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The original “Star Wars” trilogy (Episodes I-III, 1977-1983): Because CGI was still in its embryonic stages, miniature Millennium Falcons, puppet Yodas and AT-AT Walkers shot in stop-motion were among the elements used to transport audiences to that galaxy far, far away. Still, George Lucas’s first “Star Wars” movies set a new bar for what could be visually achieved in the mainstream blockbuster.
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991): In what visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren describes as “the culmination of 10 years of development,” the team at ILM, in conjunction with practical effects master Stan Winston and director James Cameron, introduce the T-100, the “Terminator 2” villain who convincingly shifts shapes with a significant assist from computer technology.
“Jurassic Park” (1993):According to Muren, someone on the “Jurassic” crew initially told Steven Spielberg that a full-size, walking Tyrannosaurus rex could be created practically. It was Muren who suggested the beast should be born in a computer. The effectiveness of “Jurassic Park’s” digital effects, working in concert with animatronic dinosaurs created by human hands, invited every blockbuster that followed to explore CGI, too.
The “Star Wars” prequels (1999-2005): The trilogy that began with “The Phantom Menace” was known for playing all manner of digital Jedi mind tricks. The CGI-heavy films stood as a marker of how far technology had taken filmmaking and how easily it could distract from the core tenets of storytelling. (Tenet one: Develop a character that’s less annoying than the digitally rendered Jar Jar Binks.)
The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-2003): This trio of fantasy films was filled with CGI effects, too, but served as an example of how to use that technology on a grand scale without losing track of the narrative pulse. The second two movies, “The Two Towers” and “Return of the King,” also contain a landmark motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis as Gollum, yet another example of how human talent and digital wizardry can come together to yield stunning results.
“The Dark Knight Rises” (2012): Christopher Nolan, director of “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” is known for his commitment to capturing key moments in-camera, then using visual effects to enhance them later. That tendency is on full display in the final film in his Batman trilogy, which features many sequences shot practically and enhanced digitally, including the destruction of a football stadium.
“Furious 7” (2015): Recent summer releases like “Furious 7” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” have been made in the Nolan mode, staging actual collisions and fiery explosions, then upping the ante digitally in post production. Computer-generated artistry is still key to both films. After “Furious” star Paul Walker died unexpectedly in 2013 while the film was still in production, the use of digital effects – as well as the appearances of Walker’s brothers as body doubles – allowed “Furious 7’s” crew to complete the remaining scenes.
“Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” (2015): A recent Comic-Con preview of “The Force Awakens” features images of Peter Mayhew slipping into his authentically furry Chewbacca costume and craftsmen working on X-Wing fighters while the voice of Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, promises that the latest “Star Wars” movie is “keeping one foot in the pre-digital world.” While CGI will certainly be part of the picture, too, that emphasis on practical suggests the Force effects have come full circle, back to where they started.
Keywords: Star Wars” trilogy, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, ‘ Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings