Special effects are crucial in telling most imaginative, compelling stories. It involves a team of hardworking artists collaborating to bring a director’s vision into reality. Effects have been evolving and becoming more photorealistic over the past few decades. However, the 2010s saw an explosion of effects both practical and computer generated that completely changed the game. After the critical success of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, the world of special effects expanded. The next decade capitalized on the technology and audiences got to see whole new worlds.
From the storyboard to the screen, characters and environments can be fully realized. There are eight films in particular that created something highly unique and memorable in film history. Each represents something special about the human experience using imaginative visual effects. They suspend all disbelief and pull audiences into the power of movies. Some have taken inspiration from the classic age of practical effects, and some have created something inventive and wholly original.
8 Thanos – Avengers: Infinity War
The Infinity Saga has hyped up Thanos as the big bad since the first Avengers in 2012. The effects in this film alone were jaw-dropping. However, Avengers: Infinity War had a very difficult task at hand: to create a villain made entirely through motion capture technology that is believable and intimidating. Computer generated effects run the risk of entering the uncanny valley, where something just feels off about the character and the audience does not connect with the character on an emotional level.
Thanos is both believable and terrifying. His strength is fully realized in just the first sequence of the film. However, the film centralizes on this villain as the true protagonist and his difficult choices are what drives the film forward. Josh Brolin’s incredible performance laid a strong foundation for the incredible work of VFX artists to make this character come to life.
7 Animation Comes to Life – The Jungle Book & The Lion King
Jon Favreau directed two of the most photorealistic computer generated animal films of recent history. In 2016, The Jungle Book had just one human character in a world created entirely of CGI. The lifelike animals were believable and at times too real. Every detail was fleshed out, from the facial expressions to the fine hairs.
In 2019, Favreau had an even more difficult task of having no human characters in a complete CGI world. His adaptation of the classic film The Lion King was jaw dropping. It capitalized on the success of The Jungle Book in a shot for shot remake of the original. The animals of this film were all too realistic, and it begs applause for that hard work alone. The scenery was completely believable, and it almost presented itself like something out of a National Geographic documentary.
6 A Dream Becomes Reality – Inception
Inception is Christopher Nolan’s most original and unique film to date. He created worlds within worlds, all within the mind of the characters. When Ariadne (Elliot Page) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) are roaming the city streets whilst inside a dream, Ariadne asks what would happen if one messes with the physics of dreams themselves. That is when things get trippy. The dream reality bends in a way audiences have to experience on the largest screen possible. The mind bending, hallucinatory effects of this sequence are something we have never seen before. Very rarely are there sequences in film that make the audience’s jaw drop in wonderment, but this scene inspires the most awe in a film filled with it.
5 Apes – War for the Planet of the Apes
Each of the recent Apes films have grown in their visual effects presentation. However, there is a special interaction between the physical world and the special effects world in the final film of the trilogy. War for the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the most advanced in its presentation of the apes' sophistication. They are civilized and completely independent.
Caesar is the heart of the film and has truly human emotions that drive the film forward; this is thanks to the incredible motion capture technology and the performance of Andy Serkis, working perfectly in tandem. He and his entire army of apes looks as if they were brought from the wild and trained to be film professionals. There is no doubt in the audiences’ mind that these apes are real, and it is slightly terrifying to see them interact with the human characters. Their strength and power is unmatched, and director Matt Reeves (before making The Batman) created a beautifully chaotic world.
4 A New Generation – Star Wars Sequels
The Star Wars sequels have created plenty of new and exciting characters for audiences to enjoy. It all stems from J.J. Abrams love of the franchise, which combines the practical elements with the computer generated. The Force Awakens took a page right from George Lucas’ book and had treats for the eyes all over the screen. The largest accomplishment of this film was the creation of the newest droid to the family, BB-8. This droid is lovable because he exists completely in the real world and his unique design is technologically sound. He fits perfectly with the droid crew and can hold his own when the going got tough against the First Order, and the physics of his special effects is beautiful to watch play out.
3 Ava – Ex Machina
Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s unique science fiction film about finding the humanity in machines. Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) is a machine brought to life by some of the best computer generated effects in recent decades. In 2014, this film shocked audiences with the beautiful combination of human facial characteristics with a completely mechanical body.
Garland’s decision to have Vikander’s face be completely untouched was brilliant because it allows audiences to latch onto this character immediately and form an emotional connection. There are so many impacts the face has on audiences, and hiding that under metal creates a challenge for relatability, so the effects in Ex Machina creates emotional resonance (and stretching Vikander's emotive face over the head of a machine is simultaneously disturbing and beautiful).
2 De-Aging Legends – The Irishman
In 2019, Martin Scorsese released one of Netflix’s most ambitious films to date, The Irishmanwhich is now considered a modern epic. The film utilized de-aging technology to brilliantly tell the decades long stories of three men. Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino were all involved in this morphing process, so they could perform in all aspects of their characters lives.
This technology was highly expensive, not to mention payment for the actor’s salary. Netflix spent quite the pretty penny making this modern classic. The de-aging process was effective and compelling. It was the only way this story could have been truly told.
1 The Realistic Emptiness – Gravity
Gravity fully encapsulates the true emptiness of space, from the astronauts movements to the light that shines on their helmets. Everything is so real it is actually terrifying when things go wrong… very quickly. Sound is also a large factor that director Alfonso Cuarón utilized. In addition to the vast emptiness and endlessness, sound does not exist in space. So when the debris hits the Explorer cruiser, we hear nothing. However, with the brilliant score and camera movements, we feel the tension.
This opening sequence is made to look like one continuous shot, which is no easy feat even on the ground. The motions of the camera mirror the calm and frantic moments of tension. This opening sequence is technologically advanced and sets the tone for the rest of the film; Gravity mastered the 3-D effects which were dominating cinemas at the time, making all other 3-D films looks weak by comparison.
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