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The 8 Ball 7.08.14: Top 8 Live-Action CGI Characters
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 07.08.2014

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 Live-Action CGI Characters

Hello ladies and gentlemen; it's time once again for the 411 Movie Zone 8 Ball! I hope you all had a good Fourth of July weekend and many good times were had. This week the Planet of the Apes franchise continues with the release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The film is getting incredibly good buzz and early reviews and looks to inject some life back into the box office. Of course, a big part of the appeal is the simian characters in the film, the product of performance capture CGI and the performances of Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell and others. CGI characters have been a mainstay of big-budget genre films for quite a while and while there have been some disastrous efforts (hello, Mr. Binks), there have been some digitally-animated characters in live-action films that have been as good--if not better--than the humans within the same movies. This week we're going to take a look at the best live-action CGI characters in films.

Caveat: Pretty self-explanatory, really; we're looking at CGI-animated characters that were parts of live-action films. Fully animated films such as the Pixar or DreamWorks Animation films were not included, nor were films like Beowulf which, while performance capture was used, were completely animated. For ranking purposes I was looking at the animation quality, the performance of the actor or voice actor, the character's impact on film and memorability (and, of course, personal preference).

Just Missing The Cut

Starscream (Transformers Films)
Master Control Program (Tron)
King Kong (King Kong)
Neytiri (Avatar)
Hulk (The Avengers)

#8: Draco (Dragonheart)

First up on the list is a classic from the early days of CGI. Dragonheart seems to be a largely forgotten film and that's unfortunate because it's actually quite good. Rob Cohen is better remembered for the The Fast and the Furious before his career went downhill with xXx, Stealth and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor but this may just be his best effort. The tale of a disgraced knight-turned-dragon slayer that strikes up a partnership with the last dragon has a lot of heart at its core, and I don't just mean the titular one. Quaid is great as the knight Bowen but it is the CGI Draco who is the real star. Voiced by the one and only Sean Connery, Draco was one of the best earlier examples of a CGI character who wasn't just a special effects set piece. He was a fully-realized character in his own right and to be frank, he is a better character on the page than most of the humans in the film. The straight-to-video sequel is completely ignorable but Draco is a character who truly stands the test of time.

#7: Sonny (I, Robot)

I, Robot is a film that divides many science fiction fans. There are a lot of people who decry how fast and loose the film plays with the story and concepts of Isaac Asimov's book and I can thoroughly understand that. There's no doubt that Alex Proyas' 2004 film took an incredibly thoughtful piece of sci-fi literature and turned it into an action story, and I fully get why that would anger people. The product placement is kind of irritating as well. For my money though it's a well-done sci-fi action film with some of Asimov's theories nicely laid over it and even if you don't like the film, you have to give some appreciation to the character of Sonny. The robot accused of murdering his creator is a stunning realization of digital effects, to be sure. But what really makes him work is the performance capture and voice work of Alan Tudyk, better known to sci-fi fans Firefly's Wash. Amidst a sea of identical robots, Sonny is a unique individual and not just because of the film's storyline. There is a level of emotion within him that makes us sympathetic. Sonny was one of those CGI characters who didn't look pretty, he made us like him as a character. Even now, eight years later, that can be a tricky feat but Tudyk and the visual effects team made it look easy.

#6: Velociraptors (Jurassic Park)

I know, everyone loves the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park but for me these were the real stars of the film. The T-Rex was a huge action set piece who dominated the screen and made you gape at the quality of the CGI work in the film. The velociraptors, on the other hand, gave you nightmares. To me, that's the real measure of a monster's effectiveness. Few people outside of dinosaur nuts were aware of raptors before Jurassic Park; we all knew about the T-Rex, the brontosaurus, the diplodocus, the stegosaurus, the pterodactyl and so on. Once Stephen Spielberg's box office behemoth came out however, velociraptors instantly became the stars of the dinosaur world. And that's because they were treated as real threats throughout the film, a shockingly intelligent pack predator who menaced our heroes even more than the big guy did. The scene in which the raptors stalk the two kids in the kitchen is one of the tensest within the entire film and even the mighty game warden falls prey to the "clever girl." The digital work on these guys (and all of the film) stands up to this day and the raptor became a pop culture phenomenon. They're the biggest villains of Jurassic Park and that places them firmly on my list.

#5: Yoda (Star Wars Episodes II and III)

I have a lot of issues with the Star Wars prequels, like many people do. George Lucas took CGI to a new extreme in Episodes I through III and the fact that he story suffered because of that is deeply sad. However, one problem I never had was the use of CGI to recreate Yoda. I love the puppet Yoda from the original trilogy of course, but digitally animating the character did allow us to see the vaunted Jedi Master at his peak. With Frank Oz' voice work firmly in place we were able to see exactly Yoda was such a formidable opponent, watching him turn into a whirling Jedi dervish of death without losing any of the characterization that we loved. And it's not just about the Dooku fight or the battle with Sidious in Revenge of the Sith either; the earlier scenes we have with him in Attack of the Clones and the quieter scenes in Episode III featuring him hold up to the character as portrayed in the Episodes V and VI. This was a great example of Lucas succeeding in what he does so well: taking his incredible imagination and using technology to see it through.

#4: Davey Jones (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest)

Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise doesn't have a huge amount of fans past the first film, especially when you consider its expansive grosses. The over-the-top antics of Dead Man's Chest and the overly-complicated plot of At World's End dialed down the enthusiasm many people have for the franchise, to say nothing of the lackluster On Stranger Tides. Still, there is a lot to enjoy in at least the first two sequels and foremost among them is Bill Nighy's turn as the cursed pirate Davey Jones. For almost half a decade the tentacle-faced character was the benchmark for believable CGI motion-capture, and still stands as one of the best to date. Many critics even mistakenly thought that Nighy was either wearing practical effects or that only his face was animated, but the truth is that Jones was complete CGI. Nighy's performance helped make Jones work; the menace and fury of the character was layered nicely with his sad, tragic tale and he became one of the most interesting roles in the pirate franchise. The characterization on the page was well-done as well; while many of the Pirates characters may as well have been twirling black mustaches, Davey Jones was infinitely more complex and that helps to put him in the upper echelon of this list.

#3: T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

1991 was a hallmark year for computer-generated imagery. Not only did we get the first use of photorealistic CGI fire on film in Backdraft (a tricky task, to be sure), we also had the first time that a CGI character was given realistic human movement in the T-1000. Some may consider it cheating to put Robert Patrick's villainous Terminator character on this list as he's not animated for much of the film. That being said, the fact remains that the animated portions were essential to the character and the T-1000 is one of the more influential CGI characters of all-time. The effects used by James Cameron's team in Judgment Day were unheard of at the time, and when we first see the T-1000's liquidation it's an awe-inspiring moment. Patrick gave the character a chilling demeanor and his ruthless attitude made him quite the formidable opponent for the Connors and the T-800. The simple concept of the character is absolute genius as well; it's nearly invulnerable and has no need for any sort of weaponry because it can create its own. This was a character where the sky really was the limit with terms of imagination and it raised the stakes for the heroes, improving the film by many degrees in the process.

#2: Gollum (The Lord of the Rings Films)

The most controversial thing about Gollum being on this list is probably that he isn't #1. And to be fair, it was a very close call between the two. Gollum is often referred to as the greatest CGI film character of all-time and it's entirely understandable to see why. Andy Serkis, then an unknown, took the famous Tolkien character and made the absolute most out of it. It was a role in which not only were the digital effects to bring Gollum to life breath-taking, but so was the performance. The multiple personality aspects are sometimes derided as silly and there have been no small number of parodies inspired by it, but I really enjoyed it. And even with that set aside you have to consider the fact that almost at no point throughout the trilogy (or the first Hobbit film for that matter) do you really think of him as an animated character. It's an astoundingly sympathetic performance and a truly masterful level of digital animation which allow us to experience one of the most important characters of the Lord of the Rings franchise in a way he never could have been portrayed before the era of CGI. That's about all that needs to be said.

#1: Caesar (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

The only person who could top Andy Serkis on this list is...well, Andy Serkis himself. As much as I love Gollum, Serkis' work as the primary ape character in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the cream of the crop in terms of CGI characters. Serkis took the character on the page and turned him into a living, breathing role that we identify with as the real hero of the film. Weta Digital's work here is absolutely unparalleled with its various depictions of simian races, not only in their movement and look but the emotions. The days of dead-eyed CGI being the norm are a distant memory, but this took it even further. Serkis' acting work in the role was recognized by many awards groups that do not normally recognize performance capture and if you ask me, he should have received an Academy Award nomination over Max von Sydow's performance in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Caesar is the absolute pinnacle of what CGI performance can be and he's a big part of the reason that everyone is so looking forward to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Disguise of the Episode

Current Series/Season: Season One (2001 - 2002)
Episodes Watched: 18
Last Serial Completed: Masquerade - While on a case to track the activities of Khasinau, Sydney runs into her ex-lover, Noah Hicks, who broke her heart and left without saying goodbye five years earlier. Meanwhile, Sydney tells Sloane that she wants to find her mother; Jack is ordered to see a CIA psychiatrist to help him deal with his churning emotions after discovering that his wife may still be alive. Will and Francie become suspicious of Sydney's activities after finding one of her airline ticket stubs.
Episodes Remaining: 87

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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