It’s no secret that Hollywood relies heavily on CGI to make their movies work. You would be hard-pressed to find a blockbuster movie within the past 20 years that did not use a single bit of computer-generated imagery. The problem is, nowadays, people want to be wowed beyond their own imagination. Unfortunately, when building universes that inherently involve science-fiction and fantasy, practical effects aren’t often the answer.
Overall, using CGI is easy and efficient, and it sometimes can even trick the viewer into believing what they’re seeing is real – which is the case with movies like Ex Machina and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. However, the vast majority of production teams ineffectively use CGI, thus allowing their movies to suffer because of it, although every once in a while, a modern movie comes out on top with visually stunning practical effects. This list aims to cover some of those movies. So, in no particular order, here are 15 Modern Movie Special Effects That Didn’t Use Any CGI.
15. Flame-throwing guitar – Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller is a purist, someone who prides himself on going the full mile when making his films. That’s why after several years and a series of delays, Mad Max: Fury Road finally released in theaters last year to overwhelming critical acclaim; the film was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. One of the many reasons the film was so well-received – by both critics and audiences – is due to Miller’s heavy reliance on practical effects versus excessive CGI.
One special effect in particular, the Doof Warrior’s flame-throwing guitar, stood out amongst audiences, as well as the character’s unusual getup and the dozens of amps behind him. The thing is, in a movie featuring a real car chase, why would a flame-spouting guitar be any different? It isn’t; production designer Colin Gibson confirmed as much to MTV: “George — unfortunately — doesn’t like things that don’t work. I have in the past built him props that I thought were just supposed to be props, and then he goes, ‘Okay, plug it in now.'”
14. Car Roll – Casino Royale
Longtime James Bond fans took offense to Daniel Craig’s casting in the early 2000s, but there is no denying the critical and commercial success attained by Craig’s incarnation of the famed British spy. Not only was Craig’s Skyfall the highest-grossing Bond film ever made (breaking the billion-dollar barrier), but under his tenure, the Bond franchise has attained a number of world records, including the largest explosion ever on screen.
One of the first records achieved was in Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, in which stuntman Adam Kirley broke the record for highest number of cannon rolls in one stunt: seven barrel rolls. According to the Guinness World Records, the Aston Martin DBS was retrofitted with a nitrogen cannon in order to assist with the necessary number of rotations. While the scene would have you believe it took place on a random street, it was, in fact, filmed at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Milton Keynes, UK.
13. Tray Catch – Spider-Man
Comic book movies require a hefty amount of CGI work in order to fully realize their vision; however, that doesn’t mean they are completely devoid of practical visual effects. While Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is known for using quite a few props in production, one scene in particular stuck out to audiences: the scene in which Peter Parker catches Mary Jane Watson – and all of the food on her lunch tray.
Instead of using CGI, the production design team plastered some form of superglue onto the tray, thus allowing Tobey Maguire to maintain hold of both Mary Jane and the tray. However, catching each item on the tray proved to be difficult; it took several attempts, but Maguire finally got everything right on the 156th take. Interestingly, due to production time constraints, the studio initially wanted Raimi to cut the scene; however, since Raimi, Maguire, and Kirsten Dunst were determined to film it, they shot the entire thing in one day instead of two.
12. Car implosion – The Matrix Reloaded
The Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy is one of the most beloved science-fiction properties ever made, and arguably one of the greatest trilogies of all time. It’s remembered for several things, mostly Neo’s bullet-time dodge in the first movie. And although the trilogy is laden with visual effects, many aspects of the movies were actually created using practical effects which were then amplified using minimal CGI. For instance, take the freeway chase scene in The Matrix Reloaded.
At one point in the sequence, one of the agents is seen jumping on the hood of a vehicle, which then implodes as he leaps off onto another vehicle. While the actor playing the agent was composited later in post-production to create the image we see on screen, the actual implosion of the car was real — as was everything else in the scene. Special rigs, cannons, and ramps were used to create the scene, and were later removed using CGI.
11. The Orcs – Lord of the Rings
After years of waiting, Peter Jackson finally committed to filming The Hobbit in 2010. Along with a series of changes, including the decision to film in 3D using 48 frames-per-second instead of the traditional 24 frames, The Hobbit was looking to be a different beast than Jackson’s previous works. Although Jackson unnecessarily split J.R.R. Tolkien’s book into three parts, fans went along with the choice, hoping for another ground-breaking adventure in Middle-Earth. However, the result was not quite what fans had in mind.
One of the more prominent objections fans had with Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy was the director’s over-reliance on CGI. While his Lord of the Rings trilogy undoubtedly featured a hefty amount of computer-generated work, most of it was created using real props and practical effects. For instance, in The Hobbit films, the orcs were created entirely using CGI, whereas, in The Lord of the Rings films, the actors wore full-body makeup and prosthetics – which is why the Lord of the Rings trilogy, arguably the greatest movie trilogy of all time, will stand the test-of-time moreso than The Hobbit trilogy.
10. TARS and CASE – Interstellar
Like J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan is known for his abundant use of practical effects in his movies, such as The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, as well as his most recent project, Interstellar. Although there are a plethora of special effects in the film, one thing particularly stood out to audiences: TARS; a repurposed, anthropomorphic military machine who develops a special connection with Cooper.
Instead of developing a humanoid robot, Nolan conceived the idea for a quadrilateral machine, one that would be able to divide and subdivide into smaller blocks. While something like this would be perfect for CGI work, especially since the machine would be voiced by an actor, Nolan wanted the character to not only feel real but be real. Therefore, he thought the best version of the character would be a practical build that would be puppeteered, and in post-production, they’d remove the puppeteer using CGI. That is exactly what they did, and the results were exceptional.
9. Rey’s bread – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
People have a favorite fictional universe for various reasons, but one of the many reasons audiences are enamored with Star Wars films is due to Lucasfilm’s dedication to the most minute details. In this case, the detail is Rey’s insta-bread in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While living on Jakku, Rey was forced to scavenge parts from a downed Imperial Destroyer and trade said parts with Unkar Plutt for Portion Bread.
The idea for the bread was conceived by director J.J. Abrams, who wanted to make the bread using practical effects instead of CGI – and the production design team made it work. Production designer Chris Corbould told MTV that it took three months of extensive work to create the instant bread, which is explained in-universe as being leftover Imperial supplies.
“It started off with the mechanics of getting the bread to rise and the liquid to disappear, but then there was the ongoing problem of what color should the bread be? What consistency should it be? Should it have cracks in it? Should it not have cracks in it?” Even though they made it work, and the fact that it could save millions of people a lot of time in the morning, it’s not something people should really eat.
8. Xibalba – The Fountain
Of all the creative ways special effects were used in movies on this list, perhaps the most ingenious of them all are the visual effects in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The filmmaker originally intended to use the bulk of his film’s $70 million production budget (whatever amount not previously allocated to acquiring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as leading stars) on the film’s extensive visual effects work.
Unfortunately, shortly after Pitt dropped out of the project, production ceased and didn’t resume until two years later, with a $35 million budget and Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as the leading stars. To accommodate the halved production budget, Aronofsky turned to a revolutionary form of visual effects: macrophotography, or extremely magnified close-up photography.
The film’s visual effects team hired macro photographer Peter Parks, who, in layman’s terms, photographed chemical reactions that served as the film’s psychedelic special effects in creating the nebula Xibalba. “When these images are projected on a big screen, you feel like you’re looking at infinity,” Parks once said in an interview with WIRED. “That’s because the same forces at work in the water – gravitational effects, settlement, refractive indices – are happening in outer space.”
7. Fire in New York – Independence Day
Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Independence Day made quite the splash when it debuted in theaters in 1996. After all, the movie is often credited with modernizing the summer blockbuster – for better or worse. And that is mostly due to the movie’s marketing strategy. One of the stark images of Independence Day‘s marketing campaign was seeing New York City engulfed in flames. That image alone might have attracted a certain number of moviegoers to see the movie on the big screen.
While Independence Day‘s visual effects are littered with CGI, one of the key components in the movie’s marketing, as well as one of its more compelling scenes, is the aforementioned scene in which the aliens set fire to New York. Unlike the rest of the visual effects in the movie, that fire was real. The production team built a model city on a sound stage, installed pyrotechnics underneath, and flipped the city sideways while they lit it on fire.
6. Tom Cruise’s Plane Ride – Mission Impossible 5
Mission: Impossible is known for its elaborate stunts, most of which are performed by Tom Cruise, who has developed a reputation for himself as being quite the stuntman. He dangled from a ceiling in Mission: Impossible, he hung off the side of a cliff in Mission: Impossible 2, he rolled off the Vatican’s wall in Mission: Impossible 3, he scaled the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, he clung to a side of a flying plane. The thing is, all of that was real. Tom Cruise did everything. For this list, though, we’ll focus only on the last stunt.
There were several stunts in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — but it takes an unimaginable level of courage to attach oneself to the side of an airborne plane as it takes off and ascends. That is what Cruise did – not once, but eight times – and without stunt doubles. Using special protective contact lenses to keep his eyes open, as well wires attaching him to the plane, Tom Cruise performed his most daring stunt in the opening scene of Rogue Nation. Time will tell if he’ll be able to outdo himself with the next Mission: Impossible film.
5. Car Chase – Death Proof
It’s no secret that, in Hollywood, actors have stunt doubles who do most of the laborious work so that the actors themselves won’t be injured on set. Sometimes, those same stuntmen go on to become full-fledged actors. And one of those people is stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who did stunt work for actresses like Lucy Lawless in Xena: The Warrior Princess and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
Being a stuntwoman allows Zoe Bell the capability to perform her own stunt work in movies like Death Proof, in which she can be seen literally riding on the hood of a car in one of the most powerful car chases ever filmed on screen. For a scene like this to be effective, it requires skills only a veteran director like Quentin Tarantino has. And in a time when CGI dominates the market, it’s refreshing to see real stunts performed on camera, which serves only to intensify audiences’ sensations.
4. Paris Cafe – Inception
As with many other directors in Hollywood, Christopher Nolan’s films tend to have the same production quality – and that is due to him maintaining the same crew in every one of his films, which includes people such as cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Chris Corbould.
Although Nolan is known for The Dark Knight trilogy, as well as mind-bending films like Memento and The Prestige, he also created the well-known and well-received film Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard, among others. And just as with every one of his previous films, Nolan’s Inception contains a bevy of practical effects.
One scene in particular, in which DiCaprio and Ellen Page’s characters are sitting at a Paris cafe, sets of debris explode one after another in slow-motion. To make the scene work – and to “have people sit back and go, ‘Wow, what the f— is going on?'” – Corbould utilized a series of air cannons while Pfister shot the scene at 1,500 frames-per-second using specialized cameras.
3. Dinosaurs – Jurassic Park
Years after a movie’s release, audiences can immediately determine when the film was released due to its quality of visual effects, which typically begin to feel outdated after no more than a decade. However, there are films like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park that – even 23 years later – always look brand new, and that is due to the use of practical effects complemented with ground-breaking CGI.
While there is virtually no modern movie out there that is completely devoid of CGI, there are many that rely on the concept as a form of amplification instead of foundation. We see that come to fruition in Jurassic Park, a movie in which the dinosaurs were built using revolutionary animatronics as well as regular guys in dinosaur suits.
None of this would have been possible without the help of Academy Award-winning special effects legend Stan Winston, whose work on Terminator and Predator prepared him to make lifelike dinosaurs for Jurassic Park. Plain-and-simple: no matter how great CGI gets, puppeteering still does wonders for the aging of films.
2. Arc Reactor – Iron Man
The first Iron Man movie spawned one of the most cherished and most profitable movie franchises in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And till this day, it is considered to be one of the best installments in the ongoing, multi-faceted franchise. Despite being part of an enormous, ever-expanding universe, the first two Iron Man movies were always grounded in reality, letting audiences feel as if what they saw on screen could eventually come to pass in the real world.
This is starkly evident in the first movie in which Pepper Potts is seen performing an ill-thought out surgery on Tony Stark, replacing his arc reactor. While the arc reactor is not functional, it was a real prop that Gwenyth Paltrow pulled out of Robert Downey Jr.’s fake chest, and it wasn’t the only thing that was real. Behind-the-scenes videos reveal that virtually everything in Tony’s workshop was either real or, at least, a real prop and not CGI. Then again, things were much simpler for Tony Stark back then, when he didn’t have to rely on contraptions like watches that turn into Iron Man gauntlets.
1. Everything – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
If you can get past the horrendous marketing strategy for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which depicted the movie as being a joyous romantic comedy instead of the emotional rollercoaster it really was, you’ll find a gem within a sea of mediocrity. Not only is the story of Joel Barish’s (Jim Carey) attempt to rid himself of the memories of his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) compelling, the movie is also brimming with remarkable use of practical effects and camera ingenuity.
Instead of using a green screen, director Michel Gondry opted to have Carey run back-and-forth in one scene to make it appear there were two Joel Barish’s, one in the memory and one observing the memory. That’s not to say no CGI work was done to the film at all. In fact, in many scenes, Gondry utilized quick transitions – emulating the work of Edgar Wright – in addition to using minimal CGI to make the scenes flow seamlessly.