Last week we looked at the most shameful moments in CGI movie history. Unable to leave it on that depressing note, this week we are taking today to appreciate some of the most thoughtful, well-designed, well-modeled, and straight up believable CGI characters in just the short time the technology has been around. This list is made up of the characters that made us wonder out loud, “How did they do that?”, but also really made us feel for them. Here are the 10 Best CGI Film Characters.
(Avatar) – 2009
Whether or not you think Avatar lived up to the dream that James Cameron envisioned, there’s no denying its stunning beauty. At the very center of that gorgeously detailed and imaginative world was Neytiri, the completely CGI character performed by Zoe Saldana via advanced motion capturing technology. A successful portrayal of the fearless princess of the Na’vi tribe was fundamental to the success of the love story and would require both an incredibly strong acting performance and some amazing CGI work. Zoe Saldana and the animators at Weta Digital pulled it, creating a character that—despite cliched stereotypes and a predictable plot—was wholly believable and a true achievement in CGI.
(Terminator 2: Judgement Day) – 1991
Some CGI characters stand out just for their ability to instill that otherworldly “shock-factor” in viewers. One such character arrived in 1991 in another James Cameron science-fiction/action wonder, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. T-1000 was a ruthless villain who didn’t need an emotional backstory to give him depth—his mission was simply to bring death. The liquid metal effects used on this baddie were unheard of for its time and made James Cameron practically a household name.
(Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) – 2002, 2005
We still remember what it was like sitting in that theater on the opening night of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The word was out: Episode I was terrible, yet we still found ourselves sitting through another one, hoping that George Lucas had gotten the memo as well. And honestly, sitting through the cheesy dialogue, stiff acting, and over-reliance on computer graphics was worth it all to see our favorite green Jedi master draw his light saber. Sure going from a static puppet in Episode I to doing gravity-defying acrobatics was a little absurd, but we still remember the people standing up and cheering in the theaters. Nowhere does a character with 30 years of hype built up around it make a more graceful transition into the digital world.
(Tron) – 1982
This one was simply irresistible. Master Control Program, the primary antagonist of the original Tron, was, to be honest, a flickering red tube with a face. However, in the hyper-digital virtual world of this cult classic, Master Control Program fit right in as an authoritarian, enslaving enemy. Like the Dark Lord Sauron, Master Control Program’s power is more based in his omnipresence and sinister ideology. On top of all that, Master Control Program was (arguably) the first computer-generated character in a feature film and inspired countless digital artists like John Lasseter to give CGI a chance.
(Wall-E) – 2008
In some ways, we like to think of Wall-E as the evolution of Luxo Jr., the infamous lamp that would become Pixar’s first trademark character. John Lasseter and his animators have an uncanny talent at making seemingly lifeless things burst with character and emotion. Wall-E, the timid little bucket of bolts, is one of the best examples of this talent on screen. Without saying more than a couple of words, Wall-E remains one of the most expressive characters in Pixar’s enormous roster. And when we later come to believe in Wall-E to rescue his robo-girlfriend and save humanity, we can’t help but call Wall-E a CGI achievement worthy of our number six spot.
(Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) – 2006, 2007
Without offering divisive comments on the merits of the film this character appears in, it’s safe to say that Davy Jones was one of the most believable CGI character ever made. In fact, some early critics even mistakingly thought an actor was wearing a rubber suit or that only his face had been animated, when in reality Davy Jones is a completely CGI, motion-captured character. Put that kind of realism together with all of his classic villain-esque qualities and you’ve got our fifth best CGI film character of all time.
(King Kong) – 2005
King Kong is yet another example of a completely silent CG character who emits more emotion than most actors and actresses. Although Peter Jackson’s dream project felt a bit overambitious at times, we were impressed with the visual portrayal of the big ape. The intricacy of the detail, the subtlety of the animation, and the way actors interacted with the character made King Kong’s 2005 portrayal unprecedented in its believability. Not to mention the fact that we haven’t felt this much emotion for a monkey in a film since the 1933 original. In all honesty, Kong’s self-sacrificial affection for Ann is more authentic than most actors’ attempts in your typical romantic comedy.
(Jurassic Park) – 1993
1993 was a big year for CGI characters, mostly thanks to Stephen Speilberg and the folk over at Industrial Light and Magic. The CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were so ahead of their time that at first, the producers initially wanted to use stop-motion technologies to animate the dinosaurs because they didn’t believe the animators could pull it off. Fortunately for us, the animators managed to impress Spielberg and create some of the most memorable and believable scenes of CGI ever made. Who knows where the world of cinema would be without scenes like “When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth”, which used a seamless blend of CGI and animatronics to create a unprecedented sense of thrill and believability.
(Toy Story) – 1995
It was a good thing that Pixar decided to make their first feature-length film one about toys. Their smooth and shiny surfaces might not have done a lot for realism, but they sure made for some great characters. The adventure of Woody and Buzz Lightyear was clearly a landmark in film history, being the first full-CGI feature film and spawning an entire genre of lookalikes and counterfeits. The CGI characters of Toy Story (and the following sequels for that matter) did what many traditionally-animated films could never: suck you into its world and make you feel like you were a part of something real.
(Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) – 2002
So maybe naming Gollum our Best CGI Film Character of all time was a little predictable, but it would have been an injustice to do otherwise. Whether or not Peter Jackson and his team would successfully be able to depict the scheming ex-hobbit was the question on every fan’s mind heading into The Two Towers. When Gollum made his first big appearance, audiences were left captivated by not only the stunning realism and technical detail of the character, but also by Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum’s complex personality and internal struggles. Like all great characters, Gollum is one of those characters that strikes a host of emotions in us: fear and anger, but also compassion and sympathy. To us, for this reason, Gollum is leaps and bounds ahead of the other various monsters, creatures and imaginary characters that are found in other movies of this kind.