8 Movies That Revolutionized Hollywood’s Visual Effects

Published 2 years ago by , Updated October 22nd, 2013 at 7:11 am, This is a list post.

8 Films That Revolutionized Hollywood

10 Terrifying Scenarios in Films Gravity 2

Visual effects technology has become so advanced over the last few decades that it’s easy for movie fans to take everything for granted. It was only 1975 when Steven Spielberg was using a malfunctioning mechanical shark to film Jaws and today directors can use programs to animate photorealistic settings and characters to fulfill their wildest dreams (for better or worse).It's become common for moviegoers to expect high quality work from big budgeted films - but every once in a while, we are witnesses to a rare film that pushes the current boundaries of filmmaking and revolutionizes the industry.Gravity is being hailed as the latest groundbreaking film, and its success got us thinking about some of the other “game changers” throughout history.

King Kong (1933)

Big Game Changers King Kong

Special effects designer Willis O’Brien had pioneered the concept of stop motion animation for the 1925 film The Lost World, but the movie that truly put the technique on the map was the original 1933 version of King Kong. Several models were built for the project, including one to bring the titular gorilla to the screen. Despite only having “limited” resources, O’Brien was able to make its movements believable, which caused viewers to become invested in the character. After the success of King Kong, other films of the period used O’Brien’s methods to bring fantasy creatures to life.While Kong was the most memorable aspect of the film, a different revelatory effect called rear screen projection won a special achievement award. This is when live-action footage is projected against a small screen on set and was primarily used to enhance scenery while filming models. The practice was used in several movies during the 1930s and 40s, such as Mighty Joe Young.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Big Game Changers Wizard of Oz

The obvious groundbreaking achievement for The Wizard of Oz was that it was the first film to incorporate color during production. The use of color in movies added a new artistic element to the filmmaking process, as directors made stylistic choices to symbolize different aspects of characters or set the tone for certain scenes. However, this film’s Oscar winning effects also brought about a much more subtle evolution in a long-standing technique called the matte painting.Matte paintings had been used since the early 1900s, but with the addition of color, they started to become more developed. A precursor to the green screen "digital mattes" we are accustomed to today, matte paintings were used to fill in parts of a scene’s environment. Enduring for several decades, they were used throughout the 1970s and 80s, blending in with the live action shots so well that even trained eyes couldn’t tell the difference.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Big Game Changers 2001_2

Long before Gravity came around, Stanley Kubrick was the one that wowed moviegoers with a groundbreaking interpretation of space in film. In order to portray weightlessness in space, Kubrick attached his actors to wires that were positioned at the top of the set. Since the bodies were blocking the wires in camera, it created the illusion that people were actually floating. For the “centrifuge,” Kubrick commissioned the construction of a rotating set, which helped give the film a heightened sense of realism. Rotating sets are still used today, most notably for the hotel fight sequence in Inception.2001 also introduced the motion control camera system, which allowed filmmakers to save precise camera moves to a computer and repeat them if necessary. Used primarily for photography of small-scale models, this revolutionary technique was instrumental for several films that followed. While the practice is rare today, there are some who still use it to film their effects as realistically as possible.

Star Wars (1977)

Big Game Changers Star Wars

The original Star Wars film is famous for its iconic characters and memorable story, but the film was an astonishing technical achievement as well. George Lucas formed his own effects company called Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in order to create sequences that had never been seen before. Advancing the motion control system from 2001, Star Wars set a new standard for what was possible with models and miniatures as audiences were treated to new planets and exciting dogfights in space. It was an easy choice for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars.The success of Star Wars ushered in a new wave of effects-driven blockbusters that dominated the box office in the 1970s and 80s, many of which were made possible by this film’s revolutions. ILM also went on to become the most well-known special effects house, having served on over 300 films. The Star Wars sequels had their own innovations (Yoda puppet), but for many, the original is ground zero for modern effects.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Big Game Changers Jurassic Park

1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day took big steps in the evolution of CGI via the T-1000. Still, the technology was not seen as a viable solution for filmmakers, due to fears that it would not look as realistic as models. Leave it to Steven Spielberg to prove everyone wrong.Combining practical effects with computer imagery, Spielberg gave an entire generation of moviegoers the thrill of a lifetime by bringing dinosaurs back to Earth. The photorealistic creatures were extremely believable on screen and a big reason why the film was a hit. Seeing that anything was possible via digital effects, several filmmakers used them after Jurassic Park’s success in order to animate characters and environments in live action films.Despite 20 years of evolution, the effects from Jurassic Park are still used to judge the blockbusters of today as they hold up remarkably well.

Toy Story (1995)

Big Game Changers Toy Story

For several ’90s babies, Toy Story was a seminal film when it was released in 1995, but it became a landmark accomplishment in the eyes of adults as well – albeit for a different reason. It was the first full-length feature film entirely animated with computers.Representing an evolution from traditional hand-drawn animation, the creative team at Pixar underwent an arduous and complex process to get their film on the big screen. A single frame took anywhere between 45 minutes to 30 hours to render. Despite the challenging work, it proved to be worth the trouble as computer animation featured benefits not available in cell animation. The 3D objects created richer environments and character models, allowing the movie to feel more cinematic and realistic.The success of Toy Story paved the way for computer animation to be the norm. Pixar went on to release a string of acclaimed movies and other studios such as DreamWorks developed their own animation divisions.

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

Big Game Changers LOTR

Peter Jackson’s epic adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic literature provided a new groundbreaking technology to advance special effects. It was during the second installment, The Two Towers, that motion-capture and Andy Serkis were introduced to mainstream audiences.Serkis famously wore a motion-capture suit while on set and his movements were recorded into a computer program, creating a guide for the digital model used in the film. This allowed the CG character to be extremely life-like, and the practice benefited actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin as they had someone to act with during filming.The method is now the go-to way for animating CG characters. Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (also played by Serkis) wouldn’t be possible without it.

Avatar (2009)

Big Game Changers Avatar

James Cameron’s latest may have been criticized for its heavy-handed message and clichéd story, but one thing all viewers agreed on was that the film was an amazing technical achievement. Advancing the motion capture technology from Lord of the Rings, Cameron developed an updated system with notable innovations like improved facial expression capture and cameras that could display CGI models in real-time with filming.Of course, Avatar also launched a new wave of 3D and literally change our perceptions of the format by making the world of Pandora immersive. While most 3D films since have been cash grabs, there are select ones (Life of Pi) that made good use of Cameron’s new technology to craft engrossing theatrical experiences.With the sequel set to take place underwater, there's a chance Cameron could revolutionize movies again.



It’s amazing to see how far visual effects have come and with technology always evolving, and it’s only a matter of time before we see the next film that introduces a groundbreaking tool for future directors to use. It’s becoming harder to impress viewers with special effects, so it will have to take something like Gravity – which looks like it could have been filmed in space – to provide us with those “did I just see that?” thrills.Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to name your picks for groundbreaking films in the comments section below._____Gravity is now playing in theaters.Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.
TAGS: 2001: a space odyssey, avatar, jurassic park, king kong, star wars, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the wizard of oz, toy story


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  1. I’ll just go ahead and say it, Dark Knight. I’m not a diehard, obsessive Nolanite or anything but that movie definitely put a stamp on Hollywood and storytelling in film not just comic book films. The Matrix is a revolutionary action film and groundbreaking for its day and I think it holds up. I can’t remember who said this on the podcast but 300, revolutionary action film. It might not have ignited the world on fire with praise but it put its stamp on action for sure.

    • You’re so absolutely right! TDK, 300 and The Matrix belong on that list…with The Matrix being an absolute must!

      But I’m not sure about Gravity itself. I cannot see anything really ground-breaking. Yes, it seems to be a tad more realistic than your average “real” space movie… But is it really such a groundbreaking achievement? While I liked it, it never fully hit me as “extraordinary” and certainly din’t want this to influence the next generation of sci fi / space films. I’d rather go for Avatar’s breathtaking colorful approach to strange new worlds than floating around in space suits for hours and hours…

      • Eh…I found Gravity pretty impressive. I felt like it put me in the space suit in a realistic way.

    • The first two words of this article are “visual effects”.

      The Dark Knight did nothing to advance visual effects.

  2. ahh! thought for sure ‘the matrix’ was on the list!

    • yeah me too

      • God, I can’t believe I forgot that one. It’s staring right at me on my shelf, too…. it certainly fits the criteria.

        • No worries. Not as if the list title is “THE ONLY 8 Movies That Revolutionized Hollywood”.

          • Yeah, but bullet time hasn’t really become a major shift in moviemaking, far as I know….

              • Although I thought Matrix was great when it came out, the sequels left such a residual distaste with me that I rarely think of them anymore. The third one was completely laughable.

                • It did get ridiculous

    • Me too. Matrix was indeed ground breaking. No one had the technology to pull off the camera movement or the visual effects at the time. The visual effect team worked almost from scratch to make it happen. Matrix set the bar at that time.
      Don’t worry with Dark Knight. Avatar, definiely.

  3. This is a great list of films, but I would add one more for a very particular reason…

    “Superman: The Movie”, while not necessarily a giant technological jump, DID present a new, more believable (at least, at the time) way to show physical powers…Even its tagline pointed out that “you will believe a man can fly”.


  4. The Matrix definetly should have been on that list.

  5. The Dark Knight? Or Nolan films in general combination of 35mm and 70mm FILM! TO allow the characters the richest environment to tell one of the most thought out and groundbreaking stories of the 21st century. The Trilogy also made Hollywood realize they don’t have to make terrible movies about seemingly simple action films (Skyfall)

  6. Without The Matrix, this list is b*******.

    • How did the technology from the Matrix revolutionize Hollywood? Bullet time was a gimmick for that series – it didn’t become a major filmmaking trend.

      • Your comment crystalizes my thoughts on the Matrix as well. The original movie had an interesting plot, but the story fell apart, and became somewhat laughable, in the sequels, and the bullet time gimmick was not enough to sustain it, nor certainly, did it revolutionize film making.

      • As per usual, your assessments are lacking in almost every sense of the term. Almost as if you put no thought into the text prior to typing it.
        Bullet time, good or bad, was used THROUGHOUT filmmaking after the Matrix hit it big. A few examples; The One, Swordfish, Blade(may have come out before the matrix). If it didn’t revolutionize movies altogether, it unequivocally changed action movies for good.

  7. No Terminator 2?
    The special effects used on this moved the goal posts and allowed films like Jurassic park to follow.
    And yea, Matrix needs to be on this list.

    • I cant believe that either, there are films being made now with worse effects in! (Terminator 2)

  8. This is one list in which I actually agree with every movie on it.

    Well done!

  9. The list had to be ten. The Matrix and Terminator should be there.

  10. Robocop or GTFO.

    • Robocop FTW.

      That had everythig that was great about movies. Rotoscope, models, life size props, prosthetics, make up, sound effects.

      Maybe I’m biased though because I think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made and that Clarence Boddicker is the greatest villain in cinematic history.

  11. It’s definitely missing a couple of must-movies like T2 and The Matrix, but a good list none-the-less.

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Gravity is this year’s Avatar: When Avatar came out it was all anybody could talk about. The VFX was absolutely amazing, but the story uninspired and the characters bland for the most part. The way that movie was praised at the time of release you’d swear it was the best movie ever made, but over the years a lot of people realized how overrated it was.

    • I like Gravity a lot more than Avatar. Gravity didn’t have all the action-movie cliches that Avatar had. Gravity, along with being a huge technological achievement, was something new and fresh. I thought some of its dialogue wasn’t fantastic but it didn’t take me out of the experience nearly as bad as some of the lines in Avatar. Michelle Rodriguez’s line “I didn’t sign up for this!!” comes to mind *shudder*

  12. I agree with previous comments. The Matrix should absolutely be on here. Good list though!!

    Perhaps it doesn’t need to be included but I have always been impressed with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was the first movie to be filmed almost entirely with green-screen. They weren’t cutting corners either it was a conscious choice by the film-makers to produce the film in that way. Later Speed Racer and Avatar would use green-screen extensively in the same manner. Sure Sky Captain wasn’t as influential as other films in this list. It probably didn’t make as much money or achieve the widespread acclaim that other movies on this list enjoyed. I still think it was influential though.

  13. Tron?

  14. Good list, overall. Three thoughts:

    1) I was very impressed by Gravity as a visceral, immersive experience. It was worthwhile 3D, and for me to say that means something. Not at all overrated as a technical achievement.

    2) The Wizard of Oz, in my opinion, puts Oz the Great and Powerful to shame, not just in context relatively speaking, but really in a straight comparison. Of course the newer film is more advanced technologically, but it did not impress me with how it used the resources available to it.

    3) What a surprise…no Star Wars prequels here…(not really a surprise).

    • The Wizard of Oz was a work of magic, not only visually, but also in characterization, story telling, and song, and that is exactly why it is such a classic. I was glad to see it on the list.

    • Again, the first two words of this article are “visual effects”.

      None of the movies that you mention did anything to advance visual effects.

      • Although, of course, all were exceptional movies in their own way…they just shouldn’t be on this list.

        • Terminator 2 CERTAINLY advanced visual effects, that was a leap forward for sure. That movie set up Jurassic Park in some ways.

          • If you read the article, it was mentioned under Jurassic Park, but the article explained why Jurassic Park was on the list, and T2 wasn’t.

  15. my sister Abigail is correct when she says why is the matrix absent from this list

  16. Movie Goers Don’t Care about Filmmaking. Only about who’s in front of the camera. I bet not a Single Average Movie goer could Name The Director of “Gravity.”

    • Alfonso Cuaron! Although I guess I’m not your average movie goer.

    • Alfonso Cuaron, I was first interested in Gravity because he directed my fave HP film, The Prisoner of Azkaban. He also directed the under-appreciated masterpiece Children of Men which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it yet.

      I realize @ Ryan already answered your question but I wanted to speak up too :)

  17. i can’t believe spaceballs didn’t make it

  18. A lot of other movies could be included on this list, but then again it depends on what sort of “revolutionizing” it did. For the most part, it seems like this list is mainly talking about revolutionizing in the sense of visual effects. If you’re broadening that, tons of movies could be considered to have revolutionized Hollywood in different ways.

    But assuming we’re just sticking with visual effects, what are you guys talking about with including movies like The Matrix or The Dark Knight on the list? Don’t get me wrong, both of those and other movies mentioned are fantastic movies, but they didn’t do much to visually revolutionize anything in Hollywood.

    Two more that I think should be included are Citizen Kane and The Hobbit. Orson Welles introduced a lot of new interesting filming techniques, such as deep focus, in Citizen Kane, techniques commonly used today. Other than that, I think the movie is EXTREMELY overrated, but it did contribute greatly to filmmaking. The Hobbit has now introduced to the world of movies in 48 fps. We haven’t seen it used to much effect since then, but I do think it’ll catch on eventually. Aside from those, movies that introduced things like 3D, widescreen, etc. could be added here too.

    Otherwise, great list! I agree with all of them on here.

    • I never got to see The Hobbit at 48 fps, because it didn’t play at that speed anywhere around me. I read such varying opinion about it, from those who were absolutely mesmorized by it to those who disliked it with extreme prejudice. I would have liked the opportunity to see and judge it for myself. I’m hoping they open the 48 fps in wider release for The Desolation of Smaug.

  19. Jaws? The Dark Knight? The Matrix?

    • Dude, like so many others here, actually read the article. It’s about advancement in visual effects.

    • ‘The Dark Knight’ used already established filming techniques.

  20. i think SPAWN revolutionize the HERO MOVIES.

  21. What about some of Ray Harryhausen’s old stop motion monster movies? Like Clash of the Titans. Great for its time. Better than the remake and the sequel.

  22. I’d definitely include the Lord of the Rings here, but for another reason. The sprawling, large-scale CGI battles paved the way for these types of scenes to become commonplace in movies today. Rather than copies of the same Orc running around doing slightly different things, the program individualized each and every single character, put them in situations where they would act and react in realistic ways, and then set them loose on each other. Absolutely brilliant.

  23. Pulp Fiction! What about Pulp Fiction?

    • Last time I am saying this. Read the article! It is about advancement in visual effects.

      Pulp fiction did not revolutionize film in any way, much less visual effects.

  24. Good list but you left out the matrix, the movie has changed the way movies have been made since 1999 and that is the movie which as changed hollywood forever.

  25. “I cannot believe those “Biff” ‘ Bam” “Pow” signs flashing onscreen during the Adam West Batman tv show fight scenes don’t get a mention.

  26. When it comes to the movie ‘the Matrix’, the way they got the 360 degree spins is from using several cameras. All the CGI used in the movie had already been established.

    • Fixed: ‘CGI techniques used in the movie…

  27. “Star Trek: The Original Series” came out in 1966. I am not sure if the series contributed to the advancements in visual effects.

  28. Star Wars… It revolutionized visual effects in a way never before seen (1977) It paved the way to how visual effects are made to this very day. ILM is the best in the business, and always will be. Here’s a little tid bit for you all. The very first CGI came from ILM when it was incorporated in the movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.