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 (11 minutes in length) was made primarily using open source applications, and the first to be released as 'open source' -- meaning that all 3D models, animatics and software included on the DVD were free for anyone's use.

Happy Feet (2006)

Extensive motion capture was used to record the dancing of tap dance virtuoso Savion Glover for the soft-shoeing of young penguin Mumble in the CGI-animated tale.

The hoofer wore a black bodysuit with 40 reflective sensors near his joints, to record his movements (as data) from the light reflectors - which was 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.

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. 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.

The same contortionist/monster actor Doug Jones, again with an elaborate, heavy prosthetic makeup and costume (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. 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.

The Pale Man

Pan, the Faun

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

It won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, over Poseidon (2006) and Superman Returns (2006).

CGI imagery had reached the point of becoming so convincing that the completely computer-generated 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.

Superman Returns (2006)

This sequel 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 (Brandon Routh) eyeball, after he blocked bullets with his chest (with an 'S' insignia) being fired from a gigantic rooftop machine gun toward two security guards.

It also used CG 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 he delivered new dialogue that existed previously only as vocal tracks.

Visual effects artists also created a completely realistic, digital body double of the title character with a digital cape.

300 (2006)

Director Zack Snyder's very original, highly-stylized telling of the Battle of Thermopylae (from Frank Miller's comic book novel) was shot mostly with a super-imposition chroma key technique, to replicate the images of the original comic book.

The actors were filmed before blue-screens (and green-screens 10% of the time), upon which backgrounds were filled in with more than 1,300 CG visual effects shots (comprising over 8,600 visual effect elements).

The film had a desaturated, sepia-toned, artistic look. Animatronics were used for various animals. 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

Thousands of Arrows

Beowulf (2007)

This Robert Zemeckis-directed film, an adaptation of the Old English epic poem, used advanced motion-capture technology to transform live action into digital animation, resulting in a 100% CGI film. The technique 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).

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.

In the scene where Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie) appeared naked, a gold-painted, nude body (belonging to Rachael Bernstein) was attached to Angelina Jolie's CGI-rendered head.

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).

Remarkable CGI-imagery was employed in this fantasy film in the representation of one's soul - a daemon visualized as an animal. The daemon creatures were computer-created and animated, and incorporated into about 800 camera shots in the film. Two of the most prominent daemons were 12 year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua's (Dakota Blue Richards) shape-shifting Pan (voice of Freddie Highmore) - a ferret (or ermine), a wood mouse, striped cat, a moth, or a bird, and the Golden Monkey daemon of villainess Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman).

In addition, 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 armoured warrior ice-bear Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen) (the rightful-heir to the throne, but exiled) and king Ragnard Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane), with authentic-looking polar-bear fur, muscles, paws, and flying ice.

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

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

There in the afterlife, he 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 himself talking while dangling from his dreadlocks of hair.

Other parts of the film recognized for visual effects achievements were the maelstrom during the sea battle scene (with two ships fighting each other while circling a whirlpool), and the reprise of the CGI-animated character Davy Jones (Bill Nighy).

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but lost to The Golden Compass (2007).

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

This was the third in the series of superhero films featuring Marvel Comics' Spider-Man, with a record 900 visual effects shots in the film.

The most impressive visual FX sequences were:

  • 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, and

  • the birth of the Sandman (a three-minute segment with almost two minutes non-stop), and (3) the giant Sandman's theft of an armored car as he battled NYPD officers. It took three years to create the visual effects required to portray the Sandman's shape-shifting powers.

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, and 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, and the climactic battle scene between Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grace), Flint Marko/Sandman, Spider-Man, and Harry Osborn (James Franco) regarding endangered hostage Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) suspended by a tenuous symbiote web 80 stories above the ground in a taxi-cab.

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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