We live in a movie universe where the Michael Bays and James Camerons of Hollywood are crafting their on-screen worlds with the help of incredible computer-aided technology. These filmmakers create works where anything seems possible, and while it’s often stunning to behold, many moviegoers are already tired of watching disaster porn and motion capture performances that aim to be real, but never truly feel like the tangible celluloid of yore. What many of those audiences don’t realize, however, is that several big-budget films have stuck to their practical effects-loving guns and have dodged the CGI monster at every turn.
Legendary horror director Joe Dante is one of those filmmakers, and his movie The Hole hits Blu-ray tomorrow. The tale about a family that discovers they have a gateway to hell in their basement features old-school puppetry and other physical effects that delightfully add to the story’s creepiness. We feature more on the movie past the break, along with other films you’d never have guessed were created without CGI. Click through for more, and let us know which films surprised you most, below.
Horror master Joe Dante frightened children everywhere with his 1994 film Gremlins and a gritty twist on terror cinema’s werewolf mythology in 1981’s The Howling. Both films are known for their amazing and scary practical effects, and Dante’s dedication to the old school of gore hasn’t waned one bit throughout his career. The filmmaker’s new movie The Hole features the same kind of puppetry he used for Gizmo, Stripe, and his wolfy transformations — animatronics and other hands-on technical stunts that transport viewers back to the phobia-filled moments of their youth when it felt like monsters really did exist. The above special effects featurette shows you how Dante did it. Warning: demented clowns await you.
There’s a reason why movie nerds love Christopher Nolan and it has nothing to do with Batman. The director has been adamant about only using CGI in his films when absolutely necessary, lending a dose of reality to the filmmaker’s work. It’s an exciting contrast to the fantastical overtones he often plays with. “There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie,” Nolan explained in a recent interview. “One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in.” For Inception’s famous rotating hallway scene, Nolan put actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt into a massive World War I-era horizontal hangar that rotated 360 degrees. A different, vertical hangar found the actors wearing wires, and a third saw the stars strapped to trolleys, with the harnesses “erased” during post-production. You can get a look at the rotating hallway at the five-minute mark in the above video. Director of Photography Wally Pfister told MTV that the scenes took three weeks to capture (shot in two and three second increments) with the help of a 500-person crew. “We begin with a camera that’s not fixed to the set and shows a bit of the rotation, and then you quickly jump to where you’re rotating with the set,” he explained. “It creates this bizarre, strange movement. It’s an exhausting process for the actors. Having rotated on that set myself, it’s really quite challenging and a very strange thing to get used to. If you jump at the wrong time, you could be falling 12 feet through the air.”
Michel Gondry has evoked the hazy days of childhood in many of his whimsical films, and in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind actor Jim Carrey revisits his own youth. An adult Joel Barish appears to shrink during the kitchen scene in his childhood home. The entire shot was an in-camera visual trick that was created in a distortion chamber — which is basically a fancy way of describing a set containing objects of varying sizes and where the floor isn’t level. The whole thing took about five days to design and shoot. “I’ve never seen anything like what Michel does, just by twisting a light or putting in panes of glass. I’m present in a frame, and then I disappear in front of your very eyes. It’s like magic,” co-star Kate Winslet said of her role in the film. “Ordinarily, digital effects happen way later, and they end up costing studios a lot of money. Michel would take a few bits of paper, make things resembling 13 origami, and plunk them onto the camera, and produce the most extraordinary effects. It was great to observe that and to be a part of it.” It also helped that production designer Dan Leigh had a theater background and worked with several magicians where he honed his illusionary craft. The low-tech effects — which included toying with film speed, perspective, and double exposures — helped maintain the film’s charm and sensibility, creating a tactile, dreamlike moment where the fantasy seems real.
Never tell a filmmaker like Francis Ford Coppola, “No.” When a visual effects crew for his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula told the iconic director that it would be impossible to achieve the old-school camera tricks he wanted without resorting to CGI, he fired them and brought on his son Roman Coppola as the movie’s visual effects director. In Camera: The Naïve Visual Effects of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a great watch, and we’ve included a clip from the documentary featurette above. It reveals the ways that double exposure, upside-down cameras, stunning matte paintings, forced perspective shots, miniatures, reversed film, and other tricks dating back to the 1920s were used for the film’s most phantasmagorical sequences.
It’s easy to see why audiences believe that the autogeddon that takes place in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was created with CGI, but the carnage was actually quite real. During the big car and truck chase in the middle of the movie, which also involves the Batpod, scale models were used to recreate the high-speed scene in the lower level of Wacker Drive in Chicago. The crazy 180-degree turn the Batpod does is simply a radio-controlled model, and the flipped semi-truck was achieved with a steam propulsion system built into the trailer. The crew took over a downtown Chicago street to flip the truck, which apparently prompted several concerned citizens to contact the police. Stunt coordinator Paul Jennings told IGN how it was all captured:
“We did it twice. Once in a big area… a runway, because we had to check that when it got blown over that it stayed straight. Because obviously if it gets halfway up and falls to the side — we were in the middle of the Chicago banking district — it would’ve gone through a bank’s window. So we had to flip it once in rehearsal to check the pressure on the ram and then we went down to the street — it was La Salle — and we did it. We actually flipped the truck and it was standing again. It’s like 54-feet in the air when it’s at the top of it.”
The video essay above from Press Play dissects the sequence further.
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.
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.