20 CGI Classics – From T2 to Batman Begins to WALL-E

We pick 20 films that employed Pixar's renderer.

by | August 11, 2008

20 Years of Renderman

RenderMan, a piece of software created by those masters at Pixar, revolutionised computer-generated special effects when it was originally released 20 years ago this year. Designed to take the information in a CG file and “render” it into an image, the software made the creation of visual effects an art limited only by imagination.

“At [the time of RenderMan’s release] CG was nowhere in the special effects business,” Pixar’s co-founder and president Ed Catmull told The Hollywood Reporter, who published a feature on the software’s anniversary today. The feature, which explains the history of the software in more detail, includes a timeline explaining the product’s milestones.

From infancy in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes – the first use of the name “RenderMan” didn’t happen until the product matured in 1988 – right up to this year’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, WALL-E and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, RenderMan has been an essential part of the summer season for its entire lifespan.

To further celebrate 20 years of RenderMan, RT scoured Pixar’s own list of movies that have employed RenderMan to pick 20 visual classics – in chronological order – that wouldn’t exist today were it not for the software’s creation…

20 Years of Renderman - Terminator 2

Terminator 2: Judgment Day‘s breathtaking visual effects are testament to director James Cameron‘s passionate support for new technology. His flirtation with CG began with The Abyss, which also employed RenderMan, in 1989, but when he brought the liquid-metal T-1000 to cinema screens he showed the real potential of computer-generated visual effects. Much as the T-1000 is the successor to Arnie’s T-800, so Terminator 2 sent out an early message about the future of visual effects.

20 Years of Renderman - Jurassic Park

Releasing in 1993, Steven Spielberg‘s Jurassic Park was relatively late to the party, but it’s remembered, rightly so, as the first film which demonstrated that CGI could be relied on to make believable big-screen imagery. Jurassic Park‘s CG set-pieces – including a showcase sequence involving a herd of Gallimimus being attacked by a T-Rex – quite literally brought dinosaurs to life.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Despite winning Oscars for its animation department’s early short films, it wasn’t until the success of Toy Story that Pixar’s priorities shifted. Until then, the animation department’s short films were being created specifically for the purposes of demoing the RenderMan product to help push software sales. As the world’s first fully computer-generated feature film, Toy Story had a powerful effect on animation as a medium.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

The highest grossing feature film of all time may be largely dismissed these days as a schmaltzy love story, but it made a huge – titanic, some might say – impact upon its release in 1997. From the realistic recreation of the ship itself to scores of computer-generated victims bouncing all over the capsizing superliner, Titanic‘s innovations set a new standard for what CG could do. With two places on our list, we’re very excited to see what James Cameron does with Avatar.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Nothing quite compares to The Matrix when it comes to pure visual spectacle. Yes, it’s true that the film’s influencers are many and its originality is arguable at best, but it came from leftfield in 1999 to deliver to a mass audience visual flair that hadn’t been seen in Hollywood before, and it pioneered “bullet-time,” probably the first CG visual effect to be parodied endlessly.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

While The Matrix was all about showing off, Gladiator‘s use of CG was far more subtle, designed to heighten and make more expansive Ridley Scott‘s vision of Ancient Rome but not to take centre-stage. In fact, it’s so subtle most don’t remember it as a film aided by CGI, but its recreation of the Coliseum is breathtaking.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

The film itself may be a bit of a disappointment, but Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within attempted to craft a lifelike stage through full CG animation. It curiously serves as both a fascinating experiment in the limitations of the technology and a moving big-screen treat at the same time. Its characters aren’t quite as believable as actors, but it’s still an insanely beautiful film.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring may have been one of the most anticipated films of 2001, but who knew that its release would set a new standard for visual moviemaking? So powerful was its visual design that it even made Warner Brothers’ big-budget adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was released around the same time, seemed veritably last-millennium by comparison.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Probably still Pixar’s most visually impressive feature, Finding Nemo‘s masterful recreation of the Great Barrier Reef remains one of the finest CG environments ever created. On top, the company’s brilliant grasp of character design and animation meant it wasn’t long into the movie before you forgot the technology and fell in love with the story.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Few could have foreseen the success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl before its released. Based on a theme park ride and looking like the pages of a Disney catalogue even before it was merchandised to death, the film proved a hit with audiences the world over and spawned two massive – but much less interesting – sequels.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

We’ve done our best not to include franchise repetition within our list – hence no Reloaded or At World’s End – but The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, with its haul of 11 Academy Awards, deserves a place nonetheless, for managing to take what had been established earlier in the series and successfully ramp it up for a masterful finale.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Roland Emmerich can usually be relied on to serve up eye candy before he can be expected to deliver a believable story, so the less said about The Day After Tomorrow‘s speedy global warming plot the better. Let’s, instead, remember the simply iconic visuals, including this epic shot of a frozen New York City, which redefined the disaster movie.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

After a couple of middle-of-the-road Potter movies, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban took the visual jump the series required to turn it from family favourite into cinematic classic. Alfonso Cuaron rebuilt Hogwarts in the Scottish mountains, crafted a fantasy feel to the environments and made J.K. Rowling’s world come to life for the first time following Chris Columbus‘ by-the-numbers adaptations of Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, like the other two prequels, may not be your average Star Wars fan’s idea of a great time, but from General Grievous’ lightsaber clash with Obi-Wan to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s epic duel, it’s full of expansive visual images. George Lucas claimed that a screening of early footage from Jurassic Park was what inspired him to set the ball rolling on his much-mooted prequel trilogy. The technology had finally caught up with his imagination, he said. Perhaps his sense of storytelling had fallen off the tracks by that point…

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Christopher Nolan really did give birth to a new breed of superhero when Batman Begins first released. As The Dark Knight rides high atop the worldwide box office chart we remember how Begins first introduced us to a Gotham City grounded in the 21st Century to play home to a gruff but realistic Caped Crusader.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

If it weren’t for Tom Cruise‘s public breakdown, which seemed to coincide with the film’s release, War of the Worlds might be more favourably remembered. Sure, Steven Spielberg‘s film might err a little too heavily on the side of fantasy – particularly with its schmaltzy ending – but the ride is well worth the effort and our early glimpses of the film’s iconic tripods against other-worldly stormy skies is simply incredible.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

An odd shift in visual style from the subdued tones of The Lord of the Rings, King Kong was Peter Jackson‘s dream project and he pushed his visual artists to the edge to deliver a Skull Island that blended the latest in visual effects technology with a fantastical old-Hollywood feel. The film may not entirely come together in the end result, but it did serve up mammoth set-pieces that simply hadn’t been attempted before.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Danny Boyle‘s sci-fi movie owes huge debts to Alien and 2001, but Sunshine still looked like gallery of photos from the Hubble Telescope and presented a vision of our star that seemed to be hand delivered for a High Definition world.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Robert Zemeckis had tried, with The Polar Express, to take his own steps into Final Fantasy‘s world of realistic CG animation, but with Beowulf he more readily accepts the limitations of that approach and instead utilises the technology to deliver a real rollercoaster ride. Best experienced in 3D, in the IMAX, Beowulf‘s action set pieces push CG animation to its limit.

20 Years of Renderman - Toy Story

Furthering Pixar’s drive to put story first, the CG world of WALL-E seems almost like a value-add to a heartfelt human (or robot) drama that leads the film. Nevertheless, its vision of a post-apocalypic Earth and the little robot whose job it is to clean it up is simply masterful. That they can pack so much emotion into a small, rusty cube is testament to Pixar’s position as an industry leader in its field.

Did we miss any better examples from Pixar’s list? Are there movies here that don’t deserve their place? Have your say below!

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