The 23 Best Visual Effects Oscar Winners of the 21st Century, Ranked

17 March 2023

When people talk about the magic of cinema, they’re usually not referring to monologues. More often than not, it’s the awe-inspiring visuals and imaginary worlds brought to life that give the phrase “movie magic” the ring of truth. None of that would be possible without visual effects, an ever-evolving field that pushes filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson further and further in their quest to create that special spark.

The films that won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects this century represent the most innovative visual storytelling of the last two decades. Using motion capture technology, computer-generated imagery, miniatures, and giant puppets, these films create fantasy worlds and creatures beyond our wildest imaginations.

Here are the winners of the Oscar for Best Visual Effects of the 21st century, ranked by their visual storytelling. Note: Weta Digital changed its name to Wētā FX in 2022. IndieWire retained the original name for films made prior to that change.

23. “The Golden Compass” (2007)

“The Golden Compass” had a visual effects challenge built into its story: a world in which each human has a personal daemon, in animal form, that is a physical representation of their souls. The daemons were 3D animation created by Rhythm & Hues, guided by production visual effect supervisor Michael Fink, that had to crack animal-human interaction, fur movement and grooming, and a massive action scene centering on a bear fight.  The sheer size and scope of the world-building were enough to land New Line (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy) another golden statue for VFX.  –Chris O’Falt

22. “1917” (2019)

Sam Mendes’ single-shot World War I extravaganza pulled off a major upset by beating “The Lion King” for the VFX Oscar. It was especially surprising since its role was supporting. Production supervised by Guillaume Rocheron of MPC, the special effects and visual effects played an integral role by continually following the characters on their intense journey through the battlefields. It required a unique collaboration in stitching together the sequences as one continuous shot. In addition, there were plenty of enhancements involving VFX and special effects. The nighttime village chase included pyro work from a burning church (courtesy of 2,000 1K light fixtures rigged all around the building, thanks to legendary Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins). There was also an assortment of specialized magnesium flares, which traveled 170 feet every 22 seconds. —Bill Desowitz

21. Gladiator (2000)

In 2000, Ridley Scott revived the sword-and-sandals spectacle for a modern era by bringing cutting-edge digital technology to a genre that hadn’t graced American movie screens in decades (production supervised by John Nelson). Where filmmakers of the past were forced to spend gargantuan amounts of time and money on crowd scenes that utilized thousands of extras, Scott was able to achieve epic scale by combining human actors with digital facsimiles, turning a couple thousand people into 70,000 computer-generated performers for the movie’s massive Colosseum sequences. Several of the shots Scott designed had to traverse the entire stadium, with the most impressive a 360-degree Steadicam move that followed the gladiators as they entered the arena; for all of these moments, visual effects house Mill Film created digital fans who moved, gestured, and cheered like real extras. The Colosseum itself was a marvel of digital effects crossed with practical production design, as the craftspeople at Mill Film created seamless computer-generated extensions for Arthur Max’s awe-inspiring set. —Jim Hemphill

20. “Ex Machina” (2015)

This list of recent VFX Oscar winners is filled with enormous movies – many of which are franchise films with bigger VFX budgets than the cost to make this A24 indie. And the 2015 release calendar was hardly light on big-name competition, including the visual effect nominees: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “The Revenant” (remember that bear?!), “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “The Martian.” What awards prognosticators didn’t anticipate was how Academy voters were drawn to the relatively simple supporting effects that proved extraordinarily effective. At the heart of writer-director Alex Garland’s low-budget sci-fi thriller was Alica Vikander’s Ava, a performance that needed to be believable as an AI droid who a computer programmer could fall in love with. It’s a performance that was aided by outstanding CG work from Double Negative (led by Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris and Mark Ardington, alongside Milk VFX’s Sara Bennett) that relied on body tracking without ever resorting to green screen, allowing the actors to stay focused and natural during the live-action shoot. –CO

19. “Life of Pi” (2012)

Just as the protagonist of “Life of Pi” finds a faith that is shaped by the values and mythologies of multiple religions, the look of the film drew from several currents of 21st-century technical innovations — and innovated them. Obviously, there is Suraj Sharma’s main scene partner, the tiger Richard Parker, alongside a collection of zoo animals that find themselves stuck in a lifeboat alongside shipwreck survivor Pi Patel. Rhythm & Hues (led by production VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer) needed to create a CG animal that would work convincingly in 3D and could capture nuanced microexpressions and big non-human movements alike. The reality of the film very much rests on Rhythm & Hues’ ability to pull off the most photorealistic CG animal yet created. But the soul of Ang Lee’s film also rests with the expressive, deeply emotional environments of the seascape in which Pi and Richard Parker find themselves trapped. “Life of Pi” never strays too far from what’s possible — Lee’s certainly not the first nor the only filmmaker to make a meal out of activating the negative parallax in 3D water or to amp up the wonder of phosphorescence out on the open waves — but Rhythm & Hues’ work on how those environments dramatize Pi’s internal plight set a bar that took a long time for any other film to reach. —Sarah Shachat 

“Life of Pi”

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

18. “Tenet” (2020)

Christopher Nolan’s time-inverted thriller only contained 300 VFX shots, but it required Oscar-winning DNEG (production supervised by Andrew Jackson) to figure out how to execute the timing of moving forward and backward, so it fit together smoothly during fights and car chases. They utilized previs for the blocking of action and were on set to observe rehearsals with the stunt team. The highlight occurred during the inverted car heist when they made the dust suck into the wheels instead of spitting it out, and, for an exploding car, they pushed back with great force and sucked it back into the car. —BD

17. “First Man” (2018)

Damien Chazelle set out to redefine shooting in-camera for “First Man,” dramatizing NASA’s mission to the moon, with Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong. Production supervised by DNEG’s Oscar winner Paul Lambert (“Blade Runner 2049”), the work was a diverse mixture of visual effects, special effects, archival footage, and scaled models to help create the 1960s documentary-style film. It was decided that shooting the spacecrafts against a curved LED screen (with 90 minutes of rendered footage) was the best option to capture as much in camera as possible. The size of the craft in frame determined when they would design the shot to use the full-scale practical, miniatures, or the full CG version. For the crucial X-15, Gemini 8, and Apollo 11 sequences, they shot full-scale practical crafts from production designer Nathan Crowley (“Dunkirk,” “Interstellar”) and the art department, putting the actors on six axis gimbals in front of the LED screen. —BD

16. “Hugo” (2011)

There is something so beautiful about how Scorsese’s love letter to the magic of Georges Méliès and the dawn of early cinema was rooted in an equally groundbreaking and magical combination of visual effects and 3D some 100 years later. The ability to seamlessly merge live action, CG set extension, and full animation — in visual effects work that was spread across nine of Pixomondo’s facilities across the globe and rendered on 1,000 computers — was made possible by the unique talents of production VFX supervisor and 2nd unit director Rob Legato. Through groundbreaking work in pre-visualization and virtual camera that pre-dates “Gravity” and borrowing from the first “Avatar,” Legato enabled Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and the cast and crew to view the 3D frame live on set. The result was a film that was staged and performed according to the spatial reality of how an audience would experience it. This meant that proper creative choices and adjustments could happen in real-time, resulting in magical camera movement and staging in space that captured the awe of entering a storybook version of early cinema. —CO

“Hugo”

Paramount Pictures

 

15. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006)

ILM made a giant leap forward on the “Pirates” sequel (VFX production supervised by John Knoll) with its innovative performance capture animation of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the sea-encrusted baddie with a creepy tentacle beard. The animation team unveiled its new proprietary Imocap system, which used data obtained during the shoot of Nighy and the actors playing his Flying Dutchman crew for the creation of skeletal motion in the computer. Special sensor-studded suits for the actors playing CG characters were created. The tentacle beard itself was treated like a series of characters with individual behaviors controlled by little motors in the solver. The other big character was the Kraken squid monster, which was keyframe-animated with some flesh sim enhancements courtesy of a new creature pipeline. Meanwhile, for more complex CG water, ILM utilized a new fluid dynamics engine, developed in collaboration with the Stanford University research program, in which a series of nifty algorithms were fed through multiple processors and manipulated by several particle controls. —BD

14. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)

Significantly, this sequel marks the last VFX Oscar winner for a superhero film. Overseen by production VFX supervisor John Dykstra, Sony Pictures Imageworks raised the bar in integrating live-action and CG. Tobey Maguire’s Spidey suit was improved through a series of better cloth simulations that blended together, and the digi-double had more believable skin in extreme close-up with the mask off, along with an improved muscular system. Imageworks also upgraded its pipeline for the creation of digital buildings in New York and fully utilized the cable-mounted Spydercam to provide a greater sense of Spidey’s perspective. For that reason, the highlight was seeing him web-sling around the metropolis in a show of power and grace. But the animation character standout was Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, whose mechanical tentacles were partly puppeteered and partly CG-animated without interfering with his facial performance. —BD

13. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008)

David Fincher’s long-gestating reverse-aging passion project (adapted from the F. Scott Fitzgerald novella), starring Brad Pitt, was a breakthrough in performance capture animation led by VFX production supervisor Eric Barba of Digital Domain. After years of R&D, Digital Domain cracked the code of aging Pitt’s face with different body actors. Utilizing the studio’s volumetric deformation rig, the animators used micro-expressions to manipulate individual movements. This could be driven by either keyframe animation or image analysis because they were built from Pitt’s own face. The trick was letting Pitt be Pitt. In addition, Lola FX refined its fledgling de-aging technique, breaking it down to a science of animation, tracking, and compositing. —BD

12. “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious sci-fi sequel to Ridley Scott’s iconic “Blade Runner” contains two stunning pieces of female character work, overseen by MPC’s production VFX supervisor John Nelson: A recreation of the original Rachael (Sean Young) as a digital human, and Ryan Gosling’s holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas). Villeneuve wanted to convey Rachael’s confidence, longing, and rejection when confronted by Harrison Ford’s Deckard. MPC scanned Young and body double Loren Peta, who played the part on set with Ford and Jared Leto, and then hand-animated the entire character. By contrast, there was more of an analog feel to the creation of Joi. Nelson worked with DNEG VFX supervisor Paul Lambert and his team, recording the actress with a batch of small cameras and then creating a frontal transparency effect with a back shell. Then, for the merging sex scene with sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), DNEG shot de Armas, Davis, and Gosling separately and composited them together. But the merging of the two female characters was unusual, and the inadvertent out-of-sync quality was a happy accident. The director wanted them to join and become a third woman. —BD

“Blade Runner 2049”

©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

 

11. “King Kong” (2005)

Weta Digital VFX master Joe Letteri (winning his third Oscar as production VFX supervisor) advanced digital character animation beyond Gollum with Jackson’s giant ape, again acted by performance capture maestro Andy Serkis. He wore a “mocap” suit studded with reflective reference markers and stripes as cameras captured his movements, which are mapped to digital characters in a computer. While Gollum’s face was entirely animated by hand, King Kong was more like a third straight performance capture as Serkis perfected how to move and transmit emotions. Sure, computers pick up his muscle movements via strategically placed dots and sensors and animators work with complex algorithms to turn those movements into those of an evolved and intelligent ape. Yes, he is “rendered.” But there’s no denying that an actor gives the performance. —Anne Thompson

10. “Inception” (2010)

The challenge Christopher Nolan gave Double Negative, led by production VFX supervisor Paul Franklin, was huge: Take the location-based, realistically shot world — depicting iconic cityscapes, like the streets of Paris — and transform it, often in-frame and in real-time, to reflect the subjectivity of different dream states. From the folding streets of Paris to the crumbling towers of Limbo, each reality-to-dream transformation would not only be executed seamlessly but be individualized to capture the essence of the dreaming character’s mental state. As with all Nolan films, the degree of pre-planning between visual effects, production design (Guy Dyas) and cinematography (Wally Pfister) resulted in a clockwork-like precision production, where cast and department heads knew how visual effects would impact each inch of the composition and millisecond of the unfolding action. Yet what makes the visual effects truly organic was how each dramatic transition was rooted in the teams’ study of the movement and force of natural phenomena, from glaciers to waves, resulting in a sense of realistic impact each would have on the smallest of details of the architecture. “Inception” raised the bar of what was possible by combining photorealistic daytime environments and dynamic visual effects. —CO

9. “Dune” (2021)

Achieving believable desert power was essential to the naturalistic look of “Dune” for director Denis Villeneuve, who shot in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and the desert terrain of Budapest using the IMAX format with Oscar-winning cinematographer Greig Fraser. This extended to the elaborate VFX as well, led by the Oscar-winning production supervision of Paul Lambert from DNEG (“First Man,” “Blade Runner 2049”). They came up with several techniques to capture the experience of being in the desert, including the sand screen for use on Arrakis, which helped enormously with the integration of the different layers for background plates or CG environments. Compositing made it possible to realistically add blended imagery to these plates with all the nuances of a brightly photographed desert background. Meanwhile, the enormous, prehistoric-looking sand worms, which displaced the sand while moving around the desert, were the character centerpiece. The VFX team approached it like a whale sifting through water trying to catch the krill. The challenge was achieving the proper scale and speed of the worms interacting with the dunes. When the worms were close by, SFX built a vibrating plate, which was buried under the sand. As this vibrated, the actors sank into the sand, signaling the approaching worm. The effect was a “Jaws”-like peekaboo. —BD

“Dune”

©Warner Bros / courtesy Everett Collection

 

8. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)

It’s hard to list the amount of new digital devilry Peter Jackson needed to concoct for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but from Balrogs to Cave Trolls and everything in between, Weta Digital created a necessary sense of the mythic through its creature work and realized Middle Earth on an epic scale through its striking and fantastical landscapes — behold the Aragornath, indeed. VFX production supervisor Jim Rygiel and the Weta team’s arguably most memorable technical breakthrough is only glimpsed in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” but even the brief glimpse we get of Gollum lines up with Weta’s incredible work throughout the first film on all beasts, great and small. The motion-capture stage did more than just digitally preserve Andy Serkis’ performance, but Weta used mocap to collect data during rehearsals after which the live-action actors could perform to an imaginary Gollum on the real take. “The Fellowship of the Ring” is just the beginning of how Weta would transform what fantasy films could look like and accomplish. —SS

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

7. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002)

When a sequence of a CG character having an argument with himself remains meme material two decades later, you know you’ve done something right. While “Fellowship” certainly hints at Gollum, it’s in “The Two Towers” that Weta Digital’s technological tools — including sub-surface scattering lighting software to achieve realistically translucent human skin — and Andy Serkis’ performance capture work kicked open the door for all fantastical creatures and photorealistic digital doubles since. That would be achievement enough. But Weta (led by production VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, who won his first Oscar) also refined its Massive software, which generates mass crowds that act “smart,” and perform semi-independent movements, allowing the camera to crane through battle sequences without needing the entire population of New Zealand to show up as extras. The tools Weta developed to work alongside Jackson’s four months of night shoots raised the bar for the kind of large-scale armies and roiling 3D environments that everyone from the MCU to “The Last of Us” has made use of since. —SS

“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”

©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

6. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)

The way Weta Digital utilized its Massive software to extend the armies at Helm’s Deep looks more and more like a test drive for the Battle of Pelennor Fields, given that battle’s daylight action, higher number of factions charging into each other, thousands of horses and hordes of rampaging Oliphaunts — to say nothing of Aragorn’s (Viggo Mortensen) ghost army. It seems logical that there are twice as many VFX shots in this trilogy’s third installment as in its second; “King” (earning production VFX supervisor Joe Letteri his second Oscar) boasts 1,488 VFX shots in comparison to 799 in “Towers.” Then there’s Gollum. Weta further refined the tools it used to create Gollum’s expressions, and this further ability to animate fine-grain detail in Gollum’s movements and facial muscles helps elevate Andy Serkis’ performance. It is the mingled relief, euphoria, and mania that flickers across Gollum’s face in his last moments that drive home the catharsis of the Ring’s destruction; and that level of nuance is Weta’s triumph in “The Return of the King.” —SS

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”

©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

5. “Interstellar” (2014)

Christopher Nolan wanted “Interstellar” to be the most realistic sci-fi movie ever made, a mandate that led effects house Double Negative (production VFX supervised by Paul Franklin) to create a ground-breaking “Worm Renderer” for the movie’s wormhole that was so accurate it provided physicists with actual models to study. While this and several of the film’s other most striking effects — like the Tesseract Matthew McConaughey encounters inside a black hole (a physical set with CG extension comprised of interlocking cubes where you can track movement through a series of time slides) or the 4.000-foot waves on the water planet — utilize cutting-edge digital technology, “Interstellar” also is a master class in how to employ old school analog effects to dazzle an audience. Front projection, miniatures, and the kind of slit scan photography Kubrick innovated for the Stargate sequence in “2001” all play a part in creating Nolan’s grounded and tactile universe, resulting in the most convincing vision of outer space since Kubrick’s masterpiece. —JH

“Interstellar”

Warner Bros.

4. “Gravity” (2013)

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is the “2001: A Space Odyssey” of the 21st century. It’s also pure cinema, connecting Framestore’s innovative VFX to Andy Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated production design and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s equally innovative, Oscar-winning cinematography. Of course, it took some new techniques to pull off such a realistic-looking adventure in zero gravity. Achieving such elastic visual poetry required a new kind of reverse engineering from Framestore in London, under the production VFX supervision of Tim Webber. Remarkably, everything in “Gravity” was animated ahead of time and then the actual faces of Bullock and George Clooney were placed into the virtual environments. Even their suits and helmets were CG. The only practical sets were the interiors of the two capsules and parts of the ISS space station. This entailed finessing the animation while factoring in flexibility for the actors’ performances. There’s a new kind of cinematic intimacy to being inside Bullock’s helmet with her, watching the panic-stricken breaths she takes and seeing the reflection of the shuttle in her eye. “Gravity,” therefore, marked yet another milestone in virtual production. There are no CG characters, but it’s “Life of Pi” in space with Clooney as the tiger. —BD

“Gravity”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

 3. “The Jungle Book” (2015)

Master visual effects supervisor Rob Legato made huge strides in his virtual production technology with this live-action/animation hybrid that placed actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli in a digital environment filled with digital animals created by MPC (with WETA handling the standalone King Louie sequence). Under the supervision of Adam Valdez, MPC created 54 species and 224 unique animals with new computer programs to better simulate muscles, skin and fur. Additionally, the studio’s Bangalore facility did extensive research for the jungle before animating plants, trees, vines and rocks along with rushing rivers, mudslides and grasses blowing in the wind. But the movie’s real feat was the convincing character animation of such iconic characters as Bagheera the black panther (Ben Kingsley), Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), Kaa the python (Scarlett Johansson) and Shere Khan the Bengal tiger (Idris Elba). For these and the WETA-created King Louie (Christopher Walken), the visual effects artists created subtle expressions and gestures that sometimes integrated the distinctive facial features of the actors to create incredibly lifelike animated characters, in the process fine-tuning technology that would have an enormous impact and influence on the most ambitious visual effects films to follow. —JH

“The Jungle Book”

Disney

2. “Avatar” (2009)

Thanks to the “director-centric” workflow created by Rob Legato (“The Lion King,” “The Jungle Book”), James Cameron was able to film his hybrid sci-fi adventure like a live-action movie. Performance capture (or E-Motion capture) was brought fully on-set with the Simulcam, allowing Cameron to see and shoot everything in the virtual world on a motion capture stage with his actors. He observed directly on an LCD monitor how the actors’ CG characters interacted with the CG alien world of Pandora in real-time. Digital and live-action thus became one.

Meanwhile, Weta Digital (led by production VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, who earned his fourth Oscar) developed a VFX workflow that supported the CG character animation for the bioluminescent species and virtual environments of Pandora. It required a whole new level of building characters and environments. For the animation, Weta put a lot of effort into the facial solves and tracking. The New Zealand studio also created a new optical solver for the eyes to track them. Rather than building this whole world procedurally, Weta hand-painted everything to make sure that it was of the highest quality and uniform in 3D space. They additionally adopted a global illumination system to store information about the effects of each light in spherical areas. —BD

“Avatar”

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

 1. “Avatar: The Way of Water” (2022)

After the game-changing “Avatar” revolutionized virtual production and performance capture in 2010, James Cameron and Wētā FX’s senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri (who earned his fifth Oscar for the sequel) immediately began strategizing tech advancements for “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The director wanted the look of a NatGeo doc for his sci-fi sequel, which would expand the world of Pandora to include the Metkayina reef clan and their magnificent underwater culture. Over a decade, Wētā and Cameron’s Lightstorm refined performance capture for both the volume and the innovative underwater performance capture that was the centerpiece of the sequel. In addition, the New Zealand studio overhauled its facial animation approach, creating a new muscle-based facial system that was more animator-friendly and achieved greater nuance from its character performances. Wētā additionally expanded its traditional workflow solutions to not only be reliable and repeatable for scale but also tightly integrated to match the water-based performance capture and live action. Finally, the studio rebuilt its entire simulation approach using a global methodology that enabled a new level of realism and interaction for hair, cloth, skin, and hard surfaces. This also encompassed a new FX simulation tool called Loki for water and fire. —BD

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

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