Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved that a motion-capture performance can capture audiences' attention. And a mocap character doesn't need to be a lovable blue cat person to win people over.
Computer-created characters have arrived: People are even talking about an Oscar nomination for Andy Serkis. But it took a lot of innovation and brilliance to get us there, including years of small advancements and a number of unforgettable characters. Here are the 10 coolest-looking computer-animated or motion-captured characters.
Note: We're not including any characters from fully animated movies, or this list would be pretty much a celebration of all things Pixar.
10) The Owl, Labyrinth
According to IMDB, the owl in the movie's title sequence is the first attempt at a photo-realistic CG creature in a feature film. And Jim Henson, who helped make puppet characters such a huge part of live-action storytelling, managed to help spawn the computer-generated characters who replaced them.
9) Bit, Tron
One of the coolest characters in the original Tron is the guy who has the least dialogue. Bit is a binary "bit" who can just signify "Yes" or "No" by changing shape and making a noise — although Bit seems to be able to understand complex questions and situations. And Bit represented a huge leap forward in technical effects at the time, using vector graphics to create the character and the then-new morphing software to make him change shape. Even though he's only got two things to say, he's one of the characters who sticks in your mind the most.
8) The Dinosaurs, Jurassic Park
When this film came out, these creatures represented a revolutionary change from anything we'd seen before. And they launched a whole new era of creature design. More than anything else, because Spielberg and his team of effects wizards were using CG to create creatures we'd imagined but never seen on screen, they avoided the "uncanny valley" problem. Check out a featurette from ILM about how JP changed CGI, at left.
7) Dobby from the Harry Potter movies
The Potter films had so many CG characters that came to life, including Aragog, Buckbeak and the Hungarian Horntail. But Dobby is probably the one that most people remember. He was created by the British visual effects house Framestore — by the same designers who did the current Doctor Who title sequence. They created 300 different facial expressions for him by his final appearance in Deathly Hallows. Dobby had to be painted in digitally, to replace the much larger actor who played him in the actual scenes.
6) General Grievous, Star Wars
Okay, sure, the Star Wars prequels: Bleh. But General Grievous represents an amazing achievement. From his first conceptions by master concept artist Warren Fu, to the maquettes to the computer modeling, he's a striking character. And he's one of the most complex computer models ILM ever created, including a ton of different textures and types of stuff. During combat sequences, he's played by a greenscreen actor, but he's always expressive and weird. For our money, the CG Yoda never lives up to his puppet original, but Grievous is a fully realized evil character.
5) Dragons, Game of Thrones
So many insane things happen in the final episode of Game of Thrones season one, and it all leads up to one huge, Westeros-shaking revelation. Amazingly, when we meet the creatures who give their names to the latest book in George R.R. Martin's saga, it still stands out as the moment from the finale. Those creatures just look so alive, and so curious and full of personality, from the get-go. According to the producers, it took hours of discussions and pages of sketches and notes to get them right. (Warning: Video is NSFW.)
4) The Wolf Pack, The Twilight Saga: New Moon
The wolves each had to have human eyes but wolf features, and six separate distinct personalities — not to mention fur that moved realistically. The animators at Tippett Studio went to a wolf sanctuary and spent time with the endangered wolves, getting to know them. They even created their own "Frankenwolf" out of pelts from already-dead wolves. The result was a set of digital creatures which arguably had more personality than any of the humans on the screen.
3) Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3:
The second and third Pirates movies are known for going way overboard in visual effects and storytelling elements, but Davy Jones still manages to stand out as a great character. The Cthulu-like Jones manages to avoid the uncanny valley nightmare of looking like a human gone wrong, and instead looks genuinely like a sea-creature. And the weird design actually helps Bill Nighy's excellent performance, because — let's face it — he has a great presence, but it doesn't scream "supernatural pirate."
2) Gollum, Lord of the Rings
This is the one that everybody always thinks of, the character that put Caesar actor Andy Serkis on the map and proved that mo-cap characters could be chilling and arresting. Both Gollum and Smeagol felt absolutely present in Serkis' amazing performance. Just watch this insane video showing Serkis in his mocap suit and the finished product.
1) Queen Moat, Avatar
James Cameron's motion-capture masterpiece laid the groundwork for the new Apes movie, as well as the upcoming Tintin and John Carter adaptations. And all of the Na'vi had tons of personality, including Zoe Saldana's Neytiri. But trust C.C.H. Pounder to bring an extra dignity and presence to Queen Moat, Neytiri's mother. As one-dimensional and cliched as the Na'vi society is, when Moat speaks for her people, you believe in it. And you believe in her. The technology took a huge leap forward with the Na'vi, but it worked best with Pounder's character.
Additional reporting by Katharine Trendacosta and Mandy Curtis. Thanks also to Benjamin Louis Wilson, David Ross, Michelle, Cecil Castellucci, Tim Carmody, Ash Fairless, Espana Sheriff and Richard for the suggestions!