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Top 10 Landmark CGI Movie Effects

VO: Dan
For better or worse, CGI wouldn’t be everywhere without these trendsetters. While CGI continues to advance with each film, the mind-blowing standouts are the firsts of their kinds. These range from the light-cycles of Tron, to the liquid metal T-1000 in terminator and the motion captured Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Join and today we’ll be counting down the top 10 Landmark CGI movie effects.

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Top 10 Landmark CGI Movie Effects

For better or worse, CGI wouldn’t be everywhere without these trendsetters. Welcome to and today we’ll be counting down the top 10 Landmark CGI movie effects.

Just to keep this list practical, we’re only considering effects that are considered groundbreaking and astonishing for the time, while excluding fully animated movies such as Toy Story.

#10- Goodbye Miniatures "The Last Starfighter" (1984)

Booting up our list is the groundbreaking film that was first to ditch miniature models in exchange for computer animation. Used for the vehicles, spaceships and planets shots, the effects were blended with live-action with a multi-million dollar CRAY XMP-2 super-computer. The process required two years to animate 25 minutes worth of CG effects. That’s how you get a Scientific and Technical Academy Award, in case you were curious…

#9- Glass Knight “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985)

It may seem elementary now, but this murderous stained glass Knight was the first ever-3D character to appear in a feature film! It was created to terrorize old priests by the Pixar group, yes THE Pixar group, using a then revolutionary motion blur technology and cutting edge 32-bit RGBA paint system.

#8- Genesis Effect “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

You would expect us to include some Star Wars action, but instead we’re giving the nod to the very first CGI sequence ever used in film. This one-minute "Genesis effect" showcased the McGuffin’s ability to reanimate a dead planet thanks to 32-bit fractal and particle effects through paint software created by the then subdivision of Lucasfilm, you’ll never guess, Pixar.

#7- First Animal “Labyrinth” (1986)

While Jumanji was the first film to showcase a gaggle of CGI animals, the first quote on quote “realistic” computer animated animal was actually in this Jim Henson classic. Used for its memorable opening credit sequence, this digital owl may be dated by today’s standards, but was an important step in the evolution of CGI as a cinematic tool. Surprisingly, no CGI was used for David Bowie’s hair.

#6- Advanced Motion Capture “Avatar” (2009)

Believe it or not, this film was an idea in James Cameron’s head since the early 90s, but he had to wait for the technology to catch up! Using photorealistic computer-generated characters through new motion-capture tech, innovations included skullcaps with cameras that captured a perfect rendition of the actor’s eyes and facial expressions. The immense rendering was done through a server farm’s 35,000 processor cores transferring 17Gb of data per minute.

#5- Dinosaurs “Jurassic Park” (1993)

This film marked a major turning point for computer-animated imagery, fiercely taking it out of the novelty stage! Hollywood had previously considered CGI largely unproven. However, it was Industrial Light and Magic that created the 80 seamless effects shots, which allowed for full-size dinosaurs to move freely in ways not possible with animatronics. In light of it’s success, Hollywood made CGI a staple of modern cinema, and stop motion became all but extinct.

#4- Motion Captured Gollum “The Lord of the Ring Series” (2002)

This revolutionary effect, courtesy of Weta Digital, brought the one of the most precious elements of Tolkien’s fantasy epic to life. While the trilogy is packed with then-new technology, the most notable effects used to created Gollum, thanks to the newfound ability to capture the Andy Serkis’ physical performance, complete with his own facial features. This involved pioneering the use of key framing and digital rotoscoping by a large fellowship of animators. Totally worth it.

#3- First Water Effect “The Abyss” (1989)

This is the effect that marked the first major mainstream shift away from traditional and cell based animation. Here, director James Cameron decided to trust the creation of these water-based aliens to Industrial Light and Magic. The result was a program used to create liquid with kinetic properties capable of mimicking faces. It took six months to create 75 seconds of CGI, talk about submerging yourself in a project.

#2- T-1000 “Terminator 2” (1991)

It’s impossible to think of landmark visual effects without this Academy Award winning spectacle! Despite it’s low-tech era, director Jim Cameron decided to one up his previous effort, and showcases a villain dependent on a new variation of the then famous liquid effect. The result was convincingly liquid-metal, shape-shifting antagonist. A jaw dropping feat, it guaranteed that Industrial light and Magic would remain legendary for their cutting edge modeling, morphing and animation work for decades to come.

#1- Light Cycles “Tron” (1982)

Whizzing into the top spot on our list are the iconic vehicles of the computer world. A massive groundbreaker, these bikes appeared within 20 minutes of footage. Astonishingly, they were created with only 2Mb of Ram and 330MB of hard drive space. All this during a time when people still thought pong was an accurate tennis simulation. Simply put, without Tron, movies would look much more practical today.

Agree with our list? Which CGI effect do you consider the most important landmark of them all? For more entertaining top 10s, be sure to subscribe to

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