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50 Best Movie Special Effects

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

The Effect: Elliott (Henry Thomas) meets a visitor from another planet.

Why So Impressive: Although later embellished with CGI for the 20th anniversary edition, E.T. was a mix of costume – operated by dwarves or paraplegics – and an animatronic puppet created by Carlo Rambaldi.

Geek Fact: The Jules Stein Eye Institute was hired to ensure that E.T.’s eyes would be realistic and relatable.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

The Effect: A stained glass window breaks into pieces, and the shards reform into the shape of a murderous knight.

Why So Impressive: A landmark in FX – the first all CGI character to be scanned and painted directly onto the live-action backdrop using a laser.

Geek Fact: The designer of the effect was a young John Lasseter, then working at Lucasfilm.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)

The Effect: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) faces off against a Balrog in the Mines of Moria.

Why So Impressive: A terrifying, tangible vision of fire and brimstone, this was the moment the world realised that fantasy special effects had come of age.

Geek Fact: The Balrog was designed using bespoke software that mimicked recorded imagery of fire.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

The Effect: Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) dies and enters Heaven, which is based on his memories of his artist wife’s paintings.

Why So Impressive: Director Vincent Ward delivered a vision of Heaven that utilised CGI to deliver eye-popping colours and tactile imagery.

Geek Fact: The effects were enhanced by using Fuji Velvia film, a popular choice amongst landscape photographers but rarely used by filmmakers.

Dead Ringers (1988)

The Effect: Twins Elliott and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) share pretty much everything, including the cinema screen.

Why So Impressive: Dual performances had been available to directors using split-screen for decades, but computer-controlled camera movement enabled such sophisticated shots you don’t notice the effect.

Geek Fact: All dialogue had to be looped in post-production because the motion control equipment was so noisy.

2012 (2009)

The Effect: The Mayans were right! It's time for the apocalypse, as Los Angeles slides into the ocean and Washington D.C. is hit by a mega-tsunami.

Why So Impressive: At least five major FX houses were hired for the job of destroying the world. The results suggest each was trying to outdo the others with digital carnage.

Geek Fact: Mecca survived destruction after Roland Emmerich pulled a set-piece for fear of angering Muslim extremists.

2012 (2009)

The Effect: The Mayans were right! It's time for the apocalypse, as Los Angeles slides into the ocean and Washington D.C. is hit by a mega-tsunami.

Why So Impressive: At least five major FX houses were hired for the job of destroying the world. The results suggest each was trying to outdo the others with digital carnage.

Geek Fact: Mecca survived destruction after Roland Emmerich pulled a set-piece for fear of angering Muslim extremists.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Effect: The Rebel Alliance protects its base on Hoth from attack by AT-AT Walkers.

Why So Impressive: Industrial Light and Magic developed 'go motion,' a variant of stop motion, to ensure that the moving AT-ATs demonstrated plausible motion blur as they walked.

Geek Fact: The model is subject to split-second, computer-controlled movement in every frame.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2005)

The Effect: Sky Captain (Jude Law) fights robots in a parallel 1939 where everything looks strangely sepia.

Why So Impressive: Amateur FX whiz Kerry Conran dropped his A-list cast (Law, Paltrow, Jolie) into elaborate CGI backdrops, pioneering a device later popularised by Sin City .

Geek Fact: Conran’s career started after he spent four years creating a teaser trailer at home.

Aliens (1986)

The Effect: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces off in an exo-suit power loader against the Alien Queen.

Why So Impressive: Stan Winston built a fourteen foot tall working prop, operated by mixtures of puppeteers and hydraulics.

Geek Fact: Eighteen puppeteers were required to operate it – two inside, sixteen outside – but it still needed to be supported by a crane.