The art of digital visual effects has matured to the point where it’s possible to recreate literally anything on film (well, high-resolution video). Hollywood has been churning out a stream of amazing-looking movies for years, but it’s possible 2019 will be a high point for visually stunning cinematic experiences.
However, big name directors/producers and big budget VFX alone don't necessarily equate to the best 3D movies – look at Peter Jackson’s Mortal Engines, Welcome to Marwen, Spielbergs’ BFG or Blade Runner 2049. With ticket prices at an all-time high, there’s a real fight at the box office for your hard-earned cash, so here’s our first pick of 2019’s most exciting contenders…
01. Alita: Battle Angel
This movie adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga was in our list for 2018, but was delayed until February of this year. With James Cameron and producer Jon Landau connected with the film, plus Robert Rodriguez at the helm, it certainly has the chops to succeed, although reaction to the initial trailer was pretty subdued, thanks largely to the large-eyed appearance of Alita (played by Rosa Salazar).
Following previews, it's now being hailed as a mind-boggling sci-fi genre landmark, best experienced in stereo 3D. The eponymous warrior cyborg was handled by Weta Digital, with DNEG, Framestore and MPC providing spectacular future cityscapes and a host of other effects in this $200 million CG-fest.
With the roaring success of Jon Favreau’s 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, Disney is busy recreating its back-catalogue of cel-animated features, using live action with CG characters. The heart-rending tale of a floppy-eared flying elephant is coming to the big screen under the direction of Tim Burton, with effects and animation by Framestore, MPC, RodeoFX and Rise Visual Effects Studios, with DNEG on 3D conversion duties.
The baby elephant looks suitably adorable – especially with his clown makeup on – and, as ever, the combination of realistic CG creatures with live action is flawless. Dumbo is sure to be one of the best 3D movies this year, and we doubt they'll be a dry eye in the house.
03. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Since the advent of Toy Story in 1995, there has been deluge of feature-length CG animation (around 400 movies and counting) – some of it good, a lot of if it bad. Fortunately Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon series is in the former camp, excelling in storytelling, emotion, humour and design. The trilogy finale reunites Hiccup with his Night Fury dragon, Toothless, in a quest to locate the fabled Hidden World, a safe haven for dragons.
The quality of Dreamworks’ animation has long been among the best in the business, as evidenced by the exquisite environments, atmospheric lighting and lovely volumetric effects featured in the trailer.
04. Captain Marvel
The 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the first female-led of the franchise, features Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, the latest character to don the mantle of Captain Marvel. Danvers – a US Air force fighter pilot – discovers that she’s actually a member of the Kree, a band of noble alien warriors, and becomes embroiled in a galactic conflict. Set in 1995, one of the big challenges is the de-ageing of Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) and Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson), which is being handled, as usual, by LolaVFX. Once Danvers realises who she is, the action ramps up with alien citadels, explosive space battles and superhero-powered fights.
It’s another big-budget ($152 million) production, calling on the skills of ILM, Framestore, Animal Logic, Scanline VFX and Digital Domain among several others.
05. Avengers: Endgame
After the cataclysmic ending of Avengers: Infinity War, anyone with a passing interest in superheroes has been waiting for this, the 22nd movie in the MCU. With much of the cast represented as entirely CG entities, and the story taking the Avengers to outer space, inner space, parallel dimensions and mystic realms, it’s sure to be a dynamic VFX showcase. The film comes out in April.
Indeed, all of the major vendors have been called upon, with DNEG, Digital Domain, ILM, Weta Digital, Framestore and Cinesite all providing shots. Marvel is, unsurprisingly, tight-lipped about the much-anticipated project, so it's hard to say which company is working on what, but no doubt Weta and Digital Domain will be reprising their excellent work on bringing the villain Thanos to life.
Guillermo Del Toro and Ron Perlman may no longer be involved, but at least Hellboy is back. This time it's Stranger Things' David Harbour in the red makeup – and looking suitably demonic – on a mission to stop a medieval sorceress hell-bent on the destruction of mankind.
There are a bunch of VFX studios involved, including MR. X, Rhythm & Hues Studios, RISE, Worldwide FX. Plus, several other smaller units are lined up to provides various CG monsters, environments and effects, including Onirikal Studios on smoke, fire and blood and Nu Boyana FX on CG character duties. The reboot looks a lot of fun, but let's hope there are a few scares in there too.
07. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu
He’s surprisingly furry and speaks with an American accent (Ryan Reynolds’ to be exact), so while hardcore Pikachu fans might be a bit bemused by the vibe of the trailer, the film does look to be a lot of fun. MPC and Framestore are bringing the various Pokémon to life, using the technology and techniques developed for Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket Racoon.
Ryme City is filled with realistic pocket monsters, all seamlessly blended with virtual environments and live actors. If the film can capture the wit and charm of Paddington – another Framestore masterpiece – then it should be an entertaining ride for Pokémon devotees of all ages.
Despite the clunker that was King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie is back in the director's seat for this, potentially the biggest film of his career. The much-loved Disney animated movie has been given the live-action treatment, with Will Smith voicing the Genie and ILM providing the magic.
The teaser is pretty light on information, although if the story remains true to the original, the antics of Aladdin, Abu his kleptomaniac monkey, the Genie and the flying carpet promise some truly spectacular scenes. We’re looking forward to entering the Cave of Wonders once more, when Aladdin lands in May.
09. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
At last, a trailer that’s properly packed with VFX action. The new Godzilla movie sees the world’s favourite Kaiju do battle with Mothra, Rodan, and his nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah. As you'd expect with scenes of skyscraper-tall monsters wreaking city-wide havoc, the film calls on the services of multiple vendors, including MPC, DNEG, Method Studios, Rodeo FX and Raynault VFX.
Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown makes her feature debut, and the movie is monster in every respect, from the massive battling ‘titans’ to the colossal scale of destruction. It’s a proper old-school disaster flick, and a must-see for fans of epic VFX.
10. Dark Phoenix
The X-Men franchise has been on hiatus since 2016’s Apocalypse, but it’s back this year with two instalments: this adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga, plus the genre-twisting The New Mutants, a horror-themed extension of the series, due in August. Set a decade after the events of Apocalypse, a young Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner) becomes unstable, unleashing her telekinetic powers and attracting the interest of an alien shapeshifter.
Lead vendor on the project is MPC, with back-up from Rising Sun Pictures, Rodeo FX, Soho VFX pus Scanline VFX on simulation duties. The early trailer doesn't give too much away, but we expect a lot more explosive, reality-distorting action when Dark Phoenix rolls into theatres.