The most iconic CGI and VFX scenes in movies
This week, grab the popcorn and join us as we take a chronological romp through what we think are the most iconic visual effects scenes in movie history.
Although stuff like the melting faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the werewolf transformation in American Werewolf in London are incredible, we’re going to be sticking a little more to animation-related VFX. Let’s get into it!
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) – The Skeleton Duel
Let’s kick things off with a classic moment of stop motion model work. Each 8-10 inches high, these 7 skeletons burst from the ground and attack Jason and his men. The fight itself involved each skeleton having 5 appendages to move in each frame. According to Ray Harryhausen, VFX artist:
“This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronised to the actors’ movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.”
Mary Poppins (1964) – Dancing with the Penguins
Our favourite VFX scene here is almost as bonkers as Van Dyke’s accent: The sequence where Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke are dancing about with the animated penguins.
The process behind creating this iconic movie moment to blend live action and animation was a precursor to the green screen, achieved with a technique called sodium screen compositing.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Jogging in the Centripetal Force Chamber
Loads of possible scenes to pick from but in my opinion, the most iconic visual effects shot is when Dave is jogging around the centripetal motion compartment of the ship.
Sure, It’s not as flashy as the star gate sequence at the end, but it’s effective at setting the sanitised, isolated deep space tone. It wordlessly begins setting up a story by introducing a recognisable action in an unrecognisable location.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) – Pursued by the Star Destroyer
The Imperial Star Destroyer flyover gives you an impressive sense of scale right off the bat. Not only that, but it does the same job as the jogging scene above – it immediately sets up the narrative. A chase, an imbalance of power on such magnitude, from the very first scene, you’re hooked.
For those of you lucky enough to have seen in in theatres, the sound and visuals make you want to duck down in your seat when that huge thing is roaring overhead. Motion control filming, model making, and green-screen compositing were all pushed to never before levels of quality here.
Blade Runner (1982) – Flying Through Future LA
Harrison Ford’s flying police car zips through a dark, smoky vision of LA in the distant year of… 2019?!
This sequence is a triumph of art design, modelling and compositing coming together to create some of the most memorable and impressive landscape visuals in film history.
TRON (1982) – Light Cycle Battle
One of the first films inspired by video games entering the mainstream, TRON is Iconic not just for it’s pioneering CGI, but in its individuality. Take any still from this movie and you know exactly what it is, nothing has even attempted to steal its classic look.
I think the light cycle battle scene is the most iconic of the lot. Speed, drama, a full 3D graphics world, what’s not to love?
The Abyss (1989) – Encountering the Pseudopod
In a sequence lasting about 75 seconds (requiring 8 months of work), a water-based life form with a realistic watery tentacle morphed into Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s face.
It’s a little painfully dated by now, but as a precursor to some of the later, and well known morphing movie scenes, The Abyss definitely deserves a mention for it’s pioneering CGI in this sequence.
Total Recall (1990) – X-ray in the Subway Chase
Arnie revealing himself from beneath the rotating segmentation of an old woman’s face is pretty great, but this subway chase with the giant x-ray is one of the most polished early examples of a film using CGI.
It was created by rotoscoping the low light live action footage and using keyframes whilst making use of on-set reference footage.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) – The Morphing T-1000 Chase
Building upon the techniques from The Abyss 3 years earlier, Terminator 2’s T-1000 robot was a terrifying, walking morph effect. Perhaps the most memorable CGI sequence from the movie is the chase scene, with Robert Patrick sprinting after Arnie’s police car with his hooked blade arms
The fact that there are over 300 special effects shots making up 16 minutes of the film’s running time cements it as one of the milestones for visual effects in movie history.
Jurassic Park (1993) – Seeing the First Dinosaur
No CGI in movies list is complete without this movie, and this scene is the most memorable of the lot. Jurassic Park mixed animatronics, stop-moption and CGI to create the most photo-realistic creatures ever seen on screen.
The movement of this Brachiosaurus is so fluid yet still pays respect to the size and mass of the beast. With the way the morning sun illuminates its back and neck, you can tell the lighting artists at Industrial Light & Magic were really pulling there weight.
Jumanji (1995) – Stampede through the Town
Again, Industrial Light & Magic were the studio behind the breathtaking CGI in Jumanji. Perhaps the scene where the studio were able to best flex their VFX muscles was the stampede scene.
The photo-realistic fur of the lion and the feathers on that big, mean pelican are especially stand-out.
Independence Day (1996) – Aliens Blow up the White House
The most spectacular and iconic special effects scene here – especially shocking and titillating for the Americans – was the explosive destruction of the White House by the alien invaders.
It was achieved with a 1/12th model, about 14 feet wide, built out of plaster with a mould then blown to bits in front of 9 cameras. With a touch of compositing and some CGI debris: boom, one of the most recognisable sequences in movie history.
Space Jam (1996) – Michael Jordan’s Stretch Slam Dunk
Not only does Space Jam have one of the most iconic theme songs of all time, it’s got one of the most iconic visual effects scenes, too. I’m, of course, on about Mike’s buzzer-beating stretchy dunk.
The Matrix (1999) – Bullet Time
This scene basically created a sub-genre of action movies and coined the term ‘bullet-time’. Today it still looks awesome!
This incredible sequence where Neo dodges (most of) Agent Smith’s bullets was created by suspending actors on wires, using motion capture, and filming segments with multiple still cameras shooting from different angles, then enhancing the pictures with CG interpolation.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) – Revealing the Undead Curse of the Black Pearl Pirates
Who would have thought that a supernatural swashbuckler based on a theme park ride would become such a worldwide phenomenon? The first movie is my fave, and the scene that I think is the best example of the film’s CGI is when Geoffrey Rush reveals the pirate’s undead curse.
“You best start believing in ghost stories Miss Turner, yer in one!” Classic.
Inception (2010) – Folding up the City Block
Getting quite recent now, but I definitely think Inception deserves a spot on this list of iconic movie scenes. One bit in particular pushed our perceptions of what VFX could achieve: the folding city scene.
To make this sequence a reality, Double Negative spent two weeks taking thousands of stills and working from millimetre-accurate LIDAR scans to replicate a photo-realistic model of four Parisian apartment blocks, populating them with digital cars and people.
Interstellar (2014) – Gargantua, the Black Hole
Nolan back at it again, with VFX studio, Double Negative winning another Oscar. This movie wanted scientific accuracy to play a major part, posing a big challenge to the studio to visualise the un-visualisable: realistic alien worlds, a mathematically accurate black hole, and the Tesseract, a four-dimensional space with time as a physical dimension.
What’s most impressive in my opinion is the way that the VFX team’s depiction of the black hole, Gargantua, has been lauded by astrophysicists for its visual accuracy. Truly an awe-inspiring monster to behold.
As always, give us a shout if you think we missed out something that really deserves a mention!