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

Elephants Dream (2006) (short)

This computer-generated (or CGI) experimental short film (10 minutes in length), a dramatic fantasy, was made primarily using open source applications, and the first to be released as 'open source.'

It marked a major milestone in open source CG animation production. It was the first CG animated short made in a team-based environment that was produced almost completely with free tools, available to anyone. This meant that all 3D modeling, animation, and rendering using the 3D suite of Blender software was free for anyone's use.

It was a test film, to demonstrate the use of the software, and had only two characters, who were exploring a dreamlike, strange and infinitely-large machine:

  • Proog (Tygo Gernandt), the elder, a tour-guide
  • Emo (Cas Jansen), Proog's younger, curious and skeptical protege

(l to r): Emo and Proog

Happy Feet (2006, Australia/US)

Director George Miller's computer-animated fantasy musical about Emperor penguins was primarily a CG creation. It won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, defeating its competitors: Pixar's/Disney's Cars (2006) and Monster House (2006).

It told about a tone-deaf baby penguin Mumble (voice of Elizabeth Dailey as baby), who did not have a heartsong (to attract a mate) and was treated like an outcast. But he did have an amazing dancing talent.

Extensive motion capture of live-action humans (to provide their digitally-recorded movements) was used in Mumble's dance sequences:

  • the tap dancing of penguin Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood) mirrored the motion-captured dancing of tapper and soft-shoe virtuoso Savion Glover (the film's co-choreographer)

The hoofer wore a black bodysuit with 40 reflective sensors near his joints, to record his movements (as data) from the light reflectors - which were then turned into the bird's final performance by five motion editors and ten computer animators.

However, all of the humans in the film were live-action, not CGI.

Baby Mumble

Mumble Dancing For Human Zoo Visitors

Arrival of "Aliens" - A Research Team

The Dance Finale

Pan's Labyrinth (2006, Sp./Mex./US) (aka El Laberinto del Fauno)

This wondrously imaginative World War II era fantasy film was from director Guillermo del Toro. Its main Special F/X included animatronics (i.e., the giant toad in an old fig tree) and complex make-up. The mandrake root was a hybrid of animatronics and CGI.

It was set in Spain during fascist Franco's regime, when young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) was brought with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to live with her adoptive stepfather, malevolent and brutal Spanish fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi López).

To escape the tough realities of wartime, Ofelia sought refuge in an imaginary escapist world in a forest home filled with fairies - and a menacing faun creature named Pan (Doug Jones), the guardian of the labyrinth. She also communicated with a stick bug-insect (CGI) that she believed was a fairy.

The same contortionist/monster actor Doug Jones, again with an elaborate, heavy prosthetic makeup and costuming (requiring five hours of prep time), also portrayed the character of the faceless, vile, humanoid, all-devouring Pale Man, who enjoyed consuming live and defenseless children. He was noted for his pale, elastic skin.

The Pale Man

He awoke from his slumber when Ofelia was disobedient, took his eyeballs from the table in front of him, and placed them into eye sockets in the palm of his two claw-like hands. This enabled him to see so that he could pursue and eat Ofelia.

Ofelia's "Fairy" - CGI Stick-Bug

The Animatronic Giant Toad

Pan, the Faun

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Director Gore Verbinski's fantasy swashbuckler adventure sequel won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, defeating Poseidon (2006) and Superman Returns (2006).

There were a total of 1,100 visual effects shots, and various techniques included digital matte paintings (digimattes), model miniatures (i.e., the Black Pearl ship), motion-capture and lots of CG (including digital doubles for the three lead actors, and a digital monkey).

CGI imagery had reached the point of becoming so convincing that the completely computer-generated Captain Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a monstrously Octopus-faced-and-tentacled villainous under-sea creature, was so realistic that some critics in their reviews mistakenly thought Nighy was wearing prosthetic makeup.

In fact, although the actor wore a "motion capture" suit for the camera to provide a reference point, none of his real face remained in the final film - the animators even used CGI for Jones' eyes.

Visual effects artists at ILM used an instant (or on-the-spot) motion-capture-to-CG process, and an inventive technique called sub-surface scattering (to believably mimic the look of semi-translucent skin) to create the effect.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) Facing the Kraken

For the Kraken attacks, compositors integrated CG water, practical water splashes, CG characters, CG mast and sail extensions, digital debris, and bluescreen actors into live action plates of a practical ship, real debris, smoke, water and mist.

Captain Davy Jones - CG

Digital Monkey Jack on Resurrected Pirate Hector Barbossa's (Geoffrey Rush) Shoulder

Superman Returns (2006)

Director Bryan Singer's superhero sequel served as a follow-up to the first two Superman films of the late 1970s:

There were a total of 1,400 visual effects shots in the film. In many cases, motion-captured photographs of actor Brandon Routh's face were applied to 3D digital models of the Superman character. In addition to photographing Routh's face, the crew motion-captured his body and facial expressions to help animators create the double's performance.

In flying sequences, Routh 'flew' on wires rigged on a 100-foot long greenscreen stage. Often, a completely-realistic digital body double of Superman then replaced the green-screen footage in final shots - sometimes completely, but sometimes only partially. Superman's cape was usually digital.

A digital city of Metropolis was created, as was a digital Daily Planet office and cars on the streets. The city of New York was the model for the mapping, but was then modified, with landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building removed.

The film used realistic, dramatic CGI, such as in the federal bank robbery scene of a slow-motion bullet from a hand-gun crushing itself against Superman's eyeball, after he blocked bullets with his chest (with an 'S' insignia) being fired from a gigantic rooftop machine gun toward two security guards.

In one fantastical sequence, Superman safely lowered a Boeing 777 plane onto a baseball field, filled with digital extras.

CG was also used in the recreation of the role of Superman's biological father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) in the Fortress of Solitude sequence in the film's opening. The FX team used archival film footage from the first two films along with CGI interpolation, modeling and animation to create a three-dimensional image while the character delivered new dialogue that existed previously only as vocal tracks.

Digital Superman Cape

Plane Saved in Baseball Stadium

Slo-Mo CGI

Post-Humous Recreated Digital Image of Marlon Brando

300 (2006)

The title of director Zack Snyder's very original, highly-stylized war drama (with elements of fantasy) referred to the 300 Spartans who fought to the death at the three-day Battle of Thermopylae. It was major battle between the overwhelmed Greek forces led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), and the Persian forces of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro).

The epic film was based on Frank Miller's 1998 comic book novel - and was a shot-by-shot adaptation of the comic-book panels. With three beheadings and lots of blood-letting (with 2-D blood), the film earned an R-rating.

With a couple of minor exceptions, the entire film was shot indoors, against a blue screen. It was shot mostly with a super-imposition chroma key technique, to replicate the images of the original comic book. The film had a desaturated, sepia-toned, artistic look.

The actors were filmed before blue-screens (and green-screens 10% of the time), upon which backgrounds were filled in later with more than 1,500 CG visual effects shots (comprising over 8,600 visual effects elements).

King Leonidas
The Battle

Animatronics were used for various animals (horses, a wolf, elephants, etc.). Although filming occurred for only 60 days (on a soundstage in Montreal), it took over a year in post-production to finish the film.

Animatronics Elephant

The Wall of Death

Thousands of Arrows

Beowulf (2007)

This Robert Zemeckis-directed animated adventure, an adaptation of the Old English epic poem set in 6th century Denmark, used advanced motion-capture technology to transform live action into digital animation, resulting in a 100% CGI film.

The performances of all of the actors playing the human characters in the film, including those in crowds, were captured and then all of that data was applied to the CG characters. Some called it the "next generation" of live action - or "digitally enhanced live action."

The technique of motion capture was first used in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) for the character of Gollum (see above), and in Zemeckis' own The Polar Express (2004), although the movements were now much more realistic, fluid and natural.

The $150 million budgeted-film was released simultaneously in 2-D and non-IMAX 3D (called REAL D) versions, and had the biggest 3-D rollout of any film in history - opening on almost 1,000 digital 3-D screens and in 90 IMAX theaters.

The Rising Up of Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie)

In one of the most memorable scenes, Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie), a beautiful and slinky sea creature and the shape-shifting mother of mutated monster Grendel, rose up naked from the water. A gold-painted, CGI nude body (modeled after blonde bikini and lingerie model Rachel Bernstein) was attached to Angelina Jolie's CGI-rendered head.

Her words were very enticing to buffed-up warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone), and she completely disarmed him:

Grendel's Mother: Are you the one they call Beowulf? The Bee-Wolf. The bear. Hmm, such a strong man you are with the strength of a king, the king you will one day become.
Beowulf: What do you know of me, demon?
Grendel's Mother: I know that underneath your glamour, you're as much a monster as my son, Grendel.
Beowulf: My glamour?
Grendel's Mother: One needs glamour to become a king. A man like you could own the greatest tale ever sung. Your story would live on when everything now alive is dust. Beowulf. It has been a long time since a man has come to visit me.
Beowulf: I need no sword to kill you.
Grendel's Mother: Of course you don't, my love. You took a son from me. Give me a son, brave thane. Stay with me. Love me. Love me and I shall weave you riches beyond imagination. I shall make you the greatest king that ever lived. As long as you hold me in your heart, and this golden horn remains in my keeping, you will forever be king. Forever strong, mighty and all powerful. This I promise. This I swear.

In another sequence in the film, Beowulf fought against Grendel (Crispin Glover) stark naked (without any weapons or armor), and the animators had to devise ways to hide his genitals from clear view during their battle - similar to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), or the censored version of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Seductive Grendel's Mother


Beowulf vs. Grendel

The Golden Compass (2007)

The Golden Compass won the Best Visual Effects Oscar, defeating Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) and Transformers (2007).

Writer/director Chris Weitz's fantasy film (a combination of live-action and CG) was based on the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. It starred Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, and told about the journey of 12 year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) to rescue kidnapped friend Roger (Ben Walker) from the Magisterium.

The film had some of the most complicated or complex effects sequences ever seen. It required nearly two years to complete and more than 500 F/X artists in three countries. There were close to 1,200 CGI shots, and complex animal characters appeared in almost every scene, often interacting with live-action human characters.

Remarkable CGI-imagery was employed in the representation of people's souls - a daemon visualized as an animal companion. The daemon creatures were computer-created and animated, and incorporated into about 800 camera shots in the film. Shooting was accomplished on green-screen soundstages where the actors held and acted with a variety of objects that would be replaced by CG daemons.

The most prominent daemons were Lyra's shape-shifting Pantalaimon (aka Pan) (voice of Freddie Highmore) - at times a ferret (or ermine), a wood mouse, a cobra, a striped wildcat, a moth, or a bird. There was also the Golden Monkey daemon of villainess Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), and Stelmaria, the snow leopard daemon for Lyra's uncle, explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). An evil authority known as the Magisterium was attempting to separate the paired-up daemons, thus eliminating free-will.

In addition, mystical Dust particles in the universe (representing intelligence) were visualized with fluid simulations. When a person was killed (especially in the film's climactic Battle of Bolvangar sequence involving flying witches, an attacking ice-bear, fleeing children, and Samoyeds), a daemon's dust particles disintegrated in a fiery sparkling cloud.

Another phenomenal sequence was the realistic, totally CGI ice-bear fight - a monumental single-combat, vicious fight-to-the-death between two ice-bears or Panserbjorne (while over 100 other bears looked on) - with authentic looking polar-bear fur, muscles, paws, and flying ice:

  • Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen), an armored warrior (the rightful-heir to the throne, but exiled)
  • King Ragnard Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane)

CGI Daemon Golden Monkey

CGI Pan - a Ferret

Dust Particles

CGI Ice-Bear Fight

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but lost to The Golden Compass (2007). There were about 2,000 visual effects shots in the pirate swashbuckler second sequel.

In this third film in the franchise, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was eternally imprisoned at World's End in Davy Jones' Locker.

There in the afterlife, Captain Jack was stranded with his pirate ship The Black Pearl in the middle of a desert, and was suffering from schizophrenic-like, multiple hallucinations of himself, created with multiple pass technology.

There were also miniature versions of Jack talking while dangling from his dreadlocks of hair.

Other parts of the film recognized for visual effects achievements were:

  • the climactic sequence -- the huge maelstrom effect during the sea battle scene (with two ships fighting each other while circling a whirlpool)
  • the reprise of the 100% CGI-animated character Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) with bearded tentacles, created with motion-capture

Multiple Captain Jacks

Whirlpool Battle Scene

CGI Davy Jones

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

This was the third in the series of superhero films featuring Marvel Comics' Spider-Man, from director Sam Raimi, with a record 900 visual effects shots in the film. It took three years to create and pack the film with visual effects, and was one of the most expensive films of all time, with a budget of $258 million.

Spidey’s latest three new villains were the Harry Osborn/the New Goblin (James Franco), Flint Marko/Sandman and Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grace). Teams of F/X artists worked for more than two years to develop techniques for creating the CG characters of Sandman and Venom.

The most impressive visual FX sequences involved the Sandman's shape-shifting powers, such as:

  • the scene in the particle accelerator, a freak accident, in which escaped convict Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), while being pursued by police, was fused with sand when being atomized
  • the birth and creation of the Sandman (a three-minute segment with almost two minutes non-stop, composed of 2,700 frames)
  • the giant Sandman's theft of an armored car as he battled NYPD officers

Other spectacular shots were:

  • Spidey's digitally-enhanced punch into the chest of Sandman, during an armored van theft sequence
  • the Sandman's disintegration by a flood of water (against a wire grating) after an underground subway fight against Spidey
  • the giant Sandman's appearance during the film's final battle

There were many other great action scenes, such as:

  • the out-of-control crane building disaster scene
  • the climactic battle scene between Eddie Brock/Venom, Flint Marko/Sandman, Spider-Man, and Harry Osborn/the New Goblin regarding endangered hostage Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) who was suspended by a tenuous symbiote web 80 stories above the ground in a taxi-cab

Freak Accident

Birth of Sandman

Giant Sandman

Digitally-Enhanced Punch in Chest

Giant Sandman

Transformers (2007)

Director Michael Bay insisted that the CGI (containing some of the most complex animations possible from ILM) for his robot-related live-action film was to be restricted to the robots and some background elements in the action sequences.

In total, there were 60,217 vehicle parts and over 12.5 million polygons assembled into 14 giant, shape-changing automatons (each composed of thousands of moving pieces). For example, the heroic autobot commander Optimus Prime that ILM created for the film was elaborately detailed and gigantic - it had 10,108 parts and was 28 feet tall. He introduced himself to Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf):

My name is Optimus Prime. We are Autonomous Robotic Organisms from the planet Cybertron. But you can call us Autobots, for short.

ILM created about three-fourths of the special FX (450 shots), composed of intricate transformations of the 30 foot tall robots as they moved, and thousands of texture maps filled in additional details to the parts.

Lengthy renderings were required to complete only one frame of movement. And to make the robots more realistic, ray-tracing (reflections of the surrounding environment on surfaces) was also used.

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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