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  • 50 most influential visual effects films

    Posted on June 26th, 2009 dstipes No comments

    VES 50 most influential visual effects films


    One of my students asked for a list of visual effects films to look at during the break between quarters at school.  

    I directed him to the Visual Effects Society (VES) and their list of films.


     This was their list on May 10, 2007.  We have had a few new VFX films since ’07.  Do you agree with this list?   If not, what are your choices?

     THE VES 50 (Bold and Italics indicates a tie score)

    1. Star Wars (1977)

    2. Blade Runner (1982)

    3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

    3. The Matrix (1999)

    5. Jurassic Park (1993)

    6. Tron (1982)

    7. King Kong (1933)

    8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

    9. Alien (1979)

    10. The Abyss (1989)

    11. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

    12. Metropolis (1927)

    13. A Trip to the Moon (1902)

    14. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

    15. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

    16. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

    17. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

    18. Titanic (1997)

    19. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

    20. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

    20. E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)

    22. Toy Story (1995)

    23. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

    24. The Ten Commandments (1956)

    25. The War of the Worlds (1953)

    25. Forrest Gump (1994)

    25. Citizen Kane (1941)

    25 The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

    25. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

    30. The Terminator (1984)

    31. Aliens (1986)

    32. Mary Poppins (1964)

    33. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

    34. Forbidden Planet (1956)

    35. Babe (1995)

    36. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

    36. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

    38. King Kong (2005)

    39. Planet of the Apes (1968)

    40. Fantastic Voyage (1966)

    41. Jaws (1975)

    41. Ghostbusters (1984)

    43. Sin City (2005)

    44. Superman: The Movie (1978)

    45. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

    46. The Lost World (1925)

    46. Return of the Jedi (1983)

    48. What Dreams May Come (1998)

    49. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

    50. Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1958)

    50. The Fifth Element (1997)

     The Visual Effects Society / © Copyright 2009


    41 responses to “50 most influential visual effects films”

    1. It’s a hard list to rank in order as it’s like comparing apples with oranges when comparing films made pre 1980 and post.

      I’m quite suprised at the gap between Star Wars (#1) and Empire strikes back (#11). While Star Wars may have invented the technology I feel ESB had far more impressive vfx. The film introduced us to Yoda, a character you could believe in and not think of as a muppet. You have the amazing stop motion work of Phil Tippet, who can forget the battle of Hoth with the giant walkers or when the Falcon flies out of the mouth of an asteroid?

      I can hardly believe “The Fifth Element” or “King Kong” made it into the top 50. I would consider any of the following films made prior to 2007 to be superior than either of those two choices:-

      Saving Private Ryan
      The Black Hole

      Films post 2007 whos cgi have impressed me greatly are Iron Man, Star Trek and Terminator Salvation. Terminator Salvation has a couple of scenes that didn’t quite get it right but plenty of stunning vfx such as the Endo skeletons that look just as convincing as Stan Winston’s efforts.

    2. Hmmm… all great films no doubt, but to me, just off the top o’ me head, there are a coupla glaring absences in regard to films that really spear-headed VFX technology for the time, and laid the very ground-work for films to come afterward.

      H.G> Wells’ Things To Come, 1936, and 1984’s The Last Starfighter.

      While all the films listed are great, and some of the them groundbreakers as well (A Trip to the Moon, The Lost World, Metropolis, King Kong (1933), 2001: A space odyssey, Star Wars, Tron, An American Werewolf in London (although, for make-up efx), Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, What Dreams May Come), these two films are both quintessential groundbreaking films for the time, in regard to their respective technologies.

      And I see a general nagging absence of Lydecker Bros. films in there as well. While there is always a certain amount of innovation on any show, there are certain films that really do it up and set a method and precedent to follow for years to come.

      What a great post, David. Thanks! 🙂


    3. Hey now come on, where’s Starcrash !? 🙂
      Cool list, can’t really argue with those choices.
      Notice the lack of Star Wars prequels on this list, technically superb FX but not really inspirational in my opinion, though I believe The Phantom Menace was the best of the bunch, and was surprised when Matrix pipped it to the post for the Oscar that year, I’m sure the negative press had something to do with ILM losing !

    4. Sweet! Thanks for this. I’d Type more, but now I have to go watch a whole bunch of movies!!

    5. The operative word for the list is ‘influential’ in my opinion. To that end the 1933 “King Kong” does belong on the list as it inspires a generation of visual effects artists.

      I would agree with deg that “Things to Come” and “Last Starfighter” belong.

      I don’t see where “The Fifth Element” was so influential. It seemed a well done use of existing technology.

      “Black Hole” was an also ran on the “Star Wars” band wagon. Lots of fun mattes and competent motion control but way behind Dykstra’s ILM / Apogee facility and technology.

      The Star Wars prequels upped the ante with wall to wall CGI but were they influential?

      How about ILM’s “Willow” and its introduction to ‘morphing’?

      Some of my opinions….

    6. Good call on Willow and morphing tech, David.

      I feel the SW prequels were influential, esp. ROTJ, but that it may take a while for the stigma to wear off for their VFX advances to really be taken into appreciation for what the were doing, and the scale they were doing it on.

      I think the remake of Kong is a bit the same. I could be wrong though. It’s kinda like any Stanley Kubrick film, it takes at least a good ten years before its true genius it is really recognized for what it is. With a Kubrick film that’s usually due to most peeps not understanding its narrative and/or filmmaking approach in general, but the latent idea of appreciation is the same.


    7. Opps, I meant, ROTS (Revenge of the Sith. Old habit, as I have the Revenge of the Jedi movie-poster, eh.


    8. Just to be clear I was refering to the 2005 King Kong remake, one long cgi cartoon. Jurassic park did it much better.

    9. Hi RKW,

      Oh, got it! I misread and misunderstood you. (Sorry!)

      I agree, Jacksons’ Kong was a CGI cartoon and not an influence at all. I did not like it.

      “Jurassic Park” blew me away. What an influence THAT film had! (It had stop-motion guys everywhere weeping and looking for windows in tall buildings…)

    10. Oh I disagree, I thought the work done on the new Kong was a marvel to behold. It takes a LOT to impress me as far as organics go in CG, and up to Benjamin Button, Jackson’s Kong held the prize, for me.

      J.Park was and is great, but there are a lot of dated shots, mostly the shots in bright sunlight (which the new Kong was all about). The JP series is basically remembered for the T-Rex chase, and later the Velociraptors in the kitchen, but if you look at those sequences, they were using a lot of old standard “tricks” with lighting (mainly darkness and shadows) to make the sequences much more convincing (and it worked), and they used that lighting method pretty much all through the series,

      Not to take away from JP in the slightest, as they are all marvels to see, but Jackson’s Kong far surpasses them in the type of sequences they were attempting to put on film, both in terms of the type of sequences (sunlight lit), and the character animation and models, IMO eh.


    11. I think the thing with Jackson’s Kong was that it kept having bits in it that would take you out of the story, pretty much every time Jack Black came on screen. But in terms of VFX I have to agree with deg 100%. The shots were epic and gorgeously done and very inspiring.

      The think Jurassic Park did the same thing for it’s era of VFX, a guy I work with was a miniature/some stop motion artist and JP was what made him go buy his first computer and learn 3d cause he knew that was the future of his job.

      When it comes to the Fifth Element I think what made it in this list is that it to this day still hold up for a VFX movie and though wasn’t anything ground breaking it was very stylized and I think has inspired many of the DI color people.


    12. Hello Wicket,

      Welcome aboard!

      RE: Your comment about “Jurassic Park” motivating stop-motion animators to get computers. Along that line, add “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to the list of the influential.

      The make-up guys are heading to the computer stores to keep up with the future of their careers, too.


    13. I think King Kong should have been number 1.
      Star Wars 2.

      I think Metropolis should be closer to the top too.

      I disagree completely with Matrix and Fifth Element being on the list at all.

      Not really sure how influental Forrest Gump is as a vfx piece either.

      Overall, I agree with the list, though I might rearrange the order a bit.

    14. The innovative thing about The Matrix was of course bullet-time, as the technique was ingenious, genuinely interesting as an VFX, and as such, proliferated all through entertainment and advertising.

      The last film in the series, I thought was magnificent overall, VFX-wise. Upon seeing the flying and fight sequences I remember thinking to myself (being a life-long Marvel comic reader and collector), well, they’ve finally created a really convincing “super” fight. And the siege battle, it was jaw-dropping in its sheer scope of all that was going on, IMO.

      As to The Fifth Element, I’ve always had a soft-spot for this film, just for what it is, in all its sorta cult-campiness, and I enjoy Luc Besson’s films in general. As to its VFX, i have to say, the über-busy, crammed with flying vehicles city-scape renderings were quite impressive to me, and still very much stand out in my mind o this day. They very much remind me of the lushness of reading Heavy Metal, with its grand scope of artwork.


    15. Hello Natish,

      Glad to have you here!

      Deg has a good point about the ‘bullet time’ effect in “Matrix”. We saw bullet-time effects in a number of commercials and shows for a while after that. It also opened up the idea of using still cameras to sequentially capture images for film. Later we had “The Corpse Bride” being done on still cameras. (The digital environment also contributed to this…)

      “Forrest Gump” was influential re: image replacement and time / facial / dialogue manipulation; i.e. tracking, placing and blending Forrest into historical footage.

    16. Yeah, Forest Gump kinda goes along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in regard to compositing in my mind.

      It was also quite innovative and influential in the facial/dialogue match-moving process as you pointed out, David. This techniques would go on to be used extensively in films where animals are made to talk, which there is a new one of those films every time you turn around, as kids (and admittedly the kid in me too) love seeing animals talk, eh. 😀


    17. >”And I see a general nagging absence of Lydecker Bros. films.”

      Hi deg,

      If this was a list of the most influential visual effects artists then Howard and Theodore Lydecker would be included. (Maybe we should do such a list…)

      Gosh, the Lydeckers worked on so many films, but their work was, for the most part, accepted as real and unrecognized (and most of the films were not so outstanding.)

      Hmmm…. maybe “The Flying Tigers” (1942) ???

      Their flying rig techniques were used on Spielberg’s “1941” (I believe by special effects ace, A.D. Flowers)

    18. With ifluential being the operative word, I’m kinda shocked not to see, The Muppet Movie (1979), included on that list, figuring out how they made Kermit ride the bicycle was a Holy Grail there for a while, as I remember… and for me, The Time Machine (1960), The Invisible Man (1933), were influential, as was the sequences in, A Man Called Horse (1970) and, Little Big Man (1970)… I think I’d like a list of this sort might better defined, at least as pre & post-computer era…

    19. Hello Eric,

      It is good to have you here!
      Good point about “The Muppet Movie.”

      You may be right that a two step list would be better, one pre and one post digital.

      To state the oh-so-obvious, vis efx sure changed with computers! I have my students doing shots, as average course work, that would have been back-breaking for many vis efx guys in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. With a few techniques like 3D matte painting projection, it was impossible before computers.

      In 1983 or so the famous matte painter, Matthew Yuricich, and I had a big laugh about the producer that wanted to “fly around the matte painting and see the back of the image.”

      Wow! Well, now you can! Some of my students have none it in my Digital Matte class!

    20. Yeah, Republic was churning out so many films, many of them have been forgotten due to sheer numbers, and as you said, many a tad, shall we say, underwhelming as film-fare.

      However, The Brothers from Another Planet aka Howard and Theodore, their work is colossal, and an added testament to their genius was that they did so many films, as well as they did, at Republic speed.

      And yeah Eric, Kermit ridin’ the bike was a fantastic shot. Ya know, it occurs to me now, I never did learn how they did that. Can you fill me in, eh? If so, thanks!

      And again, what a great blog entry, David!


    21. Here’s a quick montage of images from the Jurassic Park films compared with the totally unconvincing visuals of King Kong (2005).

      Just to demonstrate exactly how bad Kongs visuals are check out this screen grab.

    22. Those screen grabs are very surprising! But thinking back there are quite a few movies that have come out in the last few years that have some very obvious effects shots. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion witch… had quite a few shots that jumped out at you as green screen comps! Even saying that though the 3D animals and mixed live action with animal body parts created by Rhythm and Hues makes me think it should be on this list since they were quite an achievement, speaking mostly about the lion with his fur simulations and such!

    23. Not to defend, argue, or proselytize my point, as opinions are personal and subjective, and I respect them as such. I will share this though, that I’m pretty sure Jackson (via Weta) was trying to somewhat retain some of the original “feel” and “look” of Obie’s original work, and you can definitely see the stylized edge of that sort of lush, almost dream-like quality and feel to the VFX, esp. with the sequences on Skill Island, just like the original obtained via Obie’s ingenious multi-layered matte and compositing processes.

      It’s not like Weta is incapable of achieving photorealism. One need only look at their body of work to see that.

      In my view, JP was going for that more “pure” photorealistic look, and like Weta with Kong 05, achieved the look that they were going for.

      And yes, all shows have “weak” shots. Goes along with the turf, eh.


    24. Oh, and I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that last T-Rex shot is Winston’s big-boy, not CG.


    25. Just to let you guys know that David isn’t ignoring any of your comments. He is just out of town for a few days working on another project. I’m sure he will be glad to join in this discussion once he gets back. In the meantime, talk amongst yourselves! 😀

    26. No worries, and thanks for the head-up on that, Cookster. 🙂


    27. You have to admire Jackson for attempting King Kong at all!

      Any issues I had with the film were mostly outside of the effects (Jack Black, for example…)

      One thing that hasn’t been discussed much is the effect of ‘Art Direction’ or a visual style on the CGI shots in Kong (and other films). Jackson’s Kong shots certainly have a sense of style to them much as Obie’s Kong had its own look and feel.

      Another factor is ‘color grading’ too, IMHO. Jurassic Park appeared more natural in coloring and saturation. Jackson’s Kong was more desaturated and shifted to cooler colors.

      (Side bar for my students: Color grading is the digital equivalent of ‘color correcting’ in the photo chemical film making process; the adjusting of scenes to match each or an over-all color & contrast look.

    28. Good point, David. Indeed, art direction, specifically concerning color (or lack thereof) does play such a vital part in the look and feel of an efx, or film in general.

      I’m just speculating, but I feel that Jackson’s shift toward the cooler more desat color range may have been in keeping with a lean toward the original’s feel brought about by being shot in B/W. That would be my guess, and lean myself.

      Aside from films being made in B/W for perhaps merely a cost factor, many took advantage of the “look” that only shooting in B/W afforded. Many films have been shot in B/W specifically for that feel, that working strictly with grayscale and contrast bring about, Citizen Kane jumps first and foremost to my mind (and is one of the list entries), as well as many of the films of Akira Kurosawa, Rashômon for one.


    29. >[I’m just speculating, but I feel that Jackson’s shift toward the cooler more desat color range may have been in keeping with a lean toward the original’s feel brought about by being shot in B/W.]

      Hello deg,

      Good point. I had not thought of that. That might explain why it is so extreme

    30. Heya David, and welcome back, BTW. Hopes you had a fine trip, eh. Good to have ya back. 🙂

      Yeah, if anyone totally REVERES the original King Kong, it’s Jackson. I have his full production (hours and hours) video blog diary DVD set, and the man (deservedly so IMO) just gushes on and on about the original film.

      As I recall he’s said, what’s the point of trying to “remake” it? There’s no point as it doesn’t ever need to be remade or “improved” upon. His version is more of a present day homage to the film, and in that process he sought to retain as much of the film’s feel and look as he could, while redoing it in this day-and-age.


    31. I see why Sin City is up there, but what about Sky Capitan and the World of Tomorrow? That was the first movie do what later on Sin City, 300, and the like popularized.

      Roger Ebert said the following about Sky Captian, “It’s like a film that escaped from the imagination directly onto the screen, without having to pass through reality along the way.”

      Also what about Twister or Independence Day? I feel like they have more of a right to be there than the Fifth Element.

    32. Hello Kamran,

      You make some good points. Maybe we should do the to 100 visual effects films! :^)

      “Twister” sure had some realistic particle animations and blends to the live action.

      “Independence Day” had a lot of work, but “The Fifth Element” had a lot of very deep and rich miniature, CGI and motion control composites.

      A list of only 50 films makes it hard to choose.

    33. This post has been an eye opener and a bit of an education, with all of you knowledgeable folks sharing your viewpoints. I’m going to be checking out some of the films mentioned in the list AND in the comments for a closer look at the fine points made here.

      Thanks for sharing this list and sparking such thoughtful conversation, David!

      I hadn’t had the time to check out most of the blogroll on Drexfiles, but I figured it was time to take a look at yours! 🙂


    34. Hello dea,

      I appreciate you taking time to look over the posts and articles!

      Please come back and comment as you can. :^)

    35. What a fun topic this is…My ten cents worth

      If the list would be constructed again, I think “300” should be on it, this one totally blew me away and “Pan’s Labyrinth” which gave to me a whole new meaning to the phrase “magical”…

      As for the current list Jim Hensons’ “Dark Crystal” would not be misplaced because I think it is the culmination of the ancient art of puppetry…And what about “Ben Hur”, its is in a way the great grand daddy of that marvellous flic “Gladiator”…To make place on the list, I think “Lord of the Rings” is a bit overrepresented on the list…


    36. Hello Robert,

      Thank you for joining!

      Yes, “300” was amazing!

      There seems to be room for several top 50 vis efx film lists in different categories.


    37. How about Dragonslayer? The Go Motion technique for getting motion blur on the stop motion of the dragon was pretty impressive.


    38. Hello Mark,

      I agree, the go-motion work was terrific. I loved the dragon, too.

    39. Hello everyone,
      Some great films on the list. I agree with Natish that King Kong should be number one with Star Wars in number two slot. In Kong, not only did they do a lot of stunning composites, there were matte paintings, and mechanical props, but more so they managed to actually bring a believable living breathing synthetic character to the screen, long before Mr. Lucas claimed to have done so for his Star Wars prequel. Also considering the films age, that is quite a miracle.
      I did not like the Kong 2005 monsters at all, just hated their designs, I’d go with Jurassic Park over them anyday.
      When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, Ben Hur (1925), ans Safety Last all have wonderful trick shots in them.
      Also Forbidden Planet, and 20’000 Leagues Under the Sea are a tad too low on the list, and should be in the top ten, in my oppinion.
      Great discussion guys, and great web site.

    40. I too think Kong should be #1 if *influential* is the main criteria. The work of O’brien and crew for Kong inspired Harryhausen, who in turn inspired Muren, Tippet, David Allen (All inspired by Kong directly as well). Kong is the wellspring. And where would Star Wars be without the prior art of the Lydecker Bros? Since Star Wars is an updating of the old fashioned Space Opera, the body of work that it is updating should somehow be counted as influential.

      About Dragonslayer, Verithrax is the coolest dragon ever, but since go-motion never caught on, can it be considered influential?

      Hello Dave, I worked in your shop on a Keebler commercial in the early 80s. I have fond memories of you and your staff, a great bunch of people.

    41. Hello Marc,

      Thank you for (re)visiting! :^)

      Thank you for your help on those crazy Keebler commercials.

      I like your comments. Go-motion was a pretty tough process, and pretty expensive for the average stop motion guy. I think that was a limiting factor.

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