In today’s world, it’s not surprising that many films are saturated with CGI. It’s convenient, it's a time saver and it doesn’t put the cast or crew in danger. From a business perspective, CG sequences are often a smarter choice than practical effects – think about how much it costs to make one car or building explode!
But what is lost with CGI is one important element: authenticity.
While CG movies like Avatar and Life of Pi have their visual appeal, they don’t look real. Neither do many effects that are produced in recent blockbusters, leaving audiences nostalgic over the days of stop-motion model effects and prosthetics costumes and make-up. Perhaps that's why George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy never really won the respect of die-hard Star Wars fans, despite the groundbreaking CGI effects. And perhaps that's why JJ Abrams has decided to move away from green screens and artificial environments and to use more practical effects on the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
There are still directors, however, who believe in good-ol' fashioned pyrotechnics, miniatures, costumes, and choreographed fights. They are willing to take risks and go to extraordinary lengths to evoke a sense of realism in their films. Here are 10 Awesome Special Effects That Were Not CGI.
Obviously, prior to the omnipresence of CGI special effects, almost all movies had practical effects. So we've limited this list to movies that came after Tron, often considered the harbinger of computer-generated imagery.
10 The Dark Knight (2008)
There is so much wreckage in the car chase scene of The Dark Knight that it’s hard to believe that CGI wasn’t used. In this epic sequence of mass destruction, the Batmobile, a garbage truck, semi truck, cop cars, and numerous civilian cars are destroyed. Often, production crews will create miniature sets when they need to film destruction of this magnitude, but not Christopher Nolan. To achieve authenticity, he closed down streets of Chicago to film the scene.
The first jaw-dropping special effect in the sequence takes place when the Batmobile takes out the Joker’s garbage truck by smashing it from underneath. To achieve the effect, Nolan used a one-third scale model of the Batmobile and sent it on a guided crash course with the garbage truck. Even more impressive was the climatic flip of the garbage truck. The special effects crew accomplished this sequence by building a steam piston mechanism in the trailer, which provided the upward force needed to flip the monstrous truck.
9 Independence Day (1996)
Believe it or not, there no CGI was used in the sequence of Independence Day where the aliens set fire to NYC, L.A. and Washington D.C. If you ever watched the sequence and thought, “Huh, that fire looks pretty real” – that’s because it is!
To pull off the effect, the special effects crew built a model city and placed it on its side. They called it the “death chimney.” The pyrotechnics were placed along the bottom of the chimney and the camera on top pointing downward. When the building exploded, the fire blew upwards, creating the effect that the fire was spreading laterally. At the time, Independence Day had more miniature model work than any other film – and the studio spent $75 million dollars to ensure it was done right.
8 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) tries to have the memories of his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased. In a kind of dream state, Joel then relives the memories of him and Clementine as they are simultaneously wiped from his memory. His memories are disjointed, with people and settings popping in and out at random moments.
Director Michael Gondry successfully creates the surreal world of Joel's psyche through some pretty ingenious tricks. In one sequence, Joel walks in on himself talking to the doctor who was responsible for wiping his memories. The camera pans from Joel to the doctor. Then in an instant, the camera pans to the other Joel, who is part of the memory. Any director could have easily accomplished this effect by having the second Joel composited into the scene with green screen effects. But, drawing from his background in theater, Gondry actually had Carrey run to the other side of the set as quickly as possible so that he could play both Joels.
Carrey had an on-set argument with Gondry, as he didn’t think it was physically possible to film the sequence in such a manner. But, after numerous takes, the effect was finally achieved.
7 The Lord of the Rings (2001 - 2003)
The size contrast needed between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the regular-sized actors who played the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings trilogy could have easily been created with CGI – but that wasn’t good enough for director Peter Jackson. He wanted the interactions between the characters to look real.
To successfully accomplish the size contrast sequences, Jackson sometimes used a child to film Frodo or superimposed his face onto a shorter double. But the effect was predominantly achieved through a technique called forced prospective. To accomplish this technique, Jackson placed the hobbits far from the camera and Gandalf very close, and then shot at an angle where it looked like they were next to each other. The result is Gandalf appearing very big and the hobbits appearing very small.
The logistics might sound simple, but it actually involves some math to successfully pull off. Take the scene where Gandalf and Frodo are riding together in the cart. They appear to be side-by-side, but the cart was built so Frodo was sitting four feet behind Gandalf. This created the appearance that Gandalf was much bigger than his hobbit companion.
6 Jurassic Park (1993)
The dinosaurs in the originally Jurassic Park were a combination of CGI, animatronics, and, yes, guys dressed up in dino-suits. Spielberg elicited the talents of special effects extraordinaire Stan Winston to create lifelike dinosaurs. Winston’s team created a variety of cable-controlled puppets that were used throughout the movie. They also created raptor suits, which most notably appear in the scene where the children are hunted and chased through the kitchen by two raptors. Instead of having the children imagine they were being chased, Spielberg wanted to elicit real feelings of terror by actually chasing them.
Stan Winston Studio supervisor John Rosengrant was the main raptor suit performer. To accomplish a realistic performance, Rosengrant studied raptor behaviors and imitated them onscreen. He assumed a skiing pose inside of the suit, bending at the waist and squatting with his legs at 90-degree angles. Rosengrant worked with a personal trainer before shooting, to ensure he could hold the pose for long periods of time. That’s what we call dedication.
5 Skyfall (2012)
007 doesn’t need CGI to pull off effects – especially when you cast a badass like Daniel Craig, who performs many of his own stunts. Early in the film, Bond fights a mercenary atop of a train. Every jab, kick, and knockout is actually performed by the two men while the train is moving. The only thing preventing them from falling off the side is a wire about as thick as your index finger.
Later in the movie, a train smashes through the wall – no CGI is used for that sequence either. The filmmakers accomplished the effect by hanging the train laterally and then letting the force and weight of it blast through the wall. While Craig was on the set when the effect was filmed, his dive in front of the train was added later in post production.
4 Inception (2010)
Director Christopher Nolan makes a second appearance on this list with his practical effects in Inception. Some of the most stunning visuals in the film appear in the hallway fight scene. To achieve the zero-gravity effect, a 100-foot rotating hallway was constructed in a London airplane hangar. The camera was locked down in the hallway when it was rotating, making the actors appear as if they were climbing walls and walking on the ceiling. It took 500 crew members and three weeks to successfully film this sequence.
The hallway scene isn’t the only impressive effect created without CGI. In other scene, water rushes through the windows of a castle as Leonardo DiCaprio watches. It is in fact real water. The crew fired 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water into the windows from huge water cannons as DiCaprio stood and got soaking wet.
To accomplish another practical effect, the crew put air cannons in a café and market stands across the street, and then blew everything up around Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page. The explosion was filmed in slow motion, which made the effect look absolutely stunning onscreen.
3 Confessions on a Dangerous Mind (2002)
When filming his spy comedy film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, director George Clooney used in-camera effects to create several seamlessly contained sequences. For example, in the scene where game show television producer Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) invents The Dating Game, he is first talking about the show in the bathroom with his girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore). The camera zooms into his eyes, and then when it zooms out, Barris is in the board room pitching the idea to studio executives. There were no cuts used in this sequence.
The “no cut” effect is accomplished in another scene where Barris is speaking with a studio executive over the phone. The scene appears to be filmed as a split screen with Barris in his apartment on the left and the studio executive on the right in an office. But looks can be deceiving! The apartment set is in front of the office set, and when the camera isn’t looking, the wall of the apartment is opened to reveal the office set behind it. Who knew Clooney had such an ingenious mind?
2 Apollo 13 (1995)
Christopher Nolan had a crafty way of creating a weightless environment in Inception. Apollo 13 director Ron Howard went for a more direct approach. Instead of building a rotating set, he actually used NASA’s own KC-135 airplane that’s used to train real astronauts. The aircraft simulates a zero-G environment through a series of parabolic arcs, which causes the ship to go up and down at super speeds. The aircraft is aptly nicknamed the “The Vomit Comet.”
“The Vomit Comet” was used as the soundstage on the set of Apollo 13. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon were placed inside of it to film all of the weightless scenes, which comprise nearly half of the film! Bacon was not enthused to film in an actual weightless environment, but caved in after seeing Hanks and Paxton’s excitement. Actor Gary Sinise was also not a fan of the weightless environment, as he suffered from motion sickness. Lucky for him, his character mostly stayed on the ground throughout the film.
It took roughly 600 parabolic arcs – or almost four hours of weightlessness – to complete all of the weightless filming needed for the movie. Keep in mind that four hours in a simulated zero-G environment is more than most astronauts get before they are sent into space. The effects in the movie are so authentic that Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk the moon, told the filmmakers they got it right.
1 Tron (1982)
Once the film was printed, each frame was enlarged using a rotoscoping machine. The crew then had to make the film transparent, so they could isolate different parts of the image, such as the costumes or faces. Then they had to animate each element individually, and then put it all back together. When it was all said and done, the crew ended up animating around 108,000 individual cells. Needless to say, the process of back-lit animation was never used for another feature film.
Did we miss an effect, or disagree with one on this list? Let us know below!