Monsters & Madness: The Most Important Special Effects In Movie History

With SFX extravaganza Pacific Rim tearing up theaters right now, let’s take a look back at cinema’s most memorable movie magic.

Guillermo del Toro’s old-school kaiju nostalgia trip Pacific Rim is exploding onto screens at the moment, and with it comes another hotly anticipated foray into the wild imagination of its creature-obsessed director. Whether he’s making thinly veiled Mexican political allegories (Pan’s Labyrinth), upping the ante on physics-hating sequels to comic book adaptations (Blade II), or just finding excuses to hang out with the legend that is Ron Perlman (Hellboy), del Toro never veers far from his monster movie love, cramming all manner of fawns and demons and weird skinny eyeless dudes wherever he can. It’s a talent.

Pacific Rim features more of the same adolescent fantasy-mongering on which del Toro has built his career, but the key difference in style is that the 40-story robots stomping through Tokyo and smashing buildings to smithereens were created digitally (well, mostly—we’re pretty sure no cities were wiped out for real). This isn’t the first time del Toro has relied on a computer to see his vision through—and had he gone ahead to make his planned but canceled dream project, At The Mountains of Madness, he would have had to have taken the plunge headlong—but besides maybe David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam, there’s hardly a filmmaker working today as reliant on practical effects over CGI. And so, in honor of that tradition, let’s take a look back at some of the most impressive non-digital effects ever made, from sets to creatures and beyond.

MOST ELABORATE SET –Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916)

When George Lucas dropped the bomb that is Attack of the Clones on an unsuspecting American public in the summer of 2002, by far the biggest complaint had to do with its weird sense of weightlessness: There’s something about the film that gives the impression of barely being there, as if the action were taking place in a vacuum. Blame the computers – Lucas wanted to rely so heavily on CGI for Clones that he forgot to stop and wonder whether the technology was up to the job, which in the end, it clearly wasn’t—the sets didn’t even look fake so much as too glossy and wafer-thin. If you want to realize a vision of fantastic, otherworldly places, you just can’t beat good, old fashioned movie sets.

Frankly there’s still almost nothing that can be imagined by a director that can’t be made to scale with real materials, as early cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith so ably and bad-assly proved. Intolerance, his crowning achievement and grandest folly, was unimaginably complicated and ambitious even by modern standards, requiring thousands of extras and millions of dollars in production costs to tell a story that literally spans millennia. Its most ostentatious touch was the now-infamous ancient Babylonian courtyard set, designed by Griffith himself and put together at absurd expense in the middle of Los Angeles. In strictly financial terms, it was a ludicrous investment, but the payoff was huge artistically: It remains one of the most impressive sets in movie history.

Runner Up – Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Jacques Tati bankrupted himself and his family for life with Playtime, his overpriced comic masterpiece, in large part because he insisted on constructing a hyper-modern version of Paris across a massive, city-sized studio lot of his own creation. The set cost upwards of 17 million francs and required its own power plant, but it’s hard to imagine the movie without it.

MOST ELABORATE METAMORPHOSISAn American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

John Landis remains better known for his raunchy ’80s comedies than for his not-insubstantial work in the realm of horror, but his career’s defining moment is a classic of monster movie invention: Griffin Dunne’s protracted, painful first transformation into a werewolf in the horror comedy An American Werewolf in London is a masterpiece of modern makeup and effects work, doing things thought impossible at the time and still impressive today. Turning a man into a wolf would be a relatively straightforward process with CGI—even if, as the last Twilight movies proved, bad CGI makes wolf-men look like they’ve walked out of an Xbox game—but what’s so great about the practical effects of this shot is the real sense of tactile presence they convey. Dunne’s transformation is not only conceptually realistic, it looks totally organic and physical, and as a result you not only believe in the magic but actually feel it somehow too. That’s a far more difficult trick to pull off.

Runner Up – The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

John Carpenter borrowed the same effects team that brought Werewolf to life for his tale of viral aliens set loose in the arctic, and unsurprisingly the results are every bit as astonishing: Whether it’s a man’s stomach opening up like a gaping maw or a head turning into a flying spaghetti monster, The Thing features more memorable monster transformations than any one movie has the right to.

MOST COMPLEX MODEL – Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, widely considered to be the first-ever science fiction film, is best remembered now for the Maschinenmensch, Brigitte Helm’s iconic “machine-human” hybrid (and cinema’s first robot). But Metropolis remains somewhat notorious for the tremendous difficulty of its production, which Lang reigned over brutally, imposing long shoots and harsh working conditions until he practically broke his actors and extras down to exhaustion. The most fruitful product of his methods, of course, were the incredible futuristic cityscapes he achieved as a result, in which Lang’s vision of the future city was rendered fully realized and real. This summer we’ve seen more cities blown up than we can count—in the last month alone we’ve seen Washington, London, and New York obliterated by superheroes and their destructive bouts with evil—but all the precision engineering of digital animators in the world can’t match the artistry of Lang’s Metropolis, which was brought to life with equal parts imagination and labor. The city was constructed as a huge, meticulously detailed miniature, a model made all the more realistic by the invention of what is known as the “Schufftan process”—a process by which an elaborate array of mirrors, arranged just so, would lend a shot the illusion that actors were standing in and around miniature sets. The effect can be replicated instantly on a computer, but you have to admire the ingenuity on display by Lang and company. There’s something to be said for making an audience wonder, “How’d they do that?”

Runner Up – Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Blade Runner features one miniature so exhaustively planned and operated that it hardly seems worth it. The “Hades Landscape” – a fly-by shot over a steaming, fire-lined cityscape up to the Tyrell headquarters – required thousands of individual miniatures put together with standalone projections and lit correctly through a thick bank of smoke to achieve the illusion of one, full-sized space.

MOST OVERLY COMPLICATED MINOR EFFECT – Escape from New York  (John Carpenter, 1981)

The history of cinematic special effects is loaded with artists whose ambition, dedication, and audacity made the impossible possible, often at exorbitant effort and expense. Sometimes, however, a certain kind of mad genius sees fit to direct such exorbitance toward a project so frivolous that the effort seems almost absurd, and the prime example is none other than John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. You may recall that Snake Plissken’s futuristic glider plane featured a small display screen with which he could navigate a destitute downtown Manhattan, and that the display screen featured what can only be described as the 80s’ idea of 90s computer graphics technology. It looks pretty ridiculous now, but in 1981 that kind of black and green wire-frame imaging was literally too advanced to be affordable on their budget, meaning Carpenter had to improvise. And so he used tape. Seriously: The wire-frame imaging that looks like bad computer graphics was actually just bright white tape attached to an all-black model city. Somebody’s job was to create a to-scale model of New York, paint it entirely black, and then tape up lines over the whole thing just to make it look computery. That’s dedication.

Runner Up – Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1994)

Photo Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Terminator 2 may be most fondly remembered for its cutting-edge digital effects—liquid metal never looked so liquidy—but the weirdest, most bizarrely complicated effect was not only practical, it was pretty much the oldest trick in the book. In a deleted scene in the middle of the film, subsequently restored to the DVD with commentary explaining the trickery, Sarah and John Connor are found fixing up the skull of their poor Terminator pal, rejiggering a computer chip designed to block out his capacity to learn or improve. The bunch are sat in front of the camera facing out toward a mirror, which reflects them all back at us, and the camera pans slowly around them—but doesn’t show up in the mirror at all. It’d be easy enough to pull off now because cameras and boom mics and unwanted actors can be erased digitally, but Cameron had a smarter trick: Instead of a mirror, he just used a window, sitting the real Arnold and company on the other side (we see the backs of their heads in the foreground). Best of all? You can clearly see Linda Hamilton in both the mirror and in the foreground, but rather than double it up digitally, they just hired her identical twin sister. Really.

MOST DIFFICULT CREATURES – Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963)

We lost the world’s greatest special effects artist when Ray Harryhausen passed away earlier this year, but his legacy is more relevant than ever. Part of what’s less exciting about digital effects is that, for all their technical proficiency and the skill required to make them, they still somehow seem easier than practical effects, a shortcut available to anyone with some free time and a laptop to work on. The effects guys like Harryhausen put together, usually made using stop-motion animation and tiny static models, weren’t just “difficult” in the sense of craft or skill—they were real, hard work, labors that required the craftsmen to slave over them endlessly. Even the most minor movements required hours and hours of painstaking work, as the beloved skeleton fight from the classic adventure Jason and the Argonauts proves: Just imagine moving each one of those skeletal limbs a half-millimeter every minute in order to snap a shot and move on. The sum total of their movements required so much accumulated effort that it’s hard to imagine doing it without losing your mind.

Runner Up – Anything by Ray Harryhausen

The guy made hundreds of monsters look like living, breathing creatures. Nobody else deserves to be mentioned.

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