From Speed to Spidey: 20 years of VFX and animation

There are only a handful of visual effects houses that have been in business for 20 years or longer. And this year, Sony Pictures Imageworks has become one of them. At the same time, Sony Pictures Animation is celebrating its tenth year in operation, with its newest animated feature Hotel Transylvania to be released in September. Below is a timeline of key moments in visual effects and animated films from SPI and SPA.

And check out our fxguidetv episode where Mike Seymour talks to Ken Ralston, Rob Bredow and Jay Redd about the history of Sony Pictures Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animation.

A Sony company photo on the studio’s current Culver City campus.

Sony Pictures Imageworks is formed and starts with five employees in the former TriStar building. Jerome Chen (now a visual effects supervisor) is one of the original employees.

Previs for Rowdy Herrington’s Striking Distance is first Imageworks job.


Imageworks completes effects for Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire, placing Clint Eastwood into a Presidential motorcade.


The bus jump in Jan de Bont’s Speed, in which sections of a real roadway were digitally removed to create a gap, along with other digital work, are completed by Imageworks. Jerome Chen was the lead digital artist working on this shot.


Ken Ralston leaves ILM and starts at Sony Pictures Imageworks, bringing with him a small team including  longtime producing partner Debbie Denise (now Sony Pictures Imageworks executive vice-president of production).

In Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Imageworks comps tunnel shots with dynamic water sequences. Models and miniatures are used to create a dramatic train crash in the action movie Money Train.

– Above: Imageworks regularly presents its work at conferences, including SIGGRAPH. Here’s a recap of the studio’s presentations on Hotel Translyvania, MIB3 and The Amazing Spider-Man at SIGGRAPH 2012 in LA.


Imageworks largest production to date, James and the Giant Peach, with 45 shots, is delivered. Here, VFX artists added a flock of digital seagulls, a CG mechanical whale and its first flowing CG water.

Production begins on Starship Troopers and Contact. Contact begins with an opening cosmic pull-back shot taking up 4,738 frames, the longest visual effects shot of its time. Other Imageworks creations included invisible effects for a mirror sequence, the transporter and the final beach scene.

Sony Pictures Imageworks moves from the Sony Pictures Studio to a state-of-the-art 150,000 square foot headquarters wired for visual effects production.

A still from the opening Contact cosmic pullback.

Imageworks’ first fully-CG animated character is a giant snake for Anaconda.

Starship Troopers and Contact are both released.


Starship Troopers earns Sony Pictures Imageworks its first Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Visual Effects’ – the film combines models, miniatures and digital effects.

A still from Stuart Little – Imageworks solved hair, cloth and water sims for the show.

Stuart Little is released and features the first-ever CG-animated character to star in a live action feature. Imageworks solves sims for hair, cloth, water – altogether.


Stuart Little nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Imageworks commences effects for Cast Away, featuring a plane crash, island extensions and digital water.

For Hollow Man, visual effects artists create a photo-realistic and anatomically correct human with animation and mocap techniques.


America’s Sweethearts, directed by Joe Roth, includes VFX from Imageworks.

Hollow Man is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.


Sony Pictures Imageworks devised its first animated-short, The ChubbChubbs, as a pipeline test to expand its capability by producing both feature quality all-CG animation and its mainstay visual effects. The film accumulated numerous awards subsequent to its release with Men in Black 2.

Spider-Man grosses $821.7m globally, and features digital characters and environments by Imageworks.

Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Academic Outreach program, IPAX, is formed with input from educators at leading computer graphics and animation programs.

Artwork and final scenes from The ChubbChubbs.

The ChubbChubbs wins Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

Spider-Man is nominated for an Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects.

Sony Pictures Imageworks releases its second short called Early Bloomer, a story of tolerance, developed as a storyboard exercise.


Spider-Man 2 continues Imageworks’ showcase of digital characters and environments, including significant use of Paul Debevec and ICT’s Light Stage to re-create a digital Doc Ock.

For The Polar Express, Imageworks pioneers performance capture tech and develops ‘wheels’, a system that allows a live action camera operator to record camera movement in the digital environment. The film is also released in IMAX 3D.


Spider-Man 2 wins Sony Pictures Imageworks an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

A still from Sony Pictures Animation’s first feature, Open Season.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe earns Sony Pictures Imageworks an Oscar nomination for its share of the visual effects work.

Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg co-executive producer animated motion-capture film Monster House. Renderer Arnold used in production for its global illumination capabilities.

Beowulf is completed at Imageworks using more advanced performance capture techniques.

Sony Pictures Animation’s first theatrical animated feature Open Season opens.


Monster House nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and Superman Returns recognized with an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects.

Spider-Man 3 released.

Sony Pictures Imageworks establishes a satellite production office in Chennai, India.

Sony Pictures Animation’s Surf’s Up calls on Sony Pictures Imageworks to develop an advanced digital camera interface for the “mockumentary” style movie that allowed ‘hand-held’ camera operation to be applied directly to the animation.

Watch a breakdown of the wave sim work in Surf’s Up.


Surf’s Up earns an Academy Award nomination Best Animated Feature.

Production begins on Disney’s live-action/animation hybrid film G-Force and Warner Brothers’ comic-book adaption Watchmen.


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs nominated for Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Annie Awards for Best Animated Feature.

Break down of The Queen of Hearts head enlargement VFX by Imageworks.

Production for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderlandbegins. Principal photography is shot almost entirely on green screen stages, its fanciful virtual environments and numerous all CG characters and hybrid live-action/animated characters created in as visual effects.


Alice in Wonderland becomes the ninth highest-grossing film of all time.

Sony Pictures Imageworks opens Vancouver office as part of company’s satellite production strategy.

Work begins on Warner Brothers’ adaption of the Green Lantern.

Open Source Software program is announced. Program includes exciting innovations in advanced file transfer technology (Alembic, jointly developed with ILM), OpenColor/IO, and OSL (Open Shading Language), a significant advance in fundamental shader programming language.


Alice in Wonderland is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Sony Picture Animation’s The Smurfs is released – uses significant on-set HDR and Katana capabilities.

Katana is licensed by The Foundry and commercial versions are released.

Version 1.0 of the Open Source Alembic program is released.

Arthur Christmas – a joint project between Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman Animation – opens.


Men in Black 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man are released in July, with Hotel Transylvania opening in September.

Hotel Transylvania: Deformers applied to Frankenstein to achieve the director’s vision of exaggerated animation.

Oz: The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi, planned for release.

Past coverage

Revisit fxguide’s coverage of Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animation projects over the past few years

Spiderman – The Technical Web we Weave


Body of Lies: Blorphing It

SPI is Legend

Speed Racer

G Force: The Building of Digital Guinea Pigs

What’s Up Doc? Watchmen

Eagle Eye : What if HAL dated Skynet?


Zookeeper: An animal get together

Alice in Wonderland

Green Lantern: Sony suits up

Get the Smurf Out of Here!

fxguidetv #127: Arthur Christmas

Comic effects: Men In Black 3

Spider-Man: the detailed vfx of spiders and lizards

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