It's been the year of the superhero yet again: some newcomers and some returning to the big screen. X-Men. The Amazing Spider-Man. Guardians of the Galaxy. Captain America. Moviegoers in 2014 were also treated to a re-imagining of popular properties from the past - some from the near past, some from the distant past. The infamous bloodsucker in Dracula Untold. Fairy-tale characters from Into the Woods. The Sleeping Beauty princess and villain in Maleficent. The creature in Godzilla. The reptiles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And then there were the recurring sequels. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Transformers: Age of Extinction. 300: Rise of an Empire.
That, in essence, sums up the visual effects films released in 2014. Make no mistake, though, the sequels and return of popular characters and franchises made for great entertainment. The effects were bigger and better than ever, as were the thrills.
As far as the animation genre is concerned, there were a few returning franchise-based movies, including Rio 2, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Penguins of Madagascar, and Planes: Fire & Rescue. And all received a warm welcome back at the box office, even Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which morphed from its decades-old 2D origins to a flashy 3D style. The year also saw the introduction of many new animated feature properties. The Lego Movie. Big Hero 6. The Nut Job. The Book of Life. And, Laika continued to improve on its stop-motion methods for an exciting new release, The Boxtrolls.
It's been a thrilling and entertaining year at the theater. The holiday releases are nearly upon us, the last entries that will be eligible to compete for the gold statues that soon will be handed out to the best of the best. Until then, enjoy your ticket here to a recap of some of the films that may be on that list.
300: Rise of an Empire
Release date: March 7
Production companies: Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, Cruel & Unusual Films
Like its predecessor, 300, Rise of an Empire, based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, uses a stylized backdrop to bring this fantasy war film to life. The movie picks up where the original 300 ended, with the defeat of King Leonidas and his legion of 300. The sequel incorporates the same visual style as its predecessor, but turns up the graphic look a notch.
The Winter Soldier
Release date: April 4
Production companies: Marvel Entertainment, Marvel Studios, Perception, Sony Pictures Imageworks
The Russo brothers, who directed, wanted to use as little CGI as possible in this superhero movie. Nevertheless, the film contains close to 2,500 VFX shots, 900 of them from ILM. Other studios contributing effects include Scanline VFX, Lola VFX, Luma, Whiskeytree, and The Embassy, with previs from Proof. The film features extensive use of digital doubles. In addition, the helicarriers are digital, as were the backdrops of Washington, DC.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Release date: July 11
Production companies: Chernin Entertainment, Ingenious Media, TSG Entertainment
Weta Digital advanced the state of the art of creature creation when it took on the massive challenge to trump the cutting-edge work that it had done for the previous Apes movie just a few years ago. This time, the effects artists pushed motion capture further to give its digital characters commanding performances, as the CG apes rode CG horses through digitally altered or enhanced sets in the latest iteration. The facial capture resulted in subtle, ever-changing expressions, adding to the realism of the digital characters. The fur technology was also advanced, as artists made it look wet, matted, and mangy, particularly for shots in the rain.
The CG Apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes are more realistic than ever, thanks to advances in facial capture and hair.
Release date: October 10
Production companies: Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Michael De Luca Productions
Framestore had its hands full dealing with the supernatural and historic in this movie about Dracula. The historical backdrop of the film presented a new challenge for the studio, with armies fighting huge battles, amazing scenery, and stunning castles. In addition, the movie features the strange and macabre, including a giant swarm of bats that sweep soldiers aside, human-to-bat mutations, gruesome deaths, and more.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Release date: December 12
Production companies: Chernin Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, Babieka, Volcano Films
The story is familiar, based on the biblical journey of the Hebrews from Egypt. Using state-of-the-art visual effects and 3D immersion, Ridley Scott brings new life to the story of the defiant leader Moses as he rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses. The movie has been generating a good deal of buzz, with its epic scope. The backgrounds are vast and rich, with crowds of digital doubles. There are digitally induced plagues and a dramatic parting and collapsing of the water in the Red Sea - a highlight for sure. The work is being performed by Double Negative, The Third Floor, The Senate VFX, MPC, Method, Nvizible, and others.
Release date: May 16
Production companies: Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, Disruption Entertainment, Toho Company
There have been some cheesy effects in the Godzilla movies of old, but the same cannot be said for those in this latest release. The battles are large, nearly as large as the creature itself, a CG creation that is a force to be reckoned with - at least on film. Visual effects artists had to unleash this massive beast so it could wreak havoc and destruction, crushing cars and infrastructure in its wake. Of course, all this is digital, as well. The effects were handled by MPC, Double Negative, Weta Digital, Amalgamated Dynamics, ComputerCafe/CafeFX, Scanline, Stereo D, and Lidar VFX, with previs by The Third Floor. Panorama photos of San Francisco were used to generate a 3D map of the city that filled in during the bridge shots, done in Vancouver.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Release date: August 1
Production companies: Marvel Studios, Marvel Enterprises, MPC
The ragtag crew in Guardians of the Galaxy hardly look like heroes on a mission, but they are. Among them are the all-CG characters Rocket, a gun-toting raccoon, and Groot, a tree-like humanoid. To bring the film to the screen required several VFX studios, with more than 850 shots completed by MPC, including Groot, environments, and the spacecraft. Framestore, meanwhile, tackled the work required to bring Rocket to life, while Sony Imageworks' work entailed shots in the engine room of the Dark Aster, the big ship.
Release date: November 7
Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Lynda Obst Productions, Paramount Pictures, Syncopy, Warner Bros.
Interstellar promises to be one of the top thrills of the year in this science-meets-entertainment film. From Christopher Nolan, the movie pushes scale and scope, with vast CG creations of space and the cosmos. One of the most breathtaking scenes involves a realistic portrait of Gargantua, a monstrous black hole at the movie's center. So strap in, this movie is taking viewers for an aesthetic ride they will not soon forget.
Into the Storm
Release date: August 8
Production companies: Broken Road Productions, New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures
Storms, such as tornadoes, are intense forces of nature. Bringing that force to the screen is a complex job. For Into the Storm, the artists at Method added wind and flying debris to the climax, when two major funnel clouds join to form a massive tornado that touches down and causes massive destruction in its wake. Artists at Cinesite, Hydraulx, Scanline VFX, Digital Domain, and Rhythm & Hues acted as storm generators, as well.
Into the Woods
Release date: December 25
Production companies: Lucamar Productions, Marc Platt Productions, Walt Disney Pictures
When you have a number of fairy-tale characters from different worlds converging in the same film, it can add up to a plethora of effects. In the film, a witch teaches lessons to characters including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack (from the beanstalk fame), and Rapunzel. The characters themselves require digital magic, as do the environments and elements, such as Jack's beanstalk, in this live-action presentation. The effects are stylized, which work perfectly in this make-believe world. It surely will not disappoint.
Disney’s Into the Woods takes moviegoers on an incredible journey through fantastic environments.
Release date: July 25
Production companies: Canal+, Cine+, EuropaCorp., TF1 Films production
In this movie, the visual effects are abstract CG imagery generated at ILM. The film is about a drug mule, Lucy, who begins to hallucinate when the drugs seep into her system, and it was up to ILM to provide the imagery for those hallucinations. She also acquires superintelligence and superpowers, and again, the studio was called on to provide the effects for her state, including CG backgrounds as her mind drifts back in time. An impressive sequence contains cosmic images, including nebulae.
Release date: May 30
Production companies: Roth Films, Walt Disney Pictures
The retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale from the villain's point of view makes for an interesting story. But what's more interesting are the visual effects in the film. Of most interest are the digital characters, the pixies. Digital Domain created these photoreal characters, which are stylized versions of the actors, in a way only that studio can do. The complicated costumes worn by the pixies challenged the artists at the facility, as well. Another big challenge came in the form of Maleficent's wings, also created by Digital Domain artists.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Release date: December 19
Production companies: Twentieth Century Fox
Film Corp., 21 Laps Entertainment, 1492 Pictures, TSG Entertainment
In the past, this franchise has brought to life a menagerie of animals and historical figures. This time, the digital magic occurs at an international location: the British Museum in London, and then extends out into the world as watchman Larry and some of his crew (Teddy Roosevelt, Sacajawea, Attila the Hun, and others) try to save the life-giving magic from the Egyptian Golden Tablet of Pharaoh Ankmenrah as it begins to corrode.
During this journey, once again exhibits become lifelike as people and animals burst to animated life thanks to the efforts of Digital Domain, Method Studios, Zoic, Cinesite, Gentle Giant Studios, and MPC.
Release date: March 28
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Protozoa Pictures, Disruption Entertainment
A number of visual effects required to tell the story of the biblical figure Noah. ILM handled the CG animals and water, while Look Effects created those required for the Garden of Eden, including a matte painting of the Tree of Knowledge, the apple, the serpent, and all the birds. ILM also handled the arrival of the Watchers in grand fashion, and created and animated these giant rock creatures that help Noah build and protect the ark. The artists also grew trees and forests, and extended the practical ark. The crew at ILM generated the land animals, many atypical beasts - thousands that had to be designed, modeled, and animated. Then came the rain, practical water augmented with digital drops, as well as the deluge.
Digital birds (shown here), along with CG animals, are just some of the computer graphic elements in Noah.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Release date: August 8
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies, Platinum Dunes, Gama Entertainment Partners, Mednick Productions, Heavy Metal
These superhero turtles have appeared in various genres and in various forms, from 2D cartoon characters to live actors donning animatronic suits from Jim Henson's Creature Shop. In this summer's incarnation, the heroes are completely CG, performing amazing animated stunts and acting alongside real people, thanks to the efforts at ILM. The crew pushed the boundaries of performance capture, using its new facial-capture system, Muse, to give the computer-generated actors a grand performance.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Release date: May 2
Production companies: Marvel Enterprises, Avi Arad Productions, Columbia Pictures, Matt Tolmach Productions
The Spider-Man franchise has produced visual effects thrills, both for the hero Spider-Man and for the various villains appearing in the films. This time around, animators at Imageworks gave the digital Spider-Man iconic poses that were natural, extreme, and purposeful. The artists gave the superhero a lot of muscle definition that could be seen in the highlights of the renders of the CG double. They also spent a lot of time animating the muscles for more realism. In the film, the young Spider-Man fights three villains, each with unique CG requirements, in detailed digital environments. A re-creation of an eight-block area surrounding Times Square is especially impressive. Assisting Sony Pictures Imageworks were MPC, Blur, and others.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Release date: March 28
Production companies: Scott Rudin Productions, Indian Paintbrush, Studio Babelsberg, American Empirical Pictures, TSG Entertainment
One can expect a Wes Anderson film to contain some specially stylized effects, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. Artists at Look Effects enhanced Anderson's invented world in this feature. Here, visual effects are used to create ideal environments for the story. Miniature sets were used to capture what couldn't be had in camera, and then digital backgrounds were added to the greenscreen miniatures.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Release date: December 17
Production companies: New Line Cinema, MGM, WingNut Films, 3Foot7
What can we expect from this next installment of The Hobbit that we haven't seen in the previous films in the series? Plenty. Prepare for a brutal army of Orcs, an army of elves, and the men of Lake-Town. The crowd scenes, massive. The environments, expansive, breathtaking. The destruction, impactful. The digital creatures, heart-stopping. The sets, stunning. Middle-earth is full of surprises, and so are the visual effects teams from Weta. For this epic conclusion, expect an epic adventure filled with cutting-edge VFX work.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Release date: November 21
Production companies: Color Fore, Lionsgate
Let the games begin! In this sequel, the story continues as Katniss continues in the role of the reluctant heroine. The science-fiction drama contains many digital environments and destruction, including a spectacular demolition of a water-filled dam. Studios that worked on the film include Film Illusions, Scanline VFX, MPC, Ironhead Studio, Double Negative, Gentle Giant Studios, Rising Sun Pictures, and The Cavalry FX.
The Maze Runner
Release date: September 19
Production companies: 20th Century Fox, Dayday Films, Gotham Group, Ingenious Media, TSG Entertainment, Temple Hill Entertainment
Most of the action in this science-fiction adventure takes place in a grass field. But things got very interesting when the visual effects crews built a gigantic maze with 100-foot-tall walls of stone, walls that rearrange themselves each night in the movie. As a result, the teens who are trapped inside are unable to find their way out. What's more, they become hunted by Grievers, menacing creatures that hunt and kill them. Method built the CG walls, extending those on location, and created the deadly Grievers.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Release date: June 27
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Hasbro, Di Bonaventure Pictures, Tom DeSanto/Don Murphy Production, Ian Bryce Productions
The battle of the 'bots continues in this fourth installment of the sci-fi action series. Much of the digital effects work was done by ILM, which also built many of the shape-shifting robots in the earlier films. One memorable scene has Optimus Prime riding a massive dinobot T-rex called Grimlock. The robots are large, the destruction even larger, with rigid-dynamic effects as cars flip and buildings crumble. Add to that explosions, fire, sparks, dust, and smoke, and it all adds up to an extraordinary amount of visual complexity in every scene.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Release date: May 23
Production companies: 20th Century Fox Film Corp., Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, Bat Hat Harry Productions, Donners' Company, Ingenious Media, Down Productions
In this X-Men film, the superheroes revisit the past. The movie contains more than 1,300 effects shots produced by 12 studios. MPC was responsible for the full-CG future Sentinels and worked on the sequences involving the X-Jet and Cerebro's red virtual world. Digital Domain created the 1973 Sentinels and all the environment work based in Washington DC, including the destruction of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and the White House. They also worked on Mystique's transformations and eyes. Rhythm & Hues worked on Beast's transformations, the creation of Xavier's plane, and speed effects for Quicksilver. They also worked with Digital Domain on the sequence featuring the inside of the 1973 Sentinel.
Rising Sun Pictures created VFX relating to Quicksilver's action sequence, which takes place at the Pentagon. Mokko Studio worked on Mystique's eyes and costume fixes. Cinesite worked on the future New York City in the opening prologue, along with cleanups, wire removals, and production fixes.
Fuel VFX worked on holographic effects and Havok's mutant powers. Vision Globale crafted visual effects relating to a dream and flashback sequence. Hydraulx, Lola, and Method Studios, meanwhile, handled a number of compositions and production fixes.
The Third Floor worked on extensive storyboarding and visualization.
Big Hero 6
Release date: November 7
Production companies: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures
Disney has been serving up a number of animated hits in recent years, and it is poised to continue its run with Big Hero 6, a story about an inflatable robot and a boy prodigy who aspires to be a high-tech superhero. Disney has been in development on a new rendering tool, called Hyperion, while in production, and this is the first film that will utilize the technology.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Release date: June 13
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, Mad Hatter Entertainment
The youngsters in the original How to Train Your Dragon movie are now adults, as this sequel takes place five years into the future. The dragons and humans have formed a tight bond, and the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is especially close. The movie presents a number of new dragons, whose designs are amazing. Helping animators create believable dragons and engaging characters was a new generation of animation tools the studio named Premo, and a new rigging system designed to take advantage of fast graphics cards.
The characters and environments are more sophisticated in the sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman
Release date: March 7
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, Pacific Data Images, Bullwinkle Studios, Classic Media Productions
Artists at PDI/DreamWorks resurrected the lovable father-son duo Mr. Peabody and Sherman from 2D cartoonland and dropped them into present day to begin their 3D adventures, crafted in CGI. Soon they are time-traveling to the past. The characters are created with simple lines and caricatured shapes reminiscent of their 2D origins. The surface textures in the environments are simple, but the lighting is complex in the scenes.
Penguins of Madagascar
Release date: November 26
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, Pacific Data images
They are sly and adventurous. They are superspies. They are the Penguins of Madagascar, who are now starring in their very own feature film following guest appearances in the Madagascar movie franchise and their own television show. The artists at the studios have gone "undercover" to devise new modeling and animation methods in order to create this "top-secret" adventure. Ah, the plot thickens….
Planes! Fire & Rescue
Release date: July 18
Production companies: DisneyToon Studios, Prana Studios, Walt Disney Pictures
DisneyToon Studios tapped into the hero genre with its story of anthropomorphic planes in the fire and rescue brigade. The computer-generated comedy-adventure is a sequel to Planes and a spin-off from Pixar's Cars.
Release date: April 11
Production companies: 20th Century Fox Animation, Blue Sky Studios
The backdrops in this family film are colorful and cheery, exactly what you would expect to find in the rainforest, which is where Blu and Jewel find themselves, along with their families, in this sequel. Creating the magical world in Rio 2 and its characters presented innumerable challenges for the scientists, animators, artists, modelers, riggers, 3D, and effects teams at Blue Sky Studios. Rendering the winged leads and creating their performances was a key focus, as it was in the original film. Here, Blue Sky turned up the technology to bring the birds to life once again.
Release date: September 26
Production companies: Laika Entertainment, Focus Features
Laika continues to push the state of the art in stop-motion animation, and the results of their efforts are clearly visible in The Boxtrolls, about a young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors called Boxtrolls. Here, CG artists expanded the stop-motion world with digital backgrounds, set extensions, CG extras, visual effects, and more, using the best of both worlds for a rich, deep aesthetic. For The Boxtrolls, Laika relied on CG technology more than it had in the past. Facial expressions were generated in the computer and then 3D printed, with VFX artists removing the seam lines. Animators also performed CG crowds for some scenes that had to match the stop-frame motion of the hero characters in the foreground. Digital set extensions expanded the town of Cheesebridge, while CG extras made it feel more densely populated.
Laika added a heavy dose of computer graphics to its stop-motion feature The Boxtrolls, from focus features.
The Book of Life
Release date: October 17
Production companies: Reel FX Animation Studios, 20th Century Fox, Chatrone
Last year, Reel FX entered the animated feature genre with Free Birds, which had a Thanksgiving theme. This year, the studio followed up on that success with a Halloween theme (Day of the Dead). The unique story - about a conflicted young man who must embark on an adventure that spans three fantastical worlds - is told with a unique visual style that captures the spirit of Mexican folklore. The colors in the film are rich, vibrant.
The Lego Movie
Release date: February 7
Production companies: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, The LEGO Group, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, Warner Bros. Animation
LEGO bricks are one of the most popular toys for children, so it's hardly surprising that the animated feature starring CG versions of LEGO mini-figures, objects, and environments was a hit. The film contains a non-traditional computer animation style resembling stop motion that gives the characters and settings the endearing homemade aesthetic that defines LEGO construction. Animal Logic stepped up to the plate and delivered on that vision, as did Chris McKay from Robot Chicken, who served as animation co-director.
The Lego movie used stylized objects and characters to incorporate the look of the Lego blocks into the film.
The Nut Job
Release date: January 17
Production companies: Gulfstream Pictures, Red Rover International, ToonBox Entertainment
Things sure are nutty in this film about Surly the Squirrel and his friends and their antics in this acorn caper. ToonBox Entertainment is focused on becoming a serious contender in the CG animation space, and has undergone extensive growth since it opened its doors six years ago with just 10 employees. It also plans to release The Nut Job 2, a sequel, as well as the movie Spark, both of which are in production.
Access a number of stories and videos related to these films in the Awards section featured on the CGW home page.