Visual effects (VFX) are one of the most important aspects when it comes to filmmaking. They grant the ability to bring so many imaginative ideas to life such as different environments, creatures, objects, and even characters. There are two main types of visual effects, Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and Practical Effects. CGI are digital effects that are used to create all sorts of elements that do not exist physically in real life. While practical effects are man-made models, props, costumes, and sets that are operated physically to create a more genuine feeling of their existence. There is a common debate on whether digital effects or practical effects are better, but most VFX artists agree that a combination of the two is the ideal approach to bringing these imaginary elements to life.
VFX are the tools that give you so many satisfying moments in films, like your final battles and grand visionary sequences. Visual effects have been a staple of most films for decades but are used a lot more commonly in newer films. As the years go by VFX just get more and more advanced, especially digital ones as practical effects have sadly started to fall out of fashion. We all love the Sam RaimiSpider-Man trilogy from the 2000s but can admit that some of the effects in those movies look slightly dated. However, despite visual effects existing for over a hundred years, there have been a few films that managed to bring things to life that will forever feel timeless.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey Is one of the many masterpieces by Stanley Kubrick. As one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, it only makes sense that he made one of the best practical achievements of all time. In a decade that was mostly blind to the concept of CGI, Kubrick still managed to make a film that will forever feel ahead of its time. Within the film, we follow a voyage to Jupiter by the supercomputer HAL 9000 after the discovery of a mysterious monolith.
Each visual element of this film was crafted to an expert degree. Whether it was the use of rotating sets, great costume design, and practical effect techniques that still make the film look amazing to this day. A lot of films nowadays stray towards the use of CGI because it’s a lot cheaper and easier, but leave it to the film that was made over 50 years ago to showcase just how timeless practical effects can feel.
James Cameron is no stranger when it comes to great visual effects. His previous work includes Titanic (1997), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)and Aliens (1986); all of which are films that have outstanding VFX, but his crowning achievement is easily Avatar. A story about a paraplegic marine who is sent on a mission to an alien planet and finds himself becoming fond of the planet’s native species.
Everybody knows about Avatar and how it pushed the boundaries of what CGI could achieve. It makes total sense why it’s still the world’s highest-grossing movie due to this reputation. To this day Avatar still has some of the best-looking CGI out of any modern blockbuster. The world and characters feel so established and have such a great sense of atmosphere, which only adds to the excitement for the sequel and what technical possibilities it has to offer.
‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)
Jurassic Park has some of the most breathtaking visual effects ever! It was such a landmark for VFX that essentially changed the DNA of how these elements could be utilized on the big screen. The dinosaurs are a trademark feature of this film, and the audience shares the same amazement as the group of experts during their private visit to the park. However, chaos ensues when the security system malfunctions, which allows the dinosaurs to escape their enclosures.
The film uses a combination of huge practical models and animatronics blended together with CGI seamlessly. This technique managed to bring the dinosaurs to life in such a thrilling way and made them look and feel as if they were alive in those moments. The film chooses to tell the story from the humans’ perspective which gives the dinosaurs such a grand sense of scale. We feel for the character’s fear or amazement as the dinosaurs themselves manage to evoke a sense of horror and wonder. This is due to their realistic appearances that are blended so well into reality.
‘Fantastic Mr. Fox ‘(2009)
Often people forget that stop-motion animated films are fantastic examples of the use of practical effects. The true beauty of this filmmaking technique is that it will always feel timeless because of its ability to exist in the real world through the use of real-time props and set pieces and Fantastic Mr. Fox is a prime example. We follow Mr. Fox as he plans a heist against three local farmers in an attempt to spice up his boring life. However, has to face the consequences once the farmers rebel.
Director Wes Anderson is known for his quirky style and use of miniatures and puppets which are both greatly reflected in this film. It looks beautiful because of its amazing character design and puppetry which just makes the film flow in such a lively way. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a perfect example that represents the substantial effects work that goes into making a stop-motion feature.
Christopher Nolan is another director who knows what he is doing when it comes to visual effects. Some of his previous titles include Interstellar (2014), The Dark Knight (2008)and most recently, Tenet (2020); but out of all his films, Inception is his most iconic when it comes to the visual style. It’s known for its trippy visuals and a great spectacle and tells the story of a professional thief who steals information by infiltrating the minds of his targets.
There are a ton of memorable sequences within this film involving VFX, with one notable one being the spinning corridor. This was by far the most impressive scene within the film as they built a giant set piece to achieve it. This effect was inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odysseywhich was mentioned earlier.
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)
Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t necessarily a story-driven film, and that’s kinda what makes it great. The film knows exactly what it is, which is a fun, thrilling, action movie that succeeds by having great visual effects. The film consisted of impeccable stunt choreography and practical effects that combined to create an action movie like no other.
There are a ton of real explosions and cars or motorcycles ramping off things and crashing into one another. There were these modified cars that have chains and spikes and even giant musical instruments attached to them, which were all made specifically for the film. The film is just a wild and insanely fun ride that is made perfect by the realistic-looking effects and stunts that fuel the experience.
‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)
Guillermo del Toro is known for his fascinating creature design. One of his most notable examples is the aquatic fish-like creature from The Shape of Water (2017). However, out of all of del Toro’s creature features Pan’s Labyrinth will forever be his classic, telling the story of a young girl who lives with her pregnant mother and oppressive stepfather. They all recently moved onto a military compound that holds the remains of an isolated labyrinth. Ofelia begins to explore the labyrinth and encounters all sorts of creatures as she attempts to free herself from her loneliness.
The film consists of a plethora of whimsical creatures that were all brought to life by amazing costume design, makeup, and practical effects. Although the creatures are very fantastical, they still feel grounded in reality due to the amazing practical effects that went into making them. However, the character design was not the only great use of VFX within the film. Similar to Jurassic Park, the film combined the use of practical and digital effects. This made all the different settings, creatures, and environments feel just like a fantasy world that could have existed today.
On the surface, Parasite might not even feel like a film that has any visual effects, and you’re probably even surprised that it’s mentioned here. The highly successful film from Korea is a relatively down-to-earth drama about a poor family that swiftly gets their lives entangled with a far more wealthy counterpart.
Parasite is a film that masterfully hides its visual effects from the naked eye. Many shots of this film are displayed in front of a simple green screen which can only be discovered by watching the behind-the-scenes footage as every shot in this film feels like a raw take. Large portions of the main house where most of the film takes place are also digitally added images that are completely unnoticeable. Parasite chooses to hide its effects because it is not trying to be a VFX spectacle. The film is more focused on the story and characters and shows how some of the best examples of visual effects, are making them seem like they are not even there.
‘The Thing’ (1982)
The Thing could have easily been the film that invented the definition ‘body horror’ as we follow a group of researchers in Antarctica that discover a shape-shifting alien. It’s frightening enough that the alien can mimic the form of the fellow researchers, but its grotesque forms are the true horrors that come from this film. The Thing has some of the best practical effects out of any horror movie ever made. The film was made with absolutely no CGI as it was very scarce during the time but honestly benefited from this. The practical effects are amazing and are merged extremely well into reality.
Every creature within this film was a real gory, monstrous model which made them feel even more horrifying. There are points where you can barely even tell that the events happening on screen were fake. Every shot was composed so well to hide all the behind-the-scenes work that enlivens these creatures. The Things’ use of practical effects is iconic and will forever feel timeless. They were even attempted to be replicated by its sequel, The Thing (2013) but sadly failed due to the over-exposure of CGI.
‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a one-of-a-kind film set in a reality where cartoon characters and real people live together. The film follows a man named Eddie, an investigator who has to exonerate Roger Rabbit, an animated character who has been falsely accused of murder.
The film has a great visual style and blends 2D animation and live-action with such grace. The visual effects are great at making the animated characters feel like they belong in this universe. The ‘toons’ (as stated in the film) feel like they’re actually there as they play off of and interact with the actors and environment flawlessly. This film’s unique style sparked a trend that a lot of other films tried to recreate. However, most of these films have not managed to achieve the same faithfulness. This makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit feel so ahead of its time in terms of the achievements it has made.
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