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50 Best Movie Special Effects

The Abyss (1989)

The Effect: Oil rig designer Lindsay Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) comes face-to-tentacle with an alien pseudopod.

Why So Impressive: A breakthrough in computer-generated imagery, as Cameron decided to push the boundaries of digital technology rather than using more traditional animation techniques.

Geek Fact: It took six months to produce only 75 seconds of CGI footage, which pushed back the film’s original release date.

Titanic (1997)

The Effect: Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) hang on as the RMS Titanic breaks into two.

Why So Impressive: State-of-the-art practical effects (a tilting set) merge with digital stuntmen, water and smoke.

Geek Fact: Some things are unfakeable. 19,000,000 litres of real water was used during the shoot.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Effect: Benjamin Button is born an old man and ‘ages’ in reverse until he’s a baby. Yet he always looks like Brad Pitt.

Why So Impressive: David Fincher used a groundbreaking camera known as ‘Contour’ that tracked his facial movements in three dimensions for convincing digital superimposition of his features.

Geek Fact: The FX team estimates that as much as 52 minutes of the film isn’t really Brad but his digital Doppelganger.

Alien (1979)

The Effect: Kane (John Hurt) is enjoying his dinner when he starts to get stomach cramps. And then… splat!

Why So Impressive: To be fair, all of H.R. Giger’s alien designs are a superbly co-ordinated xenomorph life cycle, but it’s the invasive, otherworldly arrival of the chestburster that wins out.

Geek Fact: H.R. Giger based the design on a Francis Bacon painting, Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion .

Tron (1982)

The Effect: Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is forced to participate in gladiatorial Light Cycle matches inside a computer mainframe.

Why So Impressive: Steven Lisberger saw a digital future, and brought together computer animation pioneers with conceptual artists like Syd Mead and Jean Giraud to create it.

Geek Fact: Each disc used to store data only had 330MB of memory, a fraction of an iPhone today.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

The Effect: The Ark of the Covenant is opened, and SS agent Toht (Ronald Lacey) melts to death.

Why So Impressive: One of the most horrific effects ever seen in a PG film, you could do it in your bedroom with a gelatine and plaster model and a heat lamp.

Geek Fact: In reality, the melting takes a while, so the effect needs the time-lapse effect of an under-cranked camera.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

The Effect: Hollywood humans interact with the animated inhabitants of Toon Town.

Why So Impressive: An old technique – see Mary Poppins – makes a modern makeover, as computer techniques enabled 'toons to have convincing shadows.

Geek Fact: Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, donned a man-sized bunny outfit on set to get into character.

Inception (2010)

The Effect: Inside Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) dream to plant inception, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets in a tangle with Fischer’s militarised subconscious in a spinning hotel corridor.

Why So Impressive: ‘Effects’ are debatable. This was mostly achieved in-camera using a huge set that could rotate 360 degrees.

Geek Fact: Nolan got carried away by the possibilities of the scene, extending the planned 12m long set to a longer 30m.

Blade Runner (1982)

The Effect: Flying cars – known as spinners – cross the skyline of Los Angeles, 2019.

Why So Impressive: Based on Ridley Scott’s memories of the industrial North-East and “Hong Kong on a bad day,” the neon inferno creation by Syd Mead pushed contemporary design into a plausible future.

Geek Fact: The story’s author Philip K. Dick died before release, but was impressed by a twenty-minute special effects reel shown to him during pre-production.

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

The Effect: It’s a full moon, and David (David Naughton) finally realises the significance of that wolf bite he received on the Yorkshire Moors.

Why So Impressive: Rick Baker went to painstaking efforts to figure out, anatomically, how a man might become a werewolf. John Landis rewarded him by shooting the scene in bright light.

Geek Fact: AMPAS was so impressed they invented a new Oscar category – Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up – just for Baker.