I was watching a documentary about the making of Toy Story a few days ago and was struck by the fact that photorealistic computer effects have been part of filmmaking for almost 30 years now. In this somewhat nostalgic mood, I found myself thinking about my favorite ways that filmmakers have used CG imagery; some explorations of the ideological implications of these then-new artificialities, but mostly just neat ways to wow the audience. I’ve written this list so I can talk about some sequences that I find interesting; their ranking here is arbitrary.
Some notes before we begin: I’m defining a ”computer-generated sequence” based on a vague threshold of how much of it uses computer generated imagery. Sadly, this means that something like the T-Rex attack from Jurassic Park or the T-1000 ambush from Terminator 2 don’t quite count.
I’ll also add that, because of the new enormous cost of creating CG imagery, the list is unfortunately homogenous: Mostly filmmakers working from within Hollywood, and as a result, mostly white and male. Sadly, we can’t look to modern studios to fix this issue of representation; on the rare occasion that women and/or people of color are hired for these movies, they’re not always allowed to direct their own set pieces. As this technology gets easier for those with lighter pockets to use, I predict that things will change in the new decade, and that we will see even more indie filmmakers telling interesting stories with CG.
Lastly, and most crucially, I ask readers that they watch the video clips attached to every piece so that they can appreciate the formal choices that I have highlighted with my writing here.
The Top 10 Best Computer-Generated Sequences in Movies of the Past 25 Years
10. “Race for the First Key,” Ready Player One (2018)
Ready Player One is a Spielberg film set mostly in the virtual world, itself made with the help of virtual reality technology. Spielberg and his actors and crew would wear VR goggles as he directed the sequences in the virtual world visible in their goggles. His virtual camera speeds alongside the three characters like a fly through the air, weaving in and out of obstacles and competitors, spatially tracking them all. I’ve added this sequence so that readers can appreciate a skill that is invisible when done best; despite the sheer amount of stuff happening onscreen, we always understand the spatial relationships between all the moving objects, and explosions and collisions have a weight and impact to them. Compare this to say, the work of Michael Bay or something from the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Mayhem itself is an art; even chaos needs to be seen. When I think about the idea of filmmaking moving so completely into the virtual domain, I feel terrified but nevertheless impressed at Spielberg’s formal agility.
9. Birth of Sandman, Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Our first sequence that’s purely dramatic (and even expressionistic). Sam Raimi directed a superhero trilogy right before the genre would become auteur-averse; unlike those of his successors, his films frequently slow down for moments of humanity and pathos such as this one, in a genre that is often noisy and mindless. Images of Sandman as moving sculpture – seeing his new form with crude eyes, of holding his head in despair, and of regarding a picture of his dying daughter are a great example of pure cinema – create story and affect through moving pictures, cuts, and music. Note that Marko succeeds at re-cohering into his body and does so only after seeing a photo of his dying daughter, underlining a realization that it’s pure determination to save his daughter that keeps his constituent particles together, showing us the character’s drive, of which until this scene we are only told.
8. Thunderhead Raceway, Speed Racer (2008)
The editing in this sequence is bonkers. Notice that there’s a consistent visual grammar: Talking heads wiping across the screen gesture transitions to other shots of the race in the diegetic present, while a wipe of a main character across the screen signals a flashback from their perspective. Most importantly, it’s intuitive. By the time its over, we’ve been provided with all the characters’ backstories, and experienced the film’s first opening set piece. As a race it’s more of a garish neon smear—the races in Ready Player One and Phantom Menace are much more exciting–but it is astonishing and stimulating in other ways.
7. The Clones Attack, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
As the Republic gunships leave the arena and approach the Trade Federation starships, director George Lucas speeds up and slows down certain shots to create a sense of rhythm and percussion out of falling and exploding objects (a technique that George Miller also uses in Mad Max: Fury Road). Lucas’ visual language evolves throughout the prequels; here, the virtual camera snap-zooms and shakes to evoke the feeling of a war documentary.
I’m particularly fascinated by the image of Clone Troopers shooting at Battle Droids through opaque, sporadically lit dust – each side firing indiscriminately despite not even being able to see each other. It represents a prominent theme in the trilogy- good guys getting increasingly indistinguishable from bad guys, and of a war being waged by interchangeable, near-identical proxies. Thus, war is abstracted in Attack of the Clones into a child’s idea thereof; for Darth Sidious and George Lucas, these soldiers are playthings in a larger scheme, much like they are for children in the real world. A physical clone trooper costume was never made for either Episode II or III, making these ostensibly human soldiers just as artificial as the robots they are programmed to fight. Digital soldiers shooting in digital dust; it is irrelevant who is shooting at whom, or why.
6. The Podrace, Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace (1999)
Careful composition helps us appreciate the sheer speed of these vehicles – how fast fixed objects and moving debris fly by, and how fast the horizon approaches a camera fixed to a podracer. I love the weight and grit to the flaming wreckages that gradually litter across the course of the race. And I often find myself instinctively ducking along with the Anakin POV shot of some flying debris. In its context in the movie, the podrace runs a tad too long. However, its strengths amplify when one watches it as a standalone piece untethered to a greater narrative. Is it a coincidence one of Lucas’ experimental student shorts films was about a car race?
5. Junior confronts Clay Varris, Gemini Man (2019)
Gemini Man is a movie about a retired master assassin played by Will Smith having to fight a younger, more capable clone of himself. The clone is an entirely digital creation—a computer model rather than Will Smith with digital de-aging touch-ups (but still played by a motion-captured Smith). In this scene, Junior (the clone) confronts his creator Varris (Clive Owen) and has a lengthy heart-to-heart with him. I initially had trouble figuring out the nature of their relationship before this scene—whether Varris sees Junior as an experiment or as a son. But watching them around each other reveals that it’s the latter. It’s an honest-to-god scene, meaning that we have no idea where the characters will take it; they feel like real people, full of contradictions and unseen layers revealing themselves over the course of conversation. The lack of score makes one pay attention to the acting and to the fact that Will Smith pitcheshis voice to make this character vulnerable and boyish. One gets the impression that Lee, too, has invested the most care into getting this scene completely right; his career’s pet themes of fatherhood and masculinity re-emerge in with a sudden clarity and pathos in an otherwise mediocre film.
4. Battle for Pandora, Avatar (2009)
I’ve been thinking about the idea of satisfying “escalation” in movies. In a really satisfying blockbuster, every set-piece outdoes the one before it, and the one at the very end outdoes them all. Computer effects are uniquely suited to this task because they enable literal escalation; a camera no longer needs to be bound to the earth or to film its laws and inhabitants. Avatar uses this rising escalation to structure its third act set-piece. Notice that it makes use of every piece of world-building that we have seen in the movie so far; by now we know what every vehicle, creature, and weapon does in this universe. Cameron brings out all of them, even the giant space shuttle we see bring Jake to Pandora’s surface in the film’s beginning. Such a move gestures to the audience that the film has explained all that it needs to, and that it has all led to this climax—that exposition-addition is now about to give way to action-subtraction. The action happens on land and in the sky, intercutting the two in Lucas-ian fashion. Moreover, we know where all the characters are in relation to each other in both these spaces of battle. From land and sky, the planes of action shift to outdoors (the clearing outside the trailer with the avatar pods) and indoors (human-Jake struggling to breathe inside the pod). Quatritch is an excellent villain, cunning, capable, and, taking his own words out of context, “very hard to kill”. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to survive and the moment where his mech jumps out of the exploding wreckage is some exemplary James Cameron-ian badassery.
3. Padme’s Ruminations, Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (2005)
This is the sequence in which Anakin decides, irreversibly, that losing his wife is unacceptable. Lucas is at his best here, telling his story visually. Internality is conveyed both by close-ups on faces and by establishing shots of the cityscape, the cuts and camera moves representing the lovers’ gaze. The rigid binaries between nature and technology in Star Wars also echo here: note that Anakin and Padme try to reach out to each other through the cosmic, ”natural” force but are separated by technology, in the form of the vast, alienating cityscape. Think now of the reality of production: Imagine Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman acting the scene across a vast chasm of modern film’s greatest artifice, the green screen. Later in the film, the suffocating technology which spans Anakin’s entire horizon will wrap itself around him and breathe for him. Notice that by involving these landscape shots in the montage, this is an evolution of the cross-cutting that represents Vader’s and Luke’s connection in The Empire Strikes Back (and Rey’s and Kylo’s in The Last Jedi). All feelings of distance disappear for Vader and Luke, and for Rey and Kylo, when they sense each other across the Force; here, the literal and emotional distance between Anakin and Padme feels insurmountable to them. Anakin and Padme’s relationship is supposed to be the fulcrum of the entire saga; with this sequence, Lucas is finally able to convince us of its operatic tragedy and passion.
2. March on the Jedi Temple and Order 66, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Effects-driven blockbuster productions are often likened to directors playing around in large toy boxes, and this is especially true for a Star Wars film. The Order 66 montage alone shows us, with edits that collapse together these spaces-across-space, seven planets (not to mention that some of these planets have more than one significant location in this sequence). Across each planet, and in sync with Williams’ music, Lucas’ moving camera reveals and elides violence in striking and solemn ways; for example, the camera will move to show only a row of troopers’ feet as they fire on one Jedi, or rise upwards in a god’s eye view until the violence on another is hidden by foliage. George Lucas has been represented four times on this list, and this is because he was not only computer technology’s most enthusiastic herald, but also practitioner. In watching such a sequence, one realizes why he believed so strongly in this stuff– at his most deliberate, he created sequences and sensations that move and transition with a precision that only an artificial world can permit.
1. Klendathu Drop, Starship Troopers (1997)
A rousing, terrifying sequence that might be the film’s peak. An hour into the film, Verhoeven suddenly jettisons any ironic remove – there is nothing funny about going to war. In Starship Troopers, the Federation considers (in fascistic fashion) this a war of numbers and the Riefenstahl-inspired direction reflects this concern: symmetrical shots of bodies and vessels getting ready to deploy, the form constantly emphasizing numerical strength and unity. Indeed, the infantry responds to their commanding officer with an obedience that is almost musical, their dropships taking off in rousing harmony to the percussion. It is not until the sequence is over that we can breathe and, perhaps, intellectualize. Verhoeven is demonstrating the affective power of filmic propaganda by making some of his own, showing us propaganda’s entangled history with cinema’s familiar affective techniques.
More intriguingly-used CG follows once the dropships land. Computer effects create new ways to create the ”other”; in a way, a computer-generated creature is the ultimate other, in the sense that it does not even occupy physical space. With this seeming complete other, Verhoeven sneaks in some unnerving subtext. Pay attention to the moment when a wave of arachnids begins to assemble in front of the infantry’s eyes. Notice that both sides are paralyzed by fear of what’s about to happen, bugs and humans both equally hesitant to take a life. In fact, it is our protagonist Johnny who breaks this paralysis (“Kill them! Kill them all!”), both out of ambition and a need for personal vengeance. Later in the film, we see a dying Arachnid up-close (a practical effect, however) and even notice the fear in its eyes.
Reflecting on this film, I realize that CG is inherently suited to depictions of war because of its ability to copy-paste computer models, and to thereby create armies and (inherently) regulated multitudes. With Starship Troopers, Verhoeven also reminds us that the ”other” exists only in fantasy and, even then, is always a projection of our own selves. We’re reminded to consume images of monsters and aliens- of battles between good and evil – critically, in a world where they are all too easy for hegemonic forces to create.
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