Top 10 Movies with the Greatest Special Effects

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05. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan doesn’t do things by halves in this Oscar-winning outing

Collaborating once more with director Christopher Nolan, Interstellar challenged Double Negative to visualise the un-visualisable: realistic alien worlds, a mathematically accurate black hole, and the Tesseract, a four-dimensional space with time as a physical dimension. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne provided the maths, the studio’s artists delivered the visuals, and Hollywood awarded them an Oscar.

Lots of science went into this. But more importantly, it looks really cool

For many viewers, the most memorable shot from the movie is the depiction of the black hole Gargantua, for which Double Negative needed to show the realistic behaviour of the black hole and a wormhole, right down to the lighting – or lack thereof.

For this, Double Negative was lucky to have, in Oliver James, a chief scientist with a first-class degree in physics from the University of Oxford. To process the equations Kip Thorne – who also acted as executive producer on the movie – had written to describe light paths around a black hole, James and his team wrote a new physically based renderer: DnGR (Double Negative General Relativity). It enabled artists to generate realistic images of the hole and its gravitational lens by setting three key parameters: rate of spin, mass and diameter.

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne provided the maths for this VFX masterclass

The work broke new ground, both artistically and scientifically: a paper on the research written by James, Thorne, CG supervisor Eugenie von Tunzelmann and VFX supervisor Paul Franklin was recently published in the American Journal of Physics – which promptly called for the movie to be shown in school science lessons to help explain general relativity.

In an interview with BBC News, Christopher Nolan commented that reactions like these were the “ultimate goal” of the movie. “We hoped that by dramatising science and making it… entertaining for kids we might inspire some of the astronauts of tomorrow,” he said.

Scanners (1981)

Film Plan International/Kobal/Shutterstock

An unlikely entry, this science horror film is about a group of people who want to take over the world – renegade scanners, who are people with telekinetic and telepathic abilities. Crucially, they possess the ability to make other people’s heads explode – something which a group of renegade scanners decide to use to their favour. A classic of the horror/sci-fi intersection, Scannersfeatures the iconic exploding head scene which set the bar for vfx at the time, with a serious bent on other gore films. Buy on Amazon

Cloverfield (2008)

Sam Emerson/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

Director Matt Reeves uses found footage to great effect in Cloverfield, which tells the story of an alien invasion in New York, using clips that look as though they were filmed on a camcorder. The stakes get higher and higher, as a plan is put in place to destroy Manhattan in order to flush out the monster, told entirely through grainy camera recordings. Found footage is a staple of horror, rather than sci-fi, but Cloverfield melds the two together for a thrilling and terrifying ride. Subsequent sequels and spinoffs weren’t as well received. Buy on Amazon

02. Jurassic Park

Number 1 for many people, Jurassic Park just misses out on the top spot

Why is Jurassic Park remembered so fondly for its visual effects? No-one knows the answer to that question better than Dennis Muren at Industrial Light & Magic, who won one of his eight visual effects Oscars for the film. “It was the first time we had been able to put living, breathing synthetic animals in a live-action movie,” says Muren. “No-one had seen anything like it. The reality hadn’t been done before; the naturalism.”

Muren credits dinosaur supervisor Phil Tippett and, of course, director Steven Spielberg for pushing the unsafe documentary film style. “We wanted the animals to create the feeling that we wouldn’t know what was going to happen next,” Muren says.

Could people really be scared by VFX? Damn straight, they could

Because creating CG animals was so new, Muren set up two systems: stop motion and CG. “The animators hadn’t worked on real animals,” he says. “No-one had.” Even though the CG animals soon proved themselves, Stan Winston’s puppets starred in close-ups in most of the film. “When we started, I didn’t think we could do anything closer than a full-length dinosaur in CG. But we pushed closer and closer. Near the end of the film, in the rotunda sequence when the T rex walks in and the raptor jumps on its back, I was confident enough to try close-ups.”

The director famously didn’t want to use CG on Jurassic Park

ILM’s 56 CG shots and 6.5 minutes of screen time also included a digi-double for the lawyer (actor Martin Ferrero) as the T rex snags him out of a bathroom, and a face replacement for a character who falls through the floorboards during a raptor attack. Muren recalls: “George [Lucas] came by occasionally, and one time said, ‘This looks pretty good.’ I said: ‘Yeah, I’m hoping we can do something like 2001, something brand new.’ He said: ‘You guys are doing it and you don’t know it.’ It wasn’t until it was over that I realised he was probably right.”

10. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

An Arabian Nights fantasy film, 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad contains a number of special effects that were truly incredible in their day, including a flying magic carpet, a six-armed mechanical assassin, a toy horse that could fly, a battle with a giant spider in its huge web, and a 50-foot-tall genie who grows immeasurably once released from a tiny bottle. At the time these effects were the first of their kind and deservedly won the movie the Academy Award for Special Effects for both photography and sound. The special effects used a combination of stop motion animation, models, paintings and classic cartoon animation. It was also one of the first movies to use the then-new “Technicolor” and it is one of the earliest films to employ blue screen technology, where actors perform in front of a screen and then a background is inserted later in post-production. The special effects were overseen by Lawrence W. Butler and used to create a thrilling adventure film that enthralled audiences and took special effects to new heights.

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29. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011), Harry, Ron, and Hermione easily beat antagonists they faced during their first three years at Hogwarts

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), Harry, Ron and Hermione easily navigate past a troll, spiders, a werewolf and dementors. These are all antagonists of the first 3 films and demonstrates how powerful our protagonists have become from MovieDetails

In the first film and book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in you're not American), the trio has to best a troll. In the second film and book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and Ron battle spiders, giant and normal. In the third film and movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Hermione (plus Ron to an extent) fight a werewolf. Dementors are also introduced in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry fights them valiantly, but they continue to be evil threats from then on out.

14. For the entire final scene in Iron Man 3 (2013), a CGI Robert Downey Jr. was constructed by face-capture and VFX, imposed onto a body double, because Downey Jr. was injured in shooting

– According to a statement released by Marvel Studios at the time, “Robert Downey Jr. sustained an ankle injury on the set of Iron Man 3 in Wilmington, North Carolina while performing a stunt. There will be a short delay in the production schedule while he recuperates.” Marvel Studios

2. The Matrix (1999)

The movie that gave us “bullet time” and spawned countless copycat films, 1999’s The Matrix combined a staggering number of special effects that take up about 20 percent of the movie. Directed by The Wachowskis, The Matrix used digital effects dubbed “flow-mo” and “bullet time” that slow down the movie’s action and rotate the camera angle at the same time. The effects were created using actors on wires, motion capture technology, and filming segments of the movie with multiple still cameras placed at different angles, and then enhancing the picture with computer animation. Other special effect innovations include camera tracking around frozen action, shoot-outs, virtual backgrounds, biomechanical monsters with tentacles known as Sentinels, and airborne kung-fu fights among actors. There is also Japanese anime used in the movie and cool cyberpunk chic clothing. It all combines to make The Matrix groundbreaking and extremely influential. It’s hard to go to a summer blockbuster today without recognizing some element of The Matrix in it.

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