Movies that pushed VFX to a new level


Every now and again, a film comes out which is a VFX game-changer. It might be a 3d movie, it might involve some incredible explosions or character design, or even some invisible VFX that most viewers won’t notice. We asked the readers of Creative Bloq and 3D World which VFX films had most impressed them, or defined or changed the industry, and their top movies are listed below.

The criteria to be included in the top  was simple: the movie must have a running time of 60 minutes or longer; have received a full cinematic release; and have a significant or innovative element of CG VFX work. We’ve intentionally omitted CG animations and only included films that blend CG and live action. Has your favourite VFX film made the final cut?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Weta’s digital CG creatures stole the show in this 2014 sequel

Building on the success of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this tale of humans and super-intelligent apes battling for survival in a post-apocalyptic near-future is a technological masterpiece. Weta Digital’s CG creatures are very much the stars of the show, and have minutes of screen time with no human interaction. It feels unfair to single out individual scenes, as the effects are incredible throughout.

But it’s the intimate moments that really stand out. Those shots in which human actors react to computer-generated apes carry genuine emotional depth. For once, CG characters are not simply there to advance the action but to perform: to carry a narrative arc.

Andy Serkis and the other actors with mocap

Andy Serkis and the other actors helped portray the creatures with mocap

The digital apes – 12 hero characters, plus around 20 ‘extras’ – were created using a mixture of hand animation and motion-capture footage of Andy Serkis and the other actors portraying the creatures.

Much of the mocap was shot on location, which meant an overhaul of the technology. This kit needed to be hauled up mountains, rained on, and generally abused, as Weta Digital sought to capture the most authentic performances possible.

still from dawn on the planet of the apes

How would intelligent apes fight? That was a key challenge for the team

When the gloves did come off and the apes fought, it created new problems – artistically, the actors had to discover how intelligent apes would fight (no biting!), while director Matt Reeves had to get a grip on new workflows, filming the actors in a virtual space and setting beats and camera angles afterward, using virtual cameras.

The hard work resulted in three VES Awards, plus an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. Maybe by the time of the third movie in the series, Hollywood will have accepted motion-captured performances enough to nominate Andy Serkis for Best Actor.

Pacific Rim

still from pacific rim

Director Guillermo del Toro brought us some badass robots

Director Guillermo del Toro’s epic blockbuster tells the tale of badass robots saving humankind from monstrous sea creatures. For the work, del Toro assembled a ‘dream team’ of concept designers, including veteran sci-fi artist Wayne Barlowe, also commissioning maquettes of all the major Kaiju (the sea monsters) and Jaeger (the humanoid war machines) from practical effects firm Spectral Motion.

still from pacific rim

The sheer scale of the Jaegers was something to behold

Industrial Light & Magic led the CG work, along with supporting facilities including Ghost FX, Hybride, Rodeo FX and Base FX.

“We put a lot of time into the [Jaegers] Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka, because they have the most screen time and the most actions,” says ILM animation supervisor Hal Hickel. “We focused on how the shoulders and hips would work and how all the mechanisms would fit together. Along the way we’d adjust proportions and other things [based on] Guillermo’s input, and we’d then start to move them and see what they looked like in various poses. We focused on how all the mechanisms would fit together.

still from pacific rim

ILM animation supervisor Hal Hikel says that body mechanics were a real focus

“Once we’d built them in the computer, we were able to start animating them and figuring out things like whether arms needed to be longer or see if the legs looked a little stumpy on a given lens and from a certain angle. There were tons of decisions like this.”

In total, ILM spent months working on Gipsy Danger. “We put a lot of detail into the model, but carefully planned where it was needed and when,” says Hickel. “We’d look ahead at a sequence and would dress the amount of detail accordingly.”

They spent their time wisely – the Pacific Rim creatures instantly joined the canon of beloved movie monsters that audiences love to hate and fear in equal measure, while the visual effects landed six VES Award nominations, one of them for Hickel himself.


Alfonso Cuarón created event cinema with Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón created event cinema with Gravity

Some films are bogged down with effects; others are light fare. But Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, set in the weightlessness of space, is a rare union of ethereal CG work and a heavyweight emotional storyline.

Anchored by Sandra Bullock’s central performance – or facial performance, at least: for much of the movie, her spacesuit-clad body is animated digitally – as stranded astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone, Framestore’s artists created an entire digital world.

Sandra Bullock's spacesuit-clad body in Gravity

Sandra Bullock’s spacesuit-clad body was animated digitally

“Gravity is a hybrid: it’s partly live-action, but is similar to [an animated feature] in many respects,” says animation supervisor Max Solomon. “Very large parts of it are fully CG.”

Those ‘parts’ include the space shuttles, the Hubble Telescope, the International Space Station, and the Earth itself. All are on screen for long periods of time: the opening tracking shot alone lasts 13 minutes.

At the start of the pitch process, it wasn’t clear just how much of Gravity would have to be computer-generated. Although early tests were done using more traditional methods such as shooting actors on wire rigs and building physical sets, it soon became clear that the challenges of simulating weightlessness and characters spinning off into the darkness could not be overcome practically. As in so many previous cases, digital effects became the silent star of the film.

still from Gravity

The effects in Gravity never get in the way of the story

Very few directors are good as Cuarón at making visual effects feel like an organic part of the action. “I think that is what is special about Gravity,” says Solomon. “As a space film, it doesn’t feel like a VFX film: it feels more like a documentary. That was always something Alfonso stipulated from the beginning, that we were a fly-on-the-wall camera crew following these astronauts through their ordeal.”

And that’s what’s so seductive about Gravity: it makes space seem exciting and scary, but also tricks you into thinking that it’s real.



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