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The Best Visual Effects Oscar Winners of the 21st Century, Ranked from Worst to Best

From "Avatar" to "The Lord of the Rings," these Oscar-winners use CGI and motion capture to define 21st century visual storytelling.

Clockwise from top right: “Avatar,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Gravity,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”


10. “Ex Machina” (2015)

Ex Machina

“Ex Machina”


There’s never a moment in which you don’t believe that Ava (Alicia Vikander) isn’t real, which is a real feat, considering we’re also forced to realize from her very first appearance that she’s not real. Her face is there, sure, but every inch of her body and even the back of her head exists to remind us that we’re seeing something that has been created, not someone who has been born. It’s the best trick of all, and the most necessary — we must believe she’s real, just like Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), or the entire film doesn’t work. The entire film works. A canny combination of live-action and technology (which is appropriate considering the subject matter of Alex Garland’s film), the entire feature was first shot as a live-action feature (with Vikander sporting a natty jumpsuit along the way), one that eschewed the standard green screen approach. The robotic elements of Ava were all created in post-production, using rotoscoping to keep the necessary bits (mostly her face and her hands), and then digitally erasing the rest and filling it back in with the robotic parts. It’s a marvel of visual effects technology, and one that sounds far simpler on the page: there were about 800 VFX shots total, and an estimated 350 of them were dedicated to Ava alone. —Kate Erbland

9. “The Jungle Book” (2016)

“The Jungle Book”

Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks took Rudyard Kipling’s classic tales of Mowgli and his brothers and, with help from James Cameron and Martin Scorsese’s go-to VFX master Rob Legato, created a seamlessly natural digital world with many vibrant animal characters — and one live boy (Neel Sethi). Building on and advancing effects techniques from “Avatar” and “Gravity,” they weren’t creating a fantasy-world like “Avatar,” but digital India. Favreau calls up fond memories of Disney’s 1967 animated musical, weaving in a couple of songs and creating a grand set piece led by Christopher Walken as a giant ancient orangutan (gigantopithecus, to be exact, modeled after Marlon Brando’s daunting Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”). Favreau recognized the pitfalls of trying to believably place one human boy in an entirely digital, naturalistic environment: as the keeper of the tone, he orchestrated a massive team of creative artists with one common goal: create a cohesive, entertaining, populist narrative. Favreau and Legato did such an amazing job with the naturalistic, immersive jungle environment and animated characters that most people took for granted what they had accomplished. The film did score $964 million worldwide. —AT

8. “King Kong” (2005)

king kong

“King Kong”

Nut Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Weta Digital VFX master Joe Letteri advanced digital character animation beyond Gollum with Jackson’s giant ape, again acted by performance capture maestro Andy Serkis. He wore a “mocap” suit studded with reflective reference markers and stripes as cameras captured his movements, which are mapped to digital characters in a computer. While Gollum’s face was entirely animated by hand, King Kong was more like a third straight performance capture as Serkis perfected how to move and transmit emotions. Sure, computers pick up his muscle movements via strategically placed dots and sensors and animators work with complex algorithms to turn those movements into those of an evolved and intelligent ape. Yes, he is “rendered.” But there’s no denying that an actor gives the performance. —AT

7. “Life of Pi” (2012)

dev patel life of pi

“Life of Pi”


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It’s not just that there’s a zebra in a boat or that said boat is in the middle of the ocean or even that said ocean-set, zebra-filled boat eventually comes to also hold a real live boy and then also hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger. It’s that it’s rendered both dazzlingly real and suitably wondrous. It seemed unfilmable at the time — and a couple of years before Ang Lee took on the adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel, it would have been — but aided by a mix of practical and technological, “Life of Pi” comes to vivid life. A combination of nearly three months spent in the world’s largest self-generating wave tank (hey, it’s not an ocean, but it’s big) and post-production work to render the various animals and visual delights that young Pi encounters, it’s a nearly seamless fairy tale that holds up. The magic never abates, and only gets better when you know how much non-magic went into creating it. —KE

6. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)

Sean Astin Lord of the Rings

It’s no coincidence that, until the record-tying sweep of “The Return of the King,” the only Oscars won by the “Lord of the Rings” franchise were in the technical categories. “The Fellowship of the Ring” introduced us to Middle-earth in grand fashion, with each new setting and creature somehow being more striking than the last. Lothlórien, the Nazgûl, the Balrog of Morgoth — each of these stuns on a technical level while blending into the fantastical milieu so seamlessly that none of it looks out of place or dated, even 16 years later. We only catch a brief glimpse of the series’ most brilliant piece of CGI — the pitiful creature known now as Gollum but once, in a previous life, simply Sméagol — but what “Fellowship” lacks in Andy Serkis obsessing over the Precious it more than makes up for in cave trolls. —Michael Nordine

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