Whenever you talk to film fans about CGI, you typically encounter two types of people. You get the ones who complain and moan and belittle the accomplishments of CGI, calling out for the days when practical effects were king, remembering only the great accomplishments of the age all the while forgetting that the vast majority of effects were, understandably, subpar when held up today’s CGI. The other main group simply doesn’t care how an effect is achieved. They just want more popcorn. Let’s just say that we’re in neither of these groups.
We recognize that CGI has a very important place in films. We also enjoy watching films that had the time and the ability to make quality practical effects instead. While we certainly love seeing high quality work of any type in a film, we do recognize that the use of practical effects are vastly overrated, or, at the very least, overly hyped and confused with superior filmmaking. You could make an argument that films that rely too heavily on CGI usually end up looking like crap. Well, yeah, but that’s an obvious claim. Too much of anything, by its very definition, is excessive.
So, what are we saying? Apparently, not much. We merely want to point out that this list, while it glorifies some scenes that don’t use (or use very little) CGI, does not and should not condemn CGI altogether. All we’ve done is compile some of the most iconic scenes that most viewers would assume utilized CGI more than it did. The list is a credit to the creative minds and amazing talents of the film crews who, for whatever reason, chose not to use computers to create these particular effects. Unfortunately, there are plenty of incredible films and scenes that were left off the list due to a lack of space. Some, like The Lord of the Rings franchise and Mad Max: Fury Road, were left off because there has been ample discussion about their practical effects and camera techniques already. Here are 15 scenes you assumed were done with CGI but weren’t.
15. That HUGE Explosion in Spectre
What kind of list would this be if we excluded the largest stunt explosion ever filmed. It took place in Spectre and it was spectre-acular… meh. Rather than create the explosion with computers, the team decided that they would do it for real. Not only that, but they chose not to use scale models or any tricks either; they just made a really huge explosion. In total, there was about 2,223 gallons of kerosene and 72 pounds of powder explosives. The result was a blast that lasted a total of 7.5 seconds. To make an explosion like that with TNT would require about 150,000 lbs of TNT or 68 metric tons. And just like that, boom goes the dynamite.
14. Levitating Truck in Thor: The Dark World
Jake Morrison, one of the visual effects supervisors on Thor: The Dark World, was tasked with creating a realistic looking truck elevating off the ground. When you see this scene in the film, you instantly think it’s CGI. Well, that was Morrison’s first instinct as well. “There was this weird moment in a production meeting where I said when the truck picks up and starts floating I’ll need a large inflatable thing of the same color for the secondary bounce,” he recalls. “I swear, I looked up and it was as if I had grown another head and everyone literally said, ‘Why do you want to make a CG truck?’ And I said, ‘Can you make a truck float?’ and they were like, ‘Oh yeah’.”
13. Earthquakes in 2012
Roland Emmerich has done disaster and he’s done large scale effects before, so the much-maligned film, 2012 was no new challenge, but it was still a large one. Though there was plenty of CGI in the final film, there are significant special effects throughout that were completed without the use of CGI. Some of the most intense involved the earthquake scenes in which the actors needed to be the focal point. To make this happen, Emmerich and his team created an 8000-square-foot steel platform built on airbags, which they called the “shaky floor.” On this stage, they built entire sets that were intended to break and dismantle as the ground shook and rattled. While the film took a lot of heat in the end, there are moments on screen that do look amazing, even if they’re a little silly.
12. The Tesseract in Interstellar
You could probably make an entire list of practical effects from Christopher Nolan films, but one of the least discussed effects that were used on the set of Interstellar was the tesseract scene, the bookshelf scene, the library scene, whatever we’re calling it these days. Matthew McConaughey goes into a wormhole and comes out in the fifth dimension, realized on screen as the tesseract. Now, obviously some CGI was used to make the tesseract look infinitely large, but much of it was a built, 3-story set. That’s right. McConaughey was harnessed up and suspended inside this set, while about 15 projectors displayed changing images on the walls around him.
11. Car Chase in The Raid 2
Watching how the team shot the continuous shot of the significant high speed car chase in The Raid 2 will absolutely blow your mind. Using a handheld camera and a number of operators outside and inside the cars, the team passed a single camera between and through the vehicles. One of the vehicles had a cameraman harnessed to the outside of the car so that he could pass the camera out of the window, another man was harnessed outside of a camera car, and a third operator was inside the car dressed like a car seat to camouflage him (CGI would later be used to completely hide this operator). The result is a continuous shot outside, inside and through a car during a car chase, that is nothing short of amazing.
10. The Costumes in Cabin in the Woods
With so many monsters present in Cabin in the Woods, even the most vocal GCI critic and opponent would both expect and accept that there would be some done with CGI, but that wasn’t the case. As David LeRoy Anderson, the special makeup effects designer on the film recalls, from the very start, the plan was to do this the old-school way. “In the very first meeting I had with Joss [Whedon] and Drew [Goddard], the very first thing out of their mouths was, ‘We want to do this all practically.’ I hadn’t heard that in 20 years, but after reading the script I knew it was going to be awesome. I never once, throughout the entire shoot, considered any of the visual FX aspects of it. Everything was practical and blood-tubed on set.”
9. Zero-Gravity Fight in Inception
We would have liked to have every entry as a new director, but Christopher Nolan’s work on Inception is just too good to shorten into a half entry. By now you’ve probably seen how the film team achieved the zero-gravity corridor fight scene in Inception, but a list like this is just as much about reminding you of great achievements as it is about informing you, so we have no problems adding in this wonderful bit. The idea of using a centrifuge to rotate an entire room/set is not new. It was done way back when they made 2001: A Space Odyssey, so Nolan is not pretending to invent the wheel here. What Nolan did, nevertheless, is film an entire choreographed fight scene in a giant rotating set. Oh, and they did it in a continuous shot. Take that Kubrick.
8. Bloody Room in Nightmare on Elm Street
Like the films Inception and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the team behind A Nightmare on Elm Street used a rotating room to achieve some neat special effects, namely Glen Lantz’s (Johnny Depp) and Tina Gray’s (Amanda Wyss) death scenes. The great thing about the particular rig they made is that is was so balanced that it could be moved manually by one person. In the scene when Glen is sucked into his bed and blood sprays up out of the void, to make this effect look realistic, the team rotated the room so that the blood flowed down out of the upside down bed. This caused an issue when the weight of the blood began turning the room on its own though. Ultimately, they figured it out and the end result is magnificent.
7. The Streets of Fire in Independence Day
1996’s Independence Day is usually the butt of more jokes today than thought of as a visual effects marvel, but the team who put it all together did some groundbreaking work for the times. The year was 1996 and CGI was good, but not stick-around-for-20-years good. To ensure that the shots of citywide destruction lasted and looked believable, director Roland Emmerich had his crew build a scale model of New York. After that, the next big obstacle was how to effectively destroy the Empire State Building and have a crazy wall of flames roll down the street, incinerating everyone in its path. To do this, they turned the New York City model sideways, creating what they called “the death chimney.” Once the model was hoisted up sideways and supported, they set off an explosion underneath it. The resulting effect made it appear that the force of the flames were shooting out horizontally, pretty simple but very effective.
6. The Magical Bread in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Sometimes it’s the small things that amuse us most and, for many, it was the small details in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that blew them away. Yeah, they made scale models, used puppetry and animatronics and relied heavily on practical effects throughout the film, but they also made instant bread! “I’m gonna be famous for Star Wars for nothing else but this bread!” said Neal Scanlan, one of the VFX heads on the film as he laughed. “It was a little gag which was incredibly successful, everybody thought it was CGI.” Scanlan would go on to divulge his secrets for making the bread. “It was very simple,” he said. “We moulded up an inflatable bread so that it was deflated underneath the liquid and then we slowly inflated it and sucked out the liquid with vacuum pumps at the same time to produce this bread coming up and forming.”
5. The Holocaust in T2: Judgement Day
By now, we all know well how James Cameron loved him some effects in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, both computer generated and practical. Some of the most amazing effects ever made were in that film, so it’s hard to nail it down into one scene, but we’ve done it. Remember the holocaust scene? Of course you do. Sarah Connor is watching the kids playing on the playground, when suddenly an atomic bomb rips through Los Angeles evaporating it, people melting, everything burning, and buildings and vehicles blown away. Today, this is easy, but T2 was made in 1990/91. To achieve the realistic effect back then, the team built massive scale models of freeways and buildings and then took giant industrial fans and blew them away. If you’ve only got time in your life to watch one behind-the-scenes of a movie, make it Terminator 2. You won’t be disappointed.
4. Microphotography in The Fountain
Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is criminally undervalued in the industry, as it is easily one of the most beautifully shot films ever made. As a visual experience, there are few films that can match it, and, perhaps the most amazing part of it all, is that the film team used relatively little CGI. Yes, there was computer-aided design, layering, compositing, etc., but to achieve almost all the shots, the film team brought in a microphotographer, Peter Parks, to film almost all of the space elements in a petri dish. The result was magical as Jeremy Dawson, one of the VFX supervisors, explains. “We got Peter to shoot different chemical elements and globules floating [as star fields] and we had more size and density variation than you usually see in space movies,” Dawson said. “He used yeast and curry powder but was cagey about everything else.”
When asked about why he went this route, Aronofsky replied, “I think it’s going to be looking really good for a very long time because it’s real particles in real physical space. It’s not like the technology that was responsible for it is going to change and we’re going to start to see through it, which I find in a lot of CGI work sometimes six months or a year down the line. As an audience member, you start to see the magic trick.”
3. Spiderman Reflexes
You know the scene. Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) slips on pee or apple juice, no one knows for sure, but Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) catches her and then goes on to catch all the items on her tray individually as well. It’s pretty neat when you think it’s CGI, but, when you find out it was actually done by Maguire in real time, it becomes remarkable. We aren’t quite sure if John Dykstra, the head of the VFX team on Spiderman, was giving the actual number of takes, but, in the DVD commentary, he said, “This next gag here, where he catches all this stuff, he actually did that. Pretty good. Take 156.” Later, Dunst also recalls that it was a 16-hour day to get that done, so 156 takes sounds like a decent number to role with.
2. Tsunami in The Impossible
Directed by J. A. Barona, The Impossible was one of those films that did well in theaters but has been a little forgotten in annals of film history. The scope of the film, a survival story after the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, is one that begs for CGI. However, Barona chose not to go this route. “One of the early decisions was not to use CGI water because it was very expensive, but also because it didn’t feel real,” he said. “So we decided to go with real water, which was kind of a crazy thing.” They built a 1:3 scale model of the Spanish resort in a massive water tank. “We put them in what looks like a giant flowerpot, so we could move them in the water safely,” Barona said. Then they unleashed the water and let is wreak havoc on the set and actors.
1. The Universe in Tree of Life
In Terrence Malick‘s beautiful film, Tree of Life, there’s an extended universe sequence that shows countless stars, galaxies and a number of striking planetary visuals. It would seem easy to do this on computers nowadays, but Malick wasn’t overly enthused about the early mock-ups he was seeing. This led him to approach Douglas Trumbull, a SFX master who had been gone from the industry for nearly 30 years. Trumbull had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and he asked Malick, “Why not do it the old way?” To achieve these incredible shots without any computers, Trumbull pulled out his entire bag of tricks. “We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be,” he said. “It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”