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50 Best Movie Special Effects

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

The Effect: The alien mothership lands at Devils Tower in a blaze of light.

Why So Impressive: An amazing line-up (Douglas Trumbull supervising Dennis Muren, Carlo Rambaldi and Ralph McQuarrie) contribute to cinema’s definitive UFO.

Geek Fact: Spielberg had intended the mothership to be dark until he was inspired after driving past a lit-up oil refinery in India.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003)

The Effect: Middle Earth goes to war on the Pelennor Fields.

Why So Impressive: With 200,000 combatants, Weta got the most out of its MASSIVE (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment) software, which generates digital crowds.

Geek Fact: MASSIVE even made its way to British telly, allowing the creation of thousands of ‘walking fat’ creatures the Adipose in Doctor Who .

The Matrix (1999)

The Effect: Reality dances to a different tune as Neo (Keanu Reeves) dodges bullets and discovers bullet time.

Why So Impressive: Achieved using a complicated arrangement of still cameras, actors on wires, and CGI, within a year everybody was copying it.

Geek Fact: Although the still-camera technique is old, the FX team used 3D visualisation to plan more intricate camera movement than had been previously possible.

The Thing (1982)

The Effect: Disguised as Norris (Charles Hallahan), the shape-shifting Thing’s torso turns into a mouth and its “head” sprouts spider’s legs and scuttles away.

Why So Impressive: Encouraged to push the envelope for gore, FX supervisor Rob Bottin designed such surreal imagery that the script was rewritten to accommodate his ideas.

Geek Fact: Bottin got so ill by working long hours on The Thing that John Carpenter ordered him to go to hospital once he’d finished.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Effect: Frodo and Sam meet Gollum (Andy Serkis), the dishevelled husk of a man consumed by greed for the One Ring.

Why So Impressive: Originally intended to be composited into the frame, the strength of Serkis’ performance on-set caused Peter Jackson to shoot the actors together and have the FX team animate over the actor.

Geek Fact: Gollum’s pallid skin took four hours per frame to render.

Jurassic Park (1993)

The Effect: Best theme park in cinema history. Dinosaurs!

Why So Impressive: Spielberg assembled a crack team of experts (including Stan Winston and Dennis Muren) to combine animatronics and CGI, and the results are seamless.

Geek Fact: 'Go motion' was originally part of the FX mix but none was used in the finished film.

Avatar (2009)

The Effect: (Sam Worthington) goes native as a Na’vi – in 3-D!

Why So Impressive: James Cameron raised the bar for performance capture by shooting his actors in a huge hangar-shaped space called the Volume, all filmed by dozens of cameras.

Geek Fact: Cameron could see rudimentary animation of the actors Na'vi’d-up and interacting with Pandoran landscapes as they were filming.

Star Wars (1977)

The Effect: A spaceship whizzes past…and an even bigger Star Destroyer follows it, lasers blazing.

Why So Impressive: Pretty much the moment that changed FX cinema, this shot became the de facto showreel for Industrial Light & Magic and a harbinger of new possibilities.

Geek Fact: ILM’s original model was 91 centimetres long. For The Empire Strikes Back , a more detailed 259 cm long version was built.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

The Effect: Skynet reveals its Terminator upgrade: the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a shimmering killer made of endlessly versatile liquid metal.

Why So Impressive: CGI transformed Patrick into a walking, talking special effect, capable of shape-shifting through bars and creating pickaxe hands.

Geek Fact: Only 16 minutes of the film required CGI – small fry compared to today’s movies.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The Effect: Astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) flies off beyond the infinite through a multi-coloured star gate.

Why So Impressive: Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull adapted slit-scan photography techniques to devise a perpetually changing kaleidoscopic effect.

Geek Fact: Trumbull took thousands of photographs showing items as diverse as architectural drawings and crystal structures.