Technology has vastly improved in the past few decades. In fact, the leap has been so great that directors can actually utilize technology in their movies. This has led to the use of computer generated imagery, otherwise known as CGI. These kinds of digitally inserted effects allow for movies to be made today that wouldn’t have come anywhere close to production back in the 80s and 90s. Transformers, The Avengers, and something along the lines of Kong Skull Island have only been made possible today through the use of this technology.
Unfortunately, people began taking it for granted. Movies today are almost always CGI blockbusters with entire green screens and unnecessary effects (looking at you, George Lucas). While CGI definitely has its place and can be used to enhance a viewing experience, there comes a point where it’s lazy and a sign of people wanting to rush a project rather than give it the time it deserves (a perfect example being The Hobbit trilogy).
However, not all movies fall into this trap. There are many directors today who still believe that there’s a certain magic to be had in practical effects that can really make a film pop off the screen. After all, many movie classics are loved for this very reason. Because of this, there are many astounding visual effects in modern movies that have no CGI.
Don’t believe me? Here are 15 examples of this.
15. Flaming Guitar- Mad Max: Fury Road
There are many things to love about Mad Max: Fury Road. Being a further sequel to the franchise, George Miller managed to bring back the love for the series and establish what you can do when using a blend of tasteful CGI and numerous practical effects. There are so many different and amazing machines in the movie, and this leads to many chase sequences that are largely done with practical effects. The CGI was mostly used to enhance the environment.
However, if you ask any true fan of the film, they’ll be able to tell you what the standout special effect was: the flaming guitar. There’s a lot of interesting and disturbing imagery in Fury Road, but this musical instrument of death takes the cake. Operated by a blind man on top of a moving stage, it’s not long before you see that the guitar does more than just play music. Little did we know when seeing the film that this wasn’t done with any CGI whatsoever. There was an actual flame-shooting guitar crafted for this movie. That alone is incentive enough to watch it if you haven’t already.
14. The Battle of Hoth- The Empire Strikes Back
The original trilogy for Star Wars is one full of amazing twists and turns that spawned a massive franchise. Despite being in a sci-fi setting and created in the late 70s, Star Wars and its two sequels still had plenty of mind-blowing effects. Very seldom was CGI used (because the technology wasn’t good enough), and this resulted in practical effects dominating the movie. All of the explosions, environments, and ships you can think of were all real for the most part. This led to some memorable sequences that still hold up today.
One of the more impressive moments of the trilogy came from the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back. In it, the Rebels are taking refuge on the snow planet of Hoth. When the Empire comes knocking, they launch a full-scale assault with massive walkers. The filmmakers could’ve easily used CGI to make this battle materialize, but there were instead many practical effects on display. Not only was every Snowtrooper and Rebel an actual person in a costume, but the walkers themselves were miniatures that were filmed using stop motion. This made the conflict much more believable in the long run and served to benefit the movie.
13. BB-8- The Force Awakens
Another entry relating to Star Wars comes from the latest installment in the saga, The Force Awakens. This movie had to be excellent, and it’s obvious that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) got down to the nitty-gritty details of why people fell in love with this franchise in the first place. One of his observations was that CGI didn’t dominate these movies, and he took a very similar approach when crafting The Force Awakens.
For all of the film’s beautiful effects, none were more impressive than the little droid known as BB-8. It would’ve been so easy to just digitally insert a droid that moved like a little soccer ball. However, many moving parts were crafted in order to have a real BB-8 prop. Different versions of the prop were also created to fit in with different scenes. In the end, the final result was so successful that Rian Johnson (Looper) is using the prop for The Last Jedi. Having a practical effect for the droid proved to be a smart decision on Abrams’s part because BB-8 has also become one of the more popular characters from that movie.
12. Plane Ride- Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Mission Impossible franchise is known for having all kinds of impressive stunts in the film. Couple that with Tom Cruise headlining these movies and insisting on doing his own stunts, and you’ve got the ingredients for some truly astounding effects. While we could just as easily cite the sequence on the Burj Khalifa from Ghost Protocol, it’s the stunt from Rogue Nation that we wanted to highlight more simply because of how dangerous the entire thing was.
For those of you that haven’t at least seen the trailer for the film, Tom Cruise’s character (Ethan Hunt) grabs onto the side of a plane and holds on as the machine takes off. From the first view, it’s clear that this shot is authentic as the camera follows the plane as the ground slowly moves further and further away. Cruise was apparently very willing and excited to do the stunt. His greatest fear (no, it wasn’t falling) was being struck by any kind of debris that would have severely damaged him at that speed and altitude. No doubt that Cruise put his life on the line for the sake of a cool shot, but as film lovers, we’re thankful he did.
11. Semi Flip- The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is a masterpiece for many reasons, and among them is the fact that Christopher Nolan was adamant to not using CGI unless it was absolutely necessary. The Tumbler was crafted as a real machine, and the plane sequence in The Dark Knight Rises was very real as well. Despite there being many examples of beautiful practical effects, the standout example is the semi flip.
First of all, that entire sequence is pure joy to watch and uses little to no CGI throughout. Everything from the wrecks to the SWAT van flying into the river was filmed practically. But the moment we all remember is when Batman gets on his bike and slips a cable under the Joker’s semi-truck. A few clips then that entire tractor trailer is flipped vertically. Believe it or not, there was no CGI used in this scene. As a matter of fact, Christopher Nolan was able to make it happen by using a propulsion system at the base of the trailer. The force was just enough to flip the entire rig, giving the beautiful effect that we saw when the film released.
10. Tray Catch- Spider-Man
Say what you will about Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man, but there are some fairly decent effects throughout the run of the film. Perhaps the most impressive one comes shortly after Peter Parker is bitten by the radioactive spider and given powers. He goes to school much less nerdy than he was before. When Mary Jane slips in the cafeteria, he catches her, holds up her tray, and proceeds to expertly catch all of the food that was flung in the air.
While at first glance you might think this took some digital insertion, the reality is that the tray catch was all Tobey Maguire. The props were dropped for him to catch on the tray, and he eventually made it happen. However, it reportedly took over 100 takes to get it right. Thankfully, the end result was worth it, as Peter Parker did look very cool while landing all of those objects neatly. It’s just unfortunate that so much time was spent on that one scene, and few people ever talk about it these days. Due to the upcoming release of Spider-Man Homecoming, perhaps it’s time to sit back and watch those first two Spider-Man movies. You can skip the third one.
9. Jaws the Great White- Jaws
Steven Spielberg was very ambitious with all of his movies, and that was never more evident than with his horror film Jaws. There were so many things going into Jaws that threatened to halt production, but Spielberg was determined to get everything right. He wanted to create a scary tale but at the same time honor many of the people who had been attacked by sharks. This gave him the idea of a giant great white shark terrorizing a city.
If you’ve seen the film, then you’ll notice that the shark itself looks surprisingly lifelike. That’s because no digital effects were used when creating it. There were many animatronic parts that went into creating Jaws. However, the problem was that it would always malfunction when placed in the water. Still, Spielberg managed to work around these challenges, and with the help of a glorious crew, incorporated the shark into the film. We hope and pray that Universal never decides to remake Jaws. Like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, this is one story that should never be messed with and littered with nothing but CGI. Just ask the people behind the 2016 Ghostbusters how that worked out.
8. Dinosaurs- Jurassic Park
Because of the success of Jaws, Steven Spielberg didn’t stop there. He had several more amazing projects up his sleeve, and he would continue to impress us. One of his most impressive movies was Jurassic Park. While the movie did incorporate some excellent CGI (it was starting to get popular at the time), it’s the practical effects that really make the film stand out.
Some parts of the movie like the little two-legged dinosaurs running and the revealing of the brachiosauruses were created with digital rendering, but other than, the dinosaurs were animatronics. This made the audience feel like these terrible lizards were actually there in the movie. An excellent example of this is the trademark raptor scene where the carnivores are hunting the children in the kitchen. The better scene is when the massive T-Rex shows up to prove how Chaos Theory works. Despite its massive size, that dinosaur was created using mechanical parts — gives a whole new meaning to the “must go faster” scene! There were a few other instances of practical dinosaur effects being used in Jurassic Park, and they’re probably a big part of the reason why the movie is still one of the best-looking films to date.
7. Tony Stark’s Equipment- Iron Man
Marvel, in the wake of their direction leading up to Avengers Infinity War, has been known and cited for using no small amount of CGI in their movies. From romps like Ant-Man to the fairly recent Doctor Strange, it seems that the budget for effects increases with each installment in the franchise. Age of Ultron alone had many more special effects shots than the cosmic Guardians of the Galaxy. That number is likely to increase with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor Ragnarok later this year.
However, there was a time when they relied on more realistic and practical effects to carry their films. To provide an example, I have to take you back all the way to 2008 with the first movie in the MCU: Iron Man. Many times in the film, we are shown Tony Stark’s shop where all kinds of working gadgets sit around. Most of these props are practical effects, including the robots. One of the more impressive moments is when Pepper has to reach into Stark’s arc reactor and pull out the plug. This was an effect simulated by having Gwyneth Paltrow actually put her hand in a sit-in for Robert Downey Jr‘s chest.
6. The Thing- The Thing
Some of the best horror movies are well-known for having all kinds of practical effects to set them apart from lazily acted and edited CGI fests. Several of them could make this spot: Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, The Fly, and so many more. The one we want to honor in this list, though, is 1982’s The Thing.
Starring some kind of alien parasite, The Thing involves a group of researchers getting terrorized by a thing. This creature can devour just about anybody it comes across and also take their form. Through this, it manipulates the crew and puts most of them in the right spot to be eaten. What made this creature so terrifying was the fact that the director wasn’t afraid to be gruesome. The Thing itself can change forms, but it’s often a grotesque combination of flesh and the people that it’s consumed. During these appearances, it’s created with practical effects, which only add more to how scary it is. There were other practical scenes as well, such as when it masqueraded as a man and opened up his stomach to chomp on another person’s hands. Needless to say, if you’re squeamish or don’t like blood, this movie isn’t for you.
5. Train Fight- Skyfall
James Bond has been around for quite some time. The character himself has an impressive legacy of movies and has been portrayed by many different actors (kind of like a realistic version of Batman, if you know what I mean). However, with the over-the-top settings that the franchise has introduced over the years, it’s led many directors to use CGI, and it hasn’t always looked good.
Fortunately, the Daniel Craig era changed all of that. His turn at the character brought with it some more practical and real effects that made us feel like we were watching a truly excellent spy movie. One of the most amazing practical effects took place during the beginning of Skyfall. James Bond is fighting with a thug on top of a moving train. While this would be the perfect opportunity to use some CG to keep the actors safe, that’s not what happened. Instead, Craig and his opposite were both attached to the cars with thin cables. Other than that, there wasn’t anything stopping them from falling off the sides of the car and to their own demise.
4. Just About Everything- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about as psychological as a movie can get. It centers around a man named Joel (Jim Carrey), who wants his brain to no longer have the memories of his girlfriend. With some work from brilliant minds, Joel is transported to all kinds of different worlds as he jumps around his memory.
Because of this plot, there are astounding effects throughout the course of the film. Different people randomly appear in various scenes. Joel even walks in on himself in the doctor’s office. There are so many tricks and moments in this movie that speak to director Michael Gondry’s intelligence when developing the premise of this movie. There are many instances in the film where Gondry’s brilliance is on full display, but what makes it all the more impressive is that CGI wasn’t relied on. Instead, the director bet on the actors’ abilities to be in the right place at the right time as well as being able to run from one spot on set to another. This effectively created the screwed up illusion of scouring through someone’s brain and trying to find and remove memories.
3. Arm Amputation- 127 Hours
It says something about the excellence of effects used in 127 Hours that most people remember it for one scene: the one where James Franco has to sever his own arm. Because audiences knew that the movie was building up to this, the director had to ensure that it was more than worth the price of admission. This led both him and Franco to work tirelessly to make the scene as realistic as possible. Needless to say, they succeeded in their endeavors, and in turn, even made it a bit too good for some viewers.
The arm that Franco cut off in the movie was a prosthetic specifically designed to mimic his own arm. However, it was more than just a prop. The arm was crafted to also mimic the internal structure of a human arm. When Franco went to cut it, it was a very difficult task, because it was just as difficult as cutting off a real arm. The scene lasted about 20 minutes, making it one of the most gruesome and brutal sequences in movie history. Many people couldn’t get through the entire thing and had to walk out of the theater and straight into the nearest bathroom.
2. Hallway Fight- Inception
Christopher Nolan strikes back. This director, as mentioned before, has a knack for crafting his movies with as little CGI as possible. Considering the fact that Inception is a movie that necessitated a lot of special effects, Nolan was in for quite a challenge. While it’s easy to see that he did use some amount of digital imagery in the course of the film, there are plenty of scenes where practical effects are used to bend reality.
The standout sequence was the hallway fight scene with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The hall was spinning all around, but Levitt had to stand his ground and still fight the incoming bad guys. Based on how the actors moved and responded to the footing changes, it was astounding to many that this didn’t use any CGI whatsoever. The way that Christopher Nolan managed to pull it off was by placing the set on a device that would slowly rotate. Therefore, it accurately simulated what was actually going on in the movie. There are many other effects in Inception that could’ve easily gotten a spot on this list, but the hallway fight scene is one of our favorites. Perhaps it’s just because we’re spoiled by Daredevil.
1. Creatures and Settings- The Lord of the Rings
When Peter Jackson took on the massive undertaking of adapting J.R.R. Tolkien‘s beloved The Lord of the Rings books onto the big screen, many expected them to be riddled with CGI. While the films have their fair share of digital rendering, it was only used to enhance the movies. When there was a spot where Jackson could use practical effects, you bet that he did everything he could to make sure they were incorporated.
A lot of the impressive effects in the trilogy are related to how the creatures look in the film. All of the orcs, goblins, and Uruk-Hai each have their own distinct appearances, but none of them are created through CGI. Gimli, a main character in the movies, isn’t short in real life. In order to emulate that he was a dwarf, Jackson relied heavily on stand-ins and forced perspective (something he also did with the Hobbits). Sauron’s massive helmet was created using the skull of a horse. The list goes on and on. Even many of the settings like Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith were expertly crafted through the use of very large miniatures, which they dubbed “Bigatures.” In fact, the entire village of Hobbiton was a real place they created in New Zealand.
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