psychopathic serial killer Carl Rudolph Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio).

Due to director Singh's former music video and TV commercial background, the film boasted spectacular, nightmare-inspired, brilliantly-colored, surreal images, referenced and metaphorically drawn from many sources:

  • mythological
  • Biblical
  • mystical
  • avant-garde
  • various art styles (abstract animation in Fantastic Planet (1973), Russian iconography, kabuki costuming, Brothers Quay puppetry, Hieronymus Bosch, Helmut Newton b/w photography, Fellini, S&M, etc.)

The film was also nominated for a Best Makeup Oscar Academy Award.

Various photographic techniques were used to create a rich visual palette - desaturation, deepened saturation, different film stocks, skipped frames, and traditional CGI.

The first beautiful shot of the film, under the credits, was of Catherine inside a comatose kid's mind - she was riding on a dark black horse across a burnt-orange African Sahara desert. She was wearing a white dress (with feathered bodice), accentuated by the brilliant blue sky.

Another such image was of a surrealistically beautiful segmented horse - after being suddenly sliced into still pulsating pieces by falling panes of glass. It recalled the painting of English artist Damien Hirst.

Chicken Run (2000)

This Aardman Animations Studios' film used the claymation (clay - animation) process (called plasticene animation in the UK) with special plasticene characters.

The film also used some CGI effects (e.g., the explosion of the pie-making machine).

Fantasia 2000 (2000)

The sequel to the classic Fantasia (1940), included computer-generated sequences seen in the IMAX, giant-screen format release.

This was the first feature-length animated feature film released in the IMAX format (70 mm) for IMAX theaters.

Gladiator (2000, US/UK)

Director Ridley Scott's epic sword and sandal historical drama won a number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture - and Best Visual Effects. Its latter Oscar was a win over its two competitors, Hollow Man (2000) and The Perfect Storm (2000).

The major blockbuster was the story of betrayed Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius (Best Actor-winning Russell Crowe) who sought revenge for the murder of his family, by becoming a gladiator in the Roman Colosseum.

There were a total of 90 FX shots in the film. One of the most impressive sequences was the 28-second, 540-degree shot as the gladiatorial competitors stood on the arena floor in a local competition. The camera circled around them as they gazed up at the stands (rendered), revealing seats, arches, and thousands of spectators (computer-composited).

Another major effort was to build a replica of about one-third of Rome's ancient Colosseum (it was only one story and not completely encircling), while the rest was filled in with CGI enhancements (of the structure and of the crowd).

Much of the action in the Colosseum was computer-generated:

  • 2,000 live actors were used to create and map a computer-generated crowd of 35,000 virtual actors
    [Note: As well as real and virtual actors, cardboard cutouts of people were used in the crowd scenes.]
  • real tigers were shot on blue-screen and then composited into the film's battle scenes

Part of the cost of the film went into creating a digital body double for actor Oliver Reed (as Proximo), who died before the film was completed. For his remaining scenes, a 3D CGI mask rendering of Reed's face was taken from earlier scenes (or screen tests) - for facial reference. Then, that mask was overlaid onto the face of the body double. Audio from outtakes and rehearsals were also used. Both CGI rendering and sound mixing techniques were incorporated to create the effect.

Facial Reference of Proximo

Final Shot

Hollow Man (2000)

Paul Verhoeven's exploitative sci-fi action thriller featured extensive and amazing special effects shots, including the first anatomically-correct, totally working, 3-D computer model of a human body.

In this case, it was the body of brilliant but insane scientist Sebastian Caine (actor Kevin Bacon), who tested an invisibility serum on himself and became permanently transparent and maniacal.

During filming, he wore full-length skin-tight costumes (in solid colors such as green, black or blue) to aid in the addition of special effects with 'green-screen' effects. In some instances, the outline of 'invisible' Sebastian was visible when he was covered by blood, water or steam, and it was possible to see the imprint of his feet and hands.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

This was the first feature-length live-action film to be entirely color-corrected by digital means ("digital intermediate technology"), giving the film a washed-out, sepia-tinted tone, to invoke the feeling of old or antique photographs.

In particular, green colors were selectively eliminated or desaturated.

The Perfect Storm (2000)

In this adventure/disaster film, the monster wave scene used computer-generated imaging (CGI) from ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) to approximate the look of a stormy sea with 80 foot waves.

In another incredible aerial shot, the camera plunged into the spiraling clouds of Hurricane Grace and into the Atlantic Ocean below.

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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