CGI is becoming an increasingly important part of nearly every movie we see in the cinema these days. From the completely CGI “live action” remake of Lion King, to the Marvel blockbusters like Avengers: End Game and Spider-Man: Far From Home. To be honest, it feels like we take a lot of this CGI work for granted, but every great movie of today was built on the foundation laid by movies that came before them. Here are 11 movies that changed the way we think of CGI forever.
2001: A Space Odyssey
It might be cheating (a bit) to put 2001: A Space Odyssey on a list about CGI and special effects. That said, this movie completely changed the entire genre of sci-fi movies, movies set in space, and a lot of cinema in general. Kubrick used mostly practical effects to depict spaceships, new planets, and space. The effects in the movie were so good, that some people even believe he directed a “fake moon landing”! That’s a testament to how good the effects in that movie were.
When I said that Kubrick influenced the genre of sci-fi, I wasn’t kidding. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar took a lot of queues from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. From shots of lonely spaceships floating in space to the music – Interstellar is chock full of 2001 references.
But we’re here to talk about CGI, and the most jaw-dropping use of CGI in Interstellar is the depiction of the black hole. The VFX team had to create a whole new way of working with computer graphics to make this happen. They had to work with the astrophysicist Kip Thorne to learn how gravity, light, and matter behaves in the event horizon of the black hole. In fact, their depiction of the black hole was so accurate and groundbreaking, that an entire academic scientific paper was published talking about the process and studies involved.
Star Wars: A New Hope
While we’re on the topic of sci-fi movies based in space, I have to mention Star Wars. This movie also worked with a lot of practical effects for spaceships, but the depiction of plasma blasters and lightsabers alone has made this movie a huge centerpiece in the history of CGI in cinema.
Few people talk about Avatar now (unless it’s too ironically call it their favorite movie), but Avatar did some groundbreaking things with its use of CGI. It won an Oscar for best CGI, it created a whole new, fictional planets with the use of CGI, and it’s gone down in history as both one of the most expensive movies ever made and one of the top grossing movies ever made!
Let’s return to Earth for a bit and talk about Terminator 2. Terminator 2 won an Oscar for Best CGI for its depiction of the T-1000 terminator model. This robot could bend itself, regenerate, and seemed to be made out of liquid. Every surface on his body could turn into a liquid, reflective goop, and the CGI team had to work overtime to accomplish that look!
You can’t talk about CGI and not mention The Matrix. Even though the CGI team went a bit overboard in the two later installments of the franchise, the first movie created a lot of innovation with its use of bullet time. The directors used many cameras taking pictures in rapid succession to create a 360 degree view of Neo dodging bullets. Later on, the CGI team would superimpose slow-traveling bullets creating ripples in the air as the cut through towards the characters. This bullet time effect is still being used in movies to this day.
When it comes to use of CGI in movies, I think Jurassic Park is my favorite. Despite the fact that it was made in 1993, the CGI dinosaurs from the movie still look pretty realistic today. I’m serious. While you could show any kid a Star Wars movie or Terminator 2 and they would scoff at how unrealistic some of the CGI looks, you could just as easily show them the first Jurassic Park movie and they would be convinced that those magnificent dinosaurs are real!
Forrest Gump has one of the most clever uses of CGI in cinema. Instead of using computer graphics to create jaw-dropping action sequences or transport characters to new planets, the team behind Forrest Gump used CGI to superimpose Tom Hanks into some of the most important historical moments of humanity. You can see Forest shaking President JFK’s hand. You can see him drinking Pepsi at an event with President Johnson. It generally puts Forest into some pretty rad historical moments.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shows how practical effects can be used together with CGI to completely transform how an actor looks on screen. This technology is widely used today, but Benjamin Button was both one of the first and one of the most successful uses of this CGI effect. With the help of computer graphics, the VFX team was able to show us Brad Pitt transform from an old man to a tiny baby. Of course today you could do that with your smartphone and the FaceApp application on your smartphone, but back in the day this was absolutely groundbreaking
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
The pirate Davy Jones and his tentacle face is still blowing VFX artist’s brains to this day. For the longest time, everybody was convinced that the little tentacles were a practical effect achieved with prosthetics and makeup. But that’s not the case. A VFX artist had to animate every single one of those disgusting little tentacles individually. And yet, like with Jurassic Park, the effects still look extremely realistic even by today’s standards!
Lord of the Rings
The battle scenes in Lord of the Rings were huge. Of course, despite the movie’s giant budget, the team still didn’t have enough money to hire thousands of extras to dress up as orcs and elves and fight each other on a giant set. Instead, only key characters were depicted by real people, while the rest of the battle was animated using CGI. Thousands of individual CGI characters were animated, their fighting styles were custom, and each blow of a sword and spear was meticulously crafted by VFX artists.