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 Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

This film was the Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects, defeating Iron Man (2008) and The Dark Knight (2008) for its transformations of the main character Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), born in 1918 at the end of the Great War, and suffering as a baby from arthritis, osteoporosis, and nearly blind from cataracts as if he was in his 80s.

A computer-generated copy of Pitt's aged face was grafted by special effects experts onto various smaller bodies during Benjamin's growing-up (or growing-down) years, especially during the first third of the film. The breakthrough special effects were elaborate and seamlessly integrated, using a new facial performance capturing system called "Contour" to track an actor's facial movement in three-dimensional space. The studio, Digital Domain, admitted: "There's 325 shots - 52 minutes of the film - where there is no actual footage of Brad."

Transformations of Benjamin Button

In his early years, at age 5 approximately, he appeared to be a short, frail, bald elderly man with glasses. He graduated from a wheel chair to a cane, and then in puberty grew hair, gained muscle tone, and looked healthier. At around age 17, he took a job on a tugboat, through the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the war years. After the war, Benjamin appeared to be 50 years old, although he was only 26 chronologically. [Also, prosthetic make-up allowed Cate Blanchett to morph into a withered, dying old woman.]

In 1962, after the healing of lover/girlfriend Daisy (Cate Blanchett) following a car accident, Benjamin appeared to be in his late 30s or early 40s, and both of them were in the prime of their lives. When he was 49 years old in 1967, she was 43 years old ("We are almost the same age"). Things went on the decline after that --- after their baby born out of wedlock in 1968, who was named Caroline, had her first birthday, Benjamin decided that the baby deserved a father and not a playmate, and left everything to Daisy before leaving to wander the world.

By film's end, Benjamin as a minor 12 year old (with acne) (portrayed by a younger actor) was found living in a condemned building in New Orleans. Daisy cared for Benjamin, who didn't recognize her but felt like he should know her, since he was suffering from the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Eventually, he became an infant in Daisy's arms, where he died. On her deathbed, the film's twist was revealed and seen in flashback. Daisy revealed that her 40-ish daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) was Daisy's daughter by Benjamin, born out of wedlock.

Daisy (Cate Blanchett)

1918 - Birth

approx 5 years old

in the 1930s

1945 - 26 yrs old

As a young man, approx. 40 years in the 1960s

as a 20 year old

as 12 year old

Doctor Who (2005- ) - TV Show Episode "Partners in Crime"

This BBC science-fiction TV show was the first to use the Massive AI system software, normally used for crowd sequences or for battle sequences in science-fiction and fantasy films (i.e., The Lord of the Rings).

Now in its 4th season (or series) during 2008, in the first of its 13 episodes, "Partners in Crime," (airing in late April of 2008), an investigation was underway regarding weight-loss pills tested by Adipose Industries.

The revolutionary pills, taken at night, caused excess fat to literally melt away in the form of tiny marshmallowy creatures, as seen in CGI sequences. People taking the pill dissolved (and died in the process) into dozens of fat blobs as the advertisement claimed: "the fat just walks away."

The alien creatures, called Adipose, were short white blobs that then terrorized London.

WALL-E (2008)

Pixar's and Disney's animated science-fiction love story (their 9th film), filmed like a live-action film, was set in the year 2805. It told about the title character - the last lone garbage-compacting robot on Earth named WALL·E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) (voice of Ben Burtt).

The ecological robot (similar to the robot in Short Circuit (1986) and to Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)) was composed of a pair of binoculars (for eyes), with a turtle-like body and tank treads for locomotion.

His modern female robotic counterpart was EVE (short for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) (voice of Elissa Knight), a sleek, white-shelled probe droid-robot that was sent to check on the progress of the clean-up and to locate plant life.

In a clever reversal for a Pixar feature-length film, and a first, the animated film contained live-action segments and real-characters, including a VCR recording of the musical Hello, Dolly! (1969), and the Buy-N-Large (B&L) Flight and Global CEO Shelby Forthwright (Fred Willard) on the spaceship AXIOM making video announcements to the fat, Bob's Big-Boy style, corpulent and lazy fatsos (and the Captain, voice of Jeff Garlin) reclining on floating, robotic lounge chairs on their 700th year anniversary of their 5-year cruise.

Waltz with Bashir (2008, Isr.) (aka Vals Im Bashir)

Waltz with Bashir (2008, Isr.) was the first animated film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Film Oscar category.

Functioning partially as an oral-history documentary, the introspective, dream-like anti-war polemic was a confessional account of director Ari Folman's devastating and traumatic experience as a young Israeli soldier during his country's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and its massacre of Palestinian refugees.

It took two years to animate, and was completed by a team of artists who combined hand-drawing with the latest technological tools - resulting in thick-lined, near-monochromatic animated images - frequently seen in strange yellowish light.

The animators based their drawings on staged and videotaped interviews, although the end result looked similar in some ways to the rotoscope technique used in Linklater's film Waking Life (2001).

Avatar (2009)

Visionary director James Cameron's monumental work (his first feature film since Titanic (1997)) was this futuristic, epic 3-D live-action film, with ground-breaking, Oscar-winning special effects. Much of the film's reported budget of over $300 million was spent on cutting-edge CGI and advanced motion-capture techniques. (40% of the film was live-action while 60% was photo-realistic CGI).

Although originally scheduled for release in late spring of 2009, the opening was delayed until mid-December 2009, due to the demands of the special effects on computer renderings, and the installation of 3-D projection systems to accommodate the film worldwide.

Over a period of years, Cameron designed dual-function cameras that simultaneously filmed in both conventional 2-D and state of the art 3-D. The film utilized motion performance-capture assisted CGI technology with actors on a stage (called the Volume), to create the sympathetic Na'vi characters.

The technique of performance capture involved putting actors into bodysuits covered with tiny dots, while about 140 digital cameras captured their body movements. Also, a tiny helmet-rigged camera (on a skullcap) was used for recording finer facial, eye, and head movements. And then the digitally-recorded data was used by animators to create the characters in their virtual world environment.

Various striking elements in the film included:

  • the visually-stunning alien planet of Pandora
  • the world of plants and aliens called Na'vi
  • the computer-generated, blue-skinned, primitive alien character of Na'vi warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) - and human gone native Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as a tall, lanky, long-tailed, blue-skinned creature/avatar
  • the purple-skinned predatory creature Thanator with burnished black skin banded with stripes of yellow and scarlet, sharp teeth, armored head and tail, and ten 'sensor quills'

A Christmas Carol (2009)

Performance capture-advocate Robert Zemeckis had previously experimented with the technology in his own The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007), and used the technique in this film -- Disney's 3-D A Christmas Carol (2009), an adaptation of Dickens' 1843 classic story. It was released in both Disney Digital 3-D and in IMAX 3-D (it was the first Disney animated film released in this format). It was Zemeckis' first film with Disney since Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

In the film, Jim Carrey played multiple roles, including old miser Scrooge (at different stages of his life) and the three Christmas ghosts.

Performance capture (or motion capture) digitally blends live performance and animated elements. Actors wore heavy, dot-sensor-covered spandex body suits and a helmet, and initially acted out their scenes in isolation from other sets, props, costumes, or actors.

Expressions and movements were first recorded by digital cameras as 3D "moving data points" - and afterwards, the digitally-recorded performances were translated and embellished by key-frame artists and integrated into an exclusively virtual environment (Victorian London).

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

The DreamWorks sci-fi spoof of 50s monster B-movies, Monsters vs. Aliens, was the first computer-animated feature film to be shot directly in stereoscopic 3-D -- dubbed the Ultimate 3-D. Previously, 3-D CGI films were made in a non 3-D version and then dimensionalized.

[Note: Other 3-D computer animated films would also debut in the new format: 20th Century Fox's and James Cameron's Avatar (2009), Fox's Ice Age 3 (2009), Disney's motion-capture A Christmas Carol (2009), and Pixar's Toy Story 3 (2010).]

Watchmen (2009)

In this filmed adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel (a 12-issue publication by DC Comics between 1986 and 1987) by director Zack Snyder, the photo-realistic, all-CGI character of the all-powerful, blue-glowing "atomized" scientist Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) was created with the process of motion capture. Dr. Manhattan's character appeared in approximately 38 minutes of the entire film.

Crudup wore a specially-designed motion capture suit covered with pattern markers and face markers - he was filmed with two to four HD "witness" cameras (in addition to the film's master camera) to capture his overall full-body movements and facial expressions. All the cameras were synced so animators could then triangulate Crudup's performance in-frame.

The number of black facial markers on the suit was a record 165 spot points, allowing the animators to track his expressions through video and then use that data as a jumping-off point to hand-animate Manhattan's face. Crudup's suit was also equipped with 2500 LEDs to create Manhattan's diffuse blue glow.

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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