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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 Phantom Zone Prison in “Superman II” (1980)
The thing with films in the '80s, (especially if you lived in a Luddite, late-adopting household like mine) was that occasional TV repeats were the only away to rewatch favorites until you befriended someone with a VCR. For this particular writer, that friendship was based around a neighbor’s VHS copy of “Superman II,” which may have been the first tape I ever wore out through overuse. Now obviously, there are effects in the first Superman film too, but for whatever reason, the one that really stuck with me was the disc-prison to which Zod and his henchpeople are condemned. I remember literally never having seen anything that cool before in my life. And even if it’s kind of hilariously dated now, the notion of a 2D crystal prison floating through space is still a pretty scary one.

Factoid: “We tried to look for different distorted effects. We eventually settled for cramming them into a little rectangle which came down, and collected the villains, and took them away … The camera was in a spinning mount which would rotate in 360 degrees, and the actors were also turning. This created a multitude of movements." - From “The Magic Behind the Cape” documentary.

The lightsabers in “Star Wars” (1977)
Well, OK, there were lots of special effects that were incredible for the time in the original “Star Wars,” but probably the one that exerted the strongest subsequent grip on the imagination was one of the simpler, if more tedious, to create. The lightsabers wielded by the Jedi Knights and Sith Lords alike immediately became one of the most iconic and widely recognizable elements of the Star Wars universe, to the point that, a little like the hoverboard from “Back to the Future 2,” we're genuinely not quite sure why we haven’t got real ones yet. The glowy laser-tube thingies also emitted a very recognizable sound that, as the possibly-apocryphal-but-we-love-it-anyway story goes, Ewan MacGregor had to be asked to stop mimicking under his breath when filming the prequels.

Factoid: Back then, the process involved hand animating the lightsaber blades frame by frame from the original print, then shooting a strip of film with those animated cels put through a light diffuser (to give the glow) and then double exposing that film to get the extra brightness, before comping it back onto the original footage. Probably now there’s a “Lightsaber effect” keyboard shortcut, though (and you can find out in this 15-minute doc "The Birth Of The Lightsaber").

So that's basically the story of our childhood told via contemporary effects. Tell us about your cherished memories of movie tech wizardry below.

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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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