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10 Films That Revolutionized Computer Graphics

Part 1 - Tron to Titanic

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These days, spectacular computer generated effects sequences are commonplace in everything from big-budget films, to television, games, and even commercial advertising.  But that wasn’t always the case—before 3D computer graphics became the norm, the world was a slightly duller place.  Aliens were made of plastic instead of pixels.  Superman needed wires in order to fly.  Animations were created with pencils and paintbrushes.  

We liked the old way—there are some astonishing examples of “practical” visual effects in the history of film.  Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner.  Heck, even Independence Day used physical models for a lot of shots.

But we like the new way even more.  Blockbusters look better than ever thanks to a talented army of 3D modelers, animators, render technicians, and warehouses full of the computers that do all the math.  

Here’s our list of ten films that revolutionized the way we think about visual effects in film.  From Tron to Avatar, each and every one of these films took what we thought was possible and gave us something more.

1. Tron (1982)

Tron
Walt Disney Productions / Buena Vista Distribution

Tron wasn't an incredibly successful film, nor was it even a particularly great one.  There are far better examples of science fiction to come out of the early 80s—heck, in 1982 alone Tron was competing with genre classics Blade Runner and E.T. 

But it is notable, and it has the grand distinction of being the first film to feature computer generated visual effects to any notable degree.  Tron's centerpiece is an unbelievably unique depiction of the "grid," a computer generated softwarescape representing the inner workings of an operating system. 

The film hasn't aged particularly well, especially compared to the Los Angeles skyline created for Blade Runner (which looks masterful even to this day).  But when you consider the fact that there's almost an entire decade between this film and the next one on the list, the dated visuals are easily forgiven.

Any fan 3D computer graphics should see Tron at least once, if only for a glimpse at the industry's humble beginnings.  Interestingly, Tron was disqualified from competition for 1982's Visual Effects Oscar because computer aided effects were considered cheating.  Love it or hate it, you can't argue it wasn't innovative.

  • Firsts: First notable use of computer graphics in a feature film.
  • Paved the way for: The Last Starfighter (1984), Transformers: The Movie (1986), and of course Tron: Legacy (2010).

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day Poster
Copyright © 1991 TriStar

Terminator 2 is one of the landmark films that helped open the floodgates, eventually allowing the 3d computer graphics industry to become what it is today. 

Judgment Day featured the first computer generated main character ever to appear in a film, the formidable T-1000.  But James Cameron's team didn't stop there.  Not only did the digital Terminator appear—it morphed, it regenerated body parts, and it even turned into a mercury-like liquid metal that seeped through little cracks and assured the film's protagonists that they weren't safe anywhere.

Terminator was legendary.  It's easily the first or second best film by one of Hollywood's greatest innovators, and what's even better is that unlike Tron, this movie still looks pretty darn good.  In terms of modern visual effects, there's everything that happened before Terminator 2, and everything that happened after it.

  • Firsts: First extensive use of computer graphics on a main character.
  • Paved the way for: Pretty much everything that followed.

3. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park Theatrical Poster
Copyright © 1993 Universal Pictures

Although Jurassic Park's visual effects were largely animatronic, for approximately 14 minutes audiences were treated to the first ever appearance by photorealistic, fully computer generated creatures in a feature film—and what a 14 minutes they were! 

Even eighteen years later I still get chills thinking about those two Velociraptors stalking the children through an abandoned kitchen—it was simultaneously terrifying and mesmerizing watching the two dinosarus do things that one of Stan Winston's animatronics could never have accomplished.

In the end, Winston's T-Rex made lunch out of the two Raptors, but the master of practical effects was so impressed by the computer graphics employed on Jurassic Park that he went on to co-found effects studio Digital Domain with James Cameron.  Like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park was a turning point in computer graphics because it began to open directors' eyes to the possibilities of CG, causing many filmmakers to re-explore projects that had been previously believed impossible to film. 

  • Firsts: First fully animated photoreal creatures in a feature film.
  • Paved the way for: Jumanji (1995), Dragonheart (1996), Babe (1995) which deserves an honorable mention in it's own right.

4. Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story Theatrical Poster
Copyright © 1995 Pixar Animation Studios

This one might be the most impactful film on the entire list.  Think about the animation industry before and after Toy Story—is there any chance things would be the way they are today if this film hadn't existed? 

3D computer animation certainly would have caught on eventually, but John Lasseter & Co. stormed onto the scene with one of the most beloved films of the last decade, wowing audiences and showing the world what was possible with the aid of computer animation.  Toy Story's incredible success spurred an eventual frenzy of 3D animation that never really tapered off.  The format remains as popular today as it was ten years ago, and doesn't appear to be losing steam.

It would have been enough for Toy Story to have rested on it's technical laurels, but that's not the Pixar way.  Starting a streak of critical and commercial successes, Toy Story cemented Pixar as one of the premier storytellers in the industry, and was the first step in establishing the most spotless track records ever put forth by a modern studio.

  • Firsts: First film to be fully animated with 3D computer graphics.
  • Paved the way for: Antz (1998), A Bug's Life (1998) Shrek (2001), the entire Pixar/Dreamworks canon.

5. Titanic (1997)

Titanic Poster
Copyright © 1997 Paramount Pictures

I almost left Titanic off the list for fear of giving James Cameron too much time in the spotlight.  I was thinking The Perfect Storm would have been an interesting pick, because the photoreal fluid simulations it featured were pretty cutting-edge for the time. 

But then I remembered the last half hour of Titanic.  The deck heaves, the ship bolts upright, tossing hundreds of computer generated passengers into the icy Atantic.  Hundreds more, most of them digitally rendered, cling to the railings as we're treated to an aerial view looking down the length of the ill fated vessel as it sinks toward the sea. 

That scene wasn't just cutting edge—it was iconic.  More people saw Titanic than any other film in history, and even though its box office record has been put to rest, Titanic's first-run ticket sales haven't even been approached.  The Perfect Storm may have featured a more advanced ocean simulation, but there was CG water in Titanic too—three years earlier, mind you.

  • Firsts: First film to feature a significant number of CG "extras"—many wide shots contained dozens or even hundreds of digital actors, breaking new ground in crowd simulation.
  • Paved the way for: The Perfect Storm (2000)

Check out the final five after the jump: 10 Films that Revolutionized Computer Graphics - Part 2

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