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'The Matrix' Anniversary: 7 Pre-Bullet Time VFX Effects That Blew Our Minds

by Jessica Kiang
April 3, 2014 12:07 PM
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The Alien Water Pseudopod in “The Abyss” (1989)
Still one of the more beautiful special effects we’ve seen, the long tentacle of water weaving its way through the ship to find the awestruck Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris at the end of it, was already an amazing shot before the hovering water alien starts mimicking her facial expressions. In fact, when we first were at this point watching the film, “The Abyss” might well have been a candidate for one of our favorite movies, but then that ending happened.

Factoid: ILM spent 6 months creating the 75 seconds of effects that make up this shot, thereby, along with substantial reshoots, forcing the film’s release to be delayed by over a month from its original July 4th slot. It also has contributed the mythos of James Cameron’s reputedly dictatorial on-set style; Ed Harris, for example, has refused ever to talk about the film again.

The Stained Glass Knight in “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985)
We’ll be honest, it’s probably time we revisited this well-intentioned Barry Levinson-directed stab at bringing Holmes to a younger audience because really all we remember from its noisy hi-jinks and proto-Harry Potter boarding school set-up is a post-credits sequence that reveals [SPOILER for 30-year-old movie alert!] the baddie actually survived and is, sigh, Moriarty, and this one terrific moment in which a stained glass window comes to life and menaces a priest.

Factoid: Blink and you’ll miss it, but this is in fact the first-ever fully CG-animated, photo-real character in a film, and was created by a young man working for Lucasfilm at the time named John Lasseter.

Inside the Computer World in “Tron” (1982)
While the light cycles and lovingly rendered video game graphics of the original “Tron” are undoubtedly the first things this film calls to mind, even at the time, for us the most impressive part was how seamlessly the footage that contains live action, especially of the actors’ faces and some practical sets, was incorporated to blend seamlessly into the computer graphics. Considering the film was initially planned as pure animation, this is doubly impressive, and the grainy, monochrome faces of Bridges, Boxleitner et al. set into the neon-detailed costumes and landscapes are actually what give the film an aesthetic that looks tremendously retro-cool to this day.

Factoid: Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest cheerleaders for “Tron” was Roger Ebert, who awarded it 4/4 stars, called it “a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun” and closed his first annual “Overlooked Film Festival” with a screening of it.

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  • Bob | May 5, 2014 2:21 AMReply

    Apollo 13, thought that movie had great visual affects, though I am not certain it was CGI

  • Donella | April 16, 2014 4:05 PMReply

    Also in Blade (1999), the Blood God has rapid movement to avoid bullets the same way the Sentinels do in the Matrix.

  • Duder NME | April 13, 2014 1:11 PMReply

    "Bullet time" was already used in Lost in Space and a certain Levi jean commercial a year before it was awkwardly used on a bunch of mass murderers.

  • Tak | April 7, 2014 8:58 PMReply

    The dino sequence in King Kong is atrocious. It sums up everything wrong with CGI today. In a lot of ways, we've gone backwards and not forwards.

  • Xian | April 4, 2014 2:33 PMReply

    What about the fourth Star Trek movie (Voyage Home... y'know... whales!) that featured some of the first facial CGI in three dimensions (not 3D, but just three dimensions)? I remember that as some of the first time I was wowed by effects that we're not practically done on set.

  • NealHanna | April 3, 2014 4:08 PMReply

    Jurassic Park wasn't the first film to feature digital sound. A year earlier Batman Returns featured the first Dolby Digital track and two years before that Dick Tracy introduced CDS, Cinema Digital Sound.

  • Matthew | April 3, 2014 3:20 PMReply

    Project Genesis in Wrath of Kahn another glaring omission. And lightsabers aren't CG, and bullet-time is a photo effect. But whatever.

  • DP | April 3, 2014 3:03 PMReply

    No Last Starfighter is a huge omission, especially since at least some of these entries are decidedly NOT GCI effects.

  • Carson | April 3, 2014 2:54 PMReply

    I don't think you know what computer generated means.

  • Jeff | April 3, 2014 2:03 PMReply

    Wait a second. Didn't the Phantom Zone prison first appear the beginning of Superman: The Movie in 1978 or am I just crazy?

  • Mark | April 3, 2014 1:24 PMReply

    Ed Harris spoke about 'The Abyss' at length in the 1993 documentary 'Under Pressure: Making The Abyss". Fingers crossed he pops up on the forthcoming (long overdue) Blu-ray too.

  • Dan S | April 3, 2014 12:53 PMReply

    It's a major oversight that "The Last Starfighter" isn't on this list for its prominent use of CGI over practical effects.

    It is also debatable that "Terminator 2" and "The Abyss" should be listed separately on this list. The CGI effects in "T2" are a direct extension of the effects created for the pseudopod in "The Abyss." The completion of the software to do "T2" directly resulted in Cameron completing of the ending of "The Abyss" as it was originally intended for the special edition release.

  • cirkusfolk | April 3, 2014 12:38 PMReply

    And actually the whole Titanic movie should be on here as well.

  • cirkusfolk | April 3, 2014 12:34 PMReply

    Actually the morphing in Willow is considered to be the first main use of CGI. Beats The Abyss.

  • Jeff | April 3, 2014 2:10 PM

    Star Trek II's Genesis sequence is considered the first use of it in a film as far as I know.

  • Drew Morton | April 3, 2014 12:23 PMReply

    Don't forget John Whitney and company! "Arabesque" was one of the first CGI films.

    Also, "Looker" and "Westworld" (John Crichton CGI connection). :)

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