Christopher Nolan is Hollywood's reigning digital skeptic, preferring to shoot practical effects on old-fashioned film. So the hotel-corridor scene in Inception required devilishly complicated sets, rotating the actors on wires and steel trolleys. The result is an old-fashioned "how'd they do that?" delight.
Cameron started off as a special effects technician. For his sinking-ship masterpiece, he used every trick in the book. The climactic moment when Titanic cracks in two required a massive tilting set, a hundred stuntpeople, and CGI.
Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride was a legendary ritual for generations of kids – at once scary and delightful, it was a morbidly funny G-rated horror show. Director Gore Verbinski translated that sensibility perfectly with Black Pearl's living skeletons: anatomically detailed, ghoulishly organic, yet animated with a playful touch.
Real live animals did the "acting" in this farmhouse fairy tale by George Miller and Chris Noonan. In postproduction, special effects engineers applied some innovative computer modeling over their jawlines, creating human-like talking "mouths" over the original animals.
Few CGI effects are harder than hair: all those infinitesimal shafts, the light dappling off every one. Which makes it more impressive that Ang Lee set out to make his seaward epic with a digital tiger – a furry costar created entirely from pixels.
Digital effects had only barely been invented when James Cameron decided to meld practical effects and the new tech, and made his sequel bad guy a CGI shape-changer. The body-morphing result sparked a generation of liquid-gooey imitators.
Often regarded as the official beginning of the computer-effects era, Steven Spielberg's dino romp is actually the perfect Venn diagram merging of practical effects and CGI. Just look at the T. Rex. Sometimes it's a model; sometimes it's CGI. Those raptors in the kitchen? An actor wearing one of Stan Winston Studio's elaborate costumes. The end result is just plain terrifying.
The last great creature feature of the predigital era, Tremors' underground graboid monsters are grotesquely phallic gigantic worms. Only one life-size model was created – and in the grand tradition of Jaws, the monsters are most scary when they're off screen.
Playing invisible used to be so simple. Then came the green-screen era. Kevin Bacon spent more of production in a head-to-toe bodysuit. It's a thankless performance – he's literally not even on screen most of the time – but a visual marvel.
Not satisfied with destroying the White House in Independence Day, Roland Emmerich took on the rest of the world in his global-warming epic. In the craziest moment, a tsunami wave hits Manhattan; you'll never look at the Hudson the same way again.
Andy Serkis became the first superstar of the performance capture era playing Gollum, the poignantly insane ring addict. Gollum was the killer app for CGI: proof that computer effects could enhance humanity, not just replace it.
The special effects pioneers at Industrial Light & Magic turned Michael Bay's robocar franchise into a sizzle reel for intricate CGI. Their finest creation: the heroic Autobot commander Optimus Prime, a gigantic posthuman superhero rendered with lovingly elaborate gearhead detail.
Digital effects can create worlds undreamed of, but in this true-life disaster blockbuster, Wolfgang Petersen takes a different path. The climatic CGI wave isn't fantasy; it's horrifying, vividly real, a vision of nature run amok.
Eighteen years after the T-1000, James Cameron's most recent biggest-budget-ever odyssey featured an entire world of digital characters. Captured in bold 3D, Cameron's Pandora is the epitome of the computer effects era. What you may not know: The vision of the Na'Vi was first captured in clay by sculptor and concept artist Jordu Schell. Hold tight: At least three more Avatars are coming soon.
Legendary monster-meister Phil Tippett created the memorable creatures in Return of the Jedi and Dragonslayer. A decade later, he led the studio to create the extraterrestrial Arachnid hordes on Klendathu. The result: nightmare swarms of sinewy monstrosities, like Saving Private Ryan's D-Day sequence for cockroaches.
No stops were left unpulled out for Harry Potter's wizard war, a fireworks display of spells and attack-magic featuring every far-flung member of the franchise's cast. From the explosive Fiendfyre scene in the Room of Requirement to Harry and Voldy's epic duel, few battles have felt more final.
Contortionist and monster actor Doug Jones played two characters in Guillermo Del Toro's horrific bedtime story: the beckoning freaky-but-friendly Faun and the faceless all-devouring Pale Man. Their elegant prosthetic designs made them creepy, yet hauntingly beautiful – and Jones' performance gave both a soul.