30 greatest CGI movie moments of all time

10. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

  • Director: Michael Bay
  • VFX: ILM

Why watch it?

Okay, okay we know the third film in the Transformers franchise isn't going to win any Oscars for plot or acting abilities, but there's no way you can ignore the hugely impressive special effects that grace the screen for much of the running time. ILM was already responsible for the previous two films, but the character of The Driller was going to test their abilities.

The robot was almost three times as big as the Transformers and it's well known among special effects teams that tentacles are one of the harder aspects to get right. Seeing as Driller was a tentacle with tentacles (with 70,051 parts!)  this was a big ask. It took a staggering 288 hours per frame to render the Driller along with the photoreal CG building that includes all those reflections in its glass. ILM calculates that it added up to more than 200,000 rendering hours per day – or the equivalent of 22.8 years of render time in a 24-hour period.

Killer sequence...

Driller goes on a rampage through Marina city, causing a fair bit of damage.

09. King Kong (2005)

  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • VFX: Weta

Why watch it?

We're not sure why one, let alone three, V-Rex would be interested in eating Naomi Watts: she'd hardly make a filling meal. Nevertheless, Kong has to stop his new size-8 friend from becoming dinosaur fodder in this thrilling, 10-minute-long, CG-heavy sequence.

Weta doubled its capacity in terms of render farm and disc space, and took on roughly 25 per cent more people to create King Kong. The team used a Maya, RenderMan and Shake pipeline, and created custom software for the ape's fur. Since Ann gets thrown about, Weta also had to use a digital double for Naomi Watts in these scenes. Ultimately, this remake of the 1933 classic proves that good things also come in big packages.

Killer sequence...

The mighty ape takes on three mighty V-Rex in order to protect Ann.

08. The Abyss (1989)

  • Director: James Cameron
  • VFX: Steve Johnson's XFX, Inc, ILM

Why watch it?

This was the very first use of digitally animated water, which means it was a mile stone in CGI movie history. The aquatic aliens were the first creatures on film made entirely from water, and back in 1989 this visual effect was jaw-dropping. The 75-second sequence was divided up between seven special effects companies, but it was ILM that created the program that would simulate the watery creature with incredible realism.

The combination of live action and CG effects was levelled up as actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio comes into contact with the creature – although we wouldn't recommend tasting an alien. This was a special effects milestone that helped advance the use of CGI in film for years to come.

Killer sequence...

The civilian diving team come face-to-face with an alien aquatic species.

07. The Matrix (1999)

  • Director: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
  • VFX: Manex Visual Effects

Why watch it?

Not only is this film one of the greatest sci-fi creations, one particular scene has become renowned for its use of special effects within the film industry. The 'bullet-time' special effect is a time-rendered simulation that creates variable speed to show objects such as flying bullets in slow motion.

The method used for creating this effect involved a technically expanded version of an old art photography technique known as time-slice photography, in which a large number of cameras are placed around an object and triggered nearly simultaneously. When the sequence of shots is viewed, the viewer sees what is, in effect, two-dimensional 'slices' of a three-dimensional moment. It's no wonder, then, that the team went on to win an Academy award for their efforts.

Killer sequence...

Neo (Keanu Reeves) dodges bullets from The Agents.

06. Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King (2003)

  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • VFX: Weta

Why watch it?

Widely appreciated as one of the best battle scenes of all time, the battle of Pelannor Fields in the final Lord of the Rings film is jaw-droppingly impressive. Over 1,500 effects shots were used in the third film (more than the first two films combined) with the team at Weta relying on the model team and photography of the landscape to get the battle looking as realistic as possible.

Although the charging Mmakil were initially created using real life elements, Weta decided to compile them entirely digitally due to a last minute request from Peter Jackson. The elephant-like creatures were created entirely from keyframing and the team at Weta went on to win their third Oscar in three years. Not bad at all.

Killer sequence...

The final battle of the Pelennor Fields.

05. Tron (1982)

  • Director: Steven Lisberger
  • VFX: MAGI

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 utilised basic geometric shapes that the computer recognised 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 1,000 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.

Initially, 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 Serkis, capturing the movements that way. It was a monumental moment in CG history and Serkis went on to work with the same methods while playing 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.

Some of the extracts were originally published in 3D World magazine; subscribe here.

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