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35 greatest CGI movie moments of all time

16. Labyrinth (1986)

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

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.

17. i, Robot (2004)

  • Director: Alex Proyas
  • VFX: Weta

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, when murderous robots attack.

18. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

  • Director: Roland Emmerich
  • VFX: Tweak Films

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.

19. Hollow Man (2000)

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

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.

20. Star Wars - Episode 1 (1999)

  • Director: George Lucas
  • VFX: ILM

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.

21. Avengers Assemble (2012)

  • Director: Joss Whedon
  • VFX: Weta Digital and ILM

The visual effects for Avengers Assemble were never going to let us down – from the opening credits to the epic battle scenes, this film is truly a feast for the eyes. However, it was the particular scene of a falling Iron Man suiting up in the all new Mark VII as he descended that we found most impressive.

ILM and Weta combined their talents to recreate Iron Man and this incredible sequence. ILM provided the Iron Man models, whilst Weta was responsible for creating clothes and hair for the digidoubles with their own shaders and textures. Weta used plenty of motion capture techniques, whilst the animators were responsible for the flying scenes. 

Killer sequence: Iron Man jumps from Stark Tower unsuited, only for his Iron Man suit to follow and dress him with centimetres to spare.

22. District 9 (2009)

  • Director: Neill Blomkamp
  • VFX: Weta Workshop & Image Engine

With a modest budget of $30million, District 9 still manages to make it onto an array of top CGI movie lists thanks to the hard work of Weta Workshop. It takes a great design team to come up with a ship design that will stick and the mothership featured in the film pleased many a sci-fi fan. Image Engine completed 311 visual effects shots for District 9 and whilst these shots were predominantly of digital aliens, the studio also developed the mothership.

In the cases where shots required both a background ship and foreground character animation or other visual effects, Weta would pre-comp the ship and provide the completed comp to the relevant facility. You can read more about the special effects used in the film in 'The Art of District 9'.

Killer sequence: The mothership of the 'prawns' is revealed and hovers about Johannesburg, South Africa for three months.

23. Gladiator (2000)

  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • VFX: Mill Film Ltd

Rome wasn't built in a day and neither were the academy award-nominated special effects created for this epic Ridley Scott Roman tale. Visual effects supervisor John Nelson quoted that "it was always our concept to treat the Colosseum like it was the Super Bowl, in that you're going out on the field with the players and you have 40,000 people screaming for your head".

A model of the colosseum was about one storey high and didn't even complete the full circle. To recreate the 3D colosseum, Nelson and his team used the blueprints from designer Arthur Max and added a further two storeys, a roof, the outside wall, the back end of the colosseum and of course, the crowds. They photographed the textures, the patina and stucco used on the actual colosseum and then added those textures to the CGI movie version. The 540 degree camera shot in the film really shows off their skill.

Killer sequence: Maximus Meridius (Russell Crowe) fights to the death in a re-imagined colosseum.

24. Spiderman 3 (2007)

  • Director: Sam Raimi
  • VFX: SPI

This movie is packed full of knock-out effects – many of which include its other two villains, Venom and the Green Goblin – but the 2,700-frame, three-minute 'birth of Sandman' sequence manages to top them all. The Sony Pictures Imageworks team spent a year in R&D working on the tools that would enable them to fully achieve the complicated effect for Flint Marko's new form.

To visualise Sandman's varying states, they used a mixture of particle and fluid/gas simulations, plus SphereSim – a custom simulation engine that helped generate natural-looking sand piles. This technology, combined with Houdini and RenderMan plug-ins, makes the VFX sequence one of the most emotional and impressive moments of the entire trilogy.

Killer sequence: 'Unlucky' Flint Marko stumbles across the world's only experimental particle physics site, turning him into the invincible Sandman.

25. Inception (2010)

  • Director: Chris Nolan
  • VFX: Double Negative

Inception is a surreal story about dreams within dreams that keeps the audience awake with its truly masterful VFX. When architect Ariadne starts to "mess with the physics of it all" within her own dreamscape, she casually folds up Paris in one of the film's most complicated and impressive sequences.

To achieve the intricate effect, the Double Negative team spent two weeks taking thousands of stills and working from millimetre-accurate scans provided by LIDAR services to replicate a photorealistic model of four Parisian apartment blocks. Digital cars and people were also added to the upended cityscape and the Ptex mapping technique used to avoid the burden of UVs. The team also had to devise a series of cheats to fully achieve the shots needed, including hiding intersecting buildings behind other geometry and a set of careful camera moves.

Killer sequence: Ariadne gains confidence in her dreamscape and folds Paris into a cube, naturally.

Next page: More incredible VFX moments

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