Director Roland Emmerich loves creating disaster porn — something moviegoers normally associate with spectacular CGI effects in this day and age. The filmmaker wanted authentic pyrotechnics for his alien invasion film, however, and he was granted his wish thanks to help from a team at Hughes Aircraft in California where the model-making department worked overtime. They created miniature buildings, city streets, spaceships, landmarks, and monuments that were wrecked for our amusement. Shooting a high-speed camera downward on a tilted model so flames could rise toward the camera created the illusion that New York was on fire. In another scene, a 10-foot model of the White House was made bigger with a forced perspective shot before being destroyed with minor explosives.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Actor Elijah Wood stands about five feet, six inches tall in real-life, but for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, the star shrank to a mere three feet tall for the role of young hobbit Frodo Baggins. He looked like a speck next to Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, who stood about seven-feet tall on film. This would have been easy to achieve with CGI, but Jackson wanted the comical scale to appear more realistic than computers could have rendered. He used forced perspective, various sized props, and a pulley-platform system to trick the eye. Knowing Jackson didn’t take the easy way out makes us love him more.
The gruesome scenes in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours reportedly created such a stir with some theater patrons that they had to be rushed to a hospital. The filmmaker avoided CGI as much as possible in his film, because let’s be honest: how many times have you actually seen computer-created blood look realistic? Boyle kept it old school and used multiple prosthetic arms that were modeled with fake blood, muscles, ligaments, nerves, and bone for a disturbing, realistic touch. Special effects artist Tony Gardner consulted an emergency room doctor for guidance and then figured out how to make the muscle appear real while being sliced apart by actor James Franco. Boyle wanted to feature a shot from inside of the arm so viewers could really “feel the pain.” The effects artist used optically clear electrical silicone to achieve the unique perspective angle and complete Boyle’s graphic picture.
It feels like eons ago, but in 1995 computer-generated imagery was being used for big-budget films like Ron Howard’s space blockbuster Apollo 13. The director is a known perfectionist, so realism and technical accuracy were paramount. If you want your space mission to look realistic, who else would you turn to, but NASA? Howard put his crew through astronaut and flight controller training, even going so far as to obtain permission to shoot scenes on a reduced gravity aircraft for the movie’s weightless moments. Forty KC-135 flights later, Howard had achieved his goal. The “Vomit Comet” – as real astronauts affectionately dub it — didn’t sit well with Kevin Bacon and Gary Sinise, who both got sick. Tom Hanks won bragging rights. Howard shared more about the experience during an interview:
“If we’d had to do it with wires — if we really would’ve had to try to create the weightlessness with wires, I shudder to think what the movie would have looked like. Ultimately, every director has to bear the final responsibility for what goes on in shooting a movie. If I had really understood before going into it what was involved in shooting in the KC-135, I might have backed away from it. There were the financial issues to consider, there were logistical issues, like how we were going to make the set fit inside the confines of the plane, there was the simple question of whether it really was possible to stage the scenes we wanted to stage in a zero-g environment. At a certain point, I just said, ‘If the actors are willing to give it a try, I’m willing to. If it works, it’s unprecedented, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’ I certainly wasn’t on an irrational mission, but I also knew that no matter how wonderful the special-effects wizards working on the movie were, there was no way simulated weightlessness would look as good as the real thing.”
The James Bond films are known for their death-defying stunts, but with the introduction of new 007 Daniel Craig, many fans wondered what else might change in the twenty-first installment of the long-running series. Craig seemed to look and act differently than the Bonds before him and appeared during a CGI-heavy phase in Hollywood. Special Effects and Miniature Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould was dedicated to reducing the amount of computer-aided imagery in the action-packed Casino Royale, and used primarily practical effects for the Madagascar, Miami Airport, and Venetian house scenes. Models, balloons, and hydraulic systems helped it look real. Bond’s incredible car chase, in which his Aston Martin rolled over seven times, wasn’t helped with CGI, either. The stunt driver used an air cannon located behind the driver’s seat to propel the car through the air. The dazzling spectacle won Bond a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.