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Lessons from Three of the Best VFX Films of the 2000s

Lessons from Three of the Best VFX Films of the 2000s

From the smallest projects to the largest, these films present a masterclass on improving your craft.

There are a few aspects of film and entertainment as polarizing as visual effects. CG, in particular, is two letters which leave either a sense of awe and wonder in the viewer's eyes or a taste of disgust in their mouth as they question, “why didn’t they do it practically?”

With many directors and films flaunting their use of on-set effects as a more pure approach to storytelling, CG is increasingly seen as a cheap and overdone trick. Action blockbusters dominate the box office and double down on this sentiment with shallow characters and one-dimensional storylines.
People within the industry have said for years, however, that good CG is a product of good movies. With a strong story, strong direction, and a purpose, computer-generated effects have transported audiences to new worlds, brought them face-to-face with incredible creatures and characters, and captured their imaginations in ways that could never be possible outside of the digital realm.

The following films are heralded for their VFX as a crucial storytelling element, not just a summation of polygons and pixels. The artists involved found specific anchors within narrative, character, setting, and more to inject meaning and purpose into every shot.

1. Blade Runner 2049 

Blade Runner 2049 is the poster child for good CG and visual effects in the 21st century. Not only did the artists at Framestore, Digital Domain, and several other companies display the cutting edge of effects technology, they seamlessly appended to the world of Ridley Scott’s classic. 

The strongest example of this careful and measured approach can be seen in the cityscapes of 2049’s cyberpunk metropolis. With modern tools capable of near infinite detail, the artists of 2049 could have easily taken it to the next level by going bigger, brighter, and flashier at every turn. Instead, they looked directly to the dark and murky scenes produced by the original’s optical printing team and adapted that style to fit the next chapter of BladeRunner lore.

This film is a marvel of preparation. The artists, so engrossed in the source material, show how one can strike a perfect balance between faith towards and making use of VFX evolution.

2. Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a hauntingly subtle film. Its slow, almost nonchalant, burn is a tool for building suspense and questioning from the audience. All the while, you’re so sucked into the screen that you start to forget what you’re watching is just as much a marvel of CG as it is storytelling.

At the center of it all is Ava, the humanoid robot—a mosaic of live action performance and skin alongside digital and translucent bionics. The beauty of Double Negative’s Oscar award-winning work is that the art itself imitates the questions begged by the film: where is the line between machine and human? With such a strong and simple theme anchored by a tight cast of characters, Ex Machina teaches us that good CG is guided by the story first.

Though it’s clear that Ava’s pulsating blue heart is the work of a digital artist, all of the magic tricks outside of her own appearance are nearly seamless. The second lesson from Ex Machina is that a little bit goes a long way. Whether it’s Ava’s subtle interactions with the environment, or even (spoiler alert) the blood running down lead villain Nathan’s stomach, the audience isn’t left questioning what is real: they simply don’t care.

3. Children of Men

In filmmaking, the largest and most obvious moments are just as important as the subtle and seemingly unnoticed ones. The film Children of Men takes this philosophy to a new level with its bleak futuristic world building, incredible cinematography, and end-to-end usage of CG and visual effects techniques. 

Children of Men is a stunning achievement, but frankly its approach is unforgiving for the artist. Praised for it’s edge-to-edge filmmaking, Children of Men’s story unfolds largely in the background. From every street sign and car in the corner of every shot, the state of the world and characters are reflected. This film is proof that the audience can take in every bit of the frame. Master this technique, and true immersion can be achieved. 

Sure, many films and even modern television shows match the scale of Children of Men—set extensions, billboard, sign, and sky replacement—these are common concepts. But this film turns it to eleven, puts it on a moving camera, puts that on a car, and rolls for about three minutes without stopping.
These movies are just three selections from a massive catalog of incredible visual effects. As you plug away at your station, remember the greats that came before you. Though the effects industry relies heavily on innovation and forward momentum, the next time you’re at the movies finish your popcorn while the credits roll.
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