7 Movie Special Effects You Won't Believe Aren't Computers
If you want a perfect representation of how much lazier Hollywood has gotten in the past decades, just look at the trailer for the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Wars. Back in the '70s, those movies were full of elaborate puppets and people sweating inside droids, but, now, it's all digital ef- hold up, the little guy below is a remote-controlled robot?!
So says Mark Hamill, and we're not ones to doubt a man with a beard.
Huh. Apparently, some filmmakers are pushing back against the monopoly of CGI by doing crazy shit like dropping an actual plane on Scotland or hijacking NASA equipment -- all of it just to get a cool shot that you probably won't even realize was made using physical objects. Such as ...
Interstellar Had Real Dust Storms, Physical Robots, and a 52-Foot Spaceship
The general rule for Christopher Nolan's work is that if an effect looks unearthly and impossible, he probably demanded a way to do it for real. For example, remember in Interstellar when (spoilers ahead, dummy) Matthew McConaughey flies into a wormhole and sees the intangible fabric that weaves together space and time? You know, this trippy shit:
Pictured: God's butthole.
You probably didn't even think about how they made that scene, because, well, this is exactly what CGI was invented for. How else could they do it, by swinging McConaughey in front of some sort of fucked up fun house? Yeah, pretty much.
"Alright, alright, alright ... hey, there's echo in here."
The interior wormhole scenes were shot in an actual three-story set, an "impregnable mesh of installation art" made out of hi-res laser prints, wall projections, and some good old fashioned perspective tricks. Not content with building crazy sets, however, Nolan's team actually went out and shot on the top of a melted glacier to create the all-ocean planet -- because water tanks in studios are for pussies.
This is half-glacier, half-actor tears.
What's that? You thought the film's smartass, knucklebone-looking robot, TARS, was definitely CGI? Nope: Roughly 80 percent of the robot you see in the film was accomplished by creating physical models operated by hydraulic puppetry. They literally had TARS's voice actor, Bill Irwin, standing behind the model and delivering his lines.
Kind of like how Andy Serkis wore a monkey's skin for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
"Yes, this is a fake spaceship that we built, not the real one where I arrived on your planet." - Ch'ristopher Nol-An.
Another thing everyone assumed was CGI were those insane dust storms because most directors are considerate enough not to put A-list actors in situations where their eyeballs are constantly attacked by flying dirt particles. Not Nolan.
Nolan made sure the fans were pointed directly at Casey Affleck's mouth because fuck that guy.
Hell, they couldn't even bring themselves to green screen outer space, opting instead to build giant space-projecting walls outside of their equally massive sets.
"This isn't what I meant when I said build me a universe, but I guess it works."
Now we're sad that Christopher Nolan isn't directing the new Jurassic Park movie because we're pretty sure he would have figured out how clone real dinosaurs.
Edge of Tomorrow Really Tried to Kill Tom Cruise
Edge of Tomorrow got so little blood pumping at the box office that it actually changed its name to Live Die Repeat: Edge Of Tomorrow for the Blu-ray release, even though you would think the original title would have brought in some business from confused fans thinking it was a new James Bond movie. It's a shame when you consider that not only is the film pretty non-terrible, but everyone involved suffered near-death experiences to make it a reality. At least, judging from the behind-the-scenes footage:
Even the studio accountants ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Just so we're clear, that is not a stuntman in the top right of the GIF, but rather accomplished Grim Reaper teabagger and actor (in that order) Tom Cruise getting pummeled with whizzing rockets and flung bodies. In fairness, he did have a 125-pound replica exo-armor suit to protect him most of the time ... so long as he was willing to become a human marionette puppet in the process.
Dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun-dun!
Of course, those clunky mech suits probably don't bring a lot of peace of mind when you're having real fireballs tossed at your ass, as director Doug Liman did to the actors in the giant backlot warzone playground the studio created for their main battle sequence.
"Whoa, be careful! That's an expensive prop!"
And this being a Tom Cruise film, he obviously found an excuse to ditch the suit and run away from a falling helicopter, using nothing but his own two legs:
Worst job in Hollywood: piloting an aircraft in a Tom Cruise movie.
If they were seriously looking to rename the film, we're kind of surprised they didn't just go with Tom Cruise Almost Dies, especially considering that Cruise seriously almost died -- not in an explosion or something equally badass, but when his co-star Emily Blunt accidentally drove a car into a fucking tree while making a sharp turn with both actors inside -- because using stunt people is for hacks, even when the audience can't tell the difference.
Cruise wanted to remove the car floor and do this The Flintstones-style, but they said no.
Thor: The Dark World Levitates a Freaking Truck
Thor: The Dark World is a fantasy movie, a superhero movie, and, if you worship the Norse pantheon, technically a religious epic. In other words, it's the kind of film where you go in expecting that 90 percent of what you'll see was made on a computer. Take, for example, the scene with the levitating truck -- it's just a little moment that, in all likelihood, was made exclusively to put something cool-looking in the first trailer, so the filmmakers could be excused for phoning it in and just using CGI to make that happen.
How come they never put things like this in Jesus biopics?
Well, if you have made it this far into this article, you've probably guessed that wasn't the case. As in, they actually turned a real cement truck into a giant rotisserie turkey (but far more metallic and much, much less delicious).
Unless you're Orson Welles in The Transformers: The Movie.
It turns out that, along with giving Natalie Portman's hipster intern that romantic subplot we all so desperately wanted to see, this movie also produced some killer practical effects. Initially, VFX supervisor Jake Morrison intended to go the boring CGI route for this scene, until his team assured him they could totally do that shit in real life. The only digital trickery needed was to remove the ginormous hydraulic arm the effects team employed to lift and spin the truck around the actors, which was skewed by a giant bar through the center.
It's just the kind of digital bait and switch you would expect from a team that used computer effects to simulate everything except the vehicle mayhem ...
Thor 3: Truckasaurus' Ghost.
... or, not "everything," we guess, since they also shot those desolate landscape fight scenes in Iceland, instead of in front of a green screen like we all had assumed:
Hell, we had assumed real-life Iceland was CGI.
True Detective Takes Long Shots to the Next Level
True Detective was created when producer Nic Pizzolatto made a bet to see how many people remember EDtv by show of baffled cries. From there, it became a fun crime story that turned into a masterpiece at the end of episode four, when this goes down:
What you're seeing is a six-minute long continuous shot in which McConaughey's character, Rust Cohle, attempts to escape from a housing project with a hostage while the residents attack him with bullets, rocks, baseball bats, and a liberal use of the word "motherfucker." Now, there are two ways to get a shot like that: The first is using editing trickery to hide cuts in certain moments, like when the camera looks up at that helicopter -- which, for all we know, wasn't even real.
Much like Woody Harrelson's '90s hair.
Or, if you're insane, you can just pummel through it in one batshit take ... which is exactly what happened. It took an exhausting seven takes to get it right, each time involving a hidden crew of assistant directors, special effects technicians, makeup artists to "bloody" the actors quickly, and, yes, helicopter pilots. Imagine the most complicated theater performance ever, but with a stage that's constantly following a worn-out McConaughey through a six-block radius as he takes a foam bat to the grill ...
He and the batter later join forces against smartphone guy.
... and climbs the same fucking fence over and over again -- a sequence, by the way, that had to be shot using a crane, since this was a real housing project, and HBO didn't have permission to cut part of the fence.
"... or we could just open it, you know."
"Nah, too easy."
So, for every take, McConaughey had to climb that shit-bitch fence at the end of the shot, only to finally get into a car driven by Woody Harrelson ... whose only job in the whole shoot was to wait patiently in a parked car all night.
"Why does it smell like burnt skunk in here?"
The Raid 2 Creates Impossible Camera Shots
If martial arts films are indeed the violent equivalent of musicals, then The Raid is Les Miserables, in that it's impeccably constructed and incredibly lethal for every character featured. The Raid 2 is no different, except ramped up to a blood-soaked 11, in not only savagery, but scale and cinematography -- from a massive prison riot/mud fight to a fight scene taking place in a tiny bathroom stall, this movie has something for fans of all flavors of violence.
This is the greatest bathroom ass-kicking since Jim Carrey vs. himself.
But, hold up: Look at how tiny the walls are in that place. There's barely enough space to pee standing up, so how the hell did they get a huge camera to move around in there? Is the cameraman a ghost? If this was a Michael Bay film, you know he would probably just add the walls in post-production (along with an offensively ethnic-sounding CGI character or two). But, since it isn't, they had to get creative:
Judging from the masks on the wall-movers, the toilet was 100 percent real.
Yep, they actually moved the freaking set around the camera -- as if choreographing a fight alone wasn't complicated enough. It's both stupid simple and creatively elegant. But, it isn't nearly as impressive pulling off this shot in the film's car chase sequence:
"Gah! There's a bee in the car!"
How do you think they pulled that off? If you guessed "by dressing up the cameraman as a big, tan Gumby," congratulations:
No one knows who that guy under the car was, but it's lucky he was there.
They passed the camera person-to-person while one cameraman was disguised as a car seat and another lay strapped to the side, like a human sidecar. Apparently, when all of your production budget is reserved for karate-kick insurance, sometimes you have to ask a crew member to put his genitals unnervingly close to some fast-moving asphalt to get all of the shots you need.
2012 Terrorized the Actors With Man-Made Earthquakes
Roland Emmerich's 2012 was the kind of disaster that defines mindless effects-heavy blockbusters. However, the stupid, flimsy, and, worst of all, since proven factually incorrect story didn't stop VFX supervisors Volker Engel and Marc Weigert from taking their task very seriously -- that task being, "ending the world as we know it."
Flipping car action: just like how the Mayas predicted.
Creating the apocalypse would have been easy had it all been done digitally, yet Engel and Weigert (who also contributed to the amazing effects in Independence Day) were able to balance the cartoonish carnage with some honest-to-God practical effects -- and did so in a way that abused as many actors as possible, as a kind of Zen punishment for appearing in this movie. There was the extreme waterboarding ...
This served as preemptive punishment for The Raven, too, John Cusack.
... actually tipping an entire stage to recreate the sinking boat scene ...
Way safer than tipping the camera.
... and, of course, building a 500,000-ton and 8,000-square foot steel-shaking floor powered by hydraulics to create the earthquake scenes (by just causing a fucking earthquake):
"The money we saved by not hiring writers helped to pay for this rig!"
And, before you say anything, yeah, they were perfectly aware that it's possible to make "earthquake" effects by just shaking the camera a bit, as Star Trek has been proving since the '60s, but they intentionally stayed away from that to achieve more realism. In a Roland Emmerich film. With so much effort gone into something so forgettable, it's like a Buddhist sand painting made with twisted steel and actor fear.
The Cabin in the Woods Was a Monster Effects Eden
Joss Whedon doesn't do things half-assed, especially when he isn't the one who has to do them. For the 2012 horror satire The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon and director Drew Goddard decided they wanted a sequence where pretty much every type of horror movie creature ever would make a cameo, sometimes for half of a second and occupying a tiny portion of the screen. So, naturally, they had the special-effects people go and make real versions of all of these ugly fuckers you would probably have to pause to even notice.
Giant bug monsters? Check.
It was very expensive, shooting this scene in Australia.
Floating Ringu girl? Oh, they've got that.
Those little girls still have nightmares about the green men.
Ballerina from hell? Sure. And, for extra points, she's layered on top of an actual 9 year old, who was forced through hours of makeup for this privilege.
We don't see eye holes in there, but that's probably for the best.
Sometimes, however, simple prosthetics and makeup aren't enough -- sometimes, you have to use remote-controlled rigs to turn a stunt guy into a flying goblin, or put a blow torch inside a pumpkin-faced puppet. So, they did that.
Sometimes, your goblin will grab two other stuntmen and fly away.
For the iconic scene where Professor McStomachHole gets murder-stabbed by the mythical horn of glitter and death, we got a sculpted killer horse head mounted on a gimbal arm like some kind of Brony Saw contraption.
Not the grossest image of a pony entering someone on the Internet.
But, probably their greatest achievement was the fan-favorite Merman, which involved tubing for blood that ran through prosthetics worn from head to toe -- the actor literally could not move for 12 hours at a time, needing to be carried around the set on stretchers and spending time between shoots napping.
Jabba is so desperate for a role in Episode VII that he lost like 300 pounds.
All of this, again, for costumes that sometimes didn't even appear completely onscreen. That's dedication.
We tried sleeping on the job too, with similarly bloody results.
For more films that went above and beyond, check out 7 Movies That Put Insane Detail into Stuff You Never Noticed and 7 Movies That Put Insane Work Into Details You Didn't Notice.
Spread some appreciation for practical effects. Click the Facebook 'share' button below.
Nightmarish villains with superhuman enhancements. An all-seeing social network that tracks your every move. A young woman from the trailer park and her very smelly cat. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, a new novel about futuristic shit, by David Wong.