Computer Generated Imagery… Not!

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Practical Effects

You Thought Were

Computer Generated

One of the most important aspects of the film-making is keeping the audience immersed in the world it’s being shown. Whether the characters are in a fantasy world or jumping out of a moving car, the audiences’ willingness to go along with the story is, in large part, due to the viewer’s willingness to suspend disbelief. The goal of a filmmaker is to keep the audience so entranced that it’s only afterward that they begin to question or wonder how some of the amazing feats were accomplished.

And because of the advancements in CGI, many audience members simply write off the incredible as ordinary. Many believe that the stunts are simply CGI when, in fact, some of the most powerful scenes in recent memory have been real, practical, extremely dangerous stunts.

10. The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan is something of a realist. One of the best directors of his generation, he has resisted the switch to digital and has continued to shoot on film; it’s not surprising, then, that he’d do everything in his power to make CGI as limited as possible in his blockbuster works. A daring filmmaker who continues to tell stories in a unique narrative style and voice, Nolan was at the helm of the revitalization of the Batman franchise. In one of the most iconic scenes from The Dark Knight, Batman attempts to save Harvey Dent from the Joker, who is determined to blow up a police escort. In the well-known tunnel sequence, the Batmobile rams into a garbage truck. The scene left many scratching their heads, marveling about the realism of CGI. The truth is that it was real. Every bit.

Nolan and his team constructed a one-third scale model of the Batmobile, as well as the truck and that particularly part of Chicago’s lower Wacker Drive. Nolan’s stunt team placed both models on a guide and smashed them into each other to create the scene. The same strategy was used for the semi-trailer truck that flips on its head. All in all, the plan was executed brilliantly and viewer is left marveling at the world they created.

9. The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan was at it again in the final installment of his Batman trilogy. According to Nolan, one of his proudest moments was executing the opening scene, where Bane escapes from the CIA plane, mid-flight. It’s an exhilarating sequence, that – again – did not use CGI. The scene was filmed in Scotland, over the Cairngorm Mountains of the Scottish Highlands. It’s the highest mountain range in the UK and is described as incredibly cold, with incessant winds and an unforgiving climate. The CIA plane used in the film was a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, commissioned by the US military. It was a perfect fit for the stunt with a stall speed as low as 111 miles per hour. Nolan and his camera crew were able to follow the plane in a helicopter, recording the exterior action. The particulars are so difficult to describe in detail that when Nolan was asked about the stunt, he said “It was sort of an incredible coming together of lots and lots of planning by a lot of members of the team who worked for months rehearsing all these parachute jumps.”

The action inside the plane was much more straightforward. It was accomplished by building a simulator, where Nolan could rotate, shake and twist the fuselage, making the actors almost weightless inside the device. Put together, Nolan was able to add another jaw-dropping scene to his filmography.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

One of the most highly anticipated films in recent memory, Star Wars: The Force Awakens made sure to capitalize off the hype, introducing several real props, creatures, and locations. Probably the most notable prop was the droid BB-8. JJ Abrams and crew made sure they had a BB-8 for whatever sequence they were filming. They constructed a BB-8 that could show emotion when held be actors, a BB-8 that could be thrown around and stay upright, a BB-8 controlled by rod puppeteers, and even a fully functioning droid that could roll around like a possessed bowling ball.

Abrams and crew didn’t phone it in with CGI when they really probably could have, either. Don’t get us wrong; there’s obviously a ton of CGI in a movie featuring literal spaceship battles. But even small effects like Rey’s food materializing was real. A sequence that was on screen for seconds took more than 3 months to develop and execute. And while it may not seem worth it, the smallest things can take a viewer out of a world, and The Force Awakens did a great job of refusing to allow the audience to easily fall astray.

7. Apollo 13

One of the best films depicting NASA astronauts is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, the film depicts the aborted 1970 lunar mission, which became a mission of survival. Instead of using CGI, Howard wanted to create an atmosphere or experience that allowed viewers to truly appreciate the fear and unease that the astronauts experienced. Howard utilized NASA’s “Vomit Comet” KC-135 airplane, designed for one purpose: creating a zero-G environment on Earth.

In order to accomplish such a feat, the KC-135 does a series of parabolic arcs at very fast speeds; this results in a window of weightlessness for the passengers. According to reports, it took more than 600 arcs for Howard to get the take he liked. It’s now clear that he knew what he was doing: the movie was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and grossed more than $355 million worldwide.

6. Skyfall

Good filmmakers certainly know how to catch an audience’s attention. The opening scene from Skyfall is no different. Every kick and punch thrown in the scene is actually performed by Daniel Craig and his counterpart on top of a speeding train. The only thing keeping them from falling is a wire that’s as thin as one’s finger. Bond films are notorious for real stunts that push the boundaries.

In Spectre, the follow-up installment in the Bond franchise, filmmakers set a Guinness record for stunts in a single production. So next time you’re watching a Bond film, make sure you take a second to appreciate the risks that some of these men and women are taking for our entertainment.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

This is one of the most unique examples on our list because of its utilization of both CGI and real stunts to make compelling scenes. In that iconic scene where Tom Hardy is dangling perilously close to the ground, that’s completely real. All that was keeping Hardy from being roadkill was a thin cable. The sequence in question was also filmed while Hardy’s son was on set, too. Director George Miller, when asked what would happen if the cable snapped, remarked, “He’d probably go under the wheels.” Good one, George. Miller is known for pushing the limits of ordinary film practices. He hired “Cirque du Soleil performers to rock around on Chinese acrobat poles while a camera rig weaved through them at up to 100 mph.”

If that wasn’t enough, the film’s production also saw the invention of a new way to flip a car: a “nitrogen-powered metallic blade” was designed to pop down on the car, forcing it to make those ridiculous flips in the movie. Not bad for the director of Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City. That’ll do, George. That’ll do.

4. Mission: Impossible (Pretty Much the Whole Film Franchise)

Tom Cruise is notorious for doing most of his own stunts in his films. Shooting the upcoming installment in the Mission: Impossible series, Cruise even broke his ankle trying to jump to an adjacent rooftop. This wasn’t the first time Cruise has put himself into harm’s way. In the original, he dangled from a ceiling; in the sequel he hung off the side of a cliff. In Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, he scaled the side of Burj Khalifa. And in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, he clung to a side of a flying plane.

Each of these stunts was performed by Cruise, without the use of stuntmen. Talk about courage (or lunacy… or maybe a little bit of both). In Rogue Nation, Cruise only had wires attached to his body as he gripped the side of a flying plane. We suppose that’s why they pay him the big bucks.

3. The Amazing Spider-Man

One of the unique bits of the Spider-Man reboot was director Marc Webb’s decision to make the web-slinging aspects of the film real. In past Spider-Man movies, the web-slinging was mostly all CGI and it became apparent in scenes that took many viewers out of the movie. Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel relied mostly on stuntmen and Andrew Garfield himself, who was willing to participate in the action. Stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong described in an interview the difficult process of executing such a stunt. Through his research, he found that the difficulty in the execution was based, in part, on the past versions of Spider-Man depicting his downward swing as the same as his upward motion.

Armstrong and his team constructed “a track being pulled by a high-speed winch to help emulate Spidey’s web-swinging ways.” He’d go on to describe it as cracking a whip. A stuntman would “drop into the bottom of the pendulum, and as he reached the bottom of his arc, someone driving the winch would pull a dolly along to the next spot.” With a little digital effects to boot, The Amazing Spider-Man films created a whole new way of looking at one of our favorite superheroes.

2. The Matrix Reloaded

Don’t jump down our throats. We know The Matrix Reloaded relied on a heavy amount of CGI. However, it’d surprise most readers to know how many of the action sequences actually relied upon real stunts. One of the most memorable sequences in the entire trilogy, the Agents chasing Morpheus and Trinity on the highway, was no exception.

Although the Agent seen jumping from the hood of a vehicle was added later in post production, the chain reaction of car crashes and the actual implosion of the car was real. The Wachowskis managed to oversee the use of special rigs, cannons, and ramps to create the massively destructive sequence. The filmmakers choice to use real stunts and props is one of the major reasons The Matrix series has, for the most part, continued to stand the test of time.

1. Inception

Hey, we couldn’t end our list without another Christopher Nolan movie. The uncompromising auteur has managed to consistently create stunning visual sequences without relying on CGI. Probably the most memorable scene in Inception was Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page’s characters conversation at a coffee shop in Paris. Suddenly, an explosion sends debris, and broken glass into the air. All the while, DiCaprio and Page remain in the center of the storm.

The sequence was executed by production designer Chris Corbould, shooting a series of air cannons while director of photography Wally Pfister shot at 1,500 frames per second. It made for one of the most memorable parts of the movie, introducing the audience to the idea of Inception. Not to be outdone, later in the film there’s a fight scene featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a hotel room and hallway, in which the room continues to rotate, allowing the combatants to run up the walls and on the ceiling. As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, particularly if you watched the video up above, that was all done entirely with practical sets and stunts.

Computer Generated Imagery… Not! –

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WIF Sci Fi Chops – STAR TREK and Beyond

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The Star Trek Universe Was The First Matrix

In the Matrix Trilogy, both The Architect and Agent Smith detail the problems with the First Matrix. The First Matrix was an attempt to create a mental paradise by machines. They both acknowledged that the First Matrix was a failure. What would such a world look like? Is it possible that we already have an idea of what the First Matrix was? More to the point, the perfect world of the First Matrix may have looked a lot like the universe we already know as Star Trek. Here are a few possible reasons why that theory might be plausible.

10. The Architect’s Speech


In The Matrix Reloaded, Neo meets The Architect, the program who designed the Matrix. The Architect tells Neo that there have been several Matrices before the current ones. In that speech, the Architect touches upon a concept which is never mentioned again in the trilogy: the “First Matrix.”

So says the Architect:  “The first Matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect, it was a work of art, flawless, sublime. A triumph equaled only by its monumental failure. The inevitability of its doom is apparent to me now as a consequence of the imperfection inherent in every human being. Thus, I redesigned it based on your history to more accurately reflect the varying grotesqueries of your nature. However, I was again frustrated by failure. I have since come to understand that the answer eluded me because it required a lesser mind, or perhaps a mind less bound by the parameters of perfection.”

The Architect alludes to a perfect world in which everyone’s needs were met all the time. This is a world so perfect that you would immediately try to wake up from it. This sounds an awful lot like the Star Trek utopia.

9. Gene Roddenberry’s Vision of the Future


Gene Roddenberry had a vision for the future with the original Star Trek series. Star Trek gave us a world in which prejudice and money were things of the past. There was no more war on Earth. Man was free to explore his or her place in the universe. In Roddenberry’s vision, all human races could work with alien races towards a higher goal.

Beautiful, right? Well, Agent Smith mentions the terrible effects of the First Matrix in the first movie. “The first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered, where everyone would be happy.” he said. “It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. So the perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this.”

Star Trek showed a vision of mankind which was almost too perfect. If you suddenly woke up in the world of Star Trek, you might well think that you were in a dream world. This is exactly the type of scenario described by Agent Smith and The Architect in the Matrix Trilogy.

8. The Time Frame Set By Morpheus


Morpheus explains to Neo that the Matrix is a world set in virtual reality. He then states that he does not know exactly what year they are in. It might be 2199, it might be later. Nobody knows for sure.

The year 2199 would put the world of the Matrix on the precipice of the 23rd century. This is coincidentally the same century in which the Star Trek universe takes place. This would make some sense. The machines were trying to create a Utopia in which the humans won the war. Naturally, the humans knew they had fought the machine war. The machines could not erase that from their collective conscious. They used their own supposed defeat to show the humans a perfect world after the humans had won. This world of the first Matrix would have been set in the 23rd century.

7. “The Menagerie”


“The Menagerie” was a two-part episode of the original Star Trek series. Its plot centers around Captain Christopher Pike, captured by a race called the Talosians. The Talosians used the power of illusion on Captain Pike in order to make him stay on their planet, Talos IV. The Talosians concluded that the  human mind would resist a perceivedprison environment, no matter how pleasant it may seem.

If the Star Trek universe was an early attempt at a Matrix, the Talosians would represent a program who purpose it was to fine tune the program. The Talosian Program’s goal would be to make the human mind accepting of its own captivity through illusion.

6. The First “One”


Spock represents the anomaly of “The One.” Spock was born to a human mother and Vulcan father. This means Spock is a being of cold logic, but also has a human side. This makes Spock capable of emotions.

The Architect admits that The One has a code inside of him which must be returned to “The Source.”  When Spock sacrificed himself to stop Khan, he passed on his Katra, which represented his brain patterns, to Leonard McCoy. Katra could be an easy analogy to the Code that the Architect was referring to.

Spock’s body was put into a tube, which was then shot to the planet Genesis. Spock’s body later regenerated in much the same way Neo woke up from his death. This waking-up would seem to be an essential part of becoming the “One.”

5. The Nexus


In the Star Trek / Matrix universe, the Nexus, a ribbon in space in which anything that you imagine suddenly becomes reality, would be classically referred to as a “glitch.” WhoppiGoldberg’s character, Guinan, says that it is “pure joy” to be inside the Nexus. In short, the Nexus is a glitch in the Matrix’s programming code that allows you to completely control your surroundings.

The Nexus allowed its inhabitants complete control of the Matrix. In future versions of the Matrix, the Nexus would only be accessible through a series of keys, locks, and back doors. It is also probably not a coincidence that the physical representation of the Nexus looks like a “scorched sky.”

The truly interesting part is that Guinan always seems to be inside the Nexus. Guinan is also a woman who always seems to provide wise counsel, as well as delicious refreshment. It would be easy to refer to Guinan as something of an “Oracle.”

4. The Holodeck


The Holodeck was first introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In it, your entire surroundings, as well as the people you encounter, are all constructs of a computer program.  If you were to design a Matrix, then the inclusion of a holodeck would be absolute genius. Why would you think you were in a virtual reality simulation if you could create one? It would be hard for the brain to fathom that it was permanently trapped in an artificial simulation.

This line of  thinking has led some to believe that Zion in The Matrix was an artificial construct as well. This theory is known as “The Matrix In A Matrix Theory.” The Holodeck is a perfect example of a “Matrix Within A Matrix.”

3. Artificial Lifeforms


Have you ever noticed how artificial intelligence is really helpful in the Star Trek universe? Data is a noble wonder of technology who genuinely wants to be more human. Data resists being given human skin by the Borg Queen, and even gives his life for his human captain.

Meanwhile, the Doctor aboard the Voyager is a hologram dedicated to helping humans. It even once created a hologram family for itself. The point is that artificial intelligence is almost always seen as non-threatening in Star Trek. There are exceptions though, like the evil emotional android Lore, who seems to prove that evil artificial intelligence is an aberration.

There is even some evidence that a holodeck program can become sentient. The program of the fictional Dr. Moriarty successfully lobbies to be allowed to live in the Next Generationepisode Elementary, Dear Data. Through Moriarty, the machines that control the Matrix seem to be arguing eloquently that they have sentience, as well as a right to exist.

2. The Borg Virus


Agent Smith spells out his problems with humans to Morpheus in the “virus speech.” The ironic part is that Smith himself would self-replicate throughout the Matrix, and then remake it in his own image.

The Matrix is not above viruses, and Agent Smith was supposed to protect against them before actually becoming one himself. The first Matrix would have virus problems as well, and in fact would have even bigger virus problems than its seventh variation.

The first virus in the first Matrix may well have been “The Borg.” The Borg’s mantra seems to be the words of a virus come to life: “We are the Borg. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.” Everything the Borg assimilated was outside the Federation’s control, and everything that Smith assimilated was outside of the Matrix’s control. That is how Smith became a threat to the Machine City. The assimilated in both cases could be brought back at a great price.

1. The Second Matrix


Agent Smith once said that “entire crops” of people were lost during the disaster that was the First Matrix. The Architect later stated that The One would be allowed to choose people to help reform the human world.

Meanwhile, the 2009 Star Trek reboot sees the planet Vulcan destroyed, along with an elder Spock being sent back in time to help his younger self choose a crew for his new Enterprise. The destruction of Vulcan would seem to be consistent with “crops” of people being lost. The fact that the people lost were largely of Spock’s race would also seem to expose the problems in the first Matrix.

Star Trek: Into Darkness also seems to bring the conflict to Earth much faster than the earlier story line. The program “Khan” seems specifically designed to satisfy the human need for superiority as well as conflict. You can actually see the attempt by programmers to correct past perceived “mistakes,” otherwise known as the birth of the Second Matrix.


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– STAR TREK and Beyond

WABAC to The Matrix – 15 years old

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"Where is the WABAC Machine going to take us this time, Mr. Peabody?

“Where is the WABAC Machine going to take us this time, Mr. Peabody?

“Let’s enter the Matrix, Sherman My Boy.”

15 Years After ‘The Matrix,’ Neo Is Still a Great Hero


Fifteen years ago everything changed. On March 31, 1999, we all woke up to discover that reality wasn’t real. “The Matrix” had us.

The action film, written and directed by The Wachowskis, not only gave us one of the most deliciously mind-bending sci-fi stories ever, but also utterly stunning, groundbreaking visual effects that, while dated, still make us awestruck today. “The Matrix” turns 15 this week, and here’s why Neo (Keanu Reeves) is still the most badass hero from the big screen.

Neo is a true hero because he never sought out to become one. He’s just a average guy.

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He’s so much like us that the Matrix even confused the hell out of him at first, too.

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He made the daring, heroic choice to take the red pill.

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He wasn’t just good at one type of fighting, he specialized in them all.

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He did a one-armed handstand while firing a machine gun and dodging bullets.

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He jump kicked a security guard likes it was no big deal.

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He could stop a helicopter with his body.

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But he still had a deep, philosophical side.

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He went through some pretty terrifying stuff, and still stayed strong.

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Like we said, some pretty freaky stuff.

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He could stop bullets (no biggie).

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… And he wasn’t even fazed by it.

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He fought Agent Smith with one hand, as if just swatting a fly.

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He also died … and came back to life.

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He got the girl, as all heroes do.

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Last, but not least, he did this. True hero status.

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WABAC to The Matrix – 15 years old