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?

What Would It Take to Make a Good Video Game Movie?

I’ll happily admit to being a fairly casual gamer. I don’t have a console, I’m not the first person in line at GameStop when a new title is released, and I typically idle the minutes and hours away with mindless entertainment like Angry Birds on my phone.

That being said, there are a couple of more ‘serious’ games I enjoy playing from time to time; particularly ID Software’s titles such as Doom and Quake (I’ve been playing those games since the late ’90s), and one of my all-time favorite PC games back in the day was Max Payne, mainly because of the heavy emphasis on plot and storytelling. I recently finished playing through Doom (2016), and although the story was minimal the combat mechanics were fun, and the whole 15+ hours of gameplay were hugely entertaining.

Sometimes, though, I want the experience of a solid video game without the effort of having to, you know, actually play it. I guess I’m not the only one to think this, because throughout the years there have been endless adaptations of video games to film. Sadly, most of these have met with spectacular failure, both at the box office and critically. This led me to wonder: why are so many video game adaptations terrible, and what might it take to make one that is actually good?

Strong Source Material

The original Macintosh FPS, Marathon, was exceptionally plot-centric.

Not all video games are created equal. Whilst early PC titles such as Quake, Doom, Myst and others may have broken boundaries in terms of 3D graphics, gameplay mechanics and multiplayer options, most of them were pretty thin on plot. It was mostly just find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, repeat. There were some exceptions to this; I recall playing a early Bungie-developed game called Marathon, which not only was groundbreaking from a physics modeling perspective and introduced LAN-based multiplayer, but also because the plot featured so heavily in the game that certain levels were impossible to complete unless you interacted with the story.

It wasn’t until I played Max Payne in the early ’00s, however, that I realized just how strong a video game story could be. With graphic novel-inspired cutscenes and a strong emphasis on character development, I ended up playing the game through dozens of times just to relive the story.

It stands to reason, then, that in order to make a successful adaptation, you need something to adapt in the first place. A strong plot and compelling characters are necessary for any story, and unfortunately, many video games lack these elements.

An Understanding of Adaptations

One of the biggest points of contention when a non-filmic source material is adapted to film is the authenticity of the writers’ efforts to maintain what was in the original story. Take Peter Jackson’s efforts with The Lord of the Rings: to many, it represents a masterpiece of western cinema, and a fitting adaptation to an equally timeless and epic set of books. To others, however, Jackson took too many liberties with the source material, from omitting characters to changing plot devices, and even creating scenarios that never occurred in the books at all.

In the books, Narsil was reforged right at the beginning; in the movies, not until the end.

However, I believe the critics of these films are missing the point of an adaptation. It isn’t meant to faithfully replicate every scene in the book on celluloid; to do so would be uninventive, slow-paced, and frankly boring. An adaptation should take the core, central elements of a story and rework them into the new format – that being a 2-3 hour film that you sit and watch. If that means changing characters, motivations and plot points, then so be it – it’s an adaptation, not a replication.

I think that this balance is something many video game adaptations miss the boat on. In some cases, they try too hard to match the original material, and in others they deviate too far from it. Sometimes they pander too heavily to the fans, and in others they try too hard to make it accessible to people who’ve never experienced the original game. There’s a fine line between these two extremes, and a successful adaptation should be able to satisfy the original players’ desire for familiarity, whilst creating a world that can be experienced easily by someone who’s never heard of it before.

A Strong Cast

This is probably more essential for films in general, but it’s just as relevant for video game adaptations as it is for any other type of movie. A strong cast is vital to the success of a movie, because as viewers we need to feel invested in the characters, their motivations and relationships, and the chemistry between them is important.

The chemistry between these characters was unmistakable.

Now this doesn’t mean the cast need to necessarily be famous or well-known; perhaps one of the best examples of chemistry in film is the original Star Wars from 1977; no one knew who Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford were at the time, but their on-screen chemistry is what arguably makes the movie. Compare this to the lackluster connection between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in the prequels; it didn’t matter that Portman was arguably more up-and-coming at the time, because they simply didn’t seem to have any real connection.

There are examples of video game adaptations that bagged well-known actors and yet failed on the chemistry; Doom (2005) has both Karl Urban and Rosamund Pike (the latter of which would go on to nominated for an Oscar), but the relationship between them as brother and sister falls flat at every turn. This is in part due to a failure to develop the relationship through the plot (the two share almost no screen time), but also because the two actors just don’t seem to ‘click’.

Homage to the Original Game

Certain games are known for inventing, developing, or innovating certain types of gameplay features. Doom brought us the BFG – a massively overpowered weapon that can decimate almost any enemy in a single shot; Max Payne was one of the first games to introduce ‘bullet time’ – a feature where gameplay slows down during battle sequences, allowing the player to see individual bullets flying past. And there are movies where these concepts are adapted well, of course – and others where they aren’t.

In the 2008 adaptation of Max Payne, we see Mark Wahlberg make his way through a very noir New York city – just as in the original game – but the limited use of bullet time was frustrating. This was one of the cornerstones of the game, and although it features at certain points in the film, it never felt like it was as important an aspect as it should have been. There are other aspects of the original game that were modified as well, including some of the key character motivations and climactic scenes.

The first-person sequence was one of Doom’s best assets.

On the flip side, a film that I felt did this well was, again, Doom (2005). Not only did it bring us the BFG in a way that could never have been done in a game (when fired, it takes out massive chunks of wall and ceiling, a mechanic that would be exceptionally difficult to recreate in a game), but it also boasts an incredible first-person scene that bears all the classic hallmarks of a FPS game, including using multiple weapons to defeat multiple demons in a non-stop, long-take action sequence.

Not all video game movies are bad, and not all are as bad as some people make them out to be. That being said, the highest-rated game adaptation on Rotten Tomatoes is Angry Birds 2, and it holds a he level of something like say, John Wick (83%, 89% and 90% for each film respectively), which bears all the hallmarks of a video game movie without actually being one.

I think the key thing is a successful blend of many of the smaller elements that work in various movies – faithfulness, strong casting choices, and an understanding of how to make a good adaptation. Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll see a game adaptation that truly checks all the boxes, and I know I’ll be first in line to see it when it does come out!