Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Visual Effects Scenes

As the summer movie season winds down and we look back at all the VFX-heavy blockbusters (and wannabe blockbusters) of the year, this has gotten us to thinking about some of our favorite visual effects scenes of all time. For this week’s Roundtable, let’s celebrate the wonders of movie magic.

Technically speaking, there is a distinction between “special effects” and “visual effects.” As it’s been explained to me, special effects are typically photographed in-camera (such as models and miniatures, animatronics, or explosions), while visual effects are added on top of the image in post production (such as CGI or, in days past, rotoscoping and optical effects). People in the industry who actually do this work prefer to keep the terms separated, but the rest of us in the audience usually use the phrases interchangeably. When Oscar time comes around, the Academy lumps everything together into the category of “Best Visual Effects,” so I don’t feel too badly about this. For the purposes of this Roundtable, we’re talking about any and all of the above.

Josh Zyber

No single scene in film history has ever presented a better fusion of both technical innovation and poetic grandeur than the sequence early in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ where Heywood Floyd’s space plane (a remarkably prescient vision of the real space shuttle) flies to and docks with the orbiting space station. The scene was not only groundbreaking for its convincingly photorealistic models, but also for director Stanley Kubrick’s insistence on adhering as closely as possible to real physics (the lack of sound in space, the rotation of the station), all while choreographing the movements to the “Blue Danube” waltz by Johann Strauss. The combination of all these elements transcends merely being a “special effects” scene. It’s genuine art.

M. Enois Duarte

For me, no movie has been able to match the sort of spectacle and wonderment that I experienced the first time I watched ‘Jurassic Park‘. A good part of why it probably worked so well on me could be the theater I went to — one of those massive two-and-a-half story screens inside a dome-shaped room. I also remember that it got torn down a year or two later to make room for a megaplex. Anyhow, the other obvious reason for the movie’s effectiveness comes from the well-integrated use of CGI effects and Steven Spielberg’s excellent use of the camera to capture the enormity of the creatures.

I could pick any scene with the T-Rex or the Velociraptors, but what actually sold me was the scene where Grant, Sattler and Malcolm first arrive and look up to see a Brachiosaurus. Displayed on a gigantic screen, sitting right smack center of the entire room, that is the one true moment in my entire movie-going life that I can honestly say I was wowed and overwhelmed to such an extent that I actually cried. I wasn’t necessarily balling or anything, but I teared up because I became fully convinced and committed that movies can genuinely deliver magic – that anything is possible on the silver screen, to the point that filmmakers can actually bring dinosaurs back to life. The story is simple but engaging, but the real show comes from the spectacular visual effects.

Nate Boss

In a film trilogy overrun with visual effects rather than emotion or story, I can’t help but be wowed every time Anakin and Obi-Wan enter the fracas of the Battle of Coruscant in ‘Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith‘. Yes, it’s as sterile as a lab in the CDC. Sure, there’s absolutely nothing actually going on in the scene. It’s hard to call this the best effects sequence ever, particularly since there’s so little integration of actual, real-life elements. But the sheer scope of the sequence, the intricate plotting and navigation of the only battle to reach the capital – it’s really a fantastic-looking piece of cinema. It goes from the serenity behind friendly lines, a peaceful little arch that, once the star destroyer has passed, turns into sheer, deadly anarchy. The film itself has little in the way of “wows,” but it sure does open with a bang, even if it’s artificial.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Black Narcissus‘ is in the running as the singularly most gorgeous film ever made. One particularly awe-inspiring aspect of the Archers’ most beloved work is that, even though it looks as if it had been filmed entirely on location in India, the crew never stepped foot outside of Pinewood Studios in England. Nearly every last frame was captured indoors, believe it or not! The film’s breathtaking visuals are a testament to the immeasurable talent of its crew, particularly Alfred Junge’s art direction and the cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff. The special effects sequence that dazzles me the most is the climax, a struggle to the death at a bell tower on the edge of a cliff. The tower in reality is all of a few feet off the ground, and yet the effects work is so astonishingly brilliant that it really does look as if this scene was shot on some dizzingly high mountaintop in India. Nearly six and a half decades have passed since ‘Black Narcissus’ roared into theaters, and the craftsmanship of this effect is so masterful that it still holds up under the scrutiny of high definition.

Wayne Rowe

Zyber asks about an effects scene that “wowed” me. I’m going to take that to mean: “Had a feeling of exhilaration at the very sight of a movie scene.” I’m going to pick two. The first, and probably one everyone else will say, is from ‘Jurassic Park’, when the team first sees those impossibly huge and real dinosaurs. My second, and one that doesn’t get enough credit for influencing one of the most famous effects scenes in ‘The Matrix’ (among a slew of other things that don’t get credit for, ahem, “influencing” ‘The Matrix’, but that’s another Roundtable), is the first ‘Blade‘ movie. Specifically, in the beginning of the movie, Blade jumps out of the multiple story high hospital window and lands on the rooftop WAAAAAAY far away.

Mike Attebery

The plane crash scene in ‘Cast Away‘ still holds up. The sequence, which starts with a close-up of a Band-Aid in an airplane bathroom and ends with Tom Hanks floating in a life raft as the wreckage of his Fed Ex plane plunges to the sea depths, is truly harrowing. It’s demo-material for sure, but it also takes a bit of courage just to sit down and start it up. Every moment is believable, jolting, and terrifying. You feel like you’re there, experiencing the unimaginable.

Side note: ‘Cast Away’ is currently going for $11 on Amazon. If you don’t have this Blu-ray in your collection, pick it up ASAP!

Aaron Peck

I’ve had a lot of “wow” moments over the years when it comes to visual effects in cinema. Many of them have come at the hand of CG animation that created worlds and characters which would have never been possible otherwise. However, I prefer practical in-camera effects. They add a sense of realism to the movie. One of the best examples I have of being floored by innovative practical effects is the hallway scene in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception‘. Watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt tumble around in a spinning hallway, walk on the walls and ceiling, and then beat the crap out of a perusing bad guy left my jaw on the floor. It was amazing to see the behind-the-scenes footage and learn how the hallway was constructed to turn end over end. It’s a pretty spectacular scene.

Luke Hickman

While James Cameron is given a huge amount of credit in the effects world for first introducing CGI technology in ‘The Abyss’, I give the Wachowski brothers (well, used to be “brothers”) even more credit for what they did in ‘The Matrix‘. In fact, I’ll never forget seeing the “bullet time” effect for the first time. During the 1999 Superbowl, a short teaser spot for ‘The Matrix’ showed little more than Ted from ‘Bill and Ted’ dodging bullets on a random rooftop. ‘The Matrix’ banked its marketing off of its visual effects alone, so it was a sweet victory when the film itself was just as meaty and unique as the industry-changing effects introduced in it. Watching the 12-year-old film on Blu-ray now, the visual effects still stand on their own.

While by no means a comprehensive list, those are some of our favorite visual effects moments in cinema. Tell us your in the Comments.


  1. Most of you guys are probably too young to remember the effect seeing that first Star Destroyer in STAR WARS had on audiences…no one had ever seen anything like that in the movies before. It was a game changer.

    • I was actually going to choose this scene too, but decided against it because I thought everyone else would choose it. Anyway, yes, that is an iconic VFX scene.

      • Dave M

        I’m glad someone mentioned this, because that really is one of those scenes that works on the big screen-and not so much on home video. But what’s amazing about that shot isn’t the technical side of it but the storytelling side: in about thirty seconds he’d established both the overwhelming might of the bad guys, and that our heroes were hapless underdogs. He hasn’t come anywhere close to that kind of storytelling in any of the prequels. I guess we should just be grateful that the blockade runner didn’t shoot first…

  2. Alex

    The explosion of the White House in “Independence Day.” Still one of the most stunningly memorable shots of all time. It’s worth looking at the work that went into it too. I forget all of the details from the making-of, but I seem to recall that it took weeks and over $100K just to pull of a 7 second shot.

  3. August Lehe

    I guess I was too easy to impress back in 1950 when that space ship in The Day the Earth Stood Still opened and closed without the slightest seam. Hey! It was 1950 and I was still impressed with Big John and Sparky on am radio! We had Captain Video on Dumont tv, but that was like driving a bus on the Honeymooners!

  4. It’s impossible to pick just one. Everything the T-1000 does in Terminator 2. The introduction of ED 209 in Robocop (despite of and because of the cheesiness.) The battle with the alien queen in Aliens. The fire tracks from the Delorean. Brundlefly.

    • HuskerGuy

      Came in here to post the T2 stuff. I thought it was truly phenomenal at the time and I think it still holds up incredibly well.

      I’ll echo Inception and Independence Day as well.

      The opening scene of Swordfish is a pretty fun Matrix-y effect and the Imax scenes in Transformers 2 are just insane.

  5. Sean M

    The teddy bear in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It’s one thing to animate something we’ve never seen before (dinosaurs, nearly invincible robots, etc.), but to see a simple teddy bear come alive in a completely seamless and believable way was incredible.

    Of course, you have to actually watch the movie to see the bear, and no one wants to suffer that much.

  6. Kevin

    Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

    The “tour” of the exterior of the refit U.S.S. Enterprise as Kirk and Scotty approach in the shuttle.

  7. besch64

    The entire ballet sequence from The Red Shoes. Utterly majestic. The superimposition of the roaring ocean over the cheering audience at the end of the dance is probably the single greatest special effect moment in history.

  8. VIOZ

    I think it was before “Spider-man 3” that the theater showed the teaser for “Transformers”: I had never watched an episode of the TV show nor owned a toy and all I knew about the movie was that it existed. But when I saw the scorpion jumping from the sand and Bumblebee putting his mask on I just fell in love. I came out disappointed from the actual movie (it took two sitting, but now I like it), but that trailer still gets to me everytime, reminding me of how epic that movie could’ve been.

  9. Prydie

    Rob Bottin’s work on ‘John Carpenter’s The Thing’ is without a doubt one of the most stunning achievements in SFX.

    • Rob Bottin’s work on a lot of things is fantastic, I really miss the days when Practical FX prevailed in movies, his work on Legend was amazing too, LOVE the Swamp Witch!

  10. One of my favorites as a kid was Return to Oz, having just watched it the other day I never realized how well Tick Tock and Jack Pumpkin Head were done, The way Tick Tock is built I dont think there could be a person in there controlling him, Jack goes from Costume to puppet but you almost cant tell, I wish there was a real making of so I could see how it was done, but the DVD has almost nothing on it 🙁

    All the rest that have already been mentioned have been amazing over the years. The Exorcist would be another one to add, the head spin freaked people out (well the whole movie really) for a long time, nothing like it had been done before.

  11. Donat Torres

    I agree with Josh. The VFX in that scene on 2001 are amazing. Someone in the comments here mentioned ‘The Red Shoes,’ though, and I have to say, the ballet scene is just “wow.” That gets my vote.

  12. Jason

    a scene that will always stick with me was when I first saw Large Marge freak out on Pee Wee Herman. Man oh man! I was six years old at the time and that’s one of my earliest movie memories.

  13. Picknicker

    I’m really fed up with people claiming that the Wachowskis “invented bullet-time” in The Matrix.

    They did not.

    In 1997, the music video clip “Underwater Love” by Smoke City (the song might be known to some for being used in a jeans ad) featured a sequence that used that technology well ahead of the Wachowskis’ blatant copy.

    Of course, as one Spanish language website showed years ago, The Matrix also copied much of the style and composition of Dark City, in some instances even copying the full frame up to a speckle.

    So please, guys, stop claiming that The Matrix is visually unique. It’s not.

    • Josh Zyber

      Prior to The Matrix, rudimentary forms of “Bullet Time” were also seen in the movie Wing Commander and a commercial for The Gap. The Wachowskis hired VFX supervisor John Gaeta based on his work on that Gap ad.

      Nonetheless, the technique was refined significantly for The Matrix, and used in much more complex ways than it ever had been before. The Wachowskis may not have “invented” it, but they were the first to use it in an artistically meaningful fashion (i.e. it actually serves a purpose in the story, and isn’t just a gimmick).

      As for the similarities to Dark City, the two movies were shot on some of the same sets around the same time as one another (mostly for budgetary reasons). The Matrix was well into production before Dark City was released, and I doubt the Wachowskis had seen it in time to consciously copy it.

      In any case, the complaints about The Matrix “ripping off” Dark City or anything else don’t hold a lot of water for me. Like Quentin Tarantino’s work, The Matrix is a pastiche. It overtly references numerous influences: William Gibson, Baudelaire, anime, John Woo, the Terminator franchise, even Hitchcock. (Trinity’s chase across the rooftops in the beginning is straight out of Vertigo.) The point is that it fuses all these elements together into something wholly unique that is its own thing.

      The Matrix trilogy has a lot of problems, but it really can’t be denied that the first film was a groundbreaking and hugely influential piece of cinema.

      • Picknicker

        Josh, with all due respect, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

        A Spanish blogger assembled a fine comparison of Dark City vs The Matrix.

        Judge for yourself:


        Both main actors being able to fly, to levitate things because of the same set? Tentacled monsters because of the same set? An alternate, unseen universe because of the same set?

        And let’s talk about props:

        Police car raids at night, despite the cars being different props? Red curtains, despite the curtain being a different prop? Escalators in the rainy night, despite the escalator being a different prop? The list goes on and on.

        There is nothing unique in The Matrix. Unless, of course, the reviewer hadn’t seen a lot of movies until that point.

        • Ian Whitcombe

          Picknicker, a lot of the things you mention as being unique to Dark City aren’t unique to that film either.

          • Josh Zyber

            Exactly. Dark City was a patiche of Metropolis, various film noirs, Scanners, Hellraiser, and numerous other influences. There’s not a single thing “unique” in that film either. Yet it’s still a good movie.

            Some of those similarities listed are really superficial, too. Police raids at night? Really? About a hundred thousand movies have scenes like that. Red Curtains? Well, I guess Moulin Rouge! is a big rip-off of Dark City too, then. Who knew? 🙂

            About both movies having an “alternate, unseen universe,” a whole bunch of movies and TV series on that theme came out around the turn of the millennium: The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, VR.5, Harsh Realm, Being John Malkovich, Mulholland Drive, Vanilla Sky, etc. That was just a theme that happened to be in the zeitgest at the time. There’s even a name for that fad. It’s called “Millennial Unreality.”

            Quentin Tarantino has never directed a “unique” scene in his life. But he takes things he likes and he makes them his own. So does The Matrix.

          • Picknicker

            Uhm, dudes, I never claimed that Dark City were “unique”. You made that one up.

            In fact, your responses just happen to make my point: The Matrix not only “borrows” heavily from Dark City, but from many other movies that came before it.

            So what exactly makes The Matrix a “wonder of movie magic”?

            Nothing. It’s all been there, done that,

          • Josh Zyber

            To each their own, but the way that The Matrix combines all those different elements together into its own thing is in fact what makes it unique.

          • I dont care what movies The Matrix is compared to, NONE of them put so many awesome things with an intricate Scifi story together like it did, sure the Matrix pulls from many different places, so does Dark City but wholly the stories are completely different in Dark City and The Matrix, besides some looks and sets used The Matrix and Dark City have almost NOTHING in common, they are completely different films in my mind and both are extremely awesome, how anyone can say the Matrix ripped off Dark City is beyond me

      • Chris

        The W Bros were working on those visual ideas for years. There’s a great slomo bullet in “Bound” with Tilly, Gershon, and Pantoliano. That was 1996. I watched that film again after the Matrix and thought, “Hmm, they were practicing.”

        It’s easy to hate on the Matrix because they made 2 and 3. Had they walked away from that franchise, it would not be in the bashtank today.

  14. The buffalo hunt in “Dances With Wolves”; a great mix of stunts/digital/practical effects to highlight a real -life historical occurrence that will sadly never be seen again.

    Anything involving the Aston-Martin in “Goldfinger.”

    I still prefer the Death Star 2 battle in “Jedi” to anything in the Prequels. Seeing the Falcon fly through 10 waves of TIE fighters and through the superstructure…..WOW!

  15. One of the things that really gets me is how some of the effects are done in older movies. Some are absolutely amazing!

    Metropolis is one such movie that comes to mind. The minatures, the flooding of the workers city, the set design! Absolutely Amazing!

    The Wizard of Oz still amazes me with the tornado scene. I love watching the raw footage of it! Incredible! There are still effects in that movie that I just wonder how the heck they did it!

    Forbidden Planet has the monster. That is just wicked looking!

    Ghostbusters when the explosion happens and all hell breaks loose! I also love the Gozar sceen at the end of the movie, and the Stay-Puff Marshmellow Man!

    Honey, I Shrunk The Kids just has some amazing sets and anamatronics in it! Yeah, by today’s standards, the effects are kinda hoaky, but I remember how impressed I was when this movie came out,

    Star Trek 6 the explosion of Praxis!

    Star Trek: First Contact – the Borg Queen!

    And I cannot believe that no one is giving Blade Runner any love! Come on, that opening sequence is amazing!

  16. When I read the blog entry, I immediately thought: “Jurassic Park! The Brachiosaurus!”.

    Then I saw Mr. Duarte’s entry and felt (p)owned. I shouldn’t feel bad, however, for he is “The Professor”. And as one of his students, it’s normal to be outsmarted.

    So, for me as well, “The Brachiosaurus” in “Jurassic Park”. As a nine year old kid in the fall of 1993 (no worldwide release dates back then), I was extremely impressed. And I still am. A lot of new movies can’t top JP’s 18 year old visual effects. What an achievement!

  17. August Lehe

    I’ll show you guys how it pays to be the oldest fart in the room! DuMont TV’s CAPTAIN VIDEO …1946 TO 1955 FEATURED THE WRITING OF NONE OTHER THAN Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov (among others!). Ever heard of em? the Captain Video Rocket Ship Ring was obtained via POWERHOUSE CANDY BARS (think Baby Ruth, but twice as big!) and was $$$ valued at roughly the same as each Captain Video episode budget. Captain Video also featured the first appearamces of TOBOR (that’s robot spelled backwards, you know?)

  18. August Lehe

    I know it’s WAY too late to fuss about it, but doesn’t anyone (besides me) see a need for a SMILEBOX DISC of BEN HUR? It doesn’t have to be quite as deeply curved as HOW THE WEST WAS WON, but it would sure be nice to recall the glories of Camera 65 First-Run in Times Square circa 1959. I guess we won’t see another smilebox disc until WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM comes out on Blu Ray. AFTER ALL, that WAS true, three-lens CINERAMA!

    • Josh Zyber

      Although Ben-Hur may have been projected in Cinerama dome theaters, it was not a true 3-camera Cinerama production. It was shot in single-lens 65mm Ultra Panavision format. If you applied Smileboxing to it, the picture geometry would be distorted.

      Smilebox is only appropriate for native 3-camera Cinerama films. Because each of the camera lenses was pointed at a slightly different angle, the picture must either be projected onto a curved screen or Smileboxed to preserve the original picture geometry.

  19. Oh, damn… this is the toughest list ever, because I’m such an effects nut I could start listing movie after movie… grrr… Okay, here’s a few off the top of my head, but there’ll be loads I’ve missed. 😉

    Okay, here goes…
    – Star Wars – Trench Run
    – Empire Strikes Back – Battle in the Snow in Empire
    – Blade Runner – Opening sequence
    – 2001, but not the usual sequence… the bit that always sticks in my head is the large spherical shuttle landing on the moon.
    – 2010 – 1st passing from the Leanov to the Discovery.
    – Alien – Exploring the derelict
    – Forbidden Planet – The landing of the C-57D & Id monster attack
    – The Thing – Norris’ chest explosion
    – Robocop 2 – Cain vs Robo final battle
    – Jason and the Argonauts – The Talos scene
    – The Gate – The little demons in the pit
    – Conan the Barbarian – Transformation of Thulsadoom (Simple but perfectly used tricks that still look more stylish than any easy ‘morphing’ scene)
    – Escape from New York – Snake’s glider flight into the city
    – Dune – The personal shields
    – Lifeforce – 1st seeing and entering the alien craft
    – Terminator – Future war opening (It may not be as technically impressive as the one in T2 or T3, but I still think it’s stylistically the superior one)
    – TRON – Lightcycle race
    – The Time Machine (George Pal version) – The main passage through time, with the stop-motion background changes
    – Star Trek II – Enterpise/Reliant battle
    – Raiders of the Lost Ark – Ark opening

  20. merlich

    I have two nominations:

    The parting of the Red Sea in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”

    The chase through the asteroid field in “The Empire Strikes Back”

    No matter how many times I see these scenes, they just make my jaw drop.