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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.