25 greatest CGI movie moments of all time

3D visual effects in the movies have come on leaps and bounds since their introduction in the 1980s. The art of creating realistic looking environments, monsters, creatures and buildings continues to impress, with many 2D and 3D movies now relying on the creative talent at special effects companies like ILM and Weta to enhance movies with stunning CGI.

Did your favourite movie moments make it to the top of our list of the best CGI scenes? The countdown begins right here…

25. Pearl Harbour (2001)

  • Director: Michael Bay
  • VFX: ILM

Why watch it?

With a laboured script, leaden acting, turgid pace, and insensitive factual inaccuracies... the only reason Pearl Harbour is worth seeing is for the recreation of the infamous 1941 attack. Unbelievably, there are only four shots that are totally CG in the movie, including the two shots of the USS Arizona exploding, with the wide camera angle taking four months of constant effects work to perfect.

ILM used a combination of software for the attack sequence, including AliasStudio, Maya, and Softimage for basic modelling, and employed its proprietary software, Zeno, for the many rigid body simulations. To comply with environmental rules, VFX supervisor Eric Brevig also had to write a new piece of software to create the amount of smoke plumes needed. So while it's a dreadful film, we can't help but applaud the truly brilliant CG effects.

Killer sequence...

A detailed recreation of the chillingly effective surprise attack by the Japanese on a US naval base.

24. Cloverfield (2008)

  • Director: Matt Reeves
  • VFX: Double Negative

Why watch it?

This may be a spin-off of Godzilla, as mysterious and severely peeved creatures attack New York, but what a spin-off it is. Cloverfield is an amazing example of how to mix hand-held live-action with quality CG effects.

The most terrifying sequence happens early on, when the Statue of Liberty's head is catapulted down the road by an unknown and unseen force. Visible for several seconds in full frame, the head itself had to be built as an extremely detailed 3D model with precise texturing.

Production used 4 and 5K stills of the head that were placed online following the landmark's cleaning a few years ago. These detailed the head's panelwork and areas of grime that could be used as reference when texturing the model. The genius of JJ Abrams combined with great effects is clearly a recipe for success.

Killer sequence...

The Statue of Liberty's scratched-up head comes sailing down a New York Street, hinting at the dangers to come.

23. Terminator Salvation (2009)

  • Director: McG
  • VFX: ILM, Asylum, Rising Sun Pictures and Matte World Digital

Why watch it?

You've got to feel sorry for John Connor: his mum was a bit mental and his only real friend was a machine that once tried to kill him and is now dead. To his credit, though, he is very determined and returns in the fourth Terminator instalment, ready to kick more shiny metal ass. Among its 1,500 VFX shots, T4 features an impressive 60ft, headless, biped robot – the aptly named Harvester – on a rampage.

The huge cyborg has one of the film's most intricate rigs. ILM used techniques originally developed for Transformers to provide animators with extra flexibility when choosing which parts to control. ILM also integrated an energy-conserving shader set in RenderMan to achieve more accurate lighting and cope with the extreme contrasts of desert conditions. The ensuing segment with the truck, Moto-terminators and a giant Transporter isn't bad either.

Killer sequence...

The headless Harvester robot smashes up a gas station in its hunt for humans.

22. 10,000 BC (2008)

  • Director: Roland Emmerich
  • VFX: Double Negative (wide shots) MPC (medium and close-up shots)

Why watch it?

If you can ignore the script, the acting, the historical inaccuracies and the bizarre pseudo sci-fi ending, 10,000 BC is a pretty cool film, with some excellent FX work from MPC and Double Negative. The sweeping vistas over the Giza site are largely models built at 1:24 scale by Joachim Grueninger, constructed near the actual film set in Namibia, but they're enhanced with digital doubles, dust, and props.

The best sequence, however, is the stampede, where a pack of mammoths is unleashed to wreak havoc among a building site with 50,000 digital slaves. Fully CG sets integrate seamlessly with live-action and model shots and, all in all, it's a suitably epic climax for a fantastically overblown movie.

Killer sequence...

A frightened pack of 50 captive mammoths is set loose in order to bring a pyramid building site to a grinding halt.

21. The Perfect Storm (2000)

  • Director: Wolfgang Peterson
  • VFX: ILM

Why watch it?

George Clooney may be a looker, but his character in this film isn't very smart. He plays Billy Tyne, a fishing boat captain who ignores weather warnings, in a tale that's based on the true story of the Andrea Gail from 1991. The end sequence is a CGI stonker, featuring a huge 100ft wave that finally capsizes the ship. In total, the film featured 90 completely CG shots, all of which include water elements.

A further 220 shots required CG seas to be composited with live-action footage shot on a huge, moveable fishing boat set. A custom fluid dynamics system was developed to create a realistic ocean and more than 30 plug-ins were written for Maya to achieve the intricate effects.

In addition to this, standalone applications for shaders and particle systems were also written in-house. In what is otherwise a slightly disappointing film, the mammoth VFX are what leave the longest-lasting impression.

Killer sequence...

A fishing boat and its crew run into a spot of bother on stormy seas.

Next page: the countdown from 20-16...