Home Entertainment Top List Thursdays – Top Ten Practical Special Effects Which Aren't CGI

Top List Thursdays – Top Ten Practical Special Effects Which Aren't CGI

8 min read


These days, it’s pretty easy to look at a movie and spot the CGI. A wrinkle of clothing here, a fake fire there, a scene where George Lucas appears there…It’s pretty easy. But some movies didn’t take shortcuts. Some movies took the long road to create their special effects. Here’s ten of them.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 They really did hijack a plane in the air – The Dark Knight Rises

You’ve got to hand it to Christopher Nolan. The man knows what he wants, and he’ll endanger the hell out of his crew to get it. For The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan decided to make the opening sequence to that trilogy-capper a Bondman film, riffing on a stunt performed years back in License to kill.

But bigger, better and more incomprehensible for anyone trying to understand what Bane was saying. To get that stunt right, Nolan got his hands on some real planes and threw some very real stuntmen at the smaller jet for all the exterior shots, while the actual actors were safe inside of a studio fuselage.

As for that scene where he crashes the smaller jet? That was a model plane, dropped from a very high altitude. And probably with tiny corpses inside of it, just to be extra-authentic.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 The Chestburster – Alien

One of the most iconic movie scenes in history, actor John Hurt getting the heartburn from hell is also a sadistic moment form Ridley Scott that borders on Kubrickian levels of mind torture. In the scene itself, Hurt quickly convulses in pain, as his stomach starts pumping out a Xenomorph in a birth sequence that would Richard Attenborough throw up. Erupting in a shower of blood and organs, that little fella eventually goes on to murder the entire crew of the Nostromo, leaving a pantsless Sigourney Weaver alone to face it.

But the real effect here, is that when Hurt filmed that scene, none of his co-actors were aware of what was going to happen. Hurt was already strapped to the table and a complex machine that consisted of a fake chest, pig blood and meat and various other doodads, while his coworkers were elsewhere and blissfully unaware of what was about to happen. Yaphet Kotto quite literally almost had a heart attack, while Veronica Cartright got drenched in the explosion of anti-PETA fluids.

So those reactions you see of everyone going completely mental? Those are real man, those are real.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 Hungry like the wolf – An American Werewolf in London

When you think of werewolves, you most likely immediately start picturing comparisons of Taylor Lautner to a llama. Only a llama can actually act, if you give it a chance. While Twilight has glamourised werewolves as ripped men who can effortlessley transform into hybrid creatures with a taste for the full moon, it wasn’t always that way. And when you think of that classic John Landis werewolf movie, An American Werewolf in London, you get one helluva transformation scene.

Thanks to some great acting, editing, and a well deserved Academy Award win to legendary make-up artist Rick Baker, it isn’t just painful to watch. It’s downright repulsive and will turn you off Team Jacob for good.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 He’s pretty ‘armless – 127 hours

In theory, it sounds pretty simple to set this scene up. Based on a true life story, James Franco and director Danny Boyle had to convicne the world that the trapped arm he was about to hack off, was really his. Boyle had several prosthetic arms made for this scene, that all featured working mechanisms that were a stray spark away from coming to life.

And over the twenty minutes that he filmed that scene of mutilation and limb-severing, you’d have sworn that Franco was really hacking away at his own arm, thanks to the blood bukkake that followed.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 Brundlefly – The Fly

Here’s another great example of make-up, practical effects and great acting meshing well together. Jeff Goldblum is pretty much a swell fella in this film, minus that animal abuse scene, but to see him devolve further and further into a half-man, half fly creature? Gripping stuff. It starts out small at first. A pimple there, some increased strength and an appetite for getting it on there, before he goes full Brundle-Fly.

Unable to digest food without upchucking, and slowly rotting away from the outside, it’s at the climax of the film where Brundle-Fly finally sheds his mortal form and emerges as a complete hybrid with the mind of a madman. A transformation so hideous, that it earned make-up artist Chris Wala an Academy Award.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 Clever girls – Jurassic Park

When you first saw Jurassic Park, your jaw was most likely hanging on the floor when the Brachiosauruses arrived.  The special effects were magnificent, but even then, there were limits on what could and could not be done. Thanks to Stan Winston though, it wasn’t just possible to have a Velociraptor (Pfft, they were actually Dinonychuses) moving around on a rig.

It was possible to dress up a crew member as one of the raptoricious dinos and have them run around terrorising children. Dressing up dudes in rubber monster costumes may be a time-honoured Japanese tradition, but in Jurassic Park, it was a way of life that extended through to the second and third films.

And you can bet your ass that George Lucas wishes that he could go back to replace those actors with CGI equivalents, seeing as how Industrial Light and Magic worked on that movie.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 Head go splodey now – Scanners

Words cannot actually sum up how relevant watching a head explode on the big screen really is. So I’ll just tell you how exactly Dick Smith got this right. First, he took a prosthetic head with foam segments, filled it up with dog food and rabbit organs and then shot it from behind with a shotgun to create the meme-worthy special effect.

It’s ridiculously simple, yet brilliant. And it still looks better than CGI, to this day. Talk about a classic.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 Pretty much every single thing – The Thing

A cuple of decades on, and John Carpenter’s The Thing is still absolutely bloody terrifying to this day. I’d like to say that that is thanks to the tense atmosphere, the general distrust in the movie and the fact that you never know who is really the killer alien throughout it all…But once you see a sled dog burst open into a tentacle buffet that sprays acid everywhere, or watch a dead man’s stomach erupt into a set of arm-severing teeth or any of the other freaky scenes in that movie, you’ll never be the same again.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 A ton of work on the digital frontier – Tron

One aspect of film-making that people aren’t aware of, is just how important colour really is. By altering a tone here or there, you can achieve a dramatic effect. Take the first Tron for instance. None of the actors came prepackaged with glowing lines, and as magnificent as an actor that Jeff Bridges is, even he couldn’t will that costume change into reality.

To achieve a look that looked like all the actors were taking part in Rave Brittania, the crew had to shoot the entire movie in black and white, or at least all the Tron Scenes from inside the grid that needed it. Then, they had to painstakingly apply an enlargement process to each film cell, make it transparent and then isolate the parts that needed an infusion of neon colours. That meant that they needed around an average of six cells per frame. At 24 frames per second, that’s 108 000 cells that they had to work with…times a variable of four at least for special effects.

So how do you manage to stay sane while hand-painting thousands upon thousands of cells? Easy, do what all great animators do: Let Asia do it for you with their expendable work force.

Extras-bullet-points-micro3 London is empty – 28 Days Later


If you’ve ever been to London, you know that it happens to be one of the busiest metropolitans on the face of the planet. Business never stops, and tourists are everywhere in the heart of England. So how the hell did Danny Boyle manage to get the streets empty for his zombie flick 28 Days Later? Did he cut the worst fart in the history of mankind? Did he just shop everyone except Cillian Murphy out?

Nope! He just got up early! Even Londoners need to sleep, and by keeping production costs down with digital Canon cameras, the crew could shoot Murphy wandering through seemingly-deserted streets quickly and without fuss, while asking a few area workers to just wait a tick while they did their stuff. It was the lower end of technology, but thanks to that flexibility, one magnificently eery scene was shot and finished in record time.

Last Updated: April 18, 2013


  1. TechniKyle

    April 18, 2013 at 15:55

    The Fly! I must watch that movie again! I wonder where I can find it..?


  2. Facebook User

    April 18, 2013 at 16:28

  3. James Francis

    April 19, 2013 at 10:08

    The Thing was an absolute classic – I really feel we’ve lost something with too much CG. Not enough set building and prosthetic work…


  4. Tom

    May 12, 2013 at 21:21

    I think you guys will be interested in this:

    All monsters done with practical effects. Pretty interesting, specially after watching their work in other movies.


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