We mean no disrespect to the digital effects artists working in Hollywood, but sometimes it feels like computer-generated (CG) effects haven't improved in 10 years. Every blockbuster seems to have at least one big effects scene that looks like it was lifted from a PS3.
So maybe we need to stop and appreciate the mind-blowing scenes that were done the old-fashioned way -- with stunts, models and borderline insanity.
It was a chase that destroyed the Batmobile, a Joker-themed semi, a dump truck, a paddy wagon, multiple cop cars and God knows how many bystander vehicles. And that shit was worth it.
Batman on a motorcycle. This should win Best Picture every year.
Two specific points during the insane car chase at the halfway point of The Dark Knight are so over-the-top they seem like they would have had to be computer-generated, if for no other reason than they would have killed the stunt drivers.
The first is when the Batmobile first shows up to take out the Joker's convoy. It speeds in ...
... and offers what equates to a vehicular uppercut to a garbage truck.
The scene ended up in the trailer and inadvertently encouraged a bloat of fanboys to flock to their keyboards and pound out protests against the fake-looking CGI in the movie. But as Christopher Nolan has proved time and again, he doesn't mess with that shit if he doesn't have to.
No, what you are actually seeing there is a complete one-third-scale model of the Batmobile, the garbage truck and a large section of lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.
They stuck the two vehicles on a guide and smashed those mothers together. What you see in the film is the result.
Even the damn 180-degree move that the Batmobile pulls off at the end was done by a radio-controlled model.
So what about the climactic moment in that scene when they flip the Joker's 18-wheeler after Batman clotheslines it with a grappling hook? If that was a model, it was pretty goddamned convincing.
The flipping of the semi was accomplished with a technique known in Hollywood as flipping a real goddamned semi. To get the mind-boggling amount of upward force needed to lift the big bastard head over heels, the FX crew built a huge steam-piston mechanism in the trailer.
Wait, why can't that shit come standard in cars now?
Of course, then the challenge was to make it look like this insane stunt was occurring right in the middle of the banking district in Gotham. So how the hell do you pull that off? Build a miniature city and edit in the truck somehow? Film the truck out on an open course and use CGI to fill in the background? Shit, no! They just went to downtown Chicago, closed off a street and flipped their goddamned semi.
Why? Because that's how Batman would do it.
CGI is for squares.
You can mock its many plot holes if you want, but we're pretty sure the reason Independence Day dominated the box office in 1996 was because millions of people thought that seeing New York slowly enveloped by a gargantuan ball of fire was worth every cent of the ticket price. The ad campaign sold the film on that image -- the fire rolling down between New York skyscrapers. And by God, we lined up on opening night.
Seriously, you can leave after this scene.
And even if you watch it today, there's something oddly realistic about it, especially when compared with more recent Roland Emmerich stuff like 2012, which made the destruction of L.A. look like a very expensive video game cut-scene:
The difference, of course, is that the fire in the streets in ID4 is not CGI. It's real fire.
That sort of thing isn't easy to do in real life -- after all, how do you make the fire go sideways? Fire doesn't normally plume horizontally, which is a good thing most of the time, but the whole point of the aliens' city-destroying weapon was the unearthly way the blaze would slowly spill outward and engulf the city.
For the effects team, the solution to this shot was relatively simple.
Can you tell what you're looking at? That's a model city on its side. You'd probably recognize it better like this:
They called it the death chimney. Just turn the city model sideways, put the pyrotechnics at the bottom and put the camera at the top. Then they shot the explosion at a high shutter speed so that when the film was slowed down, they got their horrific, creeping wall of unstoppable fire.
See, this is how destruction used to be filmed back in the day. Someone spent weeks making a detailed model of New York, then you set it on fire and hoped to hell you didn't screw it up so they'd have to build it all over again (because then the model builder would find you in the parking lot and beat your ass).
"Roland Emmerich is a dick."
Here's an effect so seamless that you probably never gave it a second thought during the 27-hour runtime of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: the fact that Elijah Wood and the other actors playing hobbits are not in fact three feet tall.
The camera takes off ... a few feet.
Ah, but who cares, right? With CGI, you can probably just click on an actor and tell the computer to shrink him by 50 percent and you're done. Right?
"Bam. Hobbits. Give me 20 minutes and a chimp and I'll give you King Kong."
Not if you don't want it to look like shit. It's one thing if the actor is just standing next to the normal-size characters in a field, but at various points in the trilogy, you see Gandalf grab the tiny Frodo, hug him, ride on the same carriage with him and sit down at the same table. To pull that off Peter Jackson, needed a buffet of effects techniques ranging from simple to insane.
Sometimes it was as easy as using a child in a Frodo wig shot from behind ...
... or just compositing the actors together from different shots, or digitally sticking Frodo's face onto a tiny double. But the coolest effects didn't involve any computers or green-screen trickery at all. It's called "forced perspective."
The idea is that you put one actor really far from the camera and the other one really close to the camera, then shoot at such an angle that it appears they are next to each other and that one of them is really big and the other really small. Which sounds simple, until you realize that you need to build everything on the set so that the actors can interact with it at the same time while hiding the fact that they're far away from each other.
The simplest example is with Gandalf's cart. In the movie, you see them sitting side by side ...
... but the real cart is built so that if the camera is stuck in that spot, it hides the fact that Frodo is actually sitting about four feet behind Gandalf, with Ian McKellen's body hiding where the bench is split:
But the complication comes when you realize that this works only if the camera remains perfectly still. So any shot where the camera moves around has to involve a computer, right? Nope. In scenes like this one, where they share a table ...
... they are actually sitting at two different tables, one human-sized and one hobbit-sized ...
... that are made in such a way that each piece slowly turns with the camera, so that the whole time, they appear to be one simple table, shifting with the perspective of the viewer. This required that the camera be put on a motion-control rig and half of the set be put on another rig that completely counteracted the movement of the camera. So when the shot moved, the set, props and even the actors moved accordingly (yes, while McKellen was trying to stay in character as Gandalf, he was on a stool that was slowly scooting him around the room).
"It's a little bit trippy when you've had too much pipe weed."
Take a moment to think about the crew that put that together, knowing the final goal was for you to never notice it.
We have previously pointed out how few of the effects in Terminator 2 were CGI, even though the computer-generated morphing of the T-1000 from liquid metal to Robert Patrick is all anyone talked about at the time. The vast majority of what you saw on the screen involved good old-fashioned makeup, models and trickery by FX wizard Stan Winston.
Linda Hamilton's biceps also played a substantial role in the magic.
Maybe the best example of the mind-boggling ingenuity that goes into any "I can't believe it's not CGI" scene is one that was cut from this film (a scene which, as we explained in the past, fills in a pretty big plot hole). The scene shows Sarah and John Connor opening up the Terminator's head to extract and reboot his CPU, giving him the ability to learn and adapt easier.
In a single take, we see the back of the Terminator's head in the foreground and his face reflected in the mirror in the background, clearly showing Arnold's un-animatronic likeness talking and emoting.
As much as one expects Arnold Schwarzenegger to emote ...
As they unscrew his dome, the camera moves around until the shot finally ends on the top of the non-reflected Terminator head, which is opened up like a damn pickle jar.
Now those of you who are experts in Arnold Schwarzenegger trivia already know that the man does not have a giant hole in his brain. So, what, they just had a fake head in the foreground and used CGI to put a fake reflection in the mirror? Easy!
Uh, no. There is no mirror. It's a window. On opposite sides are two John and Sarah Connors, and two Terminators miming each other's movements exactly so that they would appear to be reflected in a mirror.
But wait -- something doesn't quite add up. That's clearly Sarah Connor in both the foreground and the reflection ... what gives? It's not like there are two Linda Hamiltons out there.
Meet Leslie Hamilton, Linda's identical twin sister. She came in quite handy during the making of this film, especially when the T-1000 took on Sarah Connor's form.
Yep, for all that you heard about the groundbreaking CGI, it all came down to identical-twin shenanigans. Basically, a special effects version of The Parent Trap.