25 greatest CGI movie moments of all time

20. Labyrinth (1986)

  • Director: Jim Henson
  • VFX: ILM and Optical Film Effects

Why watch it?

Although it may not be the most impressive effect today, back in 1986 this digital owl made quite a stir among cinema goers. It was the very first attempt at creating a realistic looking CGI animal and we think the teams at ILM and Optical Film Effects did a mighty fine job. Although Jim Henson is more widely known for his puppetry skills (which were put to good use in the film), he managed to help create the computer-generated characters that would eventually replace them.

Bill Kroyer was responsible for the award-winning design; he animated and technical directed the flying owl which was also produced by Alan Peach. It's safe to say that being the very first fully computer animated animal, this opening sequence would go on to have a lasting impression on the world of CGI movie history.

Killer sequence...

The opening credits sees David Bowie's character Jareth the Goblin King as an owl... naturally.

19. i, Robot (2004)

  • Director: Alex Proyas
  • VFX: Weta

Why watch it?

While the huge robot punch-up at the top of the US Robotics building provides a suitably action-packed climax to proceedings, we think it's the film's other huge robot punch-up that's the more memorable. Hurtling along a suspiciously empty tunnel in his product-placed Audi RSQ sport coupe, two ominous (and beautifully designed) container vehicles glide alongside Spooner and eject their cargo of angry androids over his car.

It's a brilliantly dynamic scene, featuring 90 shots and tons of destruction. Constructing the scene entirely in CG, including a digital Will Smith borrowed from Digital Domain, Weta used Maya for modelling, RenderMan for output and Shake for compositing and some lighting effects.

Killer sequence...

Chicago Police Detective Del Spooner is enjoying a quiet drive home in his Audi until murderous robots attack.

18. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

  • Director: Roland Emmerich
  • VFX: Tweak Films

Why watch it?

There's an abundance of VFX sequences in this disaster movie, but none beat the brilliant super-sized tsunami that hits Manhattan. Only responsible for five shots in the entire film, Tweak Films pulled out all the stops on the water simulation for the sequence.

The small studio used its proprietary water system – a unified dynamics platform that includes rigid body dynamics, fluid dynamics and particle simulation – to create the ultra-realistic flood. LIDAR models and textures were used to build the city itself, meaning final shots were completely digital, and the resulting composition was a masterful mix of dozens of layers.

Killer sequence...

The massive storm causes a huge tsunami to hit Manhattan.

17. Hollow Man (2000)

  • Director: Paul Verhoeven
  • VFX: Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI)

Why watch it?

The film boasts some 400 effects, ranging from simple tracking and bluescreen shots when Bacon's latex mask is seen to be empty, through to sophisticated effects where the invisible man's body is highlighted only by water or smoke.

That standout VFX sequence, where Bacon becomes invisible, is a marvel too. Sony's custom volume rendering system enabled the VFX crew to replicate an entire human body in detail, where all the veins and organs move and react properly to the movement of the character. Overall, Hollow Man's not Verhoeven's best effort, but the effects are great.

Killer sequence...

Invisibility test subject Sebastian Caine's gradual transformation to transparency, as layers of skin, organs and bone disappear.

16. Star Wars - Episode 1 (1999)

  • Director: George Lucas
  • VFX: ILM

Why watch it?

The Phantom Menace was, at the time, the biggest visual effects project ever undertaken. The film required 35,000 storyboards and 95 per cent of the frames have digital elements in them.

To visualise the sequence, ILM spent a year on R&D, working on physics systems for the destruction of the podracers plus an Adaptive Terrain Generator, which employed a level-of-detail system just so that its computers could hold the mesh data in memory. Despite the film's (many) flaws, the thrilling 320-shot podrace remains an undoubted highlight of the Star Wars canon and is well worth savouring.

Killer sequence...

A slave boy infested with Midi-chlorians races against aliens in an 800kph hovercraft to win his freedom.

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