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

Contact (1997)

Robert Zemeckis' science-fiction drama was based on Carl Sagan's 1985 novel. It told about the hunt for intelligent life in the universe.

Many films in this time period were using a combination of visual effects:

  • model and miniature shots
  • blue-green screening
  • digital computer work

Zemeckis continued to push the envelope in special effects, after his revolutionary work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Death Becomes Her (1992), and Forrest Gump (1994).

The film contained in its opening a continuous single digital FX shot, reportedly the longest ever created at the time. It was inspired by the short documentary film, Powers of Ten (1977). It was a computer-generated sequence of a virtual camera, with a very slow and lengthy pull-back including the following elements:

  • an image of the Earth, and the Moon
  • views of some of the planets in the rest of the solar system
  • the Ort Cloud
  • various layers of nebula and stellar debris in interstellar space
  • the Local Bubble
  • the Milky Way
  • Deep Space, with hundreds of other galaxies

And then, the camera pulled back to reveal that the light from all of these stars was actually the highlight in a young girl's eye, as she was listening to her amateur radio set. The color of the girl's eyes were digitally altered to match the eye-color of young "Ellie" (Jena Malone), the future SETI scientist and radio astronomer Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway (portrayed by actress Jodie Foster as an adult).

[Note: The 3-minute sequence was ultimately surpassed in length by the CG opening of The Day After Tomorrow (2004).]

One of the more memorable scenes was the wormhole sequence, prefaced by a giant Machine built as a transport mechanism for intergalactic travel to meet aliens. Ellie had inherited her father's passionate interest in astronomy, although he had died of a heart attack when she was very young. She had been chosen to make first 'contact' with extraterrestrial life after an initial attempt was sabotaged by a fanatical terrorist suicide bomber.

During the tense launch that generated dangerous "electro-magnetic field" levels and was nearly aborted, Dr. Arroway kept shouting: "I'm okay to go, okay to go, I'm okay to go"; she was propelled into space by being dropped into a set of three spinning, rapidly-rotating gimbals rings illuminated by bright lights.

She vibrated and transited through a series of tunnels or wormholes providing various views from the outside environment (reminiscent of Kubrick's Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)), during which time she observed signs of a brilliant white star and four planetary stars circling above the distant planet of Vega with a spaceport on the surface of the planet below - possible signs of an advanced civilization; she unbuckled herself from the pod chair to retrieve her compass floating in front of her, and turned back to watch the chair become disattached before there was darkness; floating weightless, she found a flashlight to illuminate her surroundings.

The Wormhole Sequence - Her Journey Through Tunnels to The Distant Planet of Vega

Ellie reacted to what she was seeing after her arrival at faster-than-light speed, and in a reverential account as the camera zoomed into the white of her eye, she movingly described: ("Some celestial event. No, no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should've sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea. I had no idea...They're alive...Oh God!").

Camera Zoom-In to Ellie's Eye

Awakening on an Alien World Beachfront on the Planet Vega

A Florida Beach Similar to the One In Her Drawing

She awoke and entered the alien world - a digitally-altered beach. On the side of the beach was a growth of tropical trees, positioned in the same way as a colorful drawing she showed off early in the film of Pensacola, Florida. As she reached out into her 'bubble-like' rippling environment, she heard musical tones.

In a heartwarming, poignant scene, she experienced a reunion with her 'holographic', long-dead father Theodore "Ted" (David Morse) who walked up to her on the beach and greeted her: "Hi Sparks...I missed you"; her father was a proxy for the alien beings who took her father's form within a familiar environment after "downloading" Ellie's thoughts and memories when she was unconscious, so that the first contact between humanity and the alien world would be easier to comprehend: ("We thought this might make things easier for you"); he picked up a handful of shimmering beach sand that formed a crescent shape like the stars in the sky.

Ellie's Meeting with an Alien - A Shimmering Holograph of Her Deceased Father "Ted" Arroway (David Morse) on Vega

She was told that humanity had been evaluated: "You're an interesting species, an interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other"); she attempted to ask questions but was denied the opportunity: ("Now you go home"); when she wondered: "Do we get to come back?", the alien replied that her journey was only the first small step to finding other species in space: ("This was just a first step. In time, you'll take another....This is the way it's been done for billions of years. Small moves, Ellie. Small moves").

Two of the other most talked-about shots in the film were:

The Tricky Mirror shot

A Composite of Two Shots
The Recut of President
Clinton's Actual Speech

In the mind-boggling, seemingly-impossible-to-film 'tricky mirror' shot - there appeared to be no cameraman or camera. In the flashbacked night-time sequence, young Ellie raced upstairs to retrieve her father's heart pills from a mirrored bathroom cabinet after he had collapsed. The sequence became a slow-motion ordeal, as she ran down the long hallway to the bathroom. And then the camera pulled back to reveal that her sprint down the corridor had been reflected by the mirror on the cabinet's door. She opened the cabinet door, reached for the bottle of pills and then closed the cabinet door. There was a reflection of a framed photo of Ellie with her father sitting on a nearby shelf.

The shot was accomplished by fooling the viewer into believing there was actually a mirror on the front of the cabinet. The technique was called compositing - combining different shots and elements into one image. It was a clever combination of two shots: Shot A (a blue-screen shot of Ellie running up the stairs and extending her hand toward the cabinet, filmed by a Steadicam operator running backwards in front of her), and Shot B (a composited shot of Ellie's hand reaching for the cabinet knob).

In the second F/X instance, digitally-composited press conference footage of then President Bill Clinton's August 7th, 1996 "Mars Meteorite" speech (about a rock found in Antarctica in 1984 that might prove that there was life on Mars) was recut to appear as if the President was talking about messages received from alien sources, including the receipt of an alien television broadcast featuring Adolf Hitler opening the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. In the film, Clinton's speech (cleverly edited) coincided with the themes of the film when he spoke:

If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined. Even as it promises answers to some of our oldest questions, it poses still others even more fundamental. We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say as we continue the search for answers and for knowledge that is as old as humanity itself but essential to our people's future.

An Image of the Earth, and the Moon

Views of Some of the Planets in the Rest of the Solar System (Mars, the asteroid belt, Jupiter and Saturn)

The Eagle Nebula

Various Layers of Nebula and Stellar Debris in Interstellar Space

The Milky Way and Deep Space, with Hundreds of Other Galaxies

White Dot of Light in the Eye of 9-Year Old "Ellie" Arroway (Jena Malone)

End of Zoom Pull-Back Shot

Conceiving Ada (1997, US/Germ.)

Regarding this fantasy sci-fi drama that was a challenging and heady intellectual film, the film's director Lynn Hershman Leeson, a San Francisco-based photographer and computer-installation artist, stated that the film was structured like the double helix of a DNA strand. It was the first film with 2D all-CGI backgrounds (digitized virtual sets) before which live actors performed.

The filmmaker used a new bluescreen filming process in which a number of photographs, taken in Victorian bed and breakfasts in the San Francisco Bay area, were dynamically placed into the main protagonist's world as backgrounds. They were composited or inserted into the film in real time (not in post-production), so that the actors could see their interactions with the background on set.

The main character in this fantasy sci-fi drama, was 19th century mathematician Ada Augusta Byron King (Tilda Swinton), Countess of Lovelace, the first computer programmer. She was noted as the first to write a computer language. Historically, Ada worked with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine - the first "computer" - although it was mostly a mechanical counting device.

In the film's story (involving a bit of cyber time travel), a connection was made with Ada across cyberspace by another woman who became obsessed with her:

  • Emmy (Francesca Faridany), a genetic memory expert and computer researcher

Emmy's mentor Sims (Timothy Leary) suggested that she use DNA in her program (related to her recent pregnancy) to tap into past information and make a direct connection with Ada. Emmy began to retrieve information from the past and even directly communicate with Ada, on "March 11, 1883" - and thus started a two-way discussion with the dead woman's image.

Communicating with Ada

Digitized Virtual Sets in Real Time

The Fifth Element (1997, Fr.)

Writer/director Luc Besson's science-fiction techno-thriller epic, set in a futuristic 23rd century NYC (2263 AD), was noted for its exceptional sets, visual effects and costume designs, and its basic plot-line of good vs. evil. There were an extra-ordinary number of individual FXs in this film (motion control miniatures, CGI, digital compositing and effects simulations, mechanical and practical effects, and 'creature' effects).

Its tagline was:

"It Mu5t Be Found"

In the story, it was explained that a "Fifth Element" in the form of an other-worldly humanoid, positioned in the center of the four fundamental elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water), would prevent the Great Evil from destroying all of humanity. [Note: The film also referenced Heavy Metal (1981).]

In the regeneration or reconstruction sequence set in a NY nucleolab with a team of scientists, a Perfect Being (Fifth Element) was resurrected. The Fifth Element was a beautiful nude woman with orange hair - an extra-terrestrial female named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). A sophisticated machine built her skeleton and strapped muscle tissue onto the bones, using computer animation effects.

Regeneration Scene of the Perfect Being (Fifth Element) - An Extra-Terrestrial Female Named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich)

When Leeloo escaped from the lab, she found herself standing on a narrow building ledge, looking out at a futuristic New York City skyline, with airborne vehicles whizzing by.

The exterior shots of the New York skyscrapers were a massive model (some of the model was blue-screened when Leeloo was on the ledge), while the cars were CG.

Exterior Shots of The New York City Landscape - Massive Scale Models of Old and New Skyscrapers

Leeloo was teamed up with cab-driver and former soldier Major Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) after literally diving off a multi-story Manhattan building into his vehicle.

Its most celebrated sequence was the cab chase with flying cars. The cars were created both as motion-control models and CGI versions.

The immense 2,000 foot long pleasure cruiser - the Fhlostin Paradise - was a motion-control model. It was the largest model ever built for a film (at the time), and weighing 7,500 pounds.

Leeloo on a NYC Building Ledge

Cab Chase Sequence


Mangalores - "Creature" Effects

Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn)

The Fhlostin Paradise

Marvin the Martian in the 3rd Dimension (1997)

This 12 minute Warner Bros. film was the first computer-animated CG film that was to be viewed with 3-D glasses. It was a composition of two different art forms:

  • traditional anaglyphic or polarized film (viewed with 3D glasses)
  • CGI

It combined the experience of watching a fully CGI film with polarized/anaglyphic glasses.

Its main characters were soft-spoken Marvin, and Martian hunter Daffy Duck.

At one time, it was a feature of the Warner Bros.' theme park "Movie World" in Australia (Queensland).


Red Corner (1997)

Director Jon Avnet's mystery thriller was controversial for being critical of the draconian Chinese government at the time.

It starred Richard Gere as an American businessman who was charged with murder while in China doing business with the government regarding a satellite communications deal. He was declared the rapist and murderer of exotic model Hong Ling (Jessey Meng), the daughter of a high-ranking official.

His court-appointed Chinese lawyer Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling) at first insisted that her client file a guilty plea, hoping he would receive leniency for confessing. However, both of them soon uncovered evidence of the frame-up, and exposed judicial, civil and political abuses.

Views of 'China'

Digital visual effects allowed the production to appear to have been completely shot in actual Chinese locations, but that was in fact disallowed by the Chinese government. The entire film was shot in Los Angeles with elaborate sets and CGI rendering. However, just before filming, Avnet had been to Beijing where he shot footage (without government permission), and was able to capture the first-ever 35mm film of the city to appear in a Hollywood film.

Most of the landscape and Beijing city shots (many under the opening credits) were comprised of 2D and 3D matte paintings based on hundreds of still photographs of the Chinese city.

Spawn (1997)

Director/co-writer Mark A.Z. Dippé's violent and bloody supernatural superhero film was an adaptation of the comic-book of the same name by Todd McFarlane. It was the first film with an African American actor, Michael Jai White, portraying a major comic book superhero. Before becoming Spawn, Al Simmons was a special forces government assassin who was betrayed and murdered, and then came back from Hell to Earth. With a Faustian contract, the anti-heroic Spawn (or Hellspawn) chose to be a demonic, super-powered leader of Hell's army in Armageddon in order to return to Earth.

A third of the film's $40 million budget was spent on visual effects, requiring almost a year to complete. Visual effects included a combination of prosthetic makeup, animatronic creatures, and CG work.

There were two very impressive or simulated CGI visual effects (by ILM):

  • the dramatic crashing entrance of Spawn through a glass ceiling into a party held in a museum; he slowed down his landing with his flowing, dynamic dark red cape (Spawn wore a mask, tight bodysuit, and had glowing yellowish eyes)
    the cape was first designed as a wireframe model and then fully rendered and placed on top of the live-action background.
  • the photo-real, fully 3D creature transformation of Clown, a 5'6" overweight, balding man with menacing face-paint and clown costume, into his disguise as the demonic hell-born Violator (John Leguizamo) - the sequence used a combination of CG hand-drawn animation (without motion-capture or stop-motion) and 3D morphing
Transformations of The Clown - into The Violator

There were also some impressive transformations of Spawn with CG animation, including the appearance of chains, hooks, and knives that emerged from his body. In a scene involving a stunt double thrown by Spawn against a dumpster, wires on the double's flying rig were digitally erased.

Spawn's Dramatic Cape Entrance

Starship Troopers (1997)

Director Paul Verhoeven's science-fiction action film was the first to feature a large-scale, interstellar CGI battle between alien insectoid creatures and the military.

An army of futuristic soldiers was locked in visceral, gory combat against a frightening array of thousands of giant alien, spider-like bugs or arachnids (aka archies), from the distant world or planet of Klendathu.

The CGI "Bugs"

The swarming creatures were entirely created with CGI technology (although some of the monstrous insects were robotic models with a custom "Bug Input Device" that allowed puppeteers to animate the 3D warrior bugs in real time).

Giant Spaceships

Titanic (1997)

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, defeating Starship Troopers (1997) and The Lost World (1997).

James Cameron's film was the most expensive film ever made - up to its time, at approximately $200 million. And it was the first film to reach the billion-dollar threshold (worldwide).

The Sequence at the Bow of the Ship: Learning to Fly

It was noted for its large scale use of motion-capture and 3D digital crowd extras. With stunning, costly digital effects in a historical epic/drama - computers were used to create:

  • the digital CG passengers seen on the ship's deck (animated with motion-capture)
  • the ship's launch
  • the Titanic's engine room
  • the camera fly-bys of the ill-fated cruise ship (an intricate miniature model)
  • the transition shot of the two lovers at the front of the ship (when Jack (Leonardo Di Caprio) was teaching Rose (Kate Winslet) how to "fly") transformed to an underwater shot
  • even Kate Winslet's iris that was digitally inserted and morphed into one of Gloria Stuart's eyes

Both CG and miniature models (and lots of stuntpeople) were used to portray the ocean-liner as it tilted (on a massive set), split in two, and sank in the tragic finale - into enhanced CG water.

Antz (1998)

Following Toy Story (1995), this DreamWorks adventure-comedy was the second fully computer-animated feature, preceding the release of Disney's/Pixar's all-CGI insect epic A Bug's Life by seven weeks. With its success, it helped to ensure the future of the new medium - feature-length animations with 3D computer graphics.

This was also the first CGI film to feature over 10,000 individually-animated characters in various crowd scenes (such as the Starship Troopers-like battle). Over 40% of the shots in the film were crowd shots. Also, it incorporated new muscle-based facial animation tools.

A few of the characters shared facial features with their voice actors, such as soldier ant Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), and Z (Woody Allen) as a paranoid, nervous, and unhappy worker ant.

Z (Woody Allen)
Weaver (Sylvester Stallone)
General Mandible (Gene Hackman)

It was the first computer-animated film to receive a PG rating, and the first computer-animated feature film to use computer software to create and simulate the properties of water -- hence, digital water, especially in its flood sequence.

Crowd Battle Scene

Digital Water

Godzilla (1998)

Director Roland Emmerich's sci-fi monster movie was a re-envisioning of the original classic 1954 Japanese film known as Gojira (and released a few years later in a US version titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)). It was notable as the first Godzilla film to be completely produced by a Hollywood studio.

The vast majority of the film's giant monster/lizard was computer-generated, including the terrifying monster's baby hatchlings, the helicopter shot of the beached tanker found on the Panamanian coast, and the finale's fully-digital Brooklyn Bridge scene, when the CGI monster chased a taxi-cab and stomped across the CGI span (snapping cables and crumbling the road).

There were about 400 visual effects shots in the film, including about 235 Godzilla CGI shots, and just a few animatronic shots of the monstrous beast.

Mighty Joe Young (1998)

Director Ron Underwood's adventure film was a remake of the original 1949 film. There were a number of visual effects techniques for "Mighty Joe Young":

  • a full scale robotic model
  • an actor in a 'miniature' gorilla suit, and the use of a camera technique known as 'forced perspective' to make the gorilla appear larger
  • a fully CGI gorilla

It was noteworthy for the creation of groundbreaking "hair, fur and feathers" technology for the CGI gorilla's hairy coat.

Pleasantville (1998)

Director Gary Ross' directorial debut film was this fantasy comedy-drama with the tagline: "Nothing Is As Simple As Black And White." This referred to the F/X shots for much of the film, in which black and white characters interacted with color characters, in the same shot.

According to Guinness, Pleasantville had the most computer generated effects in a film to date - 1,700 digital visual effect shots, compared to the average Hollywood film which had 50 at the time. The next film to have a larger number of digital effects shots was Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999).

After shooting the film entirely in color, it was scanned, processed, and recorded digitally. Most of the effects in this time-travel fable involved selectively de-saturating the color film, and digitally adjusting the contrast.

The plot was about teen twin siblings (in a divorced family) in contemporary suburbia:

  • David Wagner/Bud (Tobey Maguire), shy
  • Jennifer/Mary Sue (Reese Witherspoon), ultra-hip, edgy, hot-tempered teen who liked MTV and had a sensual streak

The two were transported from the cynical '90s into a '50s black-and-white sitcom (titled "Pleasantville") and a world of stereotypical perfection and nostalgic, safe and traditional values.

Zapped From the Colorful 1990s to the B/W 1950s

When they were zapped back to the 50s while fighting over the TV's remote control, they took on new names and their 'Ozzie-and-Harriet' parents on the Pleasantville b/w TV sit-com became:

  • George Parker (William H. Macy), a businessman
  • Betty (Joan Allen), a repressed house-wife

As their lives began to change, and the peaceful blandness of the 50's was challenged and people were liberated (through sex and other unknown but needed desires), various characters or objects began to appear in "living color."

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

This DreamWorks SKG's' animated musical feature/epic, its first traditionally animated film, was about the life of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. It was the first animated feature to be developed around a Biblical story.

It was the most expensive, classically-animated feature film at the time, budgeted at $60 million, and took four years to bring to the screen. It had a blend of both traditional animation and CGI for its visual effects.

It was the first animated feature film to use major Hollywood stars in all the voice parts.

The film included 1,192 special effects -- its most spectacular and breath-taking moments were:

  • Moses' Hieroglyphics Nightmare Sequence
  • the Burning Bush
  • the series of nine Plagues (frogs, lice, death of livestock, hail fire, locusts, etc.) ending with the 10th (death of firstborn by the Angel of Death)
  • the Pillar of Fire
  • the 7 minute parting of the Red Sea sequence (it took 318,000 hours to computer render)

One of its scenes depicted a 16,000 person crowd, as the Hebrews fled Egypt during the Exodus.

One of its technological milestones was to seamlessly bring together CG 3-D models and traditionally-drawn 2-D characters and settings in a single shot, using a revolutionary piece of software known as the "Exposure Tool."

For example, in the chariot race sequence between the young Pharaoh Rameses (voice of Ralph Fiennes) and Moses (voice of Val Kilmer), the chariots and background were 3-D CG models, while the characters and horses were 2-D classically-animated (or hand-drawn).

The Chariot Race

The film also created an animated crane shot that looked very much like a live-action shot - as the camera lifted up to the sky to reveal the wide horizon of the Egyptian Empire.

The Burning Bush

Moses' Staff Turning Into Cobra in Front of Egyptian Pharaoh

Plague of Frogs

The Hebrews in Exodus Approaching Red Sea

Parting of Red Sea

What Dreams May Come (1998)

This Oscar winner for Best Achievement in Visual Effects defeated the disaster film Armageddon (1998) and Mighty Joe Young (1998). It was one of the few films shot with Fuji Velvia film, known for its high levels of color saturation, and smooth finish.

It depicted an imaginative and impressionistic visuals and richly vibrant landscapes of the after-life world. The most striking was the vivid "paint world" in which the entire heavenly world was an expressionistic, colorful landscape literally made of paint. Heaven was pictured dreamily, while there were equally impressive and imaginative vistas and scenarios in an imprisoning dark Hell.

The Vision of Hell

The visuals were in the imagination of deceased pediatrician Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), whose "soulmate" wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) was a painter. Chris' concept of the great afterworld was also manifested in his wife's art.

In the scenes of an Expressionist painting world in Chris' imagined heaven (using surreal Oscar-winning CGI effects), he was told:

"Nice place you got here...You're making all of this. See, we're all pretty insecure at first, so we see ourselves somewhere safe, comforting. We all paint our own surroundings, Chris, but you're the first guy I know to use real paint."

In this idyllic world, he subconsciously created his own eternity as a landscape acrylic still in the process of being painted. While his vision continued to be fashioned and created, he could squish a blue flower in his hand and see the wet paint goo.

Chris Blurred After Death

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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