4 Movie Moments That Were More Work Than We Realized

Practical effects and CGI can both be really tough.
4 Movie Moments That Were More Work Than We Realized

Sometimes, there are scenes in movies that just blow your mind and leave you scratching your head over how they were able to pull them off. Other times, there are shots that you may not have had that much of an impact but were still a royal pain in the ass to put together. So, here we have a few examples from columns A and B that will hopefully give you a greater appreciation for what the filmmakers had to go through to get the shot right ...

Flubber (1997)

1997's Flubber was a remake of 1961's The Absent-Minded Professor and was part of a larger push by Disney in the late '90s to desperately maintain control of their expiring copyrights remake their classics for a modern audience. Robin Williams plays Dr. Phillip Brainard, an absent-minded professor (Oh, we just got the title), who, while trying to invent a new energy source, accidentally invents an innovative but unstable substance he calls "flying rubber," or Flubber for short.

One thing the filmmakers changed from the original was to make Flubber a sentient character. It became this cute little CGI glob of green goo with its own personality, much like a mischievous puppy. It would behave in unpredictable ways, slapstick would ensue, and that's like 90% of the plot. 

The CGI special effects behind the Flubber posed some challenges. Not only was the Flubber an amorphous shape that is hard enough to animate, but also its outer surface was smooth, so they had to account for light reflections. Plus, it was translucent with tiny air bubbles inside, so they had to animate the background being refracted through the substance. They had to plan everything out carefully to get it to look right. Then came this scene:

Everything in this scene was in the script, so the VFX team knew what to plan for. But the part where Robin Williams smushes his face into the Flubber, and it keeps an impression of his face for a second? That was ad-libbed. The director thought that was a brilliant idea and decided to keep it. That five-second improv added three months to the VFX team's workload to figure out how to make this goo look like it interacted with the most unpredictably animated face in Hollywood.

Then there was the Flubber's dance party scene:

The finale of this sequence shows the Flubber having an entire Mambo dance sequence on top of a side table with cat statues and staircases made out of National Geographic magazines. Nowadays, everything in this sequence would be fully rendered in CGI, but in the mid-to-late '90s, the technology wasn't quite capable of achieving that level of photorealism. Well, the technology did kinda exist, but Flubber didn't have the budget or the time to really go there.

The actual side table and props were too small for them to move the camera around, so they built a 3X scale model of that set and used a motion-controlled camera to shoot the set as a background plate and animate the Flubber on top of it.

But then, they had to recreate the background elements in the computer anyway to show the background refracting through the Flubber and render all of the shadows and reflections the Flubber cast on everything in the scene. In the end, those shots ended up having so many added CGI effects that the giant scale set they filmed was almost literally rendered moot. It was a ton of effort to put into a scene that didn't advance the plot on a film that barely broke even at the box office.

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The Mummy (1999)

Now onto a different remake, 1999's The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser. Unlike FlubberThe Mummy not only became successful enough to spawn its own trilogy, but it also wound up launching a spin-off franchise of five Scorpion King films. Universal tried to reboot the franchise in 2017 with Tom Cruise, but after that film cratered at the box office, it was all the proof we need to conclude what Hollywood has repeatedly failed to realize: Brendan Fraser > Tom Cruise. 

But we wanna talk about the 45-second opening shot of The Mummy. The globe from the Universal logo fades into the sun setting on the city of Thebes, Egypt, in the year 1290 B.C. The camera pulls back to reveal the top of a pyramid, further back to show the top of a Sphinx being constructed, then the camera pans to the right to show a plaza full of people, and finally comes to a stop along the fortress wall as Pharaoh approaches on his chariot.

Now, let's break down the elements of this shot. The sun and pyramids were CGI. The Sphinx, the plaza, and surrounding buildings were detailed miniatures. All of the people working on the Sphinx and moving around the plaza were shot on a green screen and comped in later. The fortress wall, the soldiers beside it, the Pharaoh and his chariot were filmed on location in Morocco. The VFX team worked backward from the location shot at the end to determine the lighting on the miniatures and program the motion-controlled camera to make the shot appear seamless.

According to the film's VFX Art Director Alex Laurant, everything that went into this shot was "in the can" and ready to go, when the film's director Stephen Sommers threw them a curveball: He now wanted the scene to take place at dusk. Everything they had shot had been lit for midday, and there was no time to reshoot anything.

So now, the compositors had to go in a painstakingly color grade every element in the shot to make it look like it was taking place at sunset, darkening the miniatures and adjusting the highlights. Since the sun was now in the background of the shot, they also had to give everything, including the people moving around, longer shadows on the ground. It was a giant pain, but seeing as this was the film's opening shot, failure was not an option.

After The Mummy was a hit at the box office, Universal fast-tracked its sequel into production to be released two years later. With the pressure to make The Mummy Returns go bigger than its predecessor, the filmmakers really tried to push the envelope further on the special effects, even though they had an even tighter deadline than before. The result was some of the most laughable PlayStation 2 cut scene-level CGI ever released by a major studio. They flew too close to the sun, no matter how much Stephen Sommers tried to move it.

Soy Cuba (1964)

Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba), directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, was co-produced by the governments of the Soviet Union and Cuba for the purposes of communist propaganda, although neither country was particularly happy with the end result. The Cubans felt the depictions of their people were insultingly condescending, while the Russians didn't think its depictions of the Cuban Revolution were revolutionary enough.

The film was rediscovered after the end of the Cold War, and people finally got to see some of the amazing cinematography and long takes Kalatozov and crew were able to accomplish given what they had to work with. They only had one camera that only held about nine minutes of film at a time, only two lenses, and they were using Russian-made infrared film stock that was primarily used for spying on their enemies. One of the most notable shots from the movie was this one:

Given the technology at the time, much less what a Russian film crew in post-revolution Cuba had at their disposal, this 2.5-minute unbroken shot is thought to be impossible. But somehow, they MacGuyver-ed the hell out of it. 

It starts with a simple tracking shot of a young woman in a crowd of mourners at a funeral march. This was twelve years before the invention of the Steadicam, so the cameraman just had to have really graceful hands and the lightest footsteps known to mankind.

21 seconds in, the camera starts to rise above the crowd. Now it's a crane shot, only they didn't have a crane. They built an elevator platform on the outside of the building that lifted the cameraman up to the roof. Pretty impressive so far, until the camera tracks to the right, across the street, and through the open window of an adjacent building. Once they were at roof level, the cameraman moved across a narrow walkway to the next building … three stories above the crowd. The guy not only had steady hands and light feet, but now we know he also had cajones the size of church bells.

Once inside the next building, the camera moves through the room as cigar factory workers prepare to unfurl the Cuban flag out the window. The camera follows the flag out the window … and just keeps going. The camera continues out of the window and glides over the funeral procession. No, the cameraman didn't zipline over the crowd, but the camera did. They had a rig attached to two guide wires, and as they walked the camera to the window, it was attached to the rig using magnets.


Shoulda added some sticky tape too, just to be safe. 

So many things could've gone wrong with this shot. For one, this shot involved hundreds of extras, and the more people you have in a shot, the greater the chance one of them will ruin it by glancing at the camera or goofing around. But seeing as Fidel Castro was one of the producers, it's very unlikely anyone wanted to risk being a part of the blooper reel. But despite having hundreds of extras in this scene, only one person is caught looking directly at the camera. It's right at the end, and it was actually a member of the crew standing at the end of the zipline, preparing to catch the camera.

For another, they were using their only camera to pull this off, and the final part of this shot rested on the strength of those magnets. If those magnets had failed, not only would the production have been screwed, but one of those amazingly disciplined extras below might have taken an Éclair CM3 Camiflex 35mm camera straight to the brainpan. 

Strange Days (1995)

In Strange Days, Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, an ex-cop turned street hustler who deals in clips of a new technology called SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), which can record and later play back what the wearer experiences directly from their cerebral cortex. When you play these clips, you see, hear, and feel everything they did. The technology was designed to replace the body wire but quickly hit the black market, and these clips of other people's lives are now being sold like street drugs. Any type of dark, twisted forbidden fruit you wanted to taste, Lenny Nero could get it for you.

When these playback clips are shown on screen, and we see things from the wearer's point of view, it's not just GoPro-strapped-to-the-guy's-forehead type stuff. The filmmakers went to great lengths to make their heavy 35mm cameras act as much like the human eye as possible. And the results are pretty damn impressive when you consider what went into them. Particularly the restaurant robbery in the film's opening sequence.

Let's break down this scene in order. We start off with the three robbers in the car driving up to the restaurant. According to a lecture given by director Kathryn Bigelow about the making of this scene, not only are there actually five men in the car, it's only half a car. They cut out the back of the car to make room for the cameraman who's holding the camera with his right hand and acting out the scene with the rest of his body, a stuntman wearing an identical jacket acting as the character's right hand, and behind both of them is the focus puller making lens adjustments with a remote control.

The cameraman and the stuntman had to choreograph their movements to handle the recording deck, check their weapon, and put on a mask without making it look like they were awkwardly pulling pantyhose over a camera lens. Then, if the scene wasn't complicated enough, the cameraman had to get out of the vehicle over the front seat because these three criminal masterminds thought a two-door coupe would make a good getaway vehicle.

Now, we enter the restaurant, which was actually located miles away from where they shot the alleyway sequence. When the camera exits the vehicle and whip pans over to the door, that's where they hid the cut. Once inside the kitchen, we have our cameraman and stuntman running together, followed closely by the focus puller and a key grip making sure none of the cables leading to the camera get snagged, tripped over, or accidentally wind up in frame.

Once the criminals see the cops have them surrounded, one takes his chances getting back to the car while we follow another up the stairs to the roof. The staircase and the roof are located in another building miles away from the restaurant. They built a fake staircase inside the restaurant for the first criminal to start climbing, and they hid the cut to the new location when the camera whips around the corner to the actual stairwell.

The cameraman is running up the stairs alone, and when he gets up to the roof, he is rejoined by his right-hand stuntman. They had a real helicopter in the sky to shine a searchlight at the camera, and the first criminal makes a daring jump to the next rooftop. When the camera looks down to show the gap between the buildings, the bottom is actually an eight-foot-tall airbag that was airbrushed to look like a concrete alleyway with garbage strewn about.

Then, a car explodes off to the right side of the screen. When they whip pan from the explosion back to the first guy, that's where they hide the third cut. Now, the camera is mounted to a helmet on a different stuntman wired up with a safety harness for the final rooftop jump. He jumps, falls short, and holds on for dear life. When he loses his grip, that's where they cut to the final shot of him falling, which was actually filmed the previous night when they had a huge crane on set to raise the stuntman up from ground level, and they ran that footage in reverse.

So, just to recap: this three-minute scene took over a year to plan out, rehearse and shoot. It required a dozen extras, including the director herself (Kathryn Bigelow was the blonde woman who tried to escape). It took four different camera rigs, two of which were invented specifically for this movie, five shots total across three locations, a helicopter, pyrotechnics, and took four guys to play one character (including the voice actor who dubbed in the dialogue). All for an opening sequence that featured none of the principal cast and had no bearing on the plot other than to show what this technology was all about. 

And despite this movie being directed by a future two-time Academy Award winner, being co-written by James Freaking Cameron, and starring Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett fresh off their Oscar-nominated breakout roles in Schindler's List and What's Love Got to Do with It … the film bombed at the box office, earning about $8 million with a $42 million budget. Whoever screwed up the marketing of this film deserved to be fired … out of a cannon … into a running wood chipper.

When Dan Fritschie isn’t allowing his friends and family to just enjoy the damn movie, he can be seen performing stand-up somewhere. You can find him on Twitter HERE.

Top image: Walt Disney Pictures

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