Home Entertainment Top List Thursdays – Top 8 cheap as chips special effects

Top List Thursdays – Top 8 cheap as chips special effects

8 min read

These days, just about any movie can have special effects. With cheaper, faster computers, filmmakers now have access to many programs that can insert a dinosaur or remove a stuntman whenever they want to. But some films don’t have that big of a budget. Hell, some films of the past had to make do with quick solutions that didn’t look cheap. Here’s a couple of tight-fisted classic techniques that had audiences fooled.

The Ten Commandments (1956) – The parting of the ocean

Ten Commandments

Bible films are all the rage these days. Heck, any studio with a spare Nicolas Cage and a decent budget is now interested in making them, which explains why the History Channel is now airing actual fictional history. Back in the middle of 20th century however, bible films were really, really big and resulted in the epic production that was The Ten Commandments. Starring  Charlton Heston as Moses, the prototype messiah rained down several plagues on the Egyptian empire, with a miracle or two for bonus points.

But in a pre-CGI age, parting an entire ocean was a tall order. So how did director Cecile B. Demile accomplish such an actual movie miracle? Simple: Demile got his hands on two gigantic water dump tanks, filled them up and filmed the process. By reversing that footage, Demile managed to create a cascading passage with water walls. For extra effort, Demile even threw gelatin into the water in order to make it look more like seawater.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – The tornado


Auntie Em! Auntie Em! Thanks to Mother Nature, a young Kansas farm girl soon learns that there is no place like home, especially after a tornado picks her up and whisks away before crushing a wicked witch under a house and depriving us of the TV show CSI:OZ. So how did filmmakers create an actual tornado in 1939?

By not playing god, that’s how. What you’re seeing on the screen when Dorothy runs into her home, is actually a massive stocking, stuffed with sand and attached to a fan as it wreaked havoc on a miniature set. Some actual tornado footage was also used, but it just goes to show that ladies leggings can do anything.

Back To The Future II – Landing a time machine

By the end of the first Back To The Future sequel, director Robert Zemeckis had most likely used up his entire special effects budget, with once big scene still needing to be shot. How on Earth was he going to land an entire Delorean car, without anyone noticing an expensive rig or several high-strength wires? By thinking small.

What you’re actually seeing in that scene isn’t just the full car touching down, but a small model coming in first, before a cunningly placed lamp pole obscures it and allows a well positioned actual Delorean to take over. Crafty.

Superman 4: The Quest For Peace – Superman vs Nuclear Man

Not just cheap, but lazy as well, the fourth Superman movie starred the late Christopher Reeve who clearly had a case of the December Holidays, eager to be done with the franchise so that he could get one of his own films greenlit as part of his payment. Going toe to toe with the diablocial super-mullet of Nuclear Man, Superman takes the fight to the Moon, engaging in fisticuffs with Chernobyl-powered antagonist.

In a zero gravity environment, the battle rages on, with each actor moving slower than Clint Eastwood movie, while the majestic backdrop of space happens to be nothing more than a black velvet curtain.

The Lord Of The Rings – It’s all about perspective

So nerd fact: Hobbits are in fact, only three feet tall. Life fact: The majority of the actors playing Hobbits in the various Lord Of The Rings movies, wouldn’t even be that short if you chopped their legs off. Even with a massive budget behind it, Peter Jackson would have run out of cash within days if he had directed his computer department to crop the height off of all his Hobbit actors in order to make characters like Aragorn, Gandalf and Saruman look like regular ass-kickers.

But that would have most likely looked like crap. Think about it: In the entirety of the Lord Of The Rings, did you ever notice on purpose that the various actors were shorter than their non-Hobbit/Dwarf counterparts? That speaks volumes for the special effects crew behind the Hobbit, who used a staggering arsenal of simple but complex tricks in order to fool audiences.

Take for instance, a scene where Gandalf grabs Frodo, throws him on his horse and rides away. That’s a child in a wig. Sometimes, director Peter Jackson would use forced perspective to create a scene that made Frodo and co look Hobbit-size, in a manner reminiscent of those crappy mind-puzzles your teacher would trick you with. Other scenes such as Gandalf sharing a table with Frodo actually consisted of the two actors sitting at different tables that would move with the camera, in order to keep the forced perspective illusion real.

And then sometimes, Frodo and pals would be standing in front of some leggy basketball players who had their heads cut off in a scene. Simple and effective, yet maddeningly complex to pull off.

Terminator 2 – She ain’t heavy, she’s my sister

Terminator 2

Out of all the Terminator robots sent back to the past, the T-1000 may just be my favourite. It’s design is simply perfect and efficient. Liquid metal, unstoppable and sharper than a Jimmy Carr comedy special. What made this terminator also amazing deadly, was its ability to shapeshift into any person and assume their identity.

Which the T-1000 did several times. That little trick turns out to be its downfall, when it enter Jean Claude Van Damme mode and impersonates the tough as nails Sarah Connor, only for the real McCoy to show up and see how many shotguns shells she can fit into it. Even with a ton of special effects in the budget, it must have been a massive pain in the ass to put two Sarahs on the same screen, right? Not exactly.

What you’re seeing on the screen, is actually actress Linda Hamilton and her twin sister Leslie Hamilton playing out a scene, which saved director James Cameron a ton of bucks and made for a quick shoot. And judging by the way Hollywood has used this trick before, with the late Paul Walker’s own siblings filling in for him, it’ll be a trick that here’s to stay for the foreseeable future.

Escape From New York – Vector the future

Escape from New York

It is the future, in the faraway year of 1997. New York has suddenly become even worse than usual, resulting in the once proud island city now becoming a super prison for the worst of the worst. And somehow, the president of the US of A has found himself stuck inside that hellhole. There’s only one badass, eyepatch-wearing surly bastard who can rescue him, and that’s Snake Plissken. But he’s going to need some intel. And in 1997, the US government had the best Pentium 386 that money could buy.

As Snake checks out a map of New York in 1997, you’ve got to be impressed with the visual effects that went into creating that interactive map. Hell, it’s 2014 and if I try looking at a map like that my phone will explode. So how much money was sunk into creating it? Not much at all actually.

Director John Carpenter and his crew had to create that fancy map, with as little cash as possible. So they simply hit a hardware store, got some green tape and dark material, applied that onto their miniature model of New York, shined a light on it and rolled the camera. Simple and easy, unlike the sequel Escape From LA which required a special effects budget in order to make the entire script even more batshit crazy than usual.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail – None shall pass!

Truly, there must be no foe fiercer than the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. An unstoppable force of deliberate hate and armed with an unflappable winning attitude, the Black Knight was a force to be reckoned with. After all, how many knights can you think off that manage to shrug off a severed limb as nothing more than a flesh wound?

In the first Monty Python film, things went from bad to worse and then ridiculous as King Arthur wittled down the limbs of his opponent, only to receive a swift kick to the head as the Black knight refused to yield. Its easy to spot, as John Cleese merely had his hands tied behind his back while a contraption spurted blood out of his wounds.

But once King Arthur takes a leg, the crew had to improvise. Hiring a local one-legged blacksmith by the name of Richard Burton (Not that Richard Burton), the scene could then be finished, with John Cleese hopping into a hole to play the now quadruple-amputee Black Knight. Tis but a side-splitting scratch in all.


Last Updated: November 20, 2014


  1. James Francis

    November 20, 2014 at 14:12

    The Escape From NY map is actually a miniature set? I’ve seen that film so many times and it still looks digital!


    • Kervyn Cloete

      November 20, 2014 at 15:58

      I actually had no idea it wasn’t digital either!


  2. Admiral Chief Wang

    November 20, 2014 at 14:15

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