Technology is constantly evolving in every sector of society, from medicine to machinery. Filmmaking is no exception, from humble beginnings to massive blockbusters. Visual effects have always wowed us, provoking us to ask, ‘how did they do that?’ Enthralling, shocking and sometimes horrifying, film technology has been a method for filmmakers to tell an infinite number of stories in infinite ways. These ten films are milestones within technology breakthroughs, setting standards and entertaining audiences upon their release.
Star Wars (1977)
Star Wars pioneered several filmmaking techniques to make it the visual spectacle we know and love. Dynamic camera work combined with model making to create many memorable moments such as the Death Star Trench, but the use of the Dykstraflex system created the film’s fast-paced space battles. Primarily developed by John Dykstra, the digitally controlled camera set-up allowed for seven axes of motion, allowing for maximum movement capabilities when filming the ‘flying’ spaceships. It earned Dykstra an Oscar in 1978.
Critical and financial success story Avatar pioneered various filmmaking techniques that warped studio blockbusters following it. Originally in development in the late 90’s after the release of Titanic, Cameron believed the technology at the time was not fit for his vision of the film, until its release in 2009. Using advanced motion capture for much of the film, as well as CGI used to emphasise the film’s Real3D and IMAX releases. Its success led to Hollywood investing in many 3D films, as well as many sci-fi blockbusters being greenlit.
Another recipient of the Oscar for Technical Achievement, Tron combined computer and backlit animation with live action. Inspired by early video games, Tron’s digital aesthetic worked well with its early use of CGI and has since become a cult hit. It inspired a new era of filmmaking, including Pixar’s John Lasseter, who partly tributes the creation of Toy Story to Tron’s success. Studios and filmmakers alike began to see the potential in computer-generated animated features.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
Outside of Tron, Disney also invested in The Last Starfighter, which used extensive CGI, using 3D renders instead of physical objects for spaceships among other items. With designers from Star Wars and Alien, the effects were rendered on a supercomputer, with the film containing 27 minutes of computer-generated effects. Proving to be
another financial success for Disney, Hollywood started to wake up to realize the potential in CGI.
Toy Story (1995)
Critically acclaimed, Toy Story warmed the hearts of millions, and continues to be popular to this day (it was even the first film I saw in the cinema!) The first fully computer-animated film, Toy Story went through development hell, with several rewrites of the script, and production eventually being shut down. Strangely, Disney’s reservations were not to do with the film’s style or use of technology, but rather with the story. Early test screenings were disastrous, but eventually, the film’s plot was worked out and was met with rapturous acclaim upon its release. The film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, a notable milestone for an animated feature.
The incredible detail in Akira’s cell-shaded animation brought the grim future of Neo-Tokyo to life. While most anime films at the time were using faster animation techniques to save money and time, with static frames and faces with just the mouths moving. Akira broke this mould, using pre-scored dialogues and animatics – a first for anime. It also utilised CGI with its cell-shading for motion tracked falling objects, as well as lighting fixes. The film has since become a cult hit, like several other films on this list, proving to be popular both in and outside of Japan.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron makes his second appearance on this list, with many of his films being cutting edge within film technology. Terminator 2 continued to push CGI boundaries with its mix of digital and practical effects. The ‘liquid’ Terminator was the first use of natural human motion from a CGI character, as well as having a partially computer generated protagonist. Despite only being 5 minutes of footage in the finished film, thirty-five animators worked over ten months to produce the footage, processing over a million feet in film during shooting.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Yet another film that swept the technical awards at the Oscars, Stan Winston’s work on Jurassic Park wowed audiences with giant animatronic dinosaurs combined with CGI effects. The robot T-Rex stood twenty feet tall and weighed nearly eight thousand kilograms. The animatronics were constructed by using highly detailed latex moulds that covered complex robotic bodies. The effects were so detailed that Spielberg said to Phil Tippett, in charge of go motion dinosaurs for long shots, after seeing an animatic of the T-Rex chasing a herd of Gallimimus, ‘You’re out of a job’, to which Tippett replied, ‘Don’t you mean extinct?’
Tiger Child (1970)
Tiger Child was the first film to be shot using IMAX technology. Whilst a relatively unknown film, it’s worth noting on this list due to the massive rise in popularity of IMAX features, with many blockbusters today being at least partially filmed this way. With Tiger Child only being 17 minutes long, film has come a long way while utilizing this technology. It premiered in Japan during Expo ’70, a world’s fair in Osaka.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Colour correction in modern-day moviemaking consists of specially designed software, with many editing programmes having their own built in. Before this, filmmakers had to chemically alter their film to achieve the colours they wanted. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first film to use digital colour correction to, somewhat ironically, achieve the sepia-like colour in the finished picture.
I often think that film cannot go any bigger within the realms of technology nowadays and am always proven wrong. Within the last decade alone we’ve seen massive leaps and bounds in how films are made, opening up new possibilities and stories. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, and what the next milestone will be.