When people talk about the magic of cinema, they’re usually not referring to monologues. More often than not, it’s the awe-inspiring visuals and imaginary worlds coming to life that give the phrase “movie magic” the ring of truth. None of that would be possible without visual effects, an ever-evolving field that pushes filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson further and further in their quest to create that special spark.
The films that have won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects represent the most innovative visual storytelling of the last two decades. Using motion capture technology, computer-generated imagery, miniatures and giant puppets, these films create fantasy worlds and creatures beyond our wildest imaginations.
Here are the winners of the Oscar for Best Visual Effects of the 21st century, ranked by their visual storytelling.
17. “The Golden Compass” (2007)
While “The Golden Compass” may be last on this list, an Oscar for best VFX is nothing to sneeze at. Philip Pullman’s novel is the first in one of the most beloved fantasy trilogies of all time, and readers were largely disappointed with a film adaptation that diluted the novel’s themes. Written and directed by Chris Weitz, the visual effects in “The Golden Compass” were generally praised as the film’s most successful element. The movie boasts gorgeous VFX-enhanced set design and pyrotechnic light shows. But its most memorable design is the adorable giant polar bears, cute enough to steal every scene (even from Nicole Kidman). —Jude Dry
16. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006)
The second “Pirates of the Caribbean” adventure is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to VFX. The highlight is easily the motion capture technology that seamlessly transforms Bill Nighy into the squid-faced Davy Jones and his army of the dead into a barnacle zombies. But to just focus on Jones would be criminal, as everything from the Kraken to that epic fight scene set on a giant moving wooden wheel requires the best VFX the movies have to offer. “Pirates of the Caribbean” embraces its cartoonish side, which allows its VFX to go over-the-top and suspend gravity and the imagination to deliver awesome cinematic delights. —Zack Sharf
15. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
To understand why “Spider-Man 2” won the Oscar for VFX you need only remember one name: Doctor Octopus. The most memorable villian in Spider-Man film lore, Doctor Octopus taunted and teased from a many-tentacled perch, towering some 20 feet above poor Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker. Those scenes were accomplished with CGI, but to create the tentacles when the Doctor was life-sized, Edge FX made four rubber foam extremities, each measuring eight feet and operated by their own puppeteer. Of course, the best VFX require great actors to help sell the illusion, and director Sam Raimi had one of the greats in Alfred Molina. Menacing and maniacal, Molina’s Doctor Octopus was truly a sight to behold. —JD
14. “Gladiator” (2000)
The 3-D computer generated Colosseum built for “Gladiator” was game-changing. Rather than visual effects being something that were passable if they were carefully filmed and framed, this grand exterior set with thousands of extras became a vital piece of the storytelling. Equally important, Ridley Scott would not be confined or restricted with his camera. He could film the battles with all the moving camera gusto one would expect from the director and the computer generate location could fully accommodate. The fact that by 2000 such a level of VFX verisimilitude could be achieved — that ancient Rome could be built and the equivalent on an NFL football game could be seamless incorporated into the storytelling — makes one sad to see how the tools quickly backslid into video game spectacle. —Chris O’Falt
13. “Hugo” (2011)
When Martin Scorsese decided to experiment with the full palette of 3-D and special effects, he did so with the childlike wonder of stepping into something new — mirroring both the experiences of his young protagonist as well as Georges Méliès and the pioneers of cinema. Rather than opting for a sense of digital wizardry, Scorsese, along with DP Robert Richardson and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, created impossible sweeping shots traversing through a train station that was like one big mechanical device as Hugo maneuvers through space in exciting ways. Mixing camera opticals and miniatures, a tip of the hat color correction and nearly endless cinematic references, the visual effects feel like a throwback to a time when everything about the movies was transcendent. —CO
12. “Interstellar” (2014)
The wormhole. That’s what many people remember about Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” and for good reason. The centerpiece of the film’s jaw-dropping VFX work defines what makes “Interstellar” such a winner: It’s both surreal in form and design and yet scarily tangible in its texture. For all its planet hopping and time traveling, “Interstellar” remains grounded because of its lifelike VFX work, which is the key that makes the film so emotional. The effects make even the most distant “Interstellar” planet and futuristic technology (TARS for example) feel not just real but also of the now. “Interstellar” may look to the future, but it’s heart is in the present and every bit of VFX is designed to help Nolan achieve this goal. —ZS
11. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002)
Weta Digital’s groundbreaking 73 minutes of visual effects over 799 shots included both the epic battle Helm’s Deep and a fully realized Gollum. Weta Digital used both character animation and motion capture to create Gollum—acted by Andy Serkis. Weta developed sub-surface scattering lighting software to achieve realistic translucent human skin (VFX Master Joe Letteri won a special technical achievement Oscar, and his team won the Oscar, BAFTA and VES VFX awards). But even more dramatic was the use of revolutionary software Massive, which digitally generated “smart” warriors to act independently along with live extras. Massive enabled the agents, via pre-programmed fuzzy logic, to see and hear, wield weapons, duck, charge, run, fall and die. Using Massive, Jackson could fly cameras through the middle of the battle. —Anne Thompson