#3. 2001: A Space Odyssey -- Zero Gravity and Trippy Effects
You probably know that Stanley Kubrick's 2001 was made in an era where CGI as we know it didn't really exist, but you're not conscious of it when you watch the movie. You take it for granted that, for instance, a zero-gravity scene could be done pretty easily. And it could -- you just computerize that shit. But in 1968?
The movie's effects are good enough that you don't think of them as effects at all. And what Kubrick didn't have in technology, he made up for with cleverness and trickery.
Reportedly, half the cast thought they were really in space.
For example, the classic scene with the astronaut taking a zero-gravity jog around the spaceship in one continuous shot was made possible not through postproduction effects, but thanks to what was basically a giant hamster wheel:
This massive centrifuge set would rotate while the camera remained fixed in one position, giving the appearance that the actors were defying gravity. And speaking of which, what about the famous shot of the pen floating inside the Pan-Am shuttle? It looks so real that most of us never even questioned how Kubrick did it.
We just assumed he had scared the pen into floating.
The same effect that today would cost thousands of dollars in CG was created with one pen, a large sheet of glass and a piece of two-sided tape. That's it. They put the glass on a frame and rotated it slowly in front of the camera. When the flight attendant goes to pluck it out of the air, it was just a matter of unsticking it from the glass.
She hasn't aged well.
Even the trippy "star gate" part at the end was made without CGI -- because, again, that wasn't a thing yet. If you've ever been to a laser show, you're familiar with the effect:
Or if you've done heavy amounts of acid.
This was achieved through something called slit scan photography, using nothing but two sheets of glass, some backlit paintings and a camera that moved backward and forward on a track. The first glass is completely black except for a small slit at the center, while the second glass has the paintings on it: As it moves, the camera records the painting through the slit, resulting in the trippy effect.
#2. 28 Days Later -- London Is Deserted
28 Days Later starts with the main character (played by Cillian Murphy) waking up from a coma to find out that the world went to shit while he was sleeping -- a virus had spread through England, turning polite tea drinkers into mindless, raging maniacs.
It's like The Walking Dead, but with more running and funny accents.
But before finding out about the zom-- er, "infected," we see a very confused Murphy wandering through the completely deserted streets of London, passing next to famous landmarks:
Might as well make the best of the situation and go sightseeing.
Seeing one of the busiest cities in the world all empty and quiet is pretty unnerving -- but what the movie doesn't show you are the many pissed-off commuters screaming just out of frame. As you've guessed by now, they did this without any postproduction trickery whatsoever, and in fact these scenes were only made possible due to a downgrade of budget and technology.
Instead of shooting the movie with traditional film cameras (which would have taken hours to set up for every shot, meaning they'd have to ask permission to close the streets), the filmmakers decided to go with a bunch of relatively cheap Canon XL-1S digital ones, which they could basically just point at Murphy from different angles as he walked through London at the wee hours of the morning, when crowds were limited to workaholics going to work and alcoholics stumbling home.
London takes tea time very seriously.
Thanks to the cheaper cameras, they were able to complete the entire sequence by taking over the streets a few minutes at a time, kindly asking angry commuters to either be patient or take alternate routes.
#1. Star Wars -- The Opening Crawl
If you're reading this website, chances are you know the opening crawl from Star Wars better than your country's own national anthem.
And the hoooome of the ... Wookies, or something?
Even U.S. audiences with their famous aversion to doing any reading at the movies were captivated by the epicness of the opening crawl, which is kind of impressive when you consider that you sort of have to squint to read parts of it if you fall behind. These days, there's probably an app that can make any random snippet of text fly off into space in classic Star Wars fashion, but back when George Lucas was making the first movie, you couldn't just type the words into a computer and be done with it -- at least not with the budget they had.
They couldn't even afford a working belt for Obi-Wan.
No, Lucas had to think of another way to make words float in space without relying on fancy technology. As we've mentioned before, Lucas got the idea from the old Flash Gordon adventure serials from the '30s that he totally didn't rip off, so he needed to put his cinematic knowledge to use and research the proper way to get the titles to move like that ...
Sadly, filmed books never took off the way audio books did.
... or, you know, just tilt the camera and slowly move it across a printed plate on the floor, whichever. Apparently it wasn't very fun to do, because it took a lot of tries to get that smooth scrolling effect we've come to expect from these films -- not to mention that even when they got it down perfectly, they'd have to do it several more times for the German, French, Spanish, etc. releases and such. We have no idea where the original plates are now; probably the same LucasFilm warehouse where they keep Peter Mayhew.
Still, there's a charm and an undeniable historic significance to this completely analogue method that a digital version could never reproduce -- so, naturally, Lucas already went back and replaced it with a computer version in later releases.
Nothing is sacred.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 5 Reasons Ol Dirty Bastard's Biopic Must be a Superhero Film
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