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

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Steven Spielberg's fanciful science-fiction Pinocchio-fable starred Haley Joel Osment as the robot boy David longing for his mother's love.

CGI was used for the final sequences in the film set 2,000 years into the future, for the character of the Blue Fairy, and a life-like Teddy Bear (serving as the Jiminy Cricket character) that climbed up on the bed where David was sleeping - reunited next to his mother.

Other CG characters included the 'Specialists' - highly-advanced, translucent, slender and graceful robots with glasslike features.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

This science-fiction tale by director Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of the best-selling series of interactive video games that inspired this film) was the first hyper-real, fully computer-generated (CGI) feature-length film based entirely on original designs - no real locations, people, vehicles, or props were used.

It took four years to make, advertising itself as "Fantasy Becomes Reality." Its production budget was estimated to be $137 million, with box-office of only $32 million gross income (domestic) and $53 million (foreign) - $85 million total. The massive losses caused the bankruptcy of its production studio, Square Pictures.

The film was hailed for having photo-realistic, life-like images. It was the first feature film to use motion capture to create realistic digital humans. Characters' faces and skin included such details as liver spots, wrinkles, veins in a clenched hand, individual hair strands, and so forth.

The most complex CG human character ever created was Aki Ross, who was reported to have 60,000 individual strands of hair. The amount of detail rendered into hair, clothing, skin texture, eyes, and movement was astounding and impressive.

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)

This was the first CGI feature length film (an animated comedy) -- produced by Nickelodeon and made by DNA Productions of Dallas, Texas - made with off-the-shelf hardware and software (NewTek's LightWave 3D® animation software) to create, model, render and texture the film.

It was the first computer-generated feature film from a major studio to be created solely with off-the-shelf software that any consumer could buy.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: (2001-2003)

This was the three-time Oscar winner for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for three consecutive years. In each of the years of the award, this film series defeated Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001), Pearl Harbor (2001), Spider-Man (2002), Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).

In the first segment, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), a special effect known as forced perspective was used to make Gandalf (Ian McKellen) appear more giant than the little hobbits. Gandalf was always much closer to the camera to create the effect.

There was also an impressive stand-off fight between Gandalf and the fiery Balrog (Durin's Bane) on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum in the dark Mines of Moria. Gandalf cried out: "You shall not pass!" and then collapsed the bridge under Balrog, but the creature wrapped its fiery whip around one of Gandalf's legs, taking the wizard down into the chasm with him. As he fell, he called out to the fellowship: "Fly, you fools!"

In the second part of the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), CGI-imagery was combined with "motion capturing" (of the movements and expressions of actor Andy Serkis, who also served as the voice) and puppets to produce the supporting character of the insane, ring-addicted Gollum (originally known as Sméagol) - noted for saying: "Myyy PRECIOUSSS!"

It took more than 1,000 drawings and 100 sculptures to design the character of Gollum. A motion capture suit recorded the actor's movements that were then applied to the digital character. A more laborious visual effects process digitally "painted out" Serkis' image and replaced it with Gollum's.

[The same technique was repeated in I, Robot (2004), with Alan Tudyk as the robot Sonny.]

Another major special-effects character was a talking-walking tree (Ent) named Treebeard - a combination puppet and CGI-character.

Also in The Two Towers (2002), AI-driven agents were used to create the digital army scene in which evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) surveyed the troops (numbering 10,000) at Mordor before him - before they marched and attacked at the climactic battle at Helm's Deep.

Even larger numbers of troops were digitally created for the siege of Minas Tirith, the Battle of Pelennor Fields and the battle at the Black Gates of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).

Pearl Harbor (2001)

This film was most noted for the recreation of the infamous 1941 attack, with scenes digitally created, including hundreds of World War II era airplanes, ships and vehicles, along with the fire and smoke from dozens of explosions.

Shrek (2001)

A fully computer-animated, colorful fantasy film (from DreamWorks and Pacific Data Images), and the first Oscar winner in the newly created category of Best Animated Feature, by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The realistic-ness of the characters was actually scaled back to have a more "cartoony" look. DreamWorks used a "proprietary" photo-realistic facial animation system (first used in Antz (1998)) - a layering process to build the image of a character's face, starting with the skull and then gradually adding computer re-creations of muscles and skin. The image was wired with hundreds of controls to allow for an almost limitless number of facial expressions, movements and realistic lip-syncing.

One of the film's realistic touches was two small beauty marks on Fiona, one on her left cheek and one on her upper chest.

The film also featured the most advanced CGI liquid and fire effects of the time, in the scenes with the fire-breathing Dragon.

[Note: It was followed by the biggest box-office earning animated film ever, Shrek 2 (2004).]

Vidocq (2001, Fr.) (aka Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq)

Director Pitof's dark 19th century crime fantasy Vidocq (2001) was the world's first-completed theatrical feature film shot entirely on Hi-Def digital video.

This first full-length, all-digital film was shot using a Sony HD-CAM 24P1 (1080p, 24fps) high-definition digital camera, producing astonishing visuals.

[Note: It was released a year before George Lucas' and Hollywood's first big-budget all-digital production of Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002).]

Waking Life (2001)

This animated, R-rated ground-breaking experimental film was first digitally shot on a mini-digital video camera as a live-action film, and then edited normally, complete with double-exposures and composited effects.

In the next step, 30 artists graphically 'painted' the characters via computer (with a process called "interpolated rotoscoping") to create the illusion of a cartoon in motion. The animation was then transferred to celluloid, producing a hyper-real, stylized comic-book look.

[Note: Director Richard Linklater would later use this technique for the traditional narrative A Scanner Darkly (2005), and Richard Rodriguez' Sin City (2005) would use a similiar method of animation (see below).]



Winged Migration (2001, Fr.) (aka Le Peuple Migrateur)

This incredible bird documentary was famed for its almost complete lack of optical visual effects and some of the best camera work ever done in film history.

It had a completely astounding sequence in which a moving camera followed a migratory tern for thousands of miles as it soared above the Earth in the clouds, and at one point panned more than 180 degrees around it.

Filmmakers used several remote controlled and conventional planes, helicopters, hot-air balloons and gliders to film the awe-inspiring flying birds.

[Note: Director Jacques Perrin was also responsible for the landmark insect documentary MicroCosmos (1996), which used special cameras and lens to photograph insects up to the scale of humans.]

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (2002) - Special Edition re-release

There were numerous digital 'enhancement visual effects' made to the original 1982 version of this Steven Spielberg film, for the Millennium Edition.

Most of the enhancements rendered the friendly animatronic alien in the original as a computer-animated figure. This allowed ET to be seen underwater and blowing bubbles during a bathtub scene, among other minor tweaks.

One notable PC-friendly change was that the guns in the hands of FBI agents were miraculously changed into walkie-talkies.

Spider-Man (2002)

This blockbuster comic-book hero feature film included the extensive use of digital body doubles (a computer-generated superhero), and the digital removal of wires, cables and rigs from many shots.

Almost every car in the original film shots had to be removed and replaced with digital models. In the CGI-enhanced Costume Montage sequence that lasted about a minute, over 40 live-action and graphic elements were combined as Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) brainstormed to create a costume for himself.

Segments with Spider-Man required shooting in front of a greenscreen, while the villainous Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) had to be shot in front of a bluescreen. Also, in the final battle scene in an abandoned building between Spidey and the Green Goblin, to ensure a PG rating, digital effects transformed the red blood from the hero's mouth into clear liquid spit.

And in respect for the 9/11 tragedy, the shot of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, between which Spider-Man had spun a web to snare the maniacal Green Goblin and caught a passing helicopter instead, was removed from the final cut of the released movie (in its final reel), although the image remained in one of the film's trailers.

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)

George Lucas' film was the first big-budget, Hollywood feature film completely shot and exhibited in digital HD video (non-celluloid), with a 24 fps high-definition progressive scan camera. (See the earlier Vidocq (2001, Fr.) above.)

Also, it exhibited extensive use of digital matte paintings.

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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