See how ''Sky Captain'''s fantasy world fits into the continuum of digital filmmaking, along with ''Terminator,'' ''Lord of the Rings,'' and other movies

By Gary Susman
Updated September 25, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Gwyneth Paltrow, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

(In theaters)

”Sky Captain” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION The virtual studio. Director Kerry Conran built no sets or models for his robots-attack-Manhattan movie; the actors shot in front of green screens, and Conran and his design team added everything else later.

MEMORABLE SCENE Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) watches a fleet of warplanes go by.

POSITIVE/NEGATIVE IMPACT It’s official: Any geek with a laptop (and, um, $60 million) can make his or her own period sci-fi action adventure.


Image credit: Terminator 2: Zade Rosenthal

Terminator 2: Judgment Day


”Terminator 2: Judgment Day” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION Morphing. To create the liquid-metal T-1000 cyborg, Industrial Light & Magic perfected a process in which the computer takes the ”before” and ”after” images and mathematically figures out the smoothest transition between them. ”A lot of what we did you can do at home on a Macintosh,” effects supervisor Dennis Muren told EW. ”But you can’t do it in the time, or with the resolution and precision, that this show required.”

MEMORABLE MOMENT T-1000 (Robert Patrick), despite being cut in half and set on fire, melds himself back together.

POSITIVE IMPACT Nearly every subsequent transformation scene owes a debt to T2.

NEGATIVE IMPACT Used a few months later by Michael Jackson in his ”Black or White” video, making an unwitting commentary on the singer’s own morphing face


Image credit: Jurassic Park: Everett Collection

Jurassic Park


”Jurassic Park” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION Blending of CGI creatures and real models and puppets. The computer-generated dinosaurs had to look as realistic as the robot dinos they’d share the screen with. ”It was 10 times as hard as T2, because the chrome T-1000 wasn’t a living thing,” said effects supervisor Dennis Muren, who worked on both films. ”We had to get a performance, an attitude, so you could look into their eyes and see a soul there.”

MEMORABLE MOMENT T-Rex chases and overturns a Jeep full of frightened children.

POSITIVE IMPACT Made possible the armies of orcs in The Lord of the Rings

NEGATIVE IMPACT Ang Lee’s Hulk make us angry.


Image credit: Beauty and the Beast: Disney

Beauty and the Beast


”Beauty and the Beast” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION Computer-assisted animation. Though most of Beauty was hand-drawn, animators used computers to enhance colors, add shadows, and simulate camera movements in complex environments, like the Beast’s expansive ballroom.

MEMORABLE MOMENT Beast and Belle’s whirling waltz to the title tune

POSITIVE IMPACT Similar computer-assisted imagery in ‘toons like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan

NEGATIVE IMPACT Made hand-drawn animators look expendable, a perception later exacerbated by Pixar’s all-CGI cartoons


Image credit: Forrest Gump: Everett Collection

Forrest Gump


”Forrest Gump” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION ”Gumping,” or digitally placing a person from existing film footage into a scene with a live actor. The filmmakers not only resurrected late presidents and other historical figures to costar with Tom Hanks, but they also digitally manipulated their mouths to match newly uttered dialogue.

MEMORABLE MOMENT Forrest (Hanks) tells President Lyndon B. Johnson how he was wounded ”in the butt-tocks.”

POSITIVE IMPACT Made possible Jude Law’s dream to work with Laurence Olivier (who died in 1989) in Sky Captain.

NEGATIVE IMPACT Made possible a beer commercial featuring 25-years-dead John Wayne


Image credit: Casper: ILM



”Casper” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION First all-digital characters, namely Casper and his three ghostly uncles. ”They had to be physically created by animators in ILM’s computers,” director Brad Silberling told EW. ”It was like cooking it up from scratch.”

MEMORABLE MOMENT Casper makes breakfast for Kat (Christina Ricci)

POSITIVE IMPACT Paved the way for Gollum (see following pages)

NEGATIVE IMPACT Also paved the way for Jar Jar Binks (see following pages)


Toy Story


”Toy Story” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION The first all-CGI full-length feature. Pixar’s first movie for Disney consists of a whopping 114,240 frames, 600 billion bytes (1,000 CD-ROMs held the film’s data), 160 billion pixels, and 800,000 machine hours.

MEMORABLE MOMENT Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) argue on their owner Andy’s bed.

POSITIVE IMPACT Pixar’s genius factor raised the bar for other studios to jump into the CGI animation with such successes as Ice Age and the Shrek movies.

NEGATIVE IMPACT It all but killed off traditional hand-drawn animated movies.


The Matrix


”The Matrix” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION ”Bullet-time” — the catch-all term for the movie’s innovations, but in particular the scenes of bullets rippling through the air in slow motion with 360-degree perspectives, made possible by digitally sequencing a series of cameras placed around the subject of the shot.

MEMORABLE MOMENT Neo (Keanu Reeves) does the limbo to dodge an agent’s gunshots.

POSITIVE IMPACT Despite countless imitators, the effect still looks cool in action sequences when done right.

NEGATIVE IMPACT Became enough of a cliché to be spoofed in Scary Movie and Shrek.


Image credit: Star Wars: The Phantom Menance: © & TM Lucasfilm, All Rights Reserved

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace


”Star Wars: Episode I” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION The all-digital live-action movie. Some 1,965 of the movie’s 2,200 shots were digitally assisted, not just for special effects scenes, but ordinary editing tasks, like changing an actor’s gestures or expressions. ”Nobody else is doing this yet except in some commercials,” coeditor Martin Smith said at the time. ”In 10 years, most film editors will be.” Try five years.

MEMORABLE MOMENT The visit to the luminous underwater city of the Gungans

POSITIVE IMPACT Paved the way for Sky Captain‘s digital world

NEGATIVE IMPACT Director George Lucas seemed to focus on the visuals at the expense of the story and the performances.


Image credit: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers


”LOTR: The Two Towers” has one of the best CGI scenes

INNOVATION Motion-capture performance. For the character of Gollum, director Peter Jackson and his team used motion sensors to record actor Andy Serkis’ movements, and then digitally superimposed the creature’s frame and facial expressions.

POSITIVE IMPACT Serkis will play King Kong for Jackson’s 2005 remake using the same process.

NEGATIVE IMPACT Allowed Tom Hanks to play multiple characters, all of them creepy-looking, in this fall’s The Polar Express


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 107 minutes
  • Kerry Conran