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

Photo of Jessica Kiang By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 3, 2014 at 12:07PM

15 years ago this week, a pair of siblings with only a modest cult indie movie under their belt, to that point, released a film you might have heard of: “The Matrix," a heady and immediately classic mashup of sci-fi, cyberpunk, Baudrillardian philosophy (or a distortion thereof) and anime, all wrapped up in an immensely compelling Messiah-myth story. On a macro level, the Wachowskis' film was such a successful fusion of all its various influences that it felt like something new, raked in just shy of half a billion dollars worldwide, and spawned a franchise (which we won’t talk about any further here for fear of spoiling the celebratory atmosphere). But on a micro level “The Matrix” was revolutionary too, delivering, in amongst some terrifically stylish set and costume design and spectacular action setpieces, one of the most jaw-dropping effects we’d ever seen to that point in a film: Bullet Time.

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.

This article is related to: The Matrix, The Wachowskis, Features, Feature, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Superman

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