-- Popular Mechanics 1949
Through a wise mix of makeup and CGI, David Fincher could give us Brad Pitt at various ages and have it be completely believable. The measure for any effect like this is how much it distracts the viewer, with zero being the ideal. Considering it won the Academy Award in 2008 for both Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects, it's fair to say it came admirably close. David Fincher is one of the most "can't miss" directors in Hollywood right now, but it's fair to say this was his most technically challenging film, made all the more impressive that isn't remembered in the same breath as an Avatar or Lord of the Rings. Where those movies bask in the grandeur of what they can artificially show you, Button seeks to hide it, seeing it as a necessary crutch to the story. More filmmakers could benefit from Fincher's restraint.
The memorable effects of Her are all in the imaginings of where our electronics will be in the near future. From picturing the subtle steps forward in voice recognition to mail processing to portable electronics, the movie excels in believably small evolutions in all areas of technology that avoids sci-fi's predisposition to making everything futuristic drab and Spartan, instead, relishing the opportunity to show the stylistic flourishes it thinks those categories will take. Most of that credit goes to the Prop department though; the impressive CGI comes in the video game sequence with "Alien Child". Picturing a video game projected throughout your living room in three dimensions with characters that interact not only to you, but to anything else that might be in the room, Her was truly visionary.
In a transitional use of CGI between the period of having to use all human actors, vs. now when this scene would almost certainly be entirely created with green-screen, visual effects studio The Mill used 2,000 live actors filmed from different angles to create an audience of 35,000 for the arena. While the arena shots alone are impressive enough to land Gladiator on this list, a lesser-known use of CGI on the film is actually more impressive. Oliver Reed, who played Proximo, died before his shooting had been completed. The film used a body double and CGI of his face to complete the approximately two minutes left of footage for his character. Through Ridley Scott's skill as a director, the audience never notices that these scenes take place mostly in shadow, allowing for the limited effects of the day to pull off the task.
Visual effects, both practical (plenty of plain aspect trickery was used to make the hobbits appear shorter than their co-stars without resorting to computers) and computer generated, define LotR as much as the sprawling story to which modern fantasy owes many of its tropes. While the standard fare of the Nazghul, eagles, and Sauron are all impressive in their own right, this is the movie that really pushed motion capture forward. Through the painstaking combining of more traditional CGI and rotoscoping the digital Gollum over Serkis's figure, the art would be arguably perfected by a later entry on the list.
When viewed against its meager $30 million budget, district 9's impressive visuals have to be considered a resounding success. From first time film director Neill Blomkamp, District 9 used at least 5 visual effects studios to craft the "prawns" and their spaceship. The design is perfect for an initial reaction of slight revulsion that transitions to compassion by the end of the film. Ironically, Blomkamp had to parcel out the effects work because his studio of choice was too busy working on, you guessed it, Avatar's visuals. It's hard to argue with the finished product, which is perhaps why Elysium was such a disappointing follow-up for Blomkamp. While the visuals are still adequate, it's hard to say they justified the film's $115 million budget when you've seen the virtuoso performance of District 9.
Considering the movie was released in 1991, its visuals hold up impressively well, looking more like a slightly lower-budget movie from today. I know I sound like a broken record hammering this movie's visuals, but the Twilight werewolves don't hold a candle to the effects from a movie 20 years its senior. Part of Cameron's genius was using such a simple palette to simulate; T-1000 is all reflective chrome when injured, an easier thing to CGI, especially considering that the moviegoers have no frame of reference for comparing what they're seeing on screen to real life. This isn't to say the movie's realistic effects are all smoke and mirrors, however. T-1000 rising off the linoleum floor or slipping through prison bars were incredibly impressive shots at the time, and served as a huge leap forward in visual effects.
King Kong takes the standards established by Lord of the Rings and upped the ante by changing the scale of the actors. Once again featuring Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit, Kong needed to splice together the footage of Naomi Watts to interact with Serkis in a way that would convince audiences he was actually a massive primate. King Kong certainly makes missteps in other areas with CGI, the Apatosaurus stampede being chief among them, but at least in regard to scenes involving Kong himself, the movie is a sight to behold. The level of detail captured and transferred to the face of the titular gorilla is incredible. Kong's eyes are also the closest we've ever gotten to ones with soul, a vast improvement over Gollum's.
While most entries on this list are reserved for more subtle uses of CGI, there is something to be said for a movie that throws caution to the wind like Avatar does. While the humanoid visuals aren't quite as advanced as they were lauded for being, everything else is amazing. With three sequels already greenlit, Cameron will plenty of opportunity to push the envelope on the humanoid front, and if one thing's for sure, he will use these sequels to make another visual leap (compare Terminator to Terminator 2). Standing on its own merits, however, Avatar made amazing strides in green screen and motion-capture, and is one of the few films that was actually worth seeing in 3-D in theaters. I'm sure it's visuals will look downright quaint in 20 years (the unavoidable fate of any effects-laden movie), but it represents quite a high-water mark for today's industry.
Though the film used animatronics whenever it could, it also used really advanced for the day CGI from Industrial Light & Magic that really pushed the envelope for what could be done in the medium. The genius of Park was in its blend of animatronics, traditional men in suits, and CGI, and blending the three of them together seamlessly to maintain a consistent visual style. The roadmap it laid out has sadly been ignored by plenty of filmmakers who don't have Spielberg's talent for realistic CGI, yet insist on using it for even the most mundane effects shot. Considering Universal is insisting on churning out a fourth Jurassic Park film without Spielberg's involvement and not based on any Crichton book, it seems assured the franchise itself will succumb to this fate.
I firmly believe we will look back on Gravity even more fondly in the future than we do today (and it's 97% on Rotten Tomatoes means it's hardly getting ignored now). We will see it as an amazing turning point in filmmaking. Playing perfectly into Cuarón's love of continuous shots, Gravity uses CGI to bridge scenes together for the illusion of continuity. Though the film is littered with these long stretches without an obvious cut, its initial opening and Bullock's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere will be studied in film classes for years to come. A perfect example of the seamlessness that is becoming technologically possible with CGI, you're rarely sure when you're watching props vs. green-screen. It may be several years until a movie comes along to challenge Gravity's position here, but it is undoubtedly the champion any challenger will be compared to.
For one scene, and one scene alone, Inception almost cracked the Top Ten. Though it is something of a champion of practical effects, the movie has the memorable scene of Ariadne folding Paris onto itself that took incredible imagination, nevermind CGI prowess.