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7 SFX in Movies That Changed Everything

The Most Groundbreaking Special Effects In Film

By Kent Ninomiya     August 17, 2009

7 SFX That Changed Everything
© Bob Trate

What's a science fiction movie without awe inspiring special effects? The answer is: a movie no one will see. Good SFX are essential to getting respect from fans. Amazing SFX can define a film and influence every movie that follows it. Coming up with a revolutionary new special effect translates to big bucks at the box office. That’s why there is intense competition to top what has already been done. The sci-fi community is pretty SFX savvy (It takes a lot to impress them). Here are 6 SFX that did impress, and changed everything that came afterward.


1. Morphing - Terminator 2: Judgment Day

T2 came out in 1991, no one had ever seen anything like morphing. Watching the T-1000 change shape right before your eyes was far too cool for words. The process involves taking two distinctly different images and gradually changing the pixels on one of them until it becomes the other image. T2 also pioneered the use of warping technology. It’s when a computer alters the pixels of an image, like when the T-1000 impaled someone’s head with an extended pointed finger or emerged from a puddle on the floor. The use of morphing in science fiction movies was often copied by rarely equaled after T2.


2. Bullet Time - The Matrix

Watching Neo and Mr. Smith dodging bullets in super slow-mo made every sci-fi fan’s jaw drop when The Matrix hit movie screens in 1999. The special effects in that film made time and the laws of physics irrelevant. Fans watched characters firing guns and flipping head over heels while their perspective spun around them in ways never seen before. The bullet time special effect was created by placing a series of still cameras around the subject and taking pictures from each perspective in rapid-fire sequence. The images where then animated together along with interpolation software to fill in the gaps. The result was a head spinning point of view. The Matrix was prophetic when it came to special effects. We all took the red pill and believed it. The technology was actually used before. Bullet Time was used in Blade and Lost in Space the year before. However it is named after the bullet dodging in The Matrix because that’s what everyone remembers. Bullet time is also used in shows like Smallville when Clark Kent moves faster than everyone else.



3. Space Miniatures - Star Wars

Before 1977 when Star Wars changed the world forever, special effects consisted of poorly disguised miniatures and choppy animation. Sometimes you could even see the wires. Star Wars redefined special effects. Watching Luke Skywalker racing through the canyons of the Death Star with Darth Vader on his tail is still one of the most exciting sequences ever shot on film. Light sabers inspired every kid in America to smack each other with wrapping paper tubes while making wooshing noises. Sure, the special effects might look primitive by today’s standards, but Star Wars was the granddaddy of all modern science fiction special effects. However, by the mid-‘90s the space miniature universe was sucked into the black hole of computer animation. By the time George Lucas got around to making Star Wars episodes 1 through 3, the space ships were computer generated. Lucas even went back and added computer animation to Star Wars episodes 4 through 6 to a mixed response from fans. After Star Wars, science fiction stories set in outer space all stepped up the details in their miniatures. Star Trek the Next Generation made liberal use of space miniatures and integrated layered animation to make the lights on the starships flicker and the phasers fire.



4. Exploding Heads - Raiders of the Lost Ark

When the ark was finally opened and the wrath of God released, it set a new standard in horror special effects. Raiders of the Lost Ark was not a horror movie, but anyone who watched it back in 1981 was horrified by the scene of the ark opening. They might have been glad to see the Nazis get what was coming to them, but still grossed out. In the span of a few seconds, they saw a Nazi’s head crushed, another Nazi’s dissolve, dozens of others impaled by lightning bolts, and a Nazi stooge’s head explode. A lot of people spilled their popcorn when they saw that for the first time. The crushed head was a hollow mold of the actor’s head that had the air inside rapidly sucked out. The dissolving head was actually a mold of the actor’s head made out of plaster and gelatin that was melted under a head lamp and sped up. The exploding head was done the old fashioned way. They packed a head mold with fireworks, stood back and pushed a button.



5. Hybrid Dinosaurs - Jurassic Park

Until Jurassic Park came out in 1993, dinosaurs in movies were lame animated creations with jerky unbelievable motion. Jurassic Park made it feasible that a dinosaur really would be like that if it was trying to eat you. Jurassic Park came out during a transition period in special effects. As a result, Steven Spielberg used a hybrid combination of life-sized dinosaur robots and computer generated images to make us forget that we were watching special effects. The special effects wizards also studied the muscle tone changes of real animals to mimic what the dinosaurs should look like when they moved. There were no more jerky motions like in the old Sinbad movies. When these dinosaurs moved, they looked like dinosaurs moving. The T-Rex trying to eat the children in the overturned car was a robot. The T-Rex that ate the lawyer sitting on the toilet was computer animated.


6. Documentary Doctoring - Forest Gump

The first movie to make a serious attempt to combine fictional characters with real historical figures using special effects. In 1994, the film introduced everyone to Forest Gump, a simple man who led an exceptional life. It showed Forest on news reels with real life presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. It showed him in actual news reports as Alabama Governor George Wallace tried to block two black students from integrating the University of Alabama in 1963. These were achieved by shooting Tom Hanks in front of a blue screen. He used reference markers so his movements would match those of the people in the real documentary footage. Computer generated technology was then used to insert Hanks into the scene. Voice impersonators were used to mimic the voices of dead presidents and match the words to the moving lips on film.  The special effect of Lieutenant Dan as a double amputee was also very convincing. Gary Sinise wore very long blue socks so his legs could be removed from the picture by computer. He could move around like a double amputee and no one watching could figure out where his legs went.



7. Wire Fu in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

“Wire Fu” is the use of super thin wires to help martial arts actors fly through the air. It started appearing in Kung Fu flicks in the 1990s, but it wasn't until Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000 that it became the go-to special effect of the martial arts genre. Until this movie, wire fu was limited to the occasional spectacular jumping kick or ninja attack. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon took it to a whole new level by showing actors flying over buildings, walking on water, and flighting on tree tops. In the world of Kung Fu flicks, yesterday's impressive stunt is tomorrow's boring ripoff. The wire fu effects seen in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon allowed martial artists to develop new and exciting moves that were previously impossible. Subsequent movies like Hero in 2002, Kill Bill in 2003 and House of Flying Daggers in 2004 all attempted to top Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's use of wire fu. 


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redhairs99 8/17/2009 2:49:49 AM

Morphing was being used well before T2 came out.  Willow comes to mind first when I think about morphing, though it might not be the first one.  Granted it's not nearly as well done as it was in T2, but it came out 3 years before T2.

ultrazilla2000 8/17/2009 3:48:37 AM

Redhairs99 is correct, T2 just took it to a new level.

karas1 8/17/2009 3:53:23 AM

Wasn't there a Michael Jackson video that did morphing back in the 80s? 

But I must admit that watching T2 for the first time in the theater, it blew me away.

hanso 8/17/2009 4:15:34 AM

What about Gollum, why isn't he here?  Didn't they develop some new technique to get to him?

huskers97 8/17/2009 5:06:26 AM

it burns!!! it's burns usss!!! and yes im talking about my pee and not gollum

dojen1 8/17/2009 5:24:38 AM

Morphing: I recall a music video by Godley & Creme back in 1985-86 that morphed through a series of different people's faces -- all lip syncing the song. It was pretty creepy for its time, and I remember being baffled by how they did it.  BTW-I think the song was called "Cry", but that WAS the 80's, and I WAS doing so many things back then that I do not do now.....

noahbody 8/17/2009 6:19:05 AM

Was not Sherlock Holmes the first use of CGI?

That should have made the list, if it was.

tiredjay 8/17/2009 6:23:07 AM

Space miniatures = 2001 (1968)

Exploding heads = Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Wire-fu = Duel to the Death (1981)  Also, if you want to say when it was popularized in Hollywood, it would be from The Matrix.

That said, CG morphing?  Yeah, that was T2, built on FX from The Abyss.

TheStormrider 8/17/2009 6:51:38 AM

Wouldnt the exploding of the white house in indepence day be one of those 'ahh ha' moments in special effects.

While it wasnt a 'milestone' in new technology,  neither admittedly are the ones above,  they are just the ones to note.

I remember that distinctly as being the talk,  everywhere,  for a month.

And the description of the T2 morph seems a little off.  Michael jacksons 'black or white' did pixelating morphing.  It was 1991 also.  However T2 used the use of transitional 3d meshes more so than 'pixel morphing'.  Personally for me,  its more of a milestone for a 3d model to be put in video seamlessly.  Ill have to watch it again though now.


Hobbs 8/17/2009 6:55:00 AM

Hanso beat me to the punch.  LOTR should be on this list as well for Gollum.  

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