Ever since computer-generated imagery, or CGI, 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 CGI 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 14 scenes all feature examples of CGI that were practically invisible, unless you were in the know…
Jurassic Park (1993)
The invisible CGI: Big surprise: dinosaurs aren’t real. But we’re guessing you knew that. CGI took a quantum leap forward in Spielberg’s dino epic, but it wasn’t just used for rampaging T-Rexes. The scene in which Lex (Ariana Richards) falls through a roof tile and is almost eaten alive by a raptor was actually performed by a stunt girl, but she looked straight at the camera. Richards’ face was added in post-production, in a process called digital face replacement. It’s a seamless shot that still gets us every time.
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 so-called digital erasing, see Marion Cotillard in Rust & Bone.
Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995)
The invisible CGI: Recall, if you will, the last good Die Hard movie, in particular, the scene in which villain Simon Gruber forces Det. John McClane to travel to Harlem and wear a sign bearing the N-word. Bruce Willis did indeed wear the sandwich board, but to stop anyone from taking offense, the phrase read ‘I Hate Everybody.’ The epithet was later digitally altered in post-production, with the less objectionable version kept for subsequent network TV broadcasts.
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 altered. Entire shots – like Edward Norton’s apartment exploding, and the shot of the Starbucks coffee cup in the trashcan – 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, fellas.
The invisible CGI: Sometimes CGI is used when forces outside the director’s control intervene – and that includes death. Gladiator was, tragically, to be Oliver Reed’s last movie, but he hadn’t finished shooting his scenes when he died of a heart attack in 1999. Director Ridley Scott, who had used CGI in earlier scenes featuring the Colosseum, decided to apply digital face replacement onto an extra for the veteran actor’s remaining scenes — and Olly’s memory was suitably honored.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The invisible CGI: Director Sam Raimi couldn’t have created the best superhero movie ever made without the help of CGI, but along with providing the more whiz-bang sequences, digital effects added a touch of gravitas to some slower scenes. For example, the final graceful shot of a redeemed Doc Ock’s body beneath the harbor waters is entirely computer-generated – a flawless render of Alfred Molina’s face.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The invisible CGI: Just two guys on a mountain, hanging out. Why get computers involved? Well, because director Ang Lee is a perfectionist, and when he wants a shot than nature can’t provide, he’ll take matters into his own hands. More than a few shots are augmented with computers, adding mountains in the background, and multiplying the sheep being herded. “I wish I could quit you,” we imagine Lee whispering to his VFX team.
Blood Diamond (2006)
The invisible CGI: Sometime after Ed Zwick had completed shooting an emotional scene in which Jennifer Connelly’s character receives an important phone call, the Blood Diamond director decided he wanted to pump up the drama by having her cry. Rather than pay for a costly reshoot, Zwick opted to have a single tear added digitally.
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, even he can’t change the city’s skyline. Hence, several background and establishing shots in the crime thriller were digitally constructed. It worked, and Zodiac feels like a period piece, just like he wanted.
The Fighter (2010)
The invisible CGI: Some crowd scenes were bolstered with digital effects, but one scene caused the visual-effects crew a real headache: Mark Wahlberg holding up a napkin with a girl’s phone number on it, which couldn’t be shown for legal reasons. Director David O Russell didn’t want to use a phony 555 prefix, so had his VFX team create a completely CG napkin, which was inserted into the final shot. Digital napkins? Now we’ve seen everything.
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 made to look slightly elongated, hinting at the grotesque transformation that awaits her later in the film.
The Change-Up (2011)
The invisible CGI: Boobs. And nipples. CGI 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 CG boobs (bigger than the real ones on her request), while Olivia Wilde wore pasties for the camera, which were later replaced with CG nipples.
Les Misérables (2012)
The invisible CGI: This is a perfect example of how a slight CGI tweak can make the whole shooting process more bearable. The actors in Tom Hooper’s movie adaptation of the long-running musical were singing their lines for real, but not without some assistance – they were allowed to wear earpieces and radio microphones, which were digitally removed in post-production. If only they had removed Russell Crowe’s mic before he started singing.
'Dark Shadows’ (2012)
The invisible CGI: What you likely didn’t notice in Tim Burton’s vampire comedy was the lengths to which he and his effects team went to keep up the pretense 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 movements were excised in post-production, as was every single time he was reflected on a surface.
Image credit: Everett, Paramount/Universal/Momentum/Fox 2000/Entertainment/Sony Pictures/Warner Bros.