Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Big CGI Films of the 90s

Computer-generated imagery has been used in film since the early 70s. Being a child of the 90s, though, I remember how big of a role CGI played in film. With computers becoming a household item, and the Internet changing how we lived, the use of computer technologies in film left us in awe. These are a few of the big CGI films that were released in the 1990s.

5. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

In the late 90s Star Wars geeks the world over were in a state of euphoria. Although nowadays nerds cry about it constantly on Internet forums all over the web, when George Lucas decided to re-release the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997, the theatres were packed to see his updated versions of these classic films. Amidst the cries of “Han shot first!” and “I rather the cantina scene with the muppets”, we also caught wind of Lucas’ newest project. In 1999, 16 years since the last Star Wars film, and 22 years since he left the director’s chair, Lucas would return with an all new film, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

What can I really say that hasn’t been said? The Jar Jar Binks fiasco has come and gone, but when that film came out, you gotta admit, it was pretty damned cool. I remember the film somewhat fondly, as painful as some of the storyline can be. There was a bitchin’ new Sith, Darth Maul and the introduction of Pod Racing. Qui-Gon and the young Obi-Wan were pretty cool as well. I mean, there were tons of Jedi!

Regardless of your feelings about the film, it was a special effects masterpiece in its time. The battle with the Gungan, the landscapes, it expanded the Star Wars Universe exponentially. As much as I love the original trilogy, and I find a real “character” in the use of puppets and animatronics, The Phantom Menace was a visually epic film from the 90s.

4. The Matrix (1999)

This is a film I hold near and dear to my heart. Although I find it hard to say, “This is my favourite film of all time”, with changing tastes and new films coming out all the time, I have called this movie my favourite, and I still love it. I’m a huge cyber/steam punk fan, and this film is like an action/kung fu/cyberpunk enthusiast’s wet dream. Another 1999 delight, this was essentially a Western, feature film anime, with real friggin’ people. There was awesome hand-to-hand combat, amazing gun fighting and giant freakin’ robots.

The marketing behind the film was one of the major keys to its success. “What is the Matrix?” was on everyone’s mind that year. The viral marketing, along with intriguing storyline and geektastic background made this film and instant win, without any of the great aspects I’ve listed above. This film also single-handedly redefined the term slow-motion. No one calls it slo-mo anymore. It’s “bullet time”. The effect took a combination of wire-work, CGI and a series of still-frame cameras taking hundreds of images in a swooping arc to pull off, and man, did it look awesome.

After this film, movies of the early 2000s struggled to do what they could to keep up with its technological feats. The sequels would continue on this trend, raising the bar each time, but would never touch the original film.

3. Jurassic Park (1993)

Here’s another film that made a huge impact on my youth and I still consider one of my favourite of all time. Stephen Spielberg, the big adventure film king, was taking a Michael Crichton novel to the big screen. That’s like having pizza and Coca-Cola… a winning combination.

With the leaps in CGI-related technologies coming out in the early 90s, Spielberg took on the task of pushing the technologies further than anyone had done before. Even though CG was still in its infancy, he seamlessly blended animatronics, stop motion, puppetry and computer-generated imagery to the point that even today it looks amazing.

The dinosaurs were the big ticket and did they ever look good: the flocking group of Gallimimus, the thundering Brachiosaurs, the Velociraptors and of course, the big daddy of them all, T-Rex. Even though a good portion of the film was actually animatronics, there are scenes where you can’t tell the difference, and you know it. In 1993, there was nothing like it.

2. Toy Story (1995)

Pixar is a household name these days, but in 1995 no one expected such a leap in animation. Pixar had been around for years, using their advanced computer technologies in conjunction with companies like Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) as well as the team behind Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. It wasn’t until the company was facing some hard times and signed a three picture deal with Disney that it would take off in ways that no one would ever imagine.

The first film they released was Toy Story, a full CGI “cartoon” with big name actors voicing the characters, such as Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Jim Varney and John Ratzenberger. That’s right, I just put the guy from Cheers, Tim the Tool Man Taylor and Ernest in the same sentence with Tom Hanks.

The effects were stunning. The film opened the same year as the newest Batman film (Batman Forever) as well as Apollo 13 (which also featured Hanks), another film that would be somewhat suitable for this list, and pounded the two of them, the highest grossing Disney film since The Lion King. [To be fair, that's only one year - it basically outgrossed the woeful Pocahontas - cole*]

It had a fantastic cast of toy characters, a great storyline and an award-winning soundtrack. In a lot of ways, the CGI in the film was a secondary element, but most certainly helped to catapult Toy Story into the realm of instant classic.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

You saw this coming, right? No one has pushed film technologies like James Cameron, and his seminal masterpiece, often called the greatest action film of all time, T2 was like a beacon for CGI-related filmmakers.

Using CGI to push his 1989 film, The Abyss, Cameron began his love affair with computer generated effects, and would continue to be the pioneer of these technologies, even to this day. He made the (now) second highest grossing film of all time, the phenomenon that was Titanic in 1997 (another film that could have fit this list, if I cared about it), which was only recently topped by his latest blockbuster, Avatar, which expanded the use of IMAX and 3D into realms no one has ever experienced.

In T2, Cameron paved the way for Spielberg, Lucas and the Wachowskis by creating one of the most memorable villains in cinema, the T-1000; a liquid-metal harbinger of death from the future, bent on destroying humanity's greatest hope.

The visuals of T-1000 were jaw-dropping in their time. Even though the technologies of today have grown exponentially, I think T2’s effects still stand up. Even the CG used to create a Terminator exoskeleton was amazing.

Computer effects continue to evolve, and with virtuosos like Cameron at the helm, we can only expect bigger and better things in the future. Although I think cheaply used computer effects have ruined a lot of films in the last 15 years, and there is still a place for conventional special effects, the big CGI blockbusters will still come and knock our socks off, and I for one can’t wait.


Cole D'Arc said...

you can basically divide the special effects world into everything before T2 and everything that came after. Except in rare cases, special effects showcasing stuff that doesn't exist in reality all look pretty bad before 1991, although The Abyss is a great mention. Also John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) come to mind.

damn straight those Gallimimus were flocking!

Shane Patenaude said...

I can understand putting Episode one on this list, but truthfully it's already looking very dated as far as special effects go.

On the other hand, T2 and Jurassic Park both still look great today, and I think it's because they used CGI to enhance or fill in the gaps that practical effects couldn't achieve. Lucas went whole hog and did everything with a computer which caused the movie to lose it's soul as far as I'm concerned.

The same can be seen in the Matrix trilogy. The first is the best because you have CG special effects used in harmony with real stunts performed by real people. By the time the second and third matrix movies rolled out, the CGI was overused a bit. As fun as it was to see the first time, watching CGI Neo fight a bunch of CGI Smiths is not as engaging as what the original did.

Anyway, I'm rambing. Great list, and all perfect picks.