The History of VFX: How the Morphing Effect Evolved

By: Kseniya Serebrennikova

A morphing effect can be seen in nearly every fantasy movie, TV show, or video game, but the effect itself is relatively young. Want to learn how the first morphing/shapeshifting VFX looked and how they were created? Keep reading!

It feels surreal to think that just a little over a century ago filmmakers were taking baby steps towards producing incredibly beautiful movies and were extremely limited in their choice of tools. One of the very first full-length movies in color was Vie et Passion du Christ – a 44-minute-long silent film released in 1903. The use of soundtrack became possible even later – in 1926, the viewers saw Don Juan, a movie that used the Vitaphone sound-on-disc sound system. It had music and sound effects in it though no recorded dialogues or monologues were featured in the movie. 

Early VFX

Needless to say, when it comes to something as technologically complex as VFX, the history is even shorter. The first visual effects had absolutely nothing to do with the intricacies of CGI – those were simple in-camera effects that did not allow for a lot of crazy ideas. In the late 19th-early 20th century, VFX were mostly created using jump-cuts and stop-motion. Because there was essentially no video editing software, filmmakers had to create the little visual tricks while filming. The effect of disappearing was one of the easiest to do because all it required was a good jump-cut. Film directors and FX artists also used lighting effects and played with colored lights to make SFX makeup on actors’ faces appear or disappear as the lighting setup changed. It took film creators several more decades to finally produce a movie that uses CGI, and that happened in 1973. Westworld is the first movie where we can see a blend of digital animation and live-action footage. 

Since then, the industry started making numerous sci-fi films with the use of computer imagery as technology finally allowed to take creative experiments further. And one effect quickly became one of the filmmakers’ favorites – it is the well-known morphing/shape-shifting/transformation effect that many fantasy movies are heavily reliant on. 
Morphing is one of those types of VFX that can clearly show you just how much technology behind filmmaking has advanced over the last 50 years. In this article, we will take a look at the beautiful transformation of the transformation effect in CGI. 

1980s - First CGI Morphing Effects

Unsurprisingly, the first morphing effects were created using FX makeup rather than CGI. In this iconic scene from the 1982 Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, we see Julian Glover’s character, Walter Donovan, turn into a skeleton after drinking from the fake Grail. The effect was created by ILM’s FX artists who created 3 different puppets for 3 stages of the character’s decay. For the final stages of destruction, pieces of plastic were placed onto the puppet and hot air blown onto it to achieve the horrifying melting effect.
This is not the only example of brilliant FX makeup in the movie – in another scene, Ronald Lacey’s face melts away turning his character’s head into a bare skull. For this effect, the crew made a mold of the actor’s face, inserted artificial eyes into it, and used gelatin to mimic the melting of the skin and muscle. Again, with the help of hot air, the drippy face was activated and the SFX makeup footage was captured.
Industrial Light & Magic has always been one of the world’s leading VFX studios and it has worked on some of the very first movies with CGI. In fact, ILM created VFX for Michael Ritchie’s The Golden Child (1986) – the movie that is being credited as the first one to use photorealistic CGI body morphing. In this movie, Charles Dance’s character Sardo Numspa turns into a rat and while the transition is not as smooth and natural as the ones we see in modern movies, it was a huge step forward for the VFX industry. 
The footage was filmed on a VistaVision camera. VistaVision is a high-resolution widescreen process that uses 35mm film and it was created in 1954 by Paramount Pictures. What made it special was that the size of the negative was bigger and it allowed for a higher-resolution picture. This made VistaVision a true find for VFX artists in the 1970s because VistaVision’s broader negative space meant less film grain which was perfect for compositing VFX shots.
A little earlier that year (1986), Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home came out and it became the first movie to demonstrate the wonders of photorealistic CGI face morphing. In one of the scenes, you can see the characters’ 3D head sculpts floating in a thick fog transforming into one another. This was created thanks to Cyberware’s high-performance color 3D scanners. The actors had their heads scanned with Cyberware’s Head & Face scanners and the acquired 3D models were morphed together using a computer program. 
The ILM team was responsible for creating VFX for the movie, and as Douglas Kay, ILM’s Computer Graphics Supervisor said, the process of matching the actors’ heads for morphing was relatively easy. Their facial structure was overall quite similar and taken that the Cyberware scanner used the same number of key points of reference when creating head models, the transitions ended up being seamless. Weeks of rendering were worth the result at the end of the day.
Ron Howard’s Willow was the next significant move for CGI morphing in movie production, and again, ILM was responsible for creating VFX for the film. In one of the scenes, Willow portrayed by Warwick Davis has to help Fin Raziel go back from her goat form to her human form but the spell goes wrong and the woman undergoes several transformations until she gets her body back. So we see the goat turn into an ostrich, then into a peacock, a tortoise, a tiger, and eventually – a human being. 
ILM’s supervisor Dennis Muren decided that using the existing tools for creating the morphing effect would be too complex and instead, suggested filming every animal and the actress separately and later assembling the footage using special software. To make this creative idea come to life, ILM’s computer graphics specialist Doug Smythe developed a program that created seamless transitions between those shots making it seem like one creature was transforming into another. The techniques developed by Doug Smythe were further used by ILM when creating VFX for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

1990s - The Magic of Motion Tracking

In the 1990s, VFX started to develop faster than ever before and CGI was becoming less awkward and much more impressive. One of the examples of a CGI-reliant movie of the 90s is the brilliant 1994 The Mask with Jim Carrey which still looks pretty awesome today. Just as every other film we have mentioned so far, The Mask’s visual effects were created by ILM. Another studio that helped created the visuals for the movie was Dream Quest Images. 
The scene where we see Jim’s character turn into The Mask for the first time was in fact filmed without the mask on! The team made a 3D scan of the actor’s head and added the CG mask on top of the live-action footage later. The scenes where Jim’s character Stanley Ipkiss and his dog Milo turn into cartoonish creatures were created using wireframe animations on top of live-action footage. The Mask was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and a BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects.
The story of the creepy half-mummy Imhotep from Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy was created by Industrial Light & Magic together with Cinesite and Pacific Title/Mirage. The main character, Imhotep, was supposed to slowly transition from a mummy to a human being, and ILM’s artists started working on character lookdev 3 months prior to filming. The designers came up with 4 different looks that went from a decaying body to a nearly fully regenerated body with some bones and muscles peeking through the skin. The first stages were fully CG while the latter ones were a combination of live-action and computer imagery. 
To make sure the CG elements looked organic (quite literally) the team relied on motion capture a lot – Arnold Vosloo who played Imhotep performed every movement for the mocap himself. To create the mummified version of his body, VFX artists used Autodesk Alias. Because the motion capture movements were performed by the actor and not by a stuntman, the artists managed to make the mummy incredibly realistic and make it walk exactly like Arnold Vosloo.

2000s - Green Screen Era

Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2000) is often called a true CGI breakthrough because of its advanced use of mocap and CGI by the talented Sony ImageWorks artists. In the movie, Kevin Bacon’s character Sebastian Caine who is a molecular biologist creates a serum that makes objects invisible and in one of the scenes, the scientist becomes the victim of his own invention. In that scene, we see the actor’s body disappearing layer by layer – first, his skin becomes invisible, then his muscles and organs disappear, and lastly, even the skeleton vanishes and all that is left is a silhouette of a man on a medical bed. 
To make Kevin’s body entirely see-through, the artists dressed him into monochromatic suits with motion tracking points head to toe. They had 3 different suits for filming live-action footage for different types of scenes with the invisible man – a black one, a blue one, and a classic neon green one. Every scene where the character was supposed to be invisible was shot twice – with and without the actor in it. 
To make the skeleton and the body without the skin look as realistic as possible, the artists had Kevin Bacon’s body fully scanned for a 3D model. Then the muscles, fat, organs, and bones were created using volumetric rendering. Modeling, texturing, and animating the human body was a tough challenge for the artists, and they had to spend a good amount of time studying human anatomy and checking references captured with a scanner to make sure the CG body looked just as alive and believable as the actual body of the main character. 

2010s - When CGI Looks More Real Than Real-Life Footage

The morphing effect only got better and more realistic from that moment on and by the end of the decade, VFX had grown to the level of hyperrealism. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a perfect example of modern advanced CGI. At the beginning of the movie, several characters drink a potion that turns them into Harry Potter’s clones. The incredible morphing effect in this scene is so subtle and beautiful it is easy to forget this wasn’t real at all. It involves both face and body morphing and you can see the actors’ faces steadily blend together with Daniel Radcliffe’s facial features. 
Several different studios created visual effects for the movie, and those included DNEG, Framestore, Rising Sun Pictures, and Moving Picture Company. The team responsible for this scene was MPC, and to create those mesmerizing transitions, they used Mova CONTOUR Reality Capture which is a tool for high-resolution 3D facial capture. Two sets of plates were filmed for this scene – the first ones included every performer acting out the process of transforming into Harry, and the second ones were Daniel Radcliffe acting as every single one of those characters turning into Harry. So essentially, the actor had to portray 6 different characters who turn into HIS character (this sounds insanely mind-blowing but Daniel did an incredible job). Then came the long process of rotoscoping, adjusting facial mechanics, and blending the facial features of the actors to make the transitions as natural as possible. 
As we approach the 2020s, the morphing effect is becoming a must for nearly any and every movie with fantasy elements in it. Venom (2018) is one of the best examples of a movie that revolves around the shapeshifting effect as the main character keeps transforming throughout the story. Tom Hardy’s terrifying Venom transformations were created by DNEG’s VFX artists. To create Venom’s huge strong body, the team had a 6’7’’ stunt double perform for motion capture since Tom Hardy is 5’9’’ and Venom is supposed to be much bigger. To make sure the moments when Tom’s character, Eddie Brock, extrudes tentacles from his body, were smooth and the motion was natural, the team used Canon 5D Mk III witness cameras for precise tracking. 
To create organic movement in Venom’s body, the artists had to study some pretty specific references – because Venom’s tentacles don’t move like the normal limbs, DNEG’s team researched sea creatures and non-Newtonian fluids. To create the first scene where Eddie turns into Venom, VFX artists had to track Tom Hardy’s entire body down to the tiniest details like the folds of his clothing. The creative team also needed to make sure that the Venom body didn’t look like a Halloween costume zipping in on the character’s body and actually appeared as shapeshifting – to do that, they experimented quite a bit with the black goo properties and added multiple FX simulations and distortions. 

The Future of VFX

Morphing VFX you can see in the 2010s and early 2020s movies already seem to be the absolute peak of photorealism in CGI and frankly, it’s hard to imagine how much further the artists can push believability in VFX. The number of tools the artists can use now is absolutely dizzying and the teams always keep creating something new and exclusive to go beyond the possibilities of the existing applications. 
It’s been only 40 years since ILM’s first attempt at photorealistic CGI face morphing in Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home and now the industry is already at insane Venom-level CG transformations. One thing is certain – with this amazingly fast industry growth, skilled VFX artists will undoubtedly be in demand. 

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