10 Amazing CGI Effects You Thought Were Real


Last week, we highlighted some amazing accomplishments in practical effects and stunts that you probably thought were CGI. Today, we’re going in the opposite direction. Sometimes, computer-generated effect stand out like a sore thumb. It’s blatantly obvious when an actor is standing in front of a green screen, right? Well, today we’re going to talk about effects that are so seamless, you’d never realize they were actually CGI.

10. Zodiac

David Fincher is one of the most meticulous directors in the industry, and he’s known to leave nothing left to chance. This is a guy who films hundreds of takes of pouring glasses of water. He wants everything to be perfect, and controlled, so it’s no surprise that he’d utilize visual effects. What is surprising is that he’d use it for a crime scene in a seemingly easy location.

In the 2007 film Zodiac, Mark Ruffalo’s character investigates what appears to be a quiet, suburban San Francisco neighborhood. The truth is that the whole neighborhood had been digitally rendered. As a result of using CGI, Fincher was able to have greater control of the lighting, and thus do as many takes as he felt necessary. It did, however, take the work of an extremely talented team to make the neighborhood have an authentic feel. They succeeded, tricking most of us into believing it was a real location.

9. A Beautiful Mind

The 2001 biographical film about the life of mathematician,John Nash, one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes relied on the use of visual effects. Russell Crowe, who played Nash, begins to show more signs of schizophrenia just after his child is born. In one particular scene, he draws a bath for his child but leaves the baby in the tub, leaving the water running. The movie shows a frantic Jennifer Connelly running into the bathroom to save their child as the water just in time.

It looks completely real, and it leaves viewers shaken and disturbed. The truth is that Ron Howard, the director, shot the baby in the tub without any water and then shot the tub as the water filled up. The water was then superimposed over the baby who, adding to the drama, began to cry. It’s a powerful scene made possible by the use of CGI.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street

There was so much in this Martin Scorsese film that was not real it’s hard to name them all. Nearly all of the exteriors used VFX to add an element of grandeur and excess to the settings. The surrounding houses on the waterfront were all added by the special effects team to make Jordan Belfort’s palace really stand out. And probably one of the most surprising uses of CGI was a scene that was supposed to take place in Italy. As Margot Robbie’s character walks down the dock, she’s surrounded by water and men steering gondolas. It looks like a beautiful day in Italy. Instead, it’s another day shooting in front of a green screen.

Other memorable moments of CGI include the lion walking past brokers who are busy making calls. This, of course, doesn’t surprise anyone, but it’s still remarkable how real it looked on screen. The lion and his trainer were filmed walking down the aisles, and then the trainer was removed from the shot and the brokers were added.

7. Brokeback Mountain

It’s hard to trust an animal to not ruin a scene. It’s harder to trust a large group of sheep. Brokeback Mountain, the story of two sheep herders who have a discreet affair that lasts for 20 years, didn’t use much CGI. However, director Ang Lee felt it was a necessity after the sheep became unruly. According to reports, Lee struggled constantly with the sheep during the shoot, trying to get them to drink from running water for the sake of a scene.

Eventually, he was forced to give up on the shot. Lee’s efforts to create an authentic a film would not be in vain, though; the relationship between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters was so powerful and genuine that both were nominated for Oscars for their portrayals of two closeted gay men. And that’s one thing visual effects will never be able to duplicate: the power of human emotions.

6. Machete

In the era of #MeToo, it’s refreshing to hear a story of an actress standing up for herself on set long before the movement started. In the film Machete, Jessica Alba appears nude in a bathroom scene. Well… kind of. But not really. It looks real, but she’s actually wearing white undergarments. Alba’s publicist stated that she and Robert Rodriguez, the film’s director, made the decision together.

Alba had vowed to never appear nude in any of her films, stating that she had grown up in a strict Catholic home. In order to honor her upbringing, she felt it wouldn’t be right to show her body for a role. Despite Alba’s acceptance of CGI, many viewers were left disappointed and bewildered at the future of visual effects and nudity. Some film critics argued that the vulnerability and openness that comes from being naked shouldn’t be replaced with effects. Sounds like a couple guys that are angry that they didn’t get their money’s worth.

5. The Social Network

If you’re like us, after you saw The Social Network you were shocked to discover that there aren’t two Armie Hammers. And that’s why David Fincher again makes our list for his masterful use of CGI. In interviews, Fincher stated they tried to find twins who could play the roles of the Winklevoss brothers, but couldn’t find a pair that were as good as Hammer. 

Instead they had an actor named Josh Pence stand in for the second twin in shots where they were both on camera. Hammer would later go into a studio where his head was strapped into a harness to film the twin’s face and lend his voice to the dialogue. The VFX team then superimposed Hammer’s face over Pence’s in the movie. Fincher felt bad that Pence would never see the screen, and decided to give him a cameo in the movie: bumping into Eduardo and Zuckerberg after they hook up with two girls in the bathroom. A nice gesture from one of the best in the industry.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

In our previous article, we praised Mad Max: Fury Road for its practical effects; however, the film did utilize CGI to make the surroundings more perilous. One sequence where CGI was used most skillfully was after the storm, when Max teamed up with Furiosa and the Wives aboard the War Rig. As the war parties chase after them, Furiosa speeds toward a narrow canyon, where a biker gang detonates the rock walls, closing the path.

The canyon that was in the film was an augmented depiction, made to make it narrower and taller. Making the canyon narrower added to the feeling of danger for Furiosa and Max, while extending the canyon made the explosion that much more epic. Director George Miller used VFX as a supplement to immerse the viewer in the world, never allowing them to question the setting. It made for an unbelievable thrill ride which was nominated for 10 Oscars, including – naturally – for its spectacular visual effects.

3. Die Hard with a Vengeance

In general, the simplest uses of visual effects are the ones that wind up saving the cast and crew from encountering any unnecessary problems while filming. In the third installment of the Die Hard series, detective John McClane is commanded by the villain, Simon, to wear a sign bearing the N-word… smack in the middle of Harlem.

Now, obviously the issue wasn’t just fictional – it would have been more than a little awkward to have Bruce Willis strolling around a city street with that strapped to him, too. Risking a commotion or any disturbance to their filming schedule would cost time, which on any film set is money. So the actual message was added digitally in post production, with both “I hate (N-word)” and “I hate everybody” inserted – the latter appearing on network television and cable broadcasts, while the former made theaters.

2. Children of Men

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men is one of the few works of science fiction film that will continue to be relevant for as long as man draws breath. It’s set in the United Kingdom in a futuristic period where infertility has threatened man’s existence. As immigrants are persecuted and detained, a disillusioned bureaucrat is thrust into trying to protect what could be the world’s only pregnant woman, whose survival is paramount to the continuation of mankind.

One of the most important moments of the film is when she is going to give birth. It’s an extremely powerful moment, and it’s even more remarkable because the baby was generated fully from CGI. At first, Cuaron gave the actors an animatronic baby, but it did not move with the characteristics of a newborn. The decision was then made to go from digital enhancement to full digital replacement. It meant they had to reshoot the birth scenes, but it was well worth it.

1. Blood Diamond

We’ve chronicled instances of CGI making a scene more epic, of it being used to superimpose faces or images, but we haven’t seen a case of a director deciding to use it to improve a performance… until now. In the film Blood Diamond, director Edward Zwick decided to add a single tear during the final phone call between a wounded Leonardo Dicaprio and Jennifer Connelly.

Rebels have begun to surround Leo, and it’s clear that he’s going to die. Connelly does provide plenty of emotional weight to the moment, but for Zwick it wasn’t enough. The tear was done well enough that it’s nearly impossible to tell that it wasn’t Connelly’s. Many film purists question Zwick’s decision to superficially add weight to the scene, but no one was probably angrier than Connelly.

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