Computer-Assisted Film: The Best CGI of Each Decade Since 1980

It is phenomenally easy to forget when watching a modern film – particularly one of those explosion-laden, action-packed blockbusters – that a great deal of what we’re watching is not real, and never was. From digitally-painted landscapes to creatures formed and modeled inside a 3D-rendering program, computer-generated imagery has advanced in leaps and bounds since its inception in film in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and for many, it has become a staple of the movie-going experience: we expect to see the impossible when we go to see movies, and CGI has made virtually every impossible, possible.

I was discussing the impact of CGI with my son the other day, and we started talking about its history, the use of computers in film overall, and what some of the most impactful films over the past few decades have been in this regard. In doing so, it came to light that whilst some movies are famous for their outlandish and brazen CGI, others are recognized for implementing it in such a subtle way that we are completely fooled to the point of believing it must have actually happened.

As I think back over the past forty years of CGI, it occurred to me that there must be some movie, some film from each decade that stands out above all others for its inventive, innovative, and game-changing use of CGI, and I wanted to run down those top films – in my opinion – and they impact they’ve had on the film industry.

In order to measure up, of course, we can’t directly compare the CGI of Avengers: Endgame (2019) to that of, say, The Abyss (1989), because the technology is itself incomparable. To that end, I’m more interested in how the technology of the day was used in new and exciting ways, the believability of the effects it generated, and the long-term impact of the film’s use of technology on the film industry at large. I’ve picked one film from each decade since 1980, and will review what it achieved, how it achieved it, and what the film’s legacy is to this day.

1980s: Tron (1982)

The 1980s saw the burgeoning world of digital special effects explode into the mainstream, but it was also arguably the decade in which practical effects peaked, with sequences such as the face-melting scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and the werewolf transformations in An American Werewolf in London awing movie-goers around the world. In this context, it’s hard to see any movie from the 80s beat out practical effects with digital ones, but if there’s one movie that set the stage for what was possible with computers, it was 1982’s Tron.

The movie itself was never a big success at the box office, and the special effects used in it look primitive by today’s standards, but it was quite possibly the first mainstream film to extensively use computers to not only process but outright generate a great deal of its imagery. When Jeff Bridges first descends into the virtual world of his computer game, the neon lights and odd, geometric shapes whirling and dancing around the screen are entirely the product of specially-designed software, rotoscoped and superimposed against real-world footage.

Interestingly, the process of creating the digital ‘world’ in Tron was so complex, and required such precision with the film editing, that the cameras had to be bolted to the floor when filming those sequences so that there was as little change between shots as possible. This assisted the digital rotoscoping that helped to create the costume effects – essentially shot in black and white and then colorized – and helped to create the look and feel of the film. Despite the enormous difficulty in creating these shots, the film was actually disqualified from its year’s Oscar awards because using computers was considered cheating.

1990s: Forrest Gump (1994)

The 1990s was the decade that arguably advanced CGI to the point where it could be convincingly combined into real-life footage, seamlessly blending camera film and digital creations in ways that not only blew away the audiences, but left them wondering how it was done. From the outset, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) set the decade up with its liquid metal person sequence that reportedly took over ten months to create, and movies like Independence Day (1996) ran with this creating entire air force fleets that never existed.

However, the film that stands out to me from the 90s as one of the most extensive, innovative, and convincing examples of CGI use in film has to be Forrest Gump (1994). This isn’t because it has entire CGI sequences (it doesn’t), nor because it moved away from practical effects (an enormous amount of the ‘clever’ shots in this film are untouched by CGI), but rather because when they did use CGI, they used it in such subtle, convincing ways that it becomes quite literally indistinguishable from real life.

Whether we’re looking at shots that have Tom Hanks interacting with long-dead presidents, or entire sequences where Gary Sinise’s legs are completely removed, the artful combination of digital and practical effects holds up to this day, even after twenty-five years. A large part of the film’s success came from innovative use of partial green screen and detailed rotoscoping, combined with the foresight when filming nearly every single shot that it might need digital tweaking afterwards. One of the shots that stands out is when Gary Sinise – missing legs and all – is lifted clear off a hospital bed and carried out by a nurse. This sequence was achieved by having the actor’s legs hidden through cutouts in the bed itself, and then digitally painting over those holes, frame by frame, in post-production.

For me, this film represents CGI subtlety at its very best, which is something I think we’ve sadly lost in more recent years with crazy camera angles, digital scenery, and sequences that are so clearly impossible that we lose our suspension of disbelief. With Forrest Gump, every shot and frame was so meticulously composed that you are simply immersed in the world created by Industrial Light & Magic, and the final shots put to film are nothing less than utterly convincing.

2000s: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

George Lucas maybe have beaten Peter Jackson to the punch by a few years with the fully CGI character of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), but I don’t think there’s any argument that it was Weta’s work on Gollum in all three Lord of the Rings films that set the gold standard for what could be achieved with digital make-up and performance capture. And whilst we first see glimpses of the creature in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and entire sequences featuring Andy Serkis’ motion-capture in The Two Towers (2002), it was really The Return of the King (2003) that set a bar that would arguably not be beat until 2009’s Avatar.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, of course, is famous for its liberal use of CGI to create everything from creatures to armies to entire landscapes, and for the most part it does it with absolute conviction; now, almost twenty years later, some scenes feel a little rough, but others remain as fresh as the day we first saw them in the cinema.

As with many films, there are a surprising number of practical effects throughout the Lord of the Rings movies, including model cities and landscapes built to such large scale that they coined the term ‘bigatures’ to describe them. However, it’s against the shots where practical and digital effects are seamlessly combined that truly showcase the talent of the digital effects team at Weta. Sure, giant spiders and armies of ghosts are visually striking, but the single shot that stands out to me to this day is early in The Return of the King, as we watch Andy Serkis play Smeagol’s descent into madness after coming into possession of the One Ring. To begin with we see Serkis unaided by CGI, and gradually watch a practical effects transformation into the creature, Gollum. However, there comes a point where the transformation has to be completed with CGI, and this is done in what may be one of the bravest CGI attempts of its time. Instead of simply cutting from a practical shot to a CGI shot, we watch as practical effect Serkis closes his eyes, only to seamlessly open them a moment later as a digital version of himself. The precise moment where the CGI takes over is completely indistinguishable, and represents perhaps one of the finest moments of subtle CGI integration in film to this day.

2010s: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The 2010s boast a plethora of CGI-laden films, from Marvel’s insanely ambitious cinematic universe to Disney’s ‘live-action’ remakes of classic animated films such as The Lion King (1994, 2019), and indeed will likely go down in history as the decade where CGI finally became indistinguishable from live action footage.

Standing on the shoulders of ground-breaking pioneers such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and many others, the 2010s saw motion-capture take center stage as creatures and characters were brought to life with uncanny accuracy, from Mark Ruffalo’s Incredible Hulk to Josh Brolin’s Thanos, but over the past twenty years there is only one godfather of performance-capture, and that is Andy Serkis.

In an odd parallel to Tron’s disqualification from visual effects awards due to is heavy use of computers, Andy Serkis was repeatedly and similarly snubbed because it was felt that if we couldn’t actually see the actor, then we couldn’t judge them on their acting ability. And whilst Serkis certainly brought performance-capture to the mainstream with his work with Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings and Kong (2005), I maintain that his crowning achievement is as the chimpanzee Caesar in the Planet of the Apes trilogy in the mid 2010s.

To this end, of course, the CGI only improved in the years between these three films, but as a stand-out example of an absolutely seamless blend of CGI and real life footage, the second film in the trilogy – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – opens with what can only be described as CGI perfection. Zoomed close in on Caesar’s face, Serkis manages to pull off an astonishing range of emotions – rage, fear, sadness and loneliness – in a sequence that only lasts a few seconds, and doesn’t contain a single pixel of his actual features. Instead, we read these emotions on the face of a digitally-built ape, and from the lighting to the individual movement of hairs and the flaking war paint around utterly believable eyes, there isn’t a frame that doesn’t look like the real thing.

The rest of the film, of course, is equally riveting and believable in its use of CGI, but this opening sequence – including dozens of apes hunting and killing deer and a freaking CGI bear – sets the stage, and the bar for the rest of the decade. Even five years later, Marvel’s work on Thanos only just manages to come close to what Weta (again) were able to achieve with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Honorable Mention: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

If I were to include Pixar in the list of CGI breakthroughs, there would be no other movies included. Since 1995, Pixar have repeatedly showcased exactly what was possible with computers, creating not only breathtakingly beautiful animations through their custom-built software, but pushing the limits of what is technologically possible. As early as Toy Story 2 (1999), Pixar was experimenting with particle simulations, with one notable scene involving a toy penguin sneezing into a cloud of dust where every single particle was individually simulated.

However, one of the most groundbreaking innovations that came out of Pixar in the early 2000s was the ability to realistically animate and recreate hair: not just a few strands (as we see on Gollum in The Lord of the Rings), but in the case of Monsters, Inc. (2001) an entire body of hair. Every scene in which we see the monster Sully includes a complete simulation of hundreds of thousands of hairs, allowing for an almost hyper-realistic recreation of a creature that is literally covered in fur.

This arguably paved the way for later CGI creatures in other films, not the least of which has already been mentioned above: the apes in The Planet of the Apes trilogy. But more than that, it proved that with enough computing power, time and skill, quite literally anything can be digitally recreated in enough detail that the viewer will simply not be able to tell the difference. And as time goes on and the technology advances, so will the integration between CGI and real-world footage. We’ve already seen the beginning of a new era with Star Wars reviving dead actors through breathtakingly-convincing digital work, and I have no doubt that as we move into the 2020s, we will only see further proof that live-action scenery and actors may become a thing of the past – relegated to the history bin along with stop-motion and practical effects.

With that being said, the ability to create literally anything with a computer also means that the ability to visually stun audiences is fading away; when we saw James Cameron fly a helicopter under a bridge in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, it was all the more impressive because we knew that a real pilot (in that instance, it was literally flown by Cameron himself) actually performed the stunt. As impressive as the swarming spaceships of Infinity War and Endgame are, there’s still a part of me that knows, subconsciously, that what I’m watching simply isn’t real – and therefore simply isn’t as impressed.

So a word of caution: as far as we can push the envelope of digital film technology, there will (I hope) always remain a place for real-life action – if for no other reason than watching a real person jump out of a real moving vehicle will always be more stunning and impressive than any digital recreation of the same thing – regardless of how well it’s done.

The Lord of the Rings and its Extended Movie Universe

I was talking to a colleague the other day about movies, and he revealed to me that he and his roommate are making a concerted effort to watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety for the first time ever. After I got over my initial shock that there still exist people in the world who haven’t seen these magnificent pieces of cinematic history, we started talking about some of the scenes he had seen so far (he hasn’t yet got to The Return of the King), his immediate impression of the characters and ideas within, and how he felt overall about the films.

He loved Gandalf, and how he straight up gets blazed with Bilbo right at the outset of The Fellowship of the Ring (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Tolkien wouldn’t have meant it to be actual ‘weed’); he also told me how he was ROFLing at the Gandalf the Grey/Gandalf the White scene where he forces Saruman out of Théoden’s head, but that he nonetheless recognized it as an important scene.

One of the things my colleague revealed to me, however, was how it took him some time to get over the clichés of the movies, until he took a moment to recognize that virtually every medieval/fantasy film ever was in actual fact inspired by The Lord of the Rings, and that the clichés are there because it’s really the originator of so many of them. And he was thinking of it from a filmic perspective of the last two decades – never mind the near-century since Tolkien first started writing about Middle-Earth.

His enthusiasm, however, has made me want to revisit these epic films again (I usually watch the trilogy from start to finish at least two or three times a year) with a naive eye, if possible, and try to remember what it was like when I first saw them back in the early 2000s. Whilst some of the CGI has aged better than others (Gollum: yes; Legolas fighting an oliphant: no), and the more I watch them the more critical I become of everything – despite still loving them to death – there is to this day something magnificent, incredibly epic, and almost magical about these three movies that has (so far) transcended time and allows them to remain as one of the most unlikely successes of modern cinema.

But I find myself also – perhaps in anticipation of Amazon’s extended Lord of the Rings TV series – wanting to revisit a trilogy that has not done as well, and that I have certainly not watched as much: The Hobbit films.

Where the scenes that stick out to me in The Lord of the Rings are usually the ones that are epic, magnificent and truly grand, the ones that stand out the most from The Hobbit films are more often the ones that drag it down into an abyss from which even Amazon may struggle to rescue the franchise from: the barrel scene, or Legolas defying gravity, or even the fact that they completely failed to bookend the trilogy properly (it starts with a flashback from which we never actually return). Whilst some of the scenes are simply poorly adapted from the book, some of the more egregious and unforgivable parts include the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili – two of which were never even in Tolkien’s original work.

That being said, I have a soft spot for these films – in descending order of softness as the films go on – partially because, like them or not, they’re what we have as a cinematic adaptation of one of the most beloved books in history, but also because I understand the difficulties and pressures that Peter Jackson et al were under to pull off something that even approached the grandiose heights of The Lord of the Rings trilogy: a foreshortened filming schedule, disastrous reshoots, cast and crew that were in despair of being unable to share sets with each other (Ian McKellen in particular was devastated that he was almost entirely alone in green screen for the entirety of the shoot), and a change of director halfway through all contributed to a project that Peter Jackson would later say nearly destroyed him.

Besides, if we can forgive Legolas surfing on piles of Orc corpses in The Two Towers and Aragorn and crew diving through cascades of skulls in The Return of the King, can we really object so strongly to a CGI orc that didn’t need to be in the film, or side plots that were extended beyond need just to fill time? There was plenty of silliness in the original trilogy, and plenty of deviations from the source material, and in some ways I would argue The Hobbit films are actually more faithful to the book: in order to flesh out three lengthy movies, there’s virtually not a single thing in the book that was omitted from the films.

At the end of the day, I still believe we’re fortunate to not only have all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings adapted into high-budget films, but to have them done (in the end) by the same team of writers, producers and directors such that they at least have a consistent feel and tone, and feel very much like part of a single cinematic universe (something Marvel took a page from when creating their own magnificent cinematic universe). I don’t know how necessary Amazon’s billion-dollar TV series will feel when it eventually comes out, but I remain hopeful that it will take heed of these thoughts and make it feel like it fits with the films themselves (the fact that it’s being filmed again in New Zealand is a positive thing in this regard).

I think I may re-approach this set of films in the near future (hey, maybe even tonight!), starting with An Unexpected Journey and going all the way through to The Return of the King. This way I can get a feel for the entire story from start to finish, and still end on the strongest film of the six. I feel The Hobbit films deserve a second chance, at least from me, and I want to experience the good parts (the Misty Mountain song near the beginning of An Unexpected Journey, or the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug in The Desolation of Smaug) despite the worse parts, many of which I’ve broached already.

And of course, I feel for Peter Jackson. He’s personally one of my favorite directors, and not just because of his work on The Lord of the Rings; I adored his take on The Lovely Bones, and even the more recent Mortal Engines was a decent film, despite the logical fallacies of the entire concept, which of course is more to do with the original book than anything Peter Jackson did. I just think that his career and reputation were ruined by The Hobbit films, and it really wasn’t his fault; when he took over the helm from Guillermo del Toro, the studio refused to allow him any additional time for rewrites and reshoots, meaning some of it was filmed without even a basic storyboard.

What are your thoughts on the entirely of The Lord of the Rings cinematic universe? Do agree that The Hobbit films ruined it, or do you think that – for what they are – they should still be respected as the best cinematic adaption of Tolkien’s masterpiece that we likely will ever get?

Black History, As Told By White Cinema

I was thirteen when I was taken, with my school class, to see a preview screening of Amistad. I was probably a little too young, and a little too sheltered, to really understand what I was watching, because I mostly remember the murder scenes more than anything. But I’m glad I was given that opportunity, because it opened my eyes to a brutal history that is often glossed over.

Of course, if you’ve seen Amistad, then you know that, like with almost every other film Stephen Spielberg has ever made, it has a feel-good ending that makes you forget about the atrocities you witnessed up until that point. And as satisfying as it is to have a well-rounded, happy conclusion, I think it does a disservice to the reality that Africans were subjected to as they were kidnapped, brutalized, and enslaved.

I think we have a deep propensity to sanitize horror and tragedy in history, whether it be through schoolbook facts or Hollywood entertainment. We glorify the martyrs, shy away from morally gray characters, and conveniently skip over anything that might make us – the majority – feel uncomfortable about our past. Think about what we learn in history about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how the murder of 200 thousand civilians is defended as necessary to have ended World War II. Think about movies like Braveheart, which idolizes a man who was in every way as violent, brutal and vile as the supposedly ‘evil’ English.

History is, of course, written by the victors, and is often less than truthful. It’s hard for me to even come to terms with the fact that idolizing Christopher Columbus – a staple of my elementary school history lessons – is glorifying a man who instigated the systematic extermination of millions of Native Americans. I was taught, from a very young age, that I belonged here more than those whose ancestry stems back to the dawn of humanity. That this country was my country, and I should hold in the highest regard those who made it possible for me to live here. Even Ridley Scott made me believe this with his 1992 film 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

Film has, since its inception, been predominantly white, written for by white people, directed by white people, and acted in by white people. Even movies that try to tackle racism and historical horrors such as slavery are often thought of by white people (think back to Amistad – directed by Stephen Spielberg, written by David Franzoni, and produced by a host of people – only one of whom was black). This means that, if we rely on film to educate us about the past – especially older films, like Gone with Wind (more in a moment) – we’re relying on a white narrative of black history.

There isn’t, of course, anything inherently wrong with a white writer or director wanting to shed light on the racial horrors of the United States’ exceptionally bloody history – these sorts of stories should be told – but to do so without perspective from the people who still today live in the fallout is at best ignorant, and at worst deliberately misleading.

There are people who are outraged that movies like Gone with the Wind are being taken to task for their portrayal of slavery, particularly when they depict slaves as content with their lot, and their white masters as overall caring and benevolent. This is a nice narrative; it makes us feel better, because we can say hey, look – not all slave owners were bad people!

The problem with this is that the focus is shifted from how those slaves were obtained, and the utter lack of basic freedoms they experienced, to the kindness and benevolence of white people toward those less ‘fortunate’. To paraphrase, we frankly shouldn’t give a damn – it doesn’t matter how nice they seem, or are portrayed – they owned people like … horses, or bicycles. Human beings, capable of thought, reason, emotion and love, living generation after generation in captivity like rats.

Now of course, there’s always the ‘period’ argument – we shouldn’t judge things in the past because things were ‘different’ then. What seems wrong today was considered normal back then.

Well no shit – otherwise we wouldn’t be trying to change things! And whilst it’s certainly true that standards have changed over the years, there were plenty of people going back centuries who never owned slaves – even when they could have.

The difficulty is, of course, to find a line between historical context and censorship. Pulling Gone with the Wind from HBO Max can feel like a slap in the face to artistic history, and a disservice to the original novelist and a film that has been considered one of the best movies ever made. Let’s not forget, it allowed Hattie McDaniel to become the first African American to win an Oscar.

But the idea that it needs historical context is relevant. The movie is over 80 years old – it’s not just a classic, but quite literally a piece of history. And like all history, it should be studied within the context of its time. Without that context – and a deeper understanding of the truths of slave-owner dynamics during the Civil War and beyond – it becomes a dangerous piece of propaganda, in which we’re led to believe that black people are nothing more than servants to their white masters.

A question I’ve started to ask myself, particularly when considering historical dramas, is whether the film would have been different if written, directed or produced by a black person. What nuances would be changed? What story elements would be emphasized, or minimized instead? What characters would be given more depth? If the answer is no, it wouldn’t have been any different, then you probably have yourself a pretty solid piece of unbiased cinema. But I challenge you to find one.

There has been a surge, or so it seems, in black-written and black-produced cinema recently (I think that it’s really just been given more spotlight in the past few years, but I don’t have numbers to back that up), and that’s a good thing. But I think that more can be done to listen – and watch – the stories of those whose ancestors suffered – and who to this day continue to suffer – prejudice, racism and oppression.

There’s good news, though. As difficult as it is to see at times, and as slow as the progress might be, I feel that the world is slowly waking up to the idea that history does not equal truth. We all have our own perspectives on current events, but it’s harder to have perspectives on history, simply because we cling so tightly to what we’re taught as children. But for every Robert E. Lee supporter, there are a few others who are willing to open their minds to a possible alternative.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the concept of being an ally vs. a rescuer, and how what the black community seems to be asking for – has perhaps always been asking for – is for allies. When a white person makes a movie about a black person, without consultation, permission or involving their experiences, we’re falling into the realm of rescuer. We’re trying to show the world that racism is a bad thing – without even asking those who suffer from it.

I’m not saying that Spielberg should hang up his hat, or that Kevin Feige should step down from Marvel; there are many, many talented white people in Hollywood who are fantastic storytellers. But there are certain stories that aren’t ours to tell, and I think it’s about time we allowed others to make their voices heard.