25 greatest CGI movie moments of all time

We celebrate the work of the digital painters, sculptors, concept artists, and others working in the effects industry, as we pick our favourite CGI movie moments in live action movies.

05. Tron (1982)

  • Director: Steven Lisberger

Why watch it?

Although the original Tron didn't do particularly well at the box office thanks to competition from Blade Runner and ET, there's no denying the film was a turning point in the use of visual effects and CGI movie history. It may not have aged well but the production of Tron marked the first time that computer-generated imagery had been extensively used in a feature film.

MAGI used a SynthaVision process to create the computer graphics for the film; this process utilized basic geometric shapes that the computer recognized as solid objects with density. By varying the size and quantity of these shapes, MAGI could construct a limited variety of three-dimensional designs and animate them easily.

Interestingly, Tron was disqualified from competition for 1982's Visual Effects Oscar because computer aided effects were considered cheating.

Killer sequence...

The first glimpse of the light bikes.

04. Terminator 2 (1991)

  • Director: James Cameron
  • VFX: ILM

Why watch it?

The effects used in Terminator 2 were the most ambitious since the 1982 release of Tron. Although the CGI scenes only take up a total of 5 minutes of the film, it took a team of 35 animators, technicians and artists ten months to create. In order to make a computer model of the face of the T-1000, ILM used laser scanning technology called Cyberscan. They projected a laser beam across the face of Robert Patrick and used video cameras to build the 3D database.

Robert's distinctive walk and run were also recorded and studied vigorously to make the T-1000 as realistic as possible. Unsurprisingly, the team went on to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1992.

Killer sequence...

T-1000 emerges from an explosion, revealing his liquid metal structure.

03. Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers (2002)

  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • VFX: Weta

Why watch it?

The creation of JRR Tolkien's vision of Gollum took over 1000 drawings to get right and was the very first time an actor's performance and digital animation were combined to make one lifelike CGI movie character. The Gollum head model consisted of just over 2,600 polygons, which were mostly quads. Raitt also created tools that exposed 64 control points to animation artists, who then animated Gollum into the film's scenes.

Initally, actor Andy Serkis was only supposed to voice the character but after witnessing his extreme facial expressions, the team at Weta decided to scrap their first model and instead, film Andy and capture the movements that way. It was a monumental moment in CG history and Andy has gone on to work with the same methods as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Killer sequence...

The full realisation of Gollum.

02. Avatar (2009)

  • Director: James Cameron
  • VFX: Weta and ILM

Why watch it?

Because it's probably the most complex visual effects sequence created to date. So complex, in fact, that it needed the combined power of the planet's most accomplished FX houses to complete.

Apart from some bluescreen shots of live-action actors in cockpits, it's all CG: gunships, missiles, smoke trails, water, fire, an army of photorealistic virtual characters and a giant tree made of 20 million polygons with 1.2 million leaves. The detailed explosions are entirely CG too, a technique ILM pioneered with a customised version of its fluid dynamics engine. Oh, and it's all in stereoscopic 3D to boot. But despite being the product of two teams working 6,500 miles apart and on different scenes, the action intercuts between them seamlessly. Whatever you think of Cameron's magnum opus, the 200-plus shots of the hometree destruction make for a jaw-dropping sequence and a new benchmark for VFX

Killer sequence...

The Omaticaya clan's deciduous condo gets a drastic makeover, courtesy of the evil Resources Development Administration.

01. Jurassic Park (1993)

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • VFX: ILM

Why watch it?

Because it's potentially the biggest, most eagerly awaited reveal shot in cinematic history. To tackle the task of creating dinosaurs, ILM scanned in chunks of a model brachiosaurus to create patch meshes, then used custom program SOCK (Surface Original with Continuous sKin), developed for Terminator 2, to create an overall mesh.

A new app called Envelope was also created, enabling the underlying points to be manipulated – either by hand or driven by other geometry - thus recreating the effect of muscles beneath the skin. Both Alias PowerAnimator and Softimage Creative Environment 2.0 take credit for the animation in the movie, the latter employed because of Chain, the first commercially available IK system.

Finally, a Dinosaur Input Device (DID) was developed by Craig Hayes of Tippett Studio. Built just like a stop-motion armature, this rig translated movement into keyframes, enabling the stop-motion artists to transfer their well-honed skills into the digital realm.

Killer sequence...

We finally get to see a living, breathing dinosaur – and Spielberg wrings every last second from the moment.

Words: The Creative Bloq staff

Some of the extracts used were originally published in 3D World magazine issue 146.

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