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

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The Matrix Reloaded introduced high-definition 'Universal Capture' (or U-cap) or image-based facial animation into the special effects lexicon -- i.e., the fight scene in Reloaded between Neo (Keanu Reeves) and 100 Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving) used this technique.

Five high-resolution digital cameras recorded the real Agent Smith's actions to produce data which was fed into a computer, where a complex algorithm calculated the actor's appearance from every single angle the cameras had missed, and used them to generate digital or 'cloned' humans indistinguishable from real humans.

The Matrix Reloaded also featured one of the most thrilling freeway car chases in film history, using as little CGI as possible, and relying mostly instead on physical effects for the crashes (hidden ramps and cannons), although Agent Smith was added in post-production.

The Matrix Revolutions featured the first realistic, very close-up representation of detailed facial deformation on a synthetic human, during a face punch. This scene occurred during the final climactic fight between Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and Neo (Keanu Reeves), when Smith was punched in the face.


Multiple Agent Smiths

Face Punch

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

CGI effects were used to startling effect - when first revealed - to seamlessly turn the cursed Black Pearl pirates, led by Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), from normal humans to ghoulish, anatomically-detailed living skeletons ("The moonlight shows us for what we really are").

In the film's conclusion during a moonlit night, the 'undead' pirates snuck up on the British Royal Navy and the HMS Dauntless by walking across the ocean floor in skeleton form, and then crawling up the ropes on the sides of the ship undetected.

Able Edwards (2004)

Director Graham Robertson's futuristic sci-fi film echoed many of the attributes of the classic Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), while attaining a big-budget feel without spending a lot of money. The entire feature, in reality a desktop-computer cinematic creation, was made in 15 days with a budget of only $30,000.

As in Kane, it began with a death, and then newsreel footage about the deceased title character (spelled Abel), a famous entertainment mogul who started out as a political cartoonist at the Denver Post, and eventually ran a Hollywood studio and a theme-park resort in San Pedro, California.

The reason it was so inexpensive was that it was the first publicly-released feature film shot entirely without physical sets (they were computer-generated and produced solely with CGI). Real actors were then shot with a mini-DV against the green screen set backgrounds.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

This apocalyptic, global-warming disaster film from Roland Emmerich about global catastrophe used 50,000 scanned photos of a 13 block area of NYC to create a 3D, photorealistic model of the city - with that model (a digital backdrop), the downtown metropolis was destroyed by a giant digital tsunami wave and then frozen.

The film also featured the longest ever CG flyover shot for the opening ice shelf scene.

Immortel (Ad Vitam) (2004)

Like Able Edwards (2004), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and Sin City (2005), this film seamlessly blended live actors with computer generated surroundings.

It was one of the first films to use an entirely "digital backlot" (i.e. all of the actors were shot in front of blue- and green-screens with all the backgrounds added in post-production).

In addition, it also featured live actors interacting with semi photo-realistic CGI "humans."

The Incredibles (2004)

Pixar's computer-animated feature film by writer/director Brad Bird, their sixth one, was the first of their films to feature human characters for the main roles, such as Bob and Helen Parr (alias Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl), among others.

The Polar Express (2004)

This Robert Zemeckis film further developed motion capture technology found in the pioneering Peter Jackson film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002). It was the first CGI film that used 'motion capture' to create every character.

It was marked by the first innovative use of the process of 'Performance Capture' -- a motion capture system by which an actor's live performances were digitally captured by computerized cameras, and became a human blueprint for creating virtual, all-digital characters. It was IMAX's first full-length, animated 3-D feature.

Unlike existing motion-capture systems, Performance Capture simultaneously recorded 3-dimensional facial and body movements from multiple actors, using a system of digital cameras that provided 360 degree views. This allowed actor Tom Hanks to play many very different digital characters (the boy, the father, the conductor, the hobo, and Santa Claus) in the same film. Zemeckis went even further with this technique in his film Beowulf (2007).

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

This was the first big-budget movie with very photo-realistic, all-CGI backgrounds and live actors. See also Able Edwards (2004), Immortel (Ad Vitam) (2004), and Sin City (2005) - all 'digital backlot' films produced around the same time.

This meant that human actors were completely filmed in front of a green/blue screen with no background sets at all. Everything except the main characters was computer-generated.

Hologram Version of Villain
Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier)

[Note: The film also used actor Laurence Olivier, post-humously, after his death date of 1989. It used archived BBC footage of the actor and inserted it into the film with digital effects.]

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Spider-Man 2 won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects (its only Oscar win from three nominations), defeating I, Robot (2004) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).

The special digital FX budget for this blockbuster sequel totaled approximately $54 million.

The most spectacular scenes were the struggle between Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) and the tentacled major villain Doctor Otto Octavius ("Doc Ock") (Alfred Molina) on the side of a skyscraper during a bank robbery, atop the Westside bell/clock Tower, and then on the roof (and side) of a moving, runaway, overhead subway train that Spider-Man had to brake before it plunged over the end of the track.

The conclusion in which Octavius decided to drown the reactor and himself to avoid a doomsday scenario for the city also required extensive CGI, live action, and model work.

King Kong (2005)

Its Oscar win for Best Visual Effects defeated The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and War of the Worlds (2005).

Peter Jackson's remake of the classic and tragic beauty-and-the-beast love story of the 1933 film featured a computer-generated Kong.

The film was remarkable for having the largest number of special/visual effects shots in a single film, surpassing the previous records set by Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), and Jackson's own trilogy of The Lord of the Rings films. The more than 3,200 final shots in the film were culled from 3 million feet of live-action footage and 2,510 visual effects shots.

Andy Serkis (who performed the role of the CGI character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) provided both on-set performance reference and motion-capture performance for the title character of the giant ape King Kong.

Sin City (2005)

This Robert Rodriguez-directed, violent B/W crime-film noir was based on three of the 90s graphic novels by Frank Miller (who co-directed) - including "Sin City", a stylistic comic book adaptation (mostly noirish black and white and containing vibrant splashes of color).

It starred Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba, and was shot completely with high-definition digital.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005, UK)

Aardman Studio's second Plasticine stop-motion animated film with clay figures - after Chicken Run (2000) - also featured over 700 examples of digital effects, including CGI effects.

Examples included the captured rabbits floating in circles in the glass chamber of mute canine Gromit's Bun-Vac, and a golden carrot shot like a bullet from a bazooka.

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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