Ever since CG was added to the filmmaker’s arsenal, it’s been easy to spot – a flying dragon here, a gigantic explosion there, a Jar-Jar Binks everywhere.
But CG isn’t just used for outlandish effects – it’s frequently deployed by expert filmmakers to achieve subtle shots that otherwise couldn’t be achieved with practical methods. The following 15 scenes all feature examples of CG that were practically invisible, unless you were in the know…
The film: ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994)
The invisible CGI: Computer graphics are great at adding new elements to scenes, but they’re equally good at removing things too. Though it seems obvious now, we remember watching Gary Sinise’s amputee Lieutenant Dan back in ‘94 and wondering how it was possible he “got no legs”.
For a more recent and impressive example of ‘Got No Legs Syndrome’, see Marion Cotillard in ‘Rust & Bone’.
The film: ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)
The invisible CGI: Big surprise: dinosaurs aren’t real. But we’re guessing you knew that. CG took a quantum leap in Spielberg’s dino epic, but it wasn’t just used for rampaging T-Rexes. The scene in which Lex falls through a roof tile and is almost eaten alive by a raptor was performed by a stunt girl, but she looked straight at the camera. Actress Ariana Richards’ face was added in post-production, making the shot seamless. It still gets us every time.
The film: ‘The Fighter’ (2010)
The invisible CGI: Some crowd scenes were bolstered with digital effects, but one scene caused the FX crew a real headache: Mark Wahlberg held a napkin up to camera with a girl’s phone number on it, which couldn’t be displayed for legal reasons. Director David O Russell’s didn’t want to use a phoney ‘555’ number, so had his FX bods create a completely CG napkin, expertly inserted, mapped and lit. Digital napkins? Now we’ve seen everything.
The film: ‘The Change-Up’ (2011)
The invisible CGI: Boobs. And nipples. CG often comes to the rescue of bashful actresses keen to keep their fleshy parts under wraps, but the opposite was true in this 2011 comedy. Leslie Mann had the effects team give her fake CG boobs (bigger than the real ones on her request), while Olivia Wilde wore pasties on camera which were later replaced with CGI nipples. Which must have made for a fun day in the office.
The film: ‘Fight Club’ (1999)
The invisible CGI: David Fincher is the absolute master of using subtle CGI, and ‘Fight Club’ contains several scenes you’d never guess were digital. Entire shots – like Edward Norton’s apartment igniting, and the shot of the Starbucks coffee cup in the bin – were digitally constructed, as was the nude fantasy sequence with Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla. She never disrobed on set. There was no set. It was all CGI. Sorry to disappoint you.
The film: ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
The invisible CGI: Sometimes CG is used when forces outside the director’s control intervene – and that includes death. ‘Gladiator’ was tragically to be Oliver Reed’s last movie before his demise, but he hadn’t finished shooting his scenes. Ridley Scott, who had used CG expertly in earlier scenes in the Colosseum, decided to have Reed’s face digitally scanned onto an extra in his remaining pick-ups, and Olly’s memory was suitably honoured.
The film: ‘Les Misérables’ (2012)
The invisible CGI: This is a perfect example of how a slight CG tweak can make the whole shooting process more bearable. The actors on the set of the Tom Hooper musical were singing their lines for real, but not without help – they wore earpieces and radio mics at all times, which were later digitally removed in post-production. If only they had removed Russell Crowe’s mic before he started singing.
The film: ‘Die Hard With A Vengeance’ (1995)
The invisible CGI: Remember back to the last good ‘Die Hard’ movie and you’ll recall a scene in which John McClane was forced to wear a billboard bearing the ‘N-word’ in Harlem on the whim of villain Simon Gruber. Bruce Willis did indeed wear the billboard, but to stop anyone off-set from taking offence, the phrase read ‘I Hate Everybody’ and was changed to the racial epithet in post.
The film: ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)
The invisible CGI: Just two guys on a mountain, hanging out. Why get computers involved? Well, because Ang Lee is a perfectionist, and when he wants a shot than nature can’t provide, he’ll take matters into his own hands. Several shots are augmented with CG, adding mountains in the background and multiplying the sheep being herded. “I wish I could quit you,” Lee would whisper to his copy of Adobe After Effects.
The film: ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)
The invisible CGI: Sam Raimi couldn’t have created the best superhero movie ever made without the help of CG, but along with providing the more whizz-bang sequences, digital effects added gravitas to some slower scenes. For example, the final graceful shot of a redeemed Doc Ock’s body beneath the harbour water is entirely CG – a flawless render of Alfred Molina’s face.
The film: ‘Dark Shadows’ (2012)
The invisible CGI: What you didn’t notice in Tim Burton’s vampire comedy was the lengths to which he and his effects team went to keep up the pretence that Johnny Depp was a vampire. The make-up worked for the most part, but did you notice Barnabas never blinks? All of Depp’s eye movement was excised in post-production, as was every single time he was reflected on a surface.
The film: ‘Black Swan’ (2010)
The invisible CGI: Natalie Portman’s descent into madness is supplemented with a few CG augmentations here and there, most notably when her face keeps appearing in place of Mila Kunis’. There are more subtle additions, however, such as the early scene in which Portman’s character rubs her hands, which are ever-so-slightly elongated, hinting at the grotesque transformation that awaits her later in the film.
The film: ‘Blood Diamond’ (2006)
The invisible CGI: Jennifer Connelly is a fine actress with some cracking films on her resume, but apparently she can’t cry on cue. Her final scene in action thriller ‘Blood Diamond’ required her to cry, but J-Con couldn’t summon the tears; director Ed Zwick was forced to add a digital tear running down her face in post-production. We can think of less expensive ways of making her cry, ‘yelling at her for being unable to cry’ being just one.
The film: ‘Zodiac’ (2007)
The invisible CGI: It’s everywhere, in practically every scene. David Fincher is a stickler for period detail, and while he can maintain the illusion of 1970s San Francisco through costumes, props and the like, he can’t change the city skylines. Hence, several backdrops and establishing shots in ‘Zodiac’ are completely digitally constructed from scratch, just to make Dave happy. Hell, it worked, and ‘Zodiac’ feels like a period piece, just like he wanted.
The film: ‘Superman Returns’ (2006)
The invisible CGI: Remember what we said about CG being a great tool to remove any distracting or obstructive elements in a scene? After shooting his ill-received Superman sequel, Bryan Singer took an executive decision to ‘downsize’ star Brandon Routh… in the crotch department. Apparently, executives were alarmed that Superman’s package was quite so prominent so Singer was forced to digitally reduce Brandon’s bulge in post-production.