MOVIES | The best of CGI, from “Tron” to “Avatar”: Landmark films in the use of computer-generated special efects


This weekend at the Trylon, the monthlong retrospective of select Steven Spielberg films, subtitled “Father of the Blockbuster,” concludes with screenings all weekend of Jurassic Park. The 1993 film has been hailed as a landmark of computer-generated special effects, which now completely saturate multiplexes from coast to coast. Here’s a look at some landmark films in the history of this game-changing technology.

When I wrote about the Spielberg series in the June 3 edition of, I mentioned this about Spielberg: “While the series title is accurate—with Jaws, Spielberg did, in effect, create what we now know as the summer movie season—people tend to forget just how well acted, written, and directed his blockbusters are…The four older Spielberg titles in this series will remind you how the director captures your imagination with spectacle, while grounding it all in likable, three-dimensional characters. Too few blockbuster directors can make that claim.” And this about Jurassic Park: “Ending the run June 25-27 is Jurassic Park, which still drops jaws with its groundbreaking digital effects.”

Those digital effects were groundbreaking way back in 1993 (wow, has it really been 17 years since this came out?), and they do still look great today. Jurassic Park is still considered a landmark film in terms of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), which was used to create those amazing dinosaurs onscreen. Here, I present a list of other notable CGI landmarks: films that either pushed the art form forward or made use of innovative techniques that are being used and improved upon every year.

But first, a little history lesson. Check out Wikipedia’s timeline of CGI in TV and film. After that, watch parts one and two of a compact, educational two-part documentary on Industrial Light and Magic’s development of CGI in the 1980s.

From the Wikipedia entry on CGI:

CGI was first used in movies in 1973’s Westworld, a science-fiction film about a society in which robots live and work among humans, though the first use of 3D Wireframe imagery was in its sequel, Futureworld (1976), which featured a computer-generated hand and face created by then University of Southern California graduate students Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke. The third movie to use this technology was Star Wars (1977) for the scenes with the wireframe Death Star plans and the targeting computers in the X-wings and the Millennium Falcon. The Black Hole (1979) used raster wire-frame model rendering to depict a black hole. The science fiction-horror film Alien of that same year also used a raster wire-frame model, in this case to render the image of navigation monitors in the sequence where a spaceship follows a beacon to a land on an unfamiliar planet.

In 1978, graduate students at the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab began work on what would have been the first full-length CGI film, The Works, and a trailer for it was shown at SIGGRAPH 1982, but the film was never completed. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan premiered a short CGI sequence called The Genesis Wave in June 1982. The first two films to make heavy investments in Solid 3D CGI, Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984), were commercial failures, causing most directors to relegate CGI to images that were supposed to look like they were created by a computer.

It is safe to say we live in a digital-dominated movie world. The original release of Jurassic Park (to this day I remember when and where I saw that movie, who I was with, and how much it blew my mind) marked the beginning of the epoch in which CGI was used not only to create images meant to look like they were created by a computer, but to create lifelike illusions so realistic that they  had never even been dreamed of by filmmakers. The proliferation of CGI ever since has had both negative and positive consequences on movies.

For every Spielberg, sadly, there is a Michael Bay. Too many modern directors seem to think that filling up the frame with as much crap as possible suffices for exciting movie watching, when in reality it’s a diversion from the typical problems that have always plagued bad movies (poor script, bad acting, etc.). George Lucas is mostly to blame for all of this. My, how the mighty have fallen; and yes, by fallen, I mean rich beyond all of our wildest imaginations. He still sucks, though.

It’s worth noting, also, some filmmakers who have used CGI creatively and subtly, even though their films won’t make this list of blockbusters. You may not even have realized how much CGI is used in their films (which I think is a sign of the tool used effectively), but CGI is a huge tool in all these directors’ arsenals. They include David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are); Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); Park Chan-wook from South Korea (Oldboy, I Am a Cyborg But That’s OK, Thirst; see my related article for more on contemporary South Korean cinema); two from France: Gaspar Noé (Irreversible, the upcoming Enter the Void) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Amelie, Micmacs).

These filmmakers employ CGI innovatively and should be commended for it. Were it not for them (and all the other filmmakers I’m forgetting who do similar work), the art form would continue to be abused and mis/over-used, which would continue to lead us towards becoming bored, oscitant moviegoers incapable of being wowed.

But we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and without further adieu, here are my picks, complete with choice trivia (courtesy of IMDB), clips/trailers, and some brief thoughts on each.

Tron (1982)

Not the best movie ever—in fact, I don’t remember it all that well—but it was important in the history of CGI development. And I gotta admit, the sequel coming out this summer looks pretty cool.

Selected trivia from IMDB:
• Many Disney animators refused to work on this movie because they feared that computers would put them out of business. In fact, 22 years later Disney closed its hand-drawn animation studio in favor of CGI animation. Hand-drawn animation was ultimately resumed at Disney at the behest of new creative director John Lasseter, also head of Pixar—ironically a computer animation company.
• At the time, computers could generate static images, but could not automatically put them into motion. Thus, the coordinates for each image, such as a light cycle, had to be entered for each individual frame. It took 600 coordinates to get 4 seconds of film. The filmmakers entered each of these coordinates into the computer by hand.
• While computer animation was used in several scenes, the technology did not exist for a shot to contain both live actors and computer animation. Live-action shots were combined with hand-drawn animation. Strong editing, such as with the light cycle chase, created an apparently seamless blend of actors and computer animation.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Another film I don’t recall all that well. All I remember, besides that it was directed by Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg under his Amblin production company, is that scene above showing off the first fully CGI-created character in a feature film.

Selected trivia from IMDB:
• The stained glass window scene was overseen by John Lasseter
• First feature film to have a completely CGI (computer graphics image) character: the knight coming out of the stained glass window. Industrial Light and Magic animated the scene.
• The “Stained Glass Knight” took Industrial Light and Magic artists 4 months to create

The Abyss (1989)

I think this is James Cameron’s most underrated film. A fantastic blend of the notoriously tech-centric filmmaker’s passions (the ocean, aliens, technology’s interference in nature, broad and trite political statements, lame romance and dialogue) mixed with a solid story. Make sure to watch the three-hour director’s cut, as it remedies nearly all of the problems with the theatrical version. The water tentacle scene above still captures my imagination.

Selected trivia from IMDB:
• The scene with the water tentacle coming up through the moon pool was written so that it could be removed without interfering with the story, because no one knew how the effect would come out. The actors were interacting with a length of heater hose being held up by the crewmen. When the effects were completed, though, they exceeded everyone’s expectations and wildest hopes.
• The scene with the water tentacle was one of the first to be filmed. This was done so as to give the effects team the maximum amount of time available to develop the CGI over the course of filming the rest of the movie.
• One of the first films to make proper use of CGI technology. The animated water effects would be put to use in James Cameron’s next film Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), to create the liquid Terminator, the T-1000.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

In this montage, you get a good overview of how CGI was employed in T2, but I still love the moment (around the three-minute mark) that’s straight out of a slasher flick. The effect still works, and looks pretty great too. What more is there to say about T2 besides: it rocks, it’s one of the best action films ever made, and I still tear up at the end when Arnie descends into the lava pit with his thumbs up.

Selected trivia from IMDB:
• The film has over 300 effects shots, which total almost 16 minutes of running time. [Compare this to Avatar, 60% of which is entirely CGI!]
• Industrial Light and Magic’s computer graphics department had to grow from six artists to almost 36 to accommodate all the work required to bring the T-1000 to life, which ultimately amounted to three minutes of screen time.
• The T-1000 morphing effects cost $5.5 million and took 8 months to produce.

Jurassic Park (1993)

See clip and discussion above.

Toy Story (1995)

The first full-length feature from Pixar set the template for what is now the most consistently successful (both artistically and commercially) studio in Hollywood today. Toy Story delivered on the promise of new animation to blow the audience’s mind, while also creating a world inhabited with touching themes (for kids and adults) and great characters. My favorite Pixar film is The Incredibles, but Toy Story is still a great one (and with the recent release of Toy Story 3, now a great trilogy).

Selected trivia from IMDB:
• First fully computer-generated full-length feature film.
• Each frame took 4 to 13 hours (depending on the complexity of the shot) to complete.

The Matrix (1999)

Whoa. Yeah, that bullet time stuff still looks really cool. Ok, so I was an apologist for the sequels when they came out (shoot me, I wanted to like them just like I wanted to like the Star Wars prequels; I’ve gotten better), but who cares if they kinda, sorta sucked and ended the trilogy on a sour note when the first film is still a sci-fi/live-action-anime hybrid masterpiece. Watch it again, and forget that parts 2 and 3 ever happened.

Selected trivia from IMDB:
• By the middle of 2002, the famous “Bullet Time” sequence had been spoofed in over 20 different movies.
• In the early stages of developing what was to become the famous Bullet Time sequence, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta and director of photography Bill Pope constructed many gimbals and dollies in the hope of creating the effect the old fashioned way. The original dolly they created for the camera would be lead around the action at a tremendous speed, but after many failed tests and broken dollies, they opted for computer graphics, which meant writing an entirely new program for the effect. However, the Bullet Time sequence does still use one very old-fashioned technique: still photography.
• There are many who might legitimately claim to have invented the time-freezing photographic technique used in the movie. It might have been French director Michel Gondry who used it for the first time in a commercial (for an insurance company) and then in a video clip for Björk. It might have been architectural graphics artist Matthew Bannister who, in his academic work, suggested that motion and time in video could be separated, and proposed an apparatus for doing it much like that used for the film (but who was unable to make it work with then-available technology). Or even artist Tim MacMillan who demonstrated the technique on British television in 1993. It may be that each of them, and others, invented it independently.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)

Swoon. I love these films. Really, it’s one big overarching monolith of an epic adventure fantasy tale. Peter Jackson could keep on creating crap like King Kong (another film I wanted to love) and the cinematic abortion that was last year’s The Lovely Bones, and I’d still love the man for making geeks of us all with this splendid adaptation of Tolkien’s classics. The effects were top-notch, and the creativity and craft on display throughout all three films is astounding: state-of-the-art CGI blended seamlessly with live action, striking color grading techniques, old school techniques such as models, miniatures, puppetry, makeup, forced perspective. It was the creation of Gollum (seen in this clip) using motion capture techniques that was the real step forward in CGI, though.

Selected trivia from IMDB:
• The shots that were too visually complex to be conveyed on a storyboard where rendered digitally on a computer in a stage known as pre-visualization. Peter Jackson received a lot of pointers on this from George Lucas and his Star Wars producer Rick McCallum at Skywalker Ranch. When he returned to New Zealand, he hired a lot of recent digital artist graduates to help him create his previz concepts.
• For high-tech tasks, a computer program called MASSIVE made armies of CG orcs, elves, and humans. These digital creations could “think” and battle independently—identifying friend or foe—thanks to individual fields of vision. Peter Jackson’s team could click on one creature in a crowd scene of 20,000 and see through his “eyes.” Different species even boast unique fighting styles.
• The Gollum that is briefly glimpsed in Fellowship of the Ring is an entirely different creation than the one that appears in Two Towers. It was during the filming of the second movie that Peter Jackson realized that Andy Serkis’s physical performance would have to be employed in the digital creation of Gollum. So Weta Digital had to alter the design of one of the lead characters in the film, scanning Serkis’s face so that they would be able to incorporate some of his facial characteristics. Gollum/Smeagol is a CGI character, but was often played on set by Serkis in a motion capture suit. On those occasions when Serkis was actually in shot Gollum was composited over him in post-production.

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron. Third movie of his on this list. That’s gotta count for something, right? Okay, so I don’t love Avatar, but one thing it delivered on more than anything else was the quantum leap forward in motion capture and fully-CGI created environments and characters. (See a sample clip here.) The world and creatures of Pandora were a stoner’s dream (a friend of mine called Avatar a moving black light poster), but all the pretty bioluminescent plants, floating mountains, and cool creatures couldn’t make up for the weak story, clichéd romance, and bad acting (except for Stephen Lang as the villain, who seemed to be the only actor who got the cartoonish broadness of the movie). I understand why Cameron went for a familiar and safe story, the film being the most expensive gamble (a word that doesn’t really fit anymore when we’re talking about James Cameron) ever on a Hollywood studio movie, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s okay, but only a technical milestone that will eventually be eclipsed by a more bold filmmaker who can mix innovative storytelling with all the oohs and ahhs.

I’m skipping trivia for this one as it’s so fresh in the public consciousness, but I do believe James Cameron actually has magical powers. Take that to the bank.