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Plasmatics and Prisons

The Morph and the Spectacular Emergence of CGI

4. 1976 to the Present

3. 1989–1998

  1. Kristen Whissel

Published Online: 13 NOV 2011

DOI: 10.1002/9780470671153.wbhaf085

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

How to Cite

Whissel, K. 2011. Plasmatics and Prisons. The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. 4:3:80.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 13 NOV 2011


In the final decade of the twentieth century, the use of computer-generated images (CGI) and digital visual effects became a hallmark of popular, live-action American blockbusters. Accomplished mostly in postproduction, such practices ranged from color adjustment at the level of the pixel to spectacular visual effects designed to astonish audiences. One of the first such recognizable spectacular effects was the digital morph, which created smooth transformations of a “source” image into a “target” image using software programs to cross-dissolve and warp images. In Ron Howard's Willow (1988) and James Cameron's The Abyss (1989) characters and creatures shape-shift their surface appearance in single scenes organized around the display of this astonishing effect; in later films, particularly in Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix (1999), and Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000), the ability to morph defines characters who exercise this (spectacular) power with thrilling dramatic effects. In addition to giving bodies seemingly unfettered capacity for instantaneous change, the morph also allowed landscapes and cityscapes to transform themselves with fluid ease in films like Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Alex Proyas's Dark City (1998), while in films like Chuck Russell's The Mask (1994) and Tom Shadyac's The Nutty Professor (1996) morphing gave the human body comic plasticity that allowed it to stretch, bulge, and bend in often comic and cartoonish fashion.


  • computer-generated images;
  • digital visual effects;
  • special effects;
  • morph