Top 10 Films That Push The Boundaries Of Technology & Technique

In this top 10 list we take a look at great movies which have pushed the boundaries of technology and technique, breaking ground in cinematography, sound, special-effects and animation.

Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)

Deep Focus Photography
Citizen Kane, Top 10 FilmsAmongst Orson Welles’ array of innovative storytelling techniques in 1941’s Citizen Kane the most important technical aspect of the film is its use of deep focus. Cinematographer Gregg Toland utilized advances in film stock allowing for faster speeds and experimentation with lenses and lighting to make the effect work. This saw the foreground, mid-ground and background remain in sharp focus throughout a scene.

The Matrix (Wachowski’s, 1999)

“Bullet Time” Visual Effects
The Matrix, Top 10 FilmsThe complicated technique popularized as “bullet time” was one of many memorable elements of 1999’s The Matrix. The visual effect allows the camera to pivot around action sequences where time appears in slow-motion allowing for such visual quirks as bullet-tracking through the air.

The Jazz Singer (Crosland, 1927)

The Jazz Singer, Film, Cinema, Sound, Hollywood,The Jazz Singer was the first feature-length film to use synchronized dialogue using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. Alan Crosland’s film ushered in the era of the “talkies” and the consequent death of silent cinema.

Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)

Computer Generated Imagery (CGI)
Jurassic Park, Film, Steven Spielberg, dinosaurs,CGI wasn’t new at the time of Jurassic Park’s production in 1992/1993 but it was one of the first times audiences were able to see how older, traditional special-effects techniques such as animatronics, puppetry and in-camera effects like stop-motion were being trumped by post-production modern computer wizardry. The film’s production is famous for a conversation Steven Spielberg had with stop-motion expert Phil Tippett who created some early examples of the dinosaurs moving and interacting with the space around them. After Spielberg had challenged ILM animators Mark Dippe and Steve Williams to develop a separate computer-generated version and played the two techniques off against each other he said to Tippett: “I think you’re out of a job”. Tippett replied with a wry nod to the dino-movie they were making: “Don’t you mean extinct.” The conversation was reworked and placed in the script, appearing as a conversation between Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm and Sam Neill’s Alan Grant.

Avatar (Cameron, 2009)

Motion Capture Animation
Avatar, Top 10 FilmsJames Cameron has stated that Avatar represents the culmination of years of technical experimentation in the use of motion capture and photorealistic computer generated imagery. Work was even delayed while he waited for technology to catch up. Amongst the many visual effects techniques adopted for Avatar, Cameron utilized new lighting techniques, a motion capture stage six times larger than any previously used, and advanced methods of capturing facial expressions enabling full performance capture.

King Kong (Cooper / Schoedsack, 1933)

Stop Motion Visual Effects & Rear Screen Projection
King Kong, 1993, Horror, Action, Classic Film,60 years before monster movie Jurassic Park signalled the end for stop-motion, fellow monster action-adventure King Kong popularized the technique in its depiction of a super-sized ape running amok in New York City. The feat achieved by 1933’s King Kong still stands out amongst cinema’s greatest technological accomplishments and made a significant impact on the future of genre cinema. The film also used rear screen projection to enhance stop motion scenes with authentic live footage projected against a small screen in the background.

The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939)

The Wizard of Oz, Film,The Wizard of Oz wasn’t the first film to use color but it became memorable thanks to its combination of black and white alongside color, highlighting the vibrant potential of new film stock and the direction mainstream cinema was going.

Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)

Computer Animation
Toy Story 1, Film, Pixar animationToy Story’s revolutionary animation ushered in a new age of animated movies where traditional hand drawn techniques were replaced by computer graphics. While technology has developed to make the process faster today, in 1995 it was a painstaking task to create the realistic characters and environments we see on screen. Some frames could take up to 30 hours to render.

Lord of the Rings (Jackson, 2001)

Motion-Capture Actor Suits
Gollum, Lord of the Rings, Top 10 FilmsAllowing for a more seamless, authentic interaction between actors on set and computer-generated characters, director Peter Jackson had actor Andy Serkis wear a motion-capture suit which tracked his movements and performance to be later further developed and enhanced in post-production. The technique revolutionized the way animated characters were integrated into live action scenes.

Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)

Computer-Controlled Motion Capture
Top 10 Unmissable Movie BeginningsJohn Dykstra’s visual effects teams revolutionized the use of computer-controlled motion capture to more realistically capture the use of miniatures and models. It was a technique that became widely used for two decades after Star Wars was released before modern computer animation began to take over in the mid-1990s.

Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens

Over to you: what technological advances have made the greatest impression on cinema? What are your favorites? What other movies should make this list?

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Another brilliant top ten Dan. Fantastic points on all films you mention here.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Many thanks Dan!

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    CineGirl Reply

    Great choices Dan. Avatar blew me away. Wish I’d been able to experience Star Wars for the first time on the big screen but unfortunately I wasn’t born for another decade! 🙂

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    Good choices, Dan …

    Other contenders:

    Greed – While he may not have been as out there as Welles/Toland, Erich Von Stroheim obviously had a sound grasp of composition

    Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – blue screens and high definition video

    Minority Report – apparently it was the first film to incorporate an entirely digital production design; plus look at all the technological doo-dads in it that have become a reality

    Zentropa (AKA Europa) – the infusion of black and white with colour; the crazy use of rear screens

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    ArchE Reply

    The Wizard of Oz continues to “wow” me to this day. I can only imagine what audiences thought of it when they first saw Dorothy emerge in Oz. Truly glorious.

    Wonderful list, Dan.

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    Cinema Criminal Reply

    Young Sherlock Holmes would be a neat addition – first use of a fully created CGI character I believe.

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    Derek Reply

    Very interesting top 10. Some of these I wasn’t aware of – the brilliance of Citizen Kane had, until recently, passed me by. It’s interesting to find out just why it’s held in such high regard.

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    Claire Reply

    Excellent post, Dan. Love them or loathe them, these films were all groundbreakers. It’s testament to the crew that the effects in ‘Jurassic Park’ still stand up today.

    With regards to actors and motion capture, Andy Serkis is the one to beat. His turns as Gollum and Caesar are simply stunning. In ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ you forget that the animals aren’t real!

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    Callum Reply

    This has to be one of my favourite top 10s you’ve done.

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    Rodney Reply

    Couldn’t find a slot for a Cinerama film (say, How The West Was Won) for it’s three-camera usage?

    Otherwise, some truly excellent films (I’ve seen em all, which is a rarity in these lists) – Star Wars is an obvious choice for #1.

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    Courtney Reply

    Spectacular post!

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      Callum Reply

      Love this list too!

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    Hubble Reply

    Brill list, I remember The Matrix knocking me for six!

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    Laura simms Reply

    2001 would be a great addition.

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