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Special Effects Evolution

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From Stop Motion, to Suitmation, to Zeroes and Ones, he's come a long way.note 
The inevitable fact that, as franchises go on, they will be given a special effects (very often, CGI) upgrade to compete with the times. Justified in the fact that many of today's sequels are of series from the 1980s or 1990s, where then-new CGI was often ditched in favor of actual explosions and stunts, and CGI is much safer (and cheaper) than, say, blowing up an entire office building. Often results in They Changed It, Now It Sucks! if the CGI is poor or merely jarring.


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  • When the Pillsbury Doughboy debuted in 1965, he was created with stop-motion animation. He's been CGI since 1992.


  • Pok√©mon: The Series has changed A LOT since its 1997 beginning. The movements of the characters are much more fluid, there's more computer-generated effects (especially the Pokémon's attacks which were originally drawn with the same animation), and the environments are much more colorful and vivid. For its fourteenth opening sequence, it was fully CG, while initially the show didn't even use digital ink and paint.
  • This was one of the actual driving forces of the Neon Genesis Evangelion Rebuild project. It was at its most striking in the first movie, which had a lot of redone original footage.
  • Transformers: Energon had some well-modeled but pitifully primitively animated cel-shaded CGI. The "sorta sequel" Transformers: Cybertron ditched the cel-shaded look, and still suffered from Dull Surprise, but the animation was a definite step-up, especially the great looking and dynamic Stock Footage shots (in Energon, when a scene had to look good, they'd at times switch back to hand-drawn animation).
  • In Sailor Moon Crystal, Cel Shaded CGI Sailor Guardian models are used in the Team Shots that open and close the Title Sequence and in the Transformation Sequences, which are elaborate CGI remakes of those from the 90's anime.

     Films — Live-Action  

  • Terminator: The original The Terminator was just a modestly budgeted film, albeit one with a rather convincing (if not in movement) T-800 "skeleton". Then came along Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which had animatronics much more convincing than the "go motion" endoskeleton, and one of the more famous early uses of CGI involving seamless liquid metal effects of the T-1000. Terminator Salvation even used CGI Terminators for the most part.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, made 19 years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had a lot more CGI used in its action sequences.
  • The James Bond series makes pretty good viewing to see how far special effects have come since 1962.
  • Star Wars:
    • The prequels and the re-mastered originals in comparison to the films from The '70s and The '80s. So... much Scenery Porn. (Though that is not always the case.)
    • In A New Hope, the lightsaber effect was partially done practically. A spinning rod covered in reflective material served as the blade on set, with an animated blade painted on top of it in post-production. For The Empire Strikes Back, it was decided that the post-production animated blade was enough, so they just used a plain pole for the on-set blade. This approach was maintained from Empire all the way through the prequel trilogy. From The Force Awakens onwards, LED blades are used on set, creating a practical glowing effect for the first time since 1977.
  • Star Trek, as mentioned in the Live Action TV section.
  • For the first three Die Hard movies, they all depended on actual explosions (with the exception of one scene in the first movie), miniatures and live ammunition. It's stated that the directors favored the real thing over the then-new CGI. Then Live Free or Die Hard had its oil refinery explosion, the F-35 shredding a highway to bits and CGI cars flipping out.
  • Commented on in Death Proof, where Stuntman Mike bemoans the fact that CGI has put stuntmen like him out of work. It's then fully averted in the final act, which features an epic car chase without a single bit of computer imaging.
  • The shift from a simple quad bike to a hovering vehicle as the Mule between Firefly and Serenity. Word of God states that the original intention was something similar for the TV show in the first place, but budget constraints wouldn't allow it.
    • Also partially explained, in-story, with the original Mule being destroyed in the episode War Stories, and the fancy new one being bought with the proceeds from the sale of the Lassiter.
  • The Godzilla series has been going on for over fifty years, and started with men is rubber suits smashing miniature cities, evolving to men in rubber suits smashing miniature cities done BETTER!
    • In the American versions, Godzilla had a digital Godzilla that many found unconvincing. Not so much with the CGI of the MonsterVerse's Godzilla.
  • TRON: Legacy, looks much darker and slicker than TRON. The special effects are also much improved, albeit in a much darker setting. This is especially notable since the first Tron film was one of the first major films of its time to use extensive computer graphics - and still most of the effects were rotoscoping instead of primitive CG. This can also be justified since Tron takes place in a video game world where it must have been upgraded into a newer setting.
  • Clash of the Titans: The newer version uses computer animation as replacements for the stop-motion effects of the 1981 version.
  • Harry Potter:
    • The movies started in 2001, so they used plenty of CGI from the start. However, the quantity and quality of the CGI increases with each film. It's telling that Jim Henson's Creature Shop only worked on the first Potter film while ILM worked on every film in the series.
    • A good way to observe the CGI evolution is by watching all of the quiddich games. The first film's quiddich scene and to a lesser extent the second film's look rather crude by today's standards, but the later ones are quite impressive.
    • In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the floating candles in the Great Hall were done with wires. In fact, after Quirrell announces the troll in the dungeon, there's a close-up of McGonagall in which you can plainly see the wires which the candles are suspended from. An accident with a falling candle prompted them to make the switch to CGI candles for safety reasons.
    • For the first six films, the Hogwarts exterior was a large model built at 1/24th scale. For Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, they switched to a CGI version in order to properly create the Battle of Hogwarts.
  • In Iron Man, there was both the digital and the practical suit. In the sequel, the practical suit was used without the lower part (i.e. the legs and such are CG) as it was hard to wear and unconvicing. In The Avengers (2012), every time Tony Stark is wearing his suit it's a CG version.
  • Planet of the Apes has two: from the original series to the Tim Burton 2001 reinvention, the evolution of make-up; from the 2001 movie to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the evolution of CG (which in the latter is used to create the apes themselves).
  • The Thing (2011) had many practical effects akin to the 1982 version, but production problems led digital abominations to be the ones with most screentime.

     Live Action TV  

  • Doctor Who ends up being something of a microcosm for the BBC as a whole, with its style slowly developing from 'televised theatre' to 'cinematic'.
    • Happened quite a few times in the classic series:
      • There's a rather large bump between Seasons 1 (1963-4) and 2(1964-5), as the budget got boosted when the BBC realised they had a hit on their hands. Everything in Season 1 (with the exception of a minute of location footage in the last story of the season, shot with a location double) is shot in a tiny and rather run-down little sound stage, but Season 2 is able to experiment with bigger sets (including some location filming), better props (benefiting from Prop Recycling from the Amicus Dalek movies), more elaborate set-pieces (a chase sequence through the streets of London!) and so on.
      • Editing became a lot cheaper during Season 5 (1967-8) and 6 (1968-9), which enabled them to do things that had been impossible before. "Enemy of the World" has Double Vision, "The Wheel in Space" has a lovely Match Cut, "The Seeds of Death" has Stop Trick used for only parts of the screen while other characters move in the foreground, and so on.
      • While the effects remain at about the same level as they were before, there's a massive bump in quality of the fight scene choreography in Season 7 (1970) caused by a lead actor who was a martial artist and liked to do his own stunts whenever possible, talent inflow from various Spy Fiction series of the era, and HAVOC, a newly-formed group of young, gifted stunt performers who became the BBC's go-to stunt people for the era. The sets also become more convincing due to more limited settings (meaning more detail could go into recurring sets like the UNIT HQ), the UK military giving them extras and equipment and more location filming.
      • What seems now to be a Special Effects Failure was occasionally a Special Effects Evolution at the time, such as the massive use of unnecessary CSO during Barry Letts' era.
      • The set design is kicked up a notch from Season 12 (1975) starting from the stunning cryonic chamber in "The Ark in Space" (which was so expensive to construct they were forced to spend most of the plot there). Season 13 (1975-6) is similarly gorgeous, with the jungle in "Planet of Evil" and Solon's castle in "The Brain of Morbius" being particular high points. A new production schedule from Season 13 onwards also meant the location shooting was now done in summer rather than winter, which means the exteriors are much prettier, flowerier and more colourful ("Pyramids of Mars" and "The Android Invasion" particularly benefit). It was, unfortunately, all kicked back down again in Season 15 (1977) due to slashed budgets and the UK recession, to depressing levels (like building sets entirely out of CSOed miniatures because they couldn't afford real ones).
      • Advances in camera technology allowed for murkier, grainier, almost 'film-look' video shots in Season 12 onwards, allowing the team to turn the lights right down for the first time. This was very helpful for the show's Genre Shift into Gothic Horror. See "Genesis of the Daleks", "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "Horror of Fang Rock" for stunning dark video shots.
      • There's a large bump in Season 18 (1980-1), caused by a new production team eager to establish a 'polished' look, new technical innovations becoming available to the show (like a new system which allowed them to CSO actors into model shots and have the camera move), advances in SFX makeup, better editing technology that meant that they could do cinematic-style editing cheaply, and some early analogue colour processing.
      • The last four seasons (1986-9) featured a large advance in effects from the previous couple of seasons (a lot of which is still convincing today). This is due to the increasing use of CGI in the film industry pushing extremely talented Practical Effects experts and puppeteers into less prestigious work in television. Some primitive CGI was also available, and due to its significant expense was used only where necessary, meaning much of it still looks good. The bump may have been even more noticeable had the budget not been slashed following the 18-month hiatus.
    • A lot of fans found it very jarring when the new series premiered (2005) and the spaceships and aliens actually looked like spaceships and aliens, and none of the props were made out of egg cartons and bubble wrap any more. The new series also lacks the 'soap opera effect' due to digital technology meaning they could shoot on video and 'filmise' it to make it look expensive.
    • The new series has a subtle, but visible evolution continually across the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor's eras.
    • The Twelfth Doctor's era uses less in the way of CGI and more Practical Effects, due to a less experienced CGI team and a reduced budget. Whether it's a strict improvement depends on your taste, but the focus on physical props prevents the CGI having to compete with the much more expensive effects in things like Game of Thrones and gives the show its own unique visual character. The practical effects are easily the best looking in the series' history, and allow the actors to do more.
  • Star Trek, has been in near-constant production with films and TV series since the 1970s.
    • The Remastered Original Series in particular.
    • The 2009 film, to, well, anything else.
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation was converted to HD using the original film, requiring the replacement of the effects that were only on the digital video tape, requiring editing of effects from the 35mm negatives, and replacement of any effect done just on tape. Including the Transporter, Replicator, phasers, shields and some planets. The ships, originally done on 35mm, were digitally recomposited. On top of all that, a few matte paintings were recreated.
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine lasted long enough for CGI effects to become affordable. The Defiant was introduced as a model, but by the final seasons was done in CGI. Similarly, the Borg battle seen in the pilot (all model work, only a couple ships on screen at once) was positively sedate compared with the giant starship battles from the Dominion War (all CGI, scores of ships on screen at once).
  • The first six series of Red Dwarf were filmed with models. Then during the 3-year hiatus between series VI and series VII, CGI became much cheaper. Series VII featured all-CGI effects. However because of the poor reception to the CG, Series X went back to using models for the ships. This gives those shots a feel similar to Series I-VI while CG is used in other areas. Back to Earth before it used a CG ship, but only due to the small budget it had.
    • To give the earlier seasons a bit of a polish, they went back and re-mastered them, replacing the model shots with the new-model CGI, adding sparkle to the in-scene effects, and so on. The re-mastered episodes were roundly denounced, mainly due to the CGI effects being not up to the quality of the old model shots. They were originally going to use a brand new model, but it ended up being far too large for the studio and was later used in Series X.
  • The effects of Walking with Dinosaurs and its sequels have gone through a spectacular evolution beginning from 1999 to 2005. While very good for their time, the effects in the original series have aged quite a bit, and the closeups of the CGI dinosaurs looked rather textureless and plastic-like, which is why the bulk of these closeup shots were realized using animatronics, and there was a lot of noticeable clipping and use of Obscured Special Effects. They got more ambitious for Walking with Beasts, although mostly out of necessity; with mammals, and to a lesser extent, birds, as the focus, they now had to animate a lot of shaggy fur and feathers instead of smooth, scaly skin. The computer graphics of the series had advanced so much by the time Walking with Monsters was released, that even CGI closeups looked magnificently lifelike.
    • The Ballad of Big Al: When compared to the original series, the dinosaur models are more detailed, the puppets are more convincing, and most notably the shots are far more dynamic with a lot of camera movement, something the original series was keen to avoid. There's also a lot less use of composited bushes and shrubs to hide foot contacts.
  • Tokusatsu is an obvious example, given that the genre as such (primarily Super Sentai and the Kamen Rider franchise) have been around since the 1970s. Evolution can be found on the small scale too: compare the transformation effects in 2000's Kamen Rider Kuuga to the giant monster versus Cool Train battles in 2007's Kamen Rider Den-O.
    • It's especially noticeable during a Reunion Show, when you get to see past characters do their favorite attacks with today's technology. When powers from the 70s or 80s show up in Kamen Rider Decade and Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, your jaw will drop.
    • In Movie Wars Megamax, the original seven Kamen Riders appear. The franchise began in 1971. If you think 2000's Kuuga's effects are a bit cooler in 2009's Decade, try the first Rider's effects in 2012. Each got to use special attacks and finishers and they looked spectacular. Especially since some of them (especially the first three) never had any special effects for their attacks. X and Stronger especially; if you're used to flashiness equaling power and so underestimate the old Riders, today's the day you'll believe that the modern Riders have nothing on at least those two.
    • Speaking of new looks for the same tricks, there's a world of difference between mecha and vehicle action between now and the old days. Used to be, heroes' vehicles vs. enemy air/tank force would be the same three or four swooping movements on either side put together different ways. Villain air and tank forces then largely disappeared for ages. Then the moth-vehicles in Engine Sentai Go-onger arrived. Thanks to the wonders of modern CGI, they can do a lot more than such forces could ever do before. It happened a lot faster for American fans, where the special effects were a bit spiffier. The three-or-four-motion plane fights in VR Troopers and Beetleborgs give way to Star Wars class dogfighting in Power Rangers in Space.
    • Though in this case, VR Troopers was adapted from three different shows made in the mid-to-late 1980s, while In Space's source material came from 1997-8 (Beetleborgs's source material was only a couple of years older at most, and featured slightly more-advanced fighting sequences).
    • The Command Center set used for Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers was very simplistic looking. By the time it got bombed and rebuilt as the Power Chamber for the beginning of Power Rangers Zeo, the show had a much bigger budget, meaning the new Power Chamber set was much more elaborate. Subsequent homebase sets and other interiors during the Saban era became more intricate and detailed, the trend continuing throughout the rest of the franchise.
  • In Supernatural the colored demon eyes were originally done with colored contact lenses, which left the actors virtually blind. This made for some nice footage for the blooper reel, but the actors often had difficulty hitting their marks when they could not see. In later seasons this practical effect is usually replaced by CGI.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer had this all over the place over the course the seven seasons, but it's especially noticeable in the vampire dustings, which evolved from the vampires suddenly vanishing into brown blurs to the vampires turning into skeletons which then disintegrated.
  • Not specifically special effects, but film technology in general. The BBC nature documentary Planet Earth made its 2nd series 10 years after the first specifically because advances in cameras and other tools would allow them to get better footage and better explore the same locals they had covered in the first series. The improvement in palpable, and each episode of the 2nd series ends with a 20 minute "making of" portion where they detail the hardest shooting they endured.
  • The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance benefitted from more advanced puppetry than 1982's The Dark Crystal (notably, the Gelflings are more expressive), as well as CGI for some effects that can't be rendered any other way or to hide puppeteers better.
  • The Mandalorian: Grogu/"The Child" is a bit of a subversion in that Jon Favreau was tempted to use CGI instead of an animatronic puppet, but was eventually convinced to go with the puppet by Werner Herzog. The puppet itself is a pinnacle in its field, costing a hefty $5 million to build, and it is way more advanced than similar creatures it's been compared to such as Gizmo from Gremlins 2: The New Batch, itself a more advanced version than that of the first film.

     Western Animation  

  • Parodied in the Freakazoid! episode "The Curse of Invisibo". When he first appears, the titular villain is portrayed by a staff suspended from obvious wires, and the narrator interrupts, asking the audience to pretend that it's scary. After a couple of minutes, the narrator comes back and says they've successfully embarrassed a bigger FX budget out of the network, at which point the staff now seems to float and glow on its own.
  • In the DC Animated Universe and similar DC Comics adaptations, the use of conspicuous CGI backgrounds and vehicles has continued, but is done much better nowadays. Compare the Batwing in Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero to the Batwing in Batman: Under the Red Hood.
  • Beast Wars (as well as most of Mainframe Entertainment's early output) looked very crude in its first season, but season 2 provided a notable visual boost with the more detailed backdrops and the new, more robotic-looking character designs. Season 3 saw yet another upgrade, with lush jungle sceneries, convincing underwater scenes and far more fluid animation. Also, whereas the organic animal modes were clearly composed of several separate parts in season 1, solid, better deforming animation models were introduced later on.

Alternative Title(s): Special Effects Beef Up