From Good to Great: The Visual Effects Behind the Success of Blockbusters

The best-sellers that we all know and love usually all have one common feature that makes them so great, besides the acting and directing, of course, and that’s the special effects. They were given this name for a reason since they really make the greatest Hollywood movies that much more special. A core part of the film industry, special effects have been around in Hollywood much longer than you might expect, and in fact, they were first introduced to the industry in 1857.

Seeing as exploring the future is a popular theme in Hollywood movies, it’s only natural that special effects would be necessary to create these strange characters and peculiar worlds we all enjoy watching, and how great it is we don’t need to imagine anything, but we can see the future on the big screen! This article is here to look back on all the greatest and most impressive special effects that Hollywood has ever seen.

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King Kong

Hollywood’s favorite Gorilla is one of the more impressive special effects the industry has seen. The actor who played Kong had to wear a gorilla’s bodysuit, and he studied the behavior of Gorillas for months. He even went as far as Rwanda, in order to observe the animal’s behavior in the wild. That’s what I call commitment.

The digital animators were left with a rather simple job after the actor did the hard part of mimicking the gorilla’s facial expressions as well as body movements, wearing the gorilla suit throughout.

The Matrix

The Matrix is known for, well, many things, but among them is introducing Hollywood with the special-effects technique of ‘bullet time’, when hundreds of cameras are surrounding the actor to capture a scene, creating a movement effect around a frozen object, in order to produce a slow-motion effect.

Another method used in the Matrix saga was using real photographs of buildings, people, etc. as textures for 3D models. This might not sound too impressive, but keep in mind that the film came out in 1999, before smartphones and all the technology we take for granted today.

Inception

The film’s director is old-fashioned and preferred using practical effects whenever possible, meaning real-life effects performed physically rather than compute-generated effects. However, it’s not always possible, after all, we’re only humans and our physical abilities are, sadly, limited.

To meet him half-way, they created models and then computerized them when necessary, such as for the ‘limbo city’ at the end of the film. Some special effects can only be created using CGI.

Life of Pi

How did they get a tiger on a boat in the middle of the ocean, you wonder? Well, they didn’t, but they did a pretty good job designing it. The tiger looks like a real-life Bengal-tiger, thanks to the advanced computer-generated animation.

They filmed a major part of the movie inside a huge tank, later adding the animation of the ocean and the tiger. AS you can see, the animator spent a year perfecting his animations in order to produce the perfect tiger.

Lord of the Rings

Where do we even begin with the Lord of the Rings? The trilogy, that came out to theaters at the beginning of the 2000s, revolutionized the industry of special effects. The film features an imagined world comprised almost entirely out of special effects, namely CGI.

From the hobbits to elves, dwarfs and let’s not forget the Orcs, perhaps the greatest success of the film regarding CG animation is the controversial character of Gollum, which is comprised of both great acting on the part of the actor (who incidentally plays Kong as well) and perfect animation work.  

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This is one of Hollywood’s most impressive special effects movies and a personal favorite. Brad Pitt in his eighties is priceless. For almost half of the film, (when he’s a baby and then a child), the head of Brad Pitt isn’t really his head, but a hundred percent computer-generated image. Shocking, I know.

With all due respect to Orcs, tigers and gorillas, what they achieved in this film regarding special effects is truly remarkable. Add to this the cast of A-listers and you get the masterpiece that is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park first came out to theaters in 1993, and in its time, it revolutionized the industry of visual effects. The movie presented dinosaurs more lifelike than any other movie before – the kind of dinosaurs one can only imagine.

Similar to the technique of King Kong, they used actors wearing dinosaur tails to perform the dinosaur’s movements, and put the animations upon these captions. Another trick they used was putting a light inside the dinosaur’s mouth, to enhance the teeth and create a scarier effect.

I, Robot

Though Hollywood is not unfamiliar with robot films, I, Robot did something different with Sonny – his features and facial expression are gentle and resembles those of people, which makes the CGI of the film that much more impressive and believable.

Here, too, they used CG animations to create the perfect robot, though they decided to use purely animations without actors performing the movements.

The Mask

The crowning glory of the film is, of course, the acting of Jim Carrey, aka The Mask. Carrey plays the character throughout, and it’s his real voice and movements that fit perfectly with the character of the mask and creates this extraordinary character.

Carrey’s features were so perfect for the role, that he wasn’t even wearing a mask, but (a lot of) makeup, that took hours on end to create, with the result of turning Carrey into an actual cartoon.

The Hobbit

After the success of the Lord of the Rings, came along to theaters its little brother – The Hobbit, with special effects that might put LOTR to shame. The creators of the film attempted to make something remarkable and memorable, using new techniques of CGI, such as high frame rate video.

What is most groundbreaking in The Hobbit is their use of 3D rather than a two-dimension animation, which is part of the reason for the film’s huge box office success.

Godzilla

The creation behind Godzilla is actually a lot simpler than you’d expect. They used an actor wearing the Godzilla suit, and placed miniature buildings around him. Keep in mind, though, that the original film was released in 1954, way before the striking technological development of our days.

It wasn’t as simple for the actor of Godzilla, though, who had to wear a suit weighing 20,000 tons, made of wires, bamboos, fabric, cushion and latex – who came up with the idea for this suit?!

Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean give a fight to every single film on this list, as it is one of Hollywood’s most impressive works of visual effects out there.

It’s no wonder that they produced such high-quality visual effects, though, as the team included over 700 visual effects artists to bring the tale to life.

The Avengers

The Hulk seems to be the major work of the Avengers’ visual effects, but actually the entire film is created using special effects, including the background of the city of New York, which is also CGI.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but as real and convincing as it looks, the filming takes place inside a studio (the one with the green screen), and not the streets of New York, which actually constitute one of the film’s best demonstrations of CGI.

Avatar

Like you probably thought when watching it for the first (or second, or third) time, Avatar also introduces some new techniques and improvements of special effects and CGI. The film’s director spent 14 months developing the motion-capture animation technologies used in the film.

Several animation companies participated in the huge project, helping to perfect the blue characters. The actors wore individually made skull caps to fully capture the range of their expressions and facial movement.

Harry Potter

While the production of Harry Potter created some pretty amazing CGI special effects to create the magical world of Hogwarts, a lot of it wasn’t made by a computer, but involved practical effects and tricks.

One example is the scene in the very first movie where Harry’s wand chooses him as if by itself. What really takes place in this scene isn’t CGI and it isn’t magic either, but simply using a fan and a light change accompanied by magical music.

Gravity

Unlike Harry Potter or Godzilla, which could use old tricks and a Godzilla suit to fool the audience, the production of Gravity needed to invent new technology in order to film a movie in space.

Obviously, computers had to be used in order to create space – there’s just no way around it. But they had to invent new CGI technologies to create this kind of surroundings and make it look believable, and they ended up doing things they didn’t know computers were even capable of.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

In Planet of the Apes, the production seriously considered using real apes, since they wanted it to look as real as possible. However, it wasn’t a realistic option for many reasons, and so eventually they had to compromise and use CG animation.

They ended up using motion-capture, recording the motions of actors or objects and creating the digital apes based on these captions.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

The classic film featuring the beloved friend from another planet also presents some pretty impressive special effects, considering it was filmed during the 1980s.

The beloved character of E.T doesn’t involve CGI or any advanced computer methods, but a puppet. Yes, the character of E.T is a heavy, robotic puppet, which was managed by monitors.

Star Wars

The first movie in the franchise, created back in the 1970s, required the founding of a new special effects company that would handle the intricate visual effects required for a movie of this kind, at a period when computers were barely invented.

Star Wars truly revolutionized the industry with its innovative special effects, including new camera techniques, such as computer-controlled camera movement, and other computer innovations.

Saving Private Ryan

This might not strike you as an obvious choice to put on a list of “the most special special-effects,” but you’d be surprised to learn how many visual effects were involved in the filming of this highly acclaimed film.

The drama features some shots and scenes that couldn’t be achieved without using special effects, such as CG depicting ships, bullets, woods and other objects to make the scenery as believable as it was.

Independence Day

In this futuristic drama, the most impressive special effect was the use of miniatures of buildings, streets, aircrafts, landmarks, monuments and spaceships.

They built twice as many miniatures for this movie than any other movie ever before. These miniatures were used for filming the bombing scenes taking place on city streets and buildings (like the one portrayed in the picture).

Transformers

The special effects are probably the best part of the Transformer franchise, and that’s why it won several Academy Awards for the visual effects. The first film in the franchise was highly praised for its special effects, though the reviews of the film were controversial.

What was so impressive? The special effects included using mechanic parts such as clutch plates, transmissions and brake discs in every single intricate shot of the film, and that was only in the first movie. Like good wine, they improved with time.

Twilight Saga

This list wouldn’t be complete without Hollywood’s favorite vampire saga. Vampires, werewolves, you name it – Twilight’s got it all. How can it not be a Hollywood success with all these visual effects?

Jacob as the wolf was created using CGI on Taylor Lautner’s movements. This was then filmed against the background of the woods, which were incidentally also created using CGI. The wonders of technology.

Interstellar

The major animation company that created the visual effects of the space drama Interstellar was the same company used in Inception – so you can’t go wrong there.

What’s interesting here is that they created the CGI and miniature effects before filming the actors, and not the other way around as is usually the case. Then they filmed the actors in front of the background rather than the green screen.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The main special-effects tools used to create the magical world of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory was forced perspective (altering the perspective to make something look bigger, smaller or further away than it really is), oversized props and scale models.

Renowned director Tim Burton was reluctant to use too many digital effects, since he wanted to make the young actors feel like they are working among real people rather than just a computer.

Alice in Wonderland

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter’s characters, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen, are an essential part of the movie as a whole and the special effects in particular.

To make the enormous proportions of the Red Queen’s head, for example, they used special camera techniques. It involved a lot of work since they had to shoot her head separately in every scene and then enhance it in the computer, to make it look as real as possible.

The Chronicles of Narnia

“The devil is in the details” would be the best way to describe the special effects of this movie, since the animators insisted that the animals of the magical wardrobe should look entirely different from one another, and the result is meticulous details in every animation.

What’s even more impressive is that for Aslan, the lion’s character, they used shots of a real lion. If you thought he looked completely life-like, it’s because he is.

Spiderman

Perhaps you noticed that each new Spiderman film that comes out to theaters is technologically better than the previous one, and while every Spiderman film is impressive in terms of special effects, they outdid themselves with the latest one.

Part of that is thanks to Tom Holland’s performance, playing the brand new Spiderman. Holland practices dance and athletics since childhood, so his flexible movements were perfect to capture Spiderman’s CGI creation.

Edge of Tomorrow

Tom Cruise’s tentacled body was perhaps the biggest challenge for the production, as it constituted a problem on several levels, technological and practical – what would it be made of?

It was an intricate animation work with a lot of thought put behind it, and the result, as impressive as it is, doesn’t reveal the amount of thinking and computer work involved.

The Dark Knight

The production of The Dark Knight wanted to keep it real and use practical effects whenever possible, rather than using special effects. According to the producer, it looks more life-like.

That’s why a significant part of the stunts wasn’t created with CGI, but rather they are physically performed by Christian Bale himself, who had to train for months prior to the production of the film.

Back to the Future

The science-fiction blockbuster from 1985 was futuristic indeed in its idea as well as the presentation of special effects.

The special effects of time travel and the doctor’s experiments were depicted both by practical effects and special effects using CGI animation. Today the setting and special effects might seem old and stale to us, but considering the movie was created in the 80s, it was futuristic.

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