Part of the magic of movies is seeing the impossible become possible. The director’s primary objective is to make the audience believe anything – no matter how fantastical – that’s shown on the screen. That means that even the most outrageous special effects need to look like they actually took place in the real world, or else viewers could get pulled out of the film entirely.
A filmmaker knows they’ve done their job properly when moviegoers walk out of the theater and exclaim “how did they shoot that?” when talking about a jaw-dropping scene or sequence that baffles even the most savvy of viewers. So how were some of the most incredible scenes filmed? Take a look behind the curtain with Screen Rant’s 10 Secrets Behind Amazing Movie Scenes.
James Bond films are known for their extravagant action sequences, and that even extends to the more “grounded” era of Daniel Craig’s 007. In Skyfall, there’s a sequence where Bond pursues villain Silva (Javier Bardem) through London’s underground tube system to prevent Silva from assassinating M (Judi Dench). In an attempt to eliminate Bond, Silva sets off a charge and a train comes tumbling through the hole. For safety reasons, it’s safe to assume director Sam Mendes did this digitally, but most of the scene was done practically.
The crew constructed two replica train carriages that weighed 5-7 tons each. They then dropped them off a track that was elevated 20 feet above the gigantic 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios, crashing the model train through a ceiling constructed of breakaway elements. The stunt was deemed too dangerous to allow people to stay on the stage during filming, so cameras had to be 11 remotely-operated cameras were placed around the stage to film it at various angles. Since the drop ended up dismantling a majority of the stage, that proved to be a very smart decision.
Though viewers will always remain divided on its story, there’s no denying that Interstellar is an astonishing technical achievement. What makes it even more impressive is that the team placed an emphasis on practical effects, with some going as far as to claim that there was no green screen. That may be hard to believe, but there is a good amount of truth to that. Even when Interstellar traveled to other dimensions, what viewers were watching was something from this Earth.
In the film’s climax, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) drops himself into the black hole and ends up in a tesseract that allows him to communicate with his daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain). Viewers may be surprised to learn that what they are seeing is McConaughey hanging from a harness, moving around a set that was constructed. Nolan very easily could have placed his actor in front of a green screen and filled in the environment digitally, but going the extra mile paid off in an Academy Award win for Interstellar‘s visual effects. Audiences couldn’t tell if it was CGI or practical, which is the ultimate goal.
One of the most iconic images of 1990s action cinema is the White House being destroyed by an alien ship in Independence Day. The blockbuster was made during the dawn of CGI, but director Roland Emmerich did not incorporate any digital trickery when filming the sequence. His crew built a 10×5 feet model replica of the White House and spent a week planning out a real demolition. When it was time to shoot the scene, 40 explosive charges were let off and the model was blown up.
During the aliens’ attack, they also hit New York City. That sequence is known for the horrifying wall of fire that went shooting down the streets, another element that was done practically. A model of the city was tilted upright beneath a camera filming downwards to create the look of fire rolling towards the screen. Viewers may be able to fault Independence Day for its faulty in-movie logic (computer viruses), but the spectacle is without qualms.
In a tale full of nail-biting moments, they don’t get much more tense than when the bus has to jump a 50 foot gap in an incomplete Los Angeles highway. Since Speed was made at a time when CGI was still in its infancy, the crew felt it would be best to do the stunt for real. The first step was to construct a ramp so the vehicle could get the necessary lift. As a safety precaution, the stunt driver was the only person in the bus, and he was wearing a shock-absorbing harness to avoid injury.
When it was time to roll the cameras, things didn’t go very smoothly. On the first take, the driver missed the ramp and crashed the bus, an accident that went unreported to 20th Century Fox at the time. The second attempt was successful, but was still damaging. The crew thought the bus would only travel 20 feet in the air, so a camera was placed around that position to capture the land. The bus actually traveled further than anyone anticipated and crushed that camera. Fortunately, a camera that was 90 feet away from the action got it all. In post, real road was digitally removed to create the gap seen in the film.
One of the pioneers of Hollywood visual effects, The Matrix‘s famed “bullet time” has been parodied to death since its debut in 1999. It may be used more for laughs these days, but putting the sequences together was no joke and required maximum effort and preparation. Bullet time was a version of the time-slice photography technique, using temporal motion to make the shot progress in slow motion. Cameras were placed all around an object and set off a fraction of a second after each other in order to create the necessary effect.
When the frames were strung together during editing, they reached a frequency of 12,000 frames per second, a stark contrast from the typical 24. What’s even more impressive is that minimal CGI was used for the bullet time sequences. The only time the Wachowskis incorporated digital effects is when they had to remove all of the cameras that were around the environment, filling in the background using the computer.
John McClane’s (Bruce Willis) life is a living hell in the Die Hard franchise, and director John McTiernan didn’t want to make the actor’s life easy when filming the seminal first film of the series. Viewers may notice that much of the explosive action looks strikingly realistic, and that’s because a lot of what made the final cut was done for real. In an age before convincing CGI was possible, practical demolitions was the only way to go.
There are many instances in Die Hard (such as the famed rooftop sequence) where there are explosions in exterior shots of Nakatomi Plaza. A majority of those were accomplished by setting off full-scale explosives in and around the actual building. This revelation adds a whole new layer to Willis’ performance. The actor may have never been in true danger, but being in that kind of environment is nonetheless unnerving, allowing him to play the character in a more honest manner than if digital was used.
The Dark Knight
By now, moviegoers are familiar with Christopher Nolan’s stance on minimizing CGI in his films. The lengths he goes to are quite amazing, and a clear illustration of that is the famous chase sequence in The Dark Knight, when the Joker (Heath Ledger) attacks a police convoy to get to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). There’s a moment where Batman (Christian Bale) comes to the district attorney’s aid by upending a garbage truck with his Tumbler. What viewers are seeing are third-scale models of the two vehicles and the street, captured on film to look like the real thing.
For the sequence’s money shot (the semi being flipped over), the crew actually flipped a real, functioning truck. The visual effects team designed a steam-piston mechanism that was inserted into the trailer so it could reach a high enough velocity to flip forward. After testing it to ensure it would work, the crew took to the streets of Chicago and closed off a section to film what was shown in the movie.
In what can accurately be described as a visual effects game changer, even professional film pundits thought Alfonso Cuarón shot Gravity in actual outer space. The director didn’t go that far, but he did employ some nontraditional methods to craft the film’s look. He wanted to film only the actors’ faces and do everything else via digital effects. This posed a challenge because cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki would have to shoot the performers in a way that the light would match the all-CGI environment.
The solution Lubezki created was referred to as the “light box.” Placing a folded LED light screen inside of a box, the actors could film their scenes while standing in the box. This made the projected image and the light move around while the actor remained stationary in the box (instead of vice versa), ensuring that everything would look right when the final film was put together. It was an ambitious undertaking, but both Gravity’s visual effects and cinematography won Oscars.
Return of the Jedi
The Star Wars franchise is known for its memorable characters and rich mythology, but pure spectacle is another one of the series’ calling cards. One of the more exciting sequences in the classic trilogy is when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) does battle with the Rancor in Jabba’s palace. When initially planning the scene out, George Lucas had intended to use a performer in a suit to portray the creature. However, the attempts to film it this way were unsuccessful, so other methods had to be used.
In order to show the Rancor standing in his pit, the crew used a high-speed puppet, meaning that the puppet was filmed in slow-motion during principal photography. For the parts when the creature gets a hold of Luke and starts to bring the Jedi Knight up towards its mouth, a Rancor hand prop had to be constructed to use during the filming of Mark Hamill’s closeups. Considering that the sequence consisted of a miniature puppet and an actor with a full-scale prop, it’s amazing that it played out as seamlessly as it did in the final film.
E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
An instance of pure movie magic is when the alien E.T. uses his abilities to lift the bikes of Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his friends in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. It was an awe-inspiring moment that captured the imaginations of viewers across the globe, and more than 30 years after the film’s release, there are still many people wondering how exactly that sequence was shot. According to Thomas, it wasn’t as exciting as the end result looked.
To film the flying bike scenes, the bicycles were bolted to camera cranes in a studio and then were dipped and lifted in front of a blue screen. In post-production, the blue screen would obviously be replaced by the outdoor environment, creating the illusion that the bikes were up in the air. The image became such an iconic part of Hollywood that it was incorporated into Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment logo, but knowing how it was actually done takes away some of the mystique. Still, it’s impressive to see how the simplest techniques can make the greatest impacts.
Film buffs are always interested to learn how their favorite sequences were shot, and sometimes taking a look behind-the-scenes can show the impressive lengths filmmakers will go to when searching for the perfect take. It’s fascinating to see how these scenes come together, and with new blockbusters coming at a rapid-fire pace these days, there are sure to be plenty of incredible stories detailing how the exploits of Batman, Iron Man, or new Jedi Knights were captured.
As always, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to share your picks for amazing movie scenes in the comments section below. And be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more fun videos like this one!