Cinema's Greatest Effects Shots Picked By Hollywood's Top VFX Specialists

Image for Cinema's Greatest Effects Shots Picked By Hollywood's Top VFX Specialists

From Eadweard Muybridge and George Méliès to James Cameron and Phil Tippett, the history of movie effects is basically the greatest bedtime story never told. Except it’s a yarn so full of dragons, dinosaurs and mimetic polyalloy killing machines sent back from the future that you’d never get any sleep after hearing it. As Life Of Pi and Avatar amply demonstrate, there are many chapters still to be written and innovations still to be forged, but whether in-camera, matte, prosthetic, CG, or just lovingly modelled by a man with a passion for Plasticine, effects have brought magic to the movies since the silent era. In a unique celebration of the art, Empire asked the people who make them happen to pick their favourites.


*Emmy nominated for his work on HBO’s Rome, MPC's Gary Brozenich has worked with Gore Verbinski on The Lone Ranger and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. His pick – a ground-breaking piece of ILM work – features in another Verbinski blockbuster.*

"The moment when you meet Davy Jones in extreme close-up (in Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest), saying, “Do you fear death?”, just blew me away. And every shot after that got better and better. It wasn’t just the photo-realism, it was the combination of creature design, the strong character delivered by Bill Nighy and the finished polish that was unprecendented. It’s not just the visual effects, it’s the cool character design by (conceptual designer) Crash McCreery, Gore Verbinski and that team, the performance by Bill Nighy and ILM’s mo-cap technology, which was revolutionary at the time. Davy Jones has this muffled voice because he doesn’t have a nose, and the way he cocks his head to put his pipe in his mouth to avoid the tentacles is just brilliant. They were doing all this in difficult conditions, on ships and confined spaces, so technically it was pretty amazing. In fact, to this day I can’t think of another character that comes across as well as he does. They threw all caution to the wind and made it work. He’s great from the ground up."


After 16 years at Rhythm & Hues culminating in an Oscar win for the groundbreaking VFX work of Life Of Pi, Dutchman Erik De Boer is now busy on dystopian sci-fi Maze Runner at Method Studios' Vancouver office.

"I grew up in Holland far away from cinemas and it was only when I moved to London at the end of the '80s that I started going to the movies. I first remember being blown away by the pseudopod watching The Abyss, I think it was in Leicester Square, and suddenly realising what a cool, exciting industry it was that I was about to enter. The integration with live-action, the scanning of the actors' faces – I was working with the same software, Alias, so I knew how they did it – and the fact that there was physical connection between Elizabeth Mastrantonio and the character were all breathtaking. She sticks her finger into that character and tastes it! You can't really get a more physical connection than that. That whole production blew me away, from the fact that they filmed and lit it underwater to those stories of suffering on set. Even silly stuff that you rarely think about, like these black beads that they put on the water to keep the light out, because they couldn't use a tarpaulin on the surface in case someone needed to surface. It was mind-blowing to realise what lengths people went to just to get a shot."

Nominee for this year's First Women award, and in 2012, the only female VFX supervisor to make it to the Academy's short list for Best Visual Effects, Sue Rowe is a ten-year veteran of the effects industry. She has lent her on-set expertise as VFX supervisor on The Golden Compass, John Carter, X-Men 3: The Last Stand and Troy.

"As a teenager I was fascinated with stop-frame animation, especially Harryhausen's skeleton army, but the biggest influence on me was The Abyss. I remember watching it on my parents' 14" TV back in Wales, and it was one of the first pieces of computer animation I'd ever seen. It was like watching something impossible being created on screen in a way that looked photoreal. ILM created CG water that transformed into a female face, and the moment its surface is touched, the magic is broken and the water splashes to the ground. A perfect combination of VFX, good editing and practical effects. A few years later I put myself through university for my master's degree in computer animation and the path was set. I'm proud to be a part of visual effects. Life on film set is a privilege. I work with a range of talented people – directors, animators and producers – and every day is different. Some days I sit in a dark room animating aliens; other days I am out on set and blowing shit up. Good times."

Indiana Jones and the Raiders Of The Lost Ark matte painting THE WAREHOUSE SEQUENCE

VFX super at UK effects house Framestore, Tim Webber is the man behind Two-Face in The Dark Knight and the wild things in Where The Wild Things Are. He was also a key cog in The Dark Knight's Oscar-nominated effects team. He's currently working on Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity.

"I love Davy Jones in Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and the T-1000 walking out of the flames in Terminator 2, but my pick is the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It's just a simple matte painting, not a very complicated visual effects shot, but it was done brilliantly. A lot of the visual effects from that period look terrible now – there are lines around things or you can see the joins on matte paintings, but that one was immaculate. I was pretty young when I watched it, but I was so impressed by the way it slowly revealed the size of the place. It's not your big, crash-bang-wallop modern visual effects shot but it has real dramatic effect. If I could have picked my own shot, I would have opted for the baby at the end of Children Of Men. It's a four-and-a-half minute shot of someone giving birth. My wife and I had just had a kid when we were working on it, which helped me remember what a new-born baby looked like (laughs)."


*A co-founder of UK-based Double Negative Visual Effects, Paul Franklin is one of Christopher Nolan's regular collaborators. His VFX work was a key feature of all three Dark Knight movies and snared him an Oscar on Inception. He's currently working on Nolan's Interstellar.*

"There are so many brilliant moments in the history of visual effects that it's hard to pick just one, but the shot I keep coming back to is in Michael Powell's A Matter Of Life And Death, which I first saw on TV in my early teens. David Niven, playing a downed RAF pilot in World War II, is on trial for his life in a heavenly court presided over by great figures from history. The court is adjourned and the camera pulls back to reveal an arena, filled with an audience of all the soldiers who have lost their lives in the great conflict. The camera keeps going, as do the rows of watchers, blending into a great bowl of light that becomes the swirling heart of a distant galaxy, floating in space. By modern standards the shot shows its age – models and artwork are matched together as well as the technology of the day would allow – but the idea remains as fresh as the moment it was conceived. In one moment, a beautiful visual connection is drawn between an intimate personal drama and the balance of the whole of creation – that's the power of great visual effects work. Many years later I was able to include a brief tribute to it while working on Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix – the brief rushing POV of the heroes as they fall down into the Veil Room after escaping The Hall of Prophecy is essentially a high-speed version of the celestial court reveal, running in reverse."

(Shot begins from 37.45 in video below)

Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park THE BRACHIOSAURUS REVEAL

The man who helped Dobby-ify Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Christian Manz’s first project was the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs. He subsequently worked on The Golden Compass and Prince Caspian for Framestore and is currently busy on Keanu Reeves’ jidaigeki flick 47 Ronin.

“The moment Sam Neill first sees that Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park was my inspiration for wanting to get into visual effects. I was 20 at the time – bizarrely, I’d taken my parents to see it – and I couldn’t compute how that had been done. You only saw the Sam Neill reaction shot and the T-Rex eye in the trailer, so it was like, “Oh... my... god!’ Although there are bits of it that don’t quite stand up 20 years on, my heart skipped a beat. The asteroid sequence in Empire Strikes Back still takes my breath away too, and there’s the car shot in War Of The Worlds, that gives you the feeling that you’re with the characters in that crazed situation. But Jurassic Park was a turning point for digital animation. I started working in visual effects three years later and in a strange piece of symmetry, my first project was Walking With Dinosaurs.”

Blade Runner Opening Sequence LOS ANGELES 2019

Cloud Atlas's VFX Supervisor, Dan Glass has been a close collaborator of Lana and Andy Wachowski's since The Matrix Reloaded. He recently helped Terrence Malick bring dinosaurs to life in The Tree Of Life.

"There are many films that come to mind, but Blade Runner and Brazil made the strongest impression on me. I've seen Blade Runner about eight or ten times and its opening scene is just fantastic – the way it spans the expanse of that city and integrates all this feeling and patience into aspects of this very credible future. As [a VFX artist] you aspire to that; to finding ways to bring pieces of reality, more organic elements sometimes, into things. Sadly, although they're fantastic and there are directors like Chris Nolan who always want to use them, I think the future for miniatures is very limited and they suffer from their own limitations, too. They have to be put together meticulously and shot very smartly to really make them work, and they frequently require digital enhancement as well. Blade Runner was very, very early days but you still get this variety and naturalness that would take a lot of work to create digitally. Am I a director's cut guy? Absolutely, yeah!"


Oscar nominated for his work on Star Trek and Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, ex-pat Brit Roger Guyett will spend the next few years crafting Star Wars VII's visual effects on ILM's campus in California. Resisting Empire's attempts to empty his mind of Star Wars secrets, he rhapsodised about another "space movie" close to his heart.

"I could pick a handful! There's Willis O'Brien's King Kong, Ray Harryhausen and The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2… and I was lucky enough to work with John Knoll on Davy Jones (in Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest), a completely CG character that works so well. But 2001: A Space Odyssey is an incredible achievement on so many different levels. The technical quality of the work, the innovation and determination to create those images, is phenomenal. Having done a bunch of space movies recently I've often gone back and watched it – Alien, too. I'm just amazed at the technical precision and finesse that they were able to bring to that work: it's pretty flawless, even by today's standards. They did all these amazing miniatures of the ships flying through space, but they also had all these esoteric aspects to the design, too. Doug Trumbull's slit scan stuff is pretty awesome – the way he exposed through a narrow slot and created all these visual ideas of light and time travel – and Kubrick's personality really shines through in the effects. He was an auteur in the true sense, wasn't he?"


*One of Australia's most experienced and respected VFX supervisors, Paul Butterworth's work on character concepts, visual effects and title sequences have featured in sci-fi blockbusters including Iron Man 3, Prometheus and Thor.*

"The film that's grabbed me most in recent times was Inception. The mix of visual effects and the way they were folded into the story was the best I'd seen in a long time. The corridor fight was a standout sequence, with dual sets on different gimbals and probably quite a lot of wirework. You become quite picky when you've been in the industry for a while, but that was one of those sequence where you go, 'I have no idea how that was done' (laughs). It's one of those perfect marriages of director, supervisor and cinematographer, and them all getting it right together. As a supervisor you're often panel-beating sequences into shape, so that harmony is your perfect wish. I think people want to know what happens behind the curtain but when they find out, there's always a little disappointment, so I'm a fan of keeping the magic and not spoiling it for people. It's kind of a shame that you get 'makings-of' on DVDs. In fact, I wish they'd make a bullshit 'making-of' to put some of the weird magic back. 'Really, they used real dinosaurs?'"


*Co-founder of newly-established effects house Milk, Nicolas Hernandez was previously Technical Director at The Mill, where he worked on Snow White And The Huntsman and 28 Weeks Later, and Lead Technical Director at Framestore, with credits including Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban.*

"As a kid I really loved Jurassic Park but, and this might be a funky choice, Starship Troopers was the thing that really made me want to work in the industry. In fact, it's still an artistic and technical inspiration for me, 16 years later. I was always a massive fan of Paul Verhoeven's dark, gritty, surreal films, like Robocop and Total Recall, but with Starship Troopers I was like, 'What the heck is that?' It was a perfect blend of computer graphics, avant-garde effects and prosthetics work. The bug and space sequences were completely ground-breaking – for me, much better than Star Wars. For the space sequences, Sony Imageworks used maquettes with effects on top that still look amazing, and Phil Tippett's bugs were basically from another world. The compositing was photoreal, with the bugs were sitting on the back plate and the prosthetics blended with the CGI, and the scale still looks epic. No-one had done crowds before and here there were bugs climbing over each other and interacting. I don't know how they did it! I just looked at it and thought, 'That's what I want to do.'"


*French-born and Vancouver-based, Guillaume Rocheron headed up MPC's Oscar-winning team on Life Of Pi. He's currently working on Gareth Edwards' Godzilla.*

"Growing up, Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 were the three films that stuck with me. The most memorable scene for me, though, was the attack on the Death Star. I didn't know anything about special effects or visual effects or miniatures, but that absolutely blew my mind. I was about 12 when one of my parents' friends brought this VHS over and said, "You need to see this movie, it's called Star Wars." I'd never even heard of it but it turned out to be the big moment when I decided that I wanted to do this myself. In fact, when I started doing computer graphics I probably spent the first year just building spaceships (laughs). I also love the moment in Terminator 2 when the T-1000 melts through the prison bars but his gun gets stuck. I was a bit more aware of computer graphics when I saw that but it was still a case of 'Wow!'. Even today, with the technology far advanced, it's still a great shot."

Jurassic Park T-Rex Jeep Attack THE JEEP ATTACK

A 15-year industry veteran, Dan Lemmon started out interning at James Cameron’s Digital Domain on The Fifth Element and Titanic. He subsequently joined Weta Digital where he’s helped render Avatar’s eye-popping visuals and was Oscar nominated for his work on Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

“I loved all of the classic sci-fis from the late ‘70’s and the ‘80s when I was growing up, but it was my grandfather's VHS copy of the original King Kong that had the biggest impact. I was eight when I first watched it and because I was already fascinated with dinosaurs, I loved it immediately. The T-Rex fight, in particular, stood out to me, as did Kong himself. They seemed so alive as they fought one another on that mysterious island. I learned a little bit about stop-motion animation and started making short films in my bedroom with action figures, modelling clay and my parents’ video camera. I followed the technology closely, but I still wasn’t sure how computer graphics could make believable creatures. Then Jurassic Park changed everything. I distinctly remember this sense that the dinosaurs were standing in front of me. Coincidentally, it was another T-Rex that really struck me, because I still consider the Jeep attack sequence one of the finest visual-effects action sequences ever committed to film. There are a number of great films like that that have influenced me over the years, but the watershed for me – the movie that altered the course of my life – was Jurassic Park. Many years later I was lucky enough to join Joe Letteri, who had worked on several of those early digital dinosaurs, in helping bring Kong back to life in Peter Jackson's 2005 retelling.”


Sydney-based VFX supervisor Simon Maddison has parlayed a background in fine arts and photography into a career in 3D animation. At Fuel, he's led CG teams on huge tentpoles like The Avengers, Cowboys And Aliens and, most recently, Iron Man 3.

"I'm so glad I haven't stepped on anyone else's toes by picking The Terminator! Terminator 2 is a great movie, but it's great in a different way, and it was the first one that got me hooked. I wasn't old enough to see it at the cinema, but I watched it on VHS and was just hooked by the T-800, this relentless character that changed throughout the movie but whose essence stayed true to the last frame. That's what is so strong about it – [Stan Winston and James Cameron] created this unstoppable machine that slowly revealed itself. The sequence when it's in that motel bathroom and started peeling away parts of its eyeball and opening up it arm is fantastic. Suddenly I was like, 'Okay, there's a real robot inside there!' The more that was revealed, the more you realised that this thing wasn't going to stop. There's that great shot that they did with puppeteering as well as stop motion where the Terminator has no legs and one arm and yet it's still coming. I'm still hooked on the power of effects to tell a story that should by rights be impossible and make people believe it. It's what got me interested in filmmaking."


*A director at London-based effects house Cinesite, Simon Stanley-Clamp has Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, John Carter, and, most recently, World War Z and Iron Man 3 on his resume. He was charged with the Scorpioch sequence in Clash Of The Titans and supervised 270 effects shots on Duncan Jones's Moon, creating robot helper Gerty among other things.*

"Fritz Lang's Metropolis is a favourite of mine. The way they made it look busy, and silly things like the flying cars – I know they weren't cars – and multi-layered streets, flyovers and these biplanes with propellers flying around this bizarre cityscape. It was busy, there were lots of things to look at and then the camera is also flying through it. I'm a big sci-fi geek. I remember seeing Dark Star and Silent Running as a teenager at a 3am double-bill in the West End with my best friend, and strangely, 20 years on, they turned out to be a constant reference on Moon. I'm also sucker for any kind of long camerawork, long visual effect, that Hitchcock continuous camera, slow-moving seamless thing because it's an amazing example of everybody working together from director and actors through to stage manager. I love the Powers Of Ten opening shot in Contact where the camera flies down from space and out of the eye, because the camera carries on moving and moving. You nudge your friend and say, 'They haven't cut yet!'"


*A demigod of the effects world, ILM co-founder Ken Ralston's work on the Star Wars trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future Part II and Forrest Gump make him an visual effects pioneer. He even invented the Ceti eel. In 1996, after 20 years at ILM, he moved to ***Imageworks, *Sony's effects division,  where he's overseen megabudget projects like Contact, Men In Black II and Alice In Wonderland.*

"It's easy for me to pick because it's the thing that got me into the business in the first place: the first reveal of the Cyclops in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. It just did something to my little pea brain! I sat there in the theatre having no clue what I was watching. I mean, even as a little kid you can go, 'That's a guy in a suit!', or, 'That's a miniature!', but with Ray's work I just sat there and just could not figure this stuff out. Even to this day the Cyclops is still one of my favourite creatures. Ray, at least for my own personal taste, hit something right on the head. I was mesmerised by his work and became a rabid fan of everything he did. What's so cool is that as the years went on and I got into the business, I met him periodically and then over the last five years I was able to hang out with Ray and see all the great puppets on the upper floors of his house. I still can't believe he's not here anymore."

The T-1000

*VFX super on Disney's Enchanted and Blue Sky Studios' Robots, Augusto Schillaci has also ploughed darker furrows, including Watchmen companion piece Tales Of The Black Freighter. He's currently responsible for supervising texturing, lighting and VFX on Reel FX's feature film work.*

"I've been doing this for 20 years now but the movie that made the biggest impression when I started out is Terminator 2. The integration of the T-1000 into that environment is something people take for granted now, but it wasn't so simple at the time. What they did on the fur in Peter Jackson's King Kong is also remarkable. When Kong is very close to the female character you can feel the breathing and see the little twigs between the hairs that show it had collided with trees. We'd seen fur on Jumanji and other films, but this took it to another level. The look and detail of the fur was so new – they'd mastered it. But you need time for great work. People sometimes ask me why some shots look better than others, and the reality is that it's all about production time. Miniature work is special to me, too. I'm 38 years old, but I'm still in love with miniatures. I really respect the way Weta combine them with CG. It makes sense that ILM do more with digital now, but it's still sad to me."