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Alita: Battle Angel and 7 landmark effects movies that redefined what was possible

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Out now in Cineworld, Alita: Battle Angel is an action-packed blockbuster on an epic scale. Set in a dystopian future, the film follows the journey of the titular cybernetic hero (Bird Box's Rosa Salazar) as she searches for the truth about who she is.

Adapted from the manga Gunnm and featuring a supporting cast including Oscar winners Mahershala Ali, Christoph Waltz and Jennifer Connelly, this film is already shaping up to be a major treat for film fans. The movie is directed by visual stylist and Sin City filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, and is written and produced by Avatar's James Cameron. 

It's therefore no surprise that Alita refuses to hold back when it comes to portraying its cutting-edge CGI effects, particularly on the wide-eyed Alita herself, who is an eerie combination of the human and inhuman. And after the revolutionary performance-capture and 3D effects that were utilised in Avatar we can't wait to see what visual splendours await us in Cameron's latest project.

Throughout its history, cinema has deployed both special and visual effects – the former is defined in terms of practicality via miniatures, model-work and other techniques, whereas the latter deals with digitally created effects.

To celebrate the release of Alita, we've rounded up seven movies that opened our minds to what was possible on the big screen.

1. A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Ever since the invention of cinema at the turn of the 20th century, filmmakers have been experimenting with the possibilities of the medium. One of the most celebrated early pioneers was George Méliès, often credited as the grandfather of special effects.

The story goes that while filming in Paris his camera jammed momentarily, and when he watched the film back he discovered people had disappeared and streetcars had jumped forward. Starting with The Vanishing of a Lady in 1896, he experimented with techniques including jump cuts, double exposure and dissolves to create clever illusions before making the longer A Trip to the Moon in 1902.

One of the first sci-fi films ever made, this film shows a group of people embarking on a journey to our celestial neighbour through imaginative uses of props and editing. Showing exactly what can be accomplished with some innovation and imagination, Méliès' films set the groundwork for the future of special effects.


2. King Kong (1933)

With recent films like Isle of Dogs, Coraline, and Anomalisa, stop-motion filmmaking has become increasingly sophisticated. But in 1933 it was an entirely new experience for filmgoers when they saw a giant ape climb the Empire State Building in King Kong.

Building on the jump cut techniques established by Georges Méliès, King Kong's special effects co-ordinator Willis O'Brien was the first to combine stop-motion animation and live-action together in his 1918 short The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (stop-motion was first utilised in the now lost film The Humpty Dumpty Circus back in c.1897).

However, it wasn't until he worked on King Kong that he made something truly revolutionary. It wasn't just mixing live-action and animation that made this film special, but the sheer amount of techniques being deployed at once to make the action as believable and seamless as possible.

Mirrors, background projections, miniatures and four different models of the giant ape – one being a huge model of his head and arm – were all incorporated into production. Though it may look dated now, these effects are still incredible to see in action.




3. Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

These days, using computers to generate images (CGI) is the best way for films to show anything they want, from fantastical creatures to awe-inspiring worlds and everything else in between.

Ever since Westworld (1973), the first film to use 2D computer animation, CGI has been a game-changer in modern cinema. Star Wars (1977) was the first to use 3D wireframe graphics to create the Death Star plans, and Tron (1982) was the first to have a fully animated 3D sequence.

However, it wasn't until Young Sherlock Holmes was released in 1985 that audiences first witnessed a seamless blend between CG and live-action. It came about with the appearance of a stained glass knight in a process that involved painstakingly digitising real-life models.

This task was given to then Lucasfilm employee John Lasseter, later of Pixar fame who would go on to create the first ever entirely computer animated film: Toy Story.


4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

In 1989, James Cameron demonstrated the early capabilities of CGI with the pseudopod sequence from The Abyss. However it was his astonishing Terminator sequel Judgment Day that opened Hollywood's eyes, and indeed those of the whole world, to the dramatic potential of such things.

Cameron's big-budget masterpiece finds its centre in the battle between Arnie's lumbering T-800 and Robert Patrick's sleek, sinister T-1000, the latter defined by his amorphous liquid metal body that can transform into pretty much anything.

It was pioneering for the time and still astonishes today, setting a formidable precedent for all of the 21st century's spectacle-driven blockbusters.




5. Jurassic Park (1993)

Although early iterations of CGI were groundbreaking for their time, they don't exactly hold up too well these days thanks to technological limitations. However, in 1993 CGI was about to get a huge boost with the creation of Steven Spielberg's mammoth blockbuster Jurassic Park, which introduced audiences to fully textured CG models of dinosaurs in all their glory on the big screen.

Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic (who also gave us the aforementioned glass knight) provided the Oscar-winning effects using cutting-edge technology, but what made Jurassic Park so visually spectacular was how it combined these stunning CG models with animatronics and stop-motion to make its visuals as realistic as possible.

In fact, out of the 14 minutes of dinosaur footage, only four were entirely CG. Who says practical effects are extinct?


6. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Nowadays, one of the most ubiquitous techniques in rendering CG characters is motion-capture (or performance capture) technology to capture and animate lifelike movements.

Originally starting as rotoscoping – literally drawing over filmed actors – as early as 1915, the technology has come a long way since. Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists (2000), for instance, was the first full length film to use motion-capture and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) gave us a photorealistic motion-captured performance costing around $150m.

But things changed dramatically one year later when we met Gollum (Andy Serkis) in The Two Towers. With its combination of bleeding-edge technology (defined as pioneering tech with a high level of risk) and rotoscoping, the CG still holds up today, but the real breakthrough lay in how Serkis was able to perform onset with his fellow actors.

This meant each character was physically interacting with one another in real time, fully immersing us in the nightmarish reality of the tortured Gollum.




7. Avatar (2009)

James Cameron returned to the big screen 12 years after Titanic with another sweeping epic that redefined the potential of big screen visual effects.

Set on the planet of Pandora, Avatar depicts the battle between the indigenous Na'Vi species and invasive, violent military forces, and so ambitious was Cameron's vision that he was compelled to develop the project over the course of 12 years.

The end result, fusing cutting-edge motion capture CGI (the features of the actors are subtly yet clearly visible on their Na'Vi counterparts) with resurgent 3D technology, packed out cinemas around the world and catapulted Avatar to the position of most financially successful movie of all time.

Step into a world of pure imagination. Click here to book your tickets for Alita: Battle Angel, on release now in Cineworld.

Andy Murray is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.