King Kong (1933)
The Effect: Kong.
Practical Magic: The big hairy granddaddy of practical effects, King Kong put both fists through Hollywood in 1933 – ushering in a golden age of real backstage craftsmanship that would last all the way to the digital revolution.
Just 18 inches tall – and made out of aluminium, latex and rabbit fur – the original Kong still has a charm and a magic that could never be rebuilt in a computer.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
The Effect: Baby Joel.
Practical Magic: Peter Jackson’s tiny hobbits (and big wizards) in The Lord Of The Rings put the effect to more use, but Michel Gondry used it with subtlety. Using an old silent trick of ‘forced perspective’, Jim Carey looked like a tiny tot hiding under a kitchen table (when actually he was just a long way away in an ingeniously designed set).
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
The head peel
Obviously Linda Hamilton didn’t cut a hole in Arnie’s head and take out his microchip (although it might explain a few things…), but the use of old-school practical effects in the scene is just as clever as the CG trickery in the rest of the film. With a model of the back Schwarzenegger’s head in the foreground, and a window standing in place of the mirror, the real Schwarzenegger plays his own reflection (and Linda’s twin sister Leslie doubles for her “reflected” hands).
The Effect: The exploding head.
Practical Magic: How do you make a head explode? You fill a prosthetic dummy full of liver and offal from the local butcher, then you get a bloke with a shotgun to kneel down behind it and blow it to pieces.
Film it in super slow-motion and you’ve got one of the most iconic moments in body horror history.
Apollo 13 (1995)
The Effect: Weightlessness.
Practical Magic: Alfonso Cuarón had it all wrong in Gravity : instead of spending three years on the computer effects he should have followed Ron Howard’s example in Apollo 13 .
Needing Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon to look weightless, he built the interior of the spacecraft on a ‘vomit comet’ – NASA’s KC-135 super jet that flew the actors up and down so fast they were able to experience zero gravity in 25 second bursts. Before they vomited, presumably.
127 Hours (2010)
The Effect: The amputation.
Practical Magic: Let’s be honest, most people spent the first 126 hours waiting for James Franco to hack off his own arm, so Danny Boyle had to make sure it was worth it. Wanting to keep it real, Boyle and Franco shot the scene with a prosthetic arm carefully made up to mimic the bone-crunching feel of the real thing – resulting in an excruciating 20 minute take that most found hard to stomach.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The Effect: The gravity jog.
Practical Magic: One continuous shot that follows an astronaut as he jogs around a spaceship – up the walls, over the ceiling and back again. How did Kubrick do it?
He built a giant hamster wheel and rotated it around the camera – one of the most ambitious and costly solutions for a single effect ever staged. At the other end of the scale, an earlier shot of a floating pen was achieved with a sheet of a glass and a bit of sticky tape…
The Effect: Jaws.
If anyone ever remakes Jaws (and, dear God, they better not…) chances are the shark will be drawn in a computer.
Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg had nothing but a rubbish mechanical prop that kept breaking whenever it got wet. In the film’s pivotal scene, Jaws pops his head out of the water because a diver helped push it from below – the lowest of low-tech, but still one of the most frightening moments in movie history.
Star Wars (1977)
The Effect: The Trench run.
Practical Magic: Say what you want about George Lucas’s turn to the dark side of CGI in the prequels, the practical effects in Episode IV are probably the most influential in the business. Witness the trench run – the Death Star meticulously built to scale on a line of trestle tables – and Luke’s X-Wing a carefully hand-painted model.
Independence Day (1996)
The Effect: The White House explosion.
Practical Magic: Technically, Roland Emmerich really did blow up the White House – except his was only 6ft high and 12ft wide, made out entirely out of plaster.
Cleverer still, his rolling wall of flame was made by tipping a miniature city on its side, filming it from above, and setting it on fire – making it look like the alien flame ball was really creeping up the walls.
Its A Wonderful Life (1946)
The Effect: Snow.
Practical Magic: The greatest Christmas film of all time (that doesn’t have muppets OR gin it) was actually filmed on a baking hot ranch in California.
Back in the ’40s if Hollywood wanted to make fake snow, they used crushed cornflakes – playing havok with the sound recording whenever the actors walked around.
Trying something new, RKO thought soap flakes would look (and sound) better – making Bedford Falls look like a Christmas card, even if you can clearly see the suds in recent blu-ray restorations.
Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
The Effect: Helicopter head.
Practical Magic: With so many legendary zombie effects to choose from, one scene from Romero’s back catalogue still stands half a head above the rest – with an undead idiot walking slowly towards a helicopter in Dawn , barely noticing that the blades are giving him a very sharp haircut.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
The Effect: The rolling boulder.
Practical Magic: A classic example of something handmade (that could now be knocked up in the computer in seconds) contributing to one of the most iconic moments in moviedom.
Running away from a giant boulder and leaping to safety through an open hole (emerging on a completely different set, filmed months apart), Indy was actually being chased by a big blob of fibreglass.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (again)
The Effect: The melting face.
Practical Magic: Three Nazis, three wonderfully gruesome deaths – one exploding, one imploding and one melting.
Dynamite and air compression cannons saw to the first two, but Toht’s (Ronald Lacey) death was trickier – rebuilt out of gelatine and stood next to a heat lamp for hours until he dripped off his mortal coil. Sped up with a time-lapse camera, it still looks pretty disgusting.
The Evil Dead (1981)
The Effect: The pencil in the foot.
Practical Magic: Sam Rami has contributed more than most to the field of practical effects.
His greatest moment is also his simplest – as a possessed Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) pushes a pencil into Linda’s (Betsy Baker) ankle in The Evil Dead . Made on a shoestring, the effect (achieved with a beautifully constructed prosthetic) still looks ridiculously painful.
Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
The Effect: The fountain of blood.
Practical Magic: Practical blood effects could probably get their own Best-Of list, and Wes Craven would probably top it with Glenn’s (Johnny Depp) death.
Needing a “fountain” of red stuff to gush out the bed, Wes built the set on a gimble and flipped it upside down. Emptying over 500 gallons of fake blood into the hole, the swell of liquid sent the room spinning the wrong way, electrocuted half the crew and made everyone very, very red.
The Fly (1986)
The Effect: The metamorphosis.
Practical Magic: Make-up artist Chris Wala won an Oscar for his work on David Cronenberg’s sticky body-horror – mostly for the moment Jeff Goldblum finally turns into a hideous fly-man, rotting from the outside and covered in gloop. All done with puppets, it’s still utterly stomach churning.
The Thing (1982)
The Effect: The peeling dog.
Practical Magic: A veritable buffet of wonderfully disgusting effects – it’s hard to know which scene goes worst with lunch. The dog peeling back its own face? A gaping belly wound growing teeth and biting off someone’s arm off? A man’s head attached to a worm attached to a giant spider? All real , all puppets and all completely unforgettable.
Jason And The Argonauts (1963)
The Effect: The skeleton army.
Practical Magic: Ray Harryhausen was the grand master of stop-motion animation. Responsible for some of the most elaborate and haunting creature effects of the ’60s, Harryhausen’s skeleton army is his greatest achievement.
Taking over four months to animate, seven skeletons fight live actors on-screen at the same time – kinetic, deranged and manically alive .
The Effect: The hallway fight.
Practical Magic: Ever since Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling with Tom and Jerry in Anchors Away (1944), the rotating film set has been used to defy gravity. Taking things to a whole new level, Christopher Nolan’s hallway fight was filmed using the same principle on a much, much bigger scale.
Likewise the shot of the bar where everything looks slightly ‘off’ – with the entire room keeled over on an axis (and the extras strapped to their chairs) to skew the look and feel of the whole scene.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Effect: Yoda.
Practical Magic: Jabba The Hutt? ET? Everything in Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal ? Anything Jim Henson has hand in?
It’s easy to forget how big a debt cinema owes to puppets. Arguably the greatest of them all, Yoda doles out wrinkly parcels of wisdom from whatever was wrapped around Frank Oz’s forearm. Need any more proof that practical effects are better than CG? Compare his performance in The Empire Strikes Back to his silly Xbox acrobatics in Attack Of The Clones …
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Effect: The truck flip.
Practical Magic: Practical effects in modern movies sometimes go unnoticed or, worse, they’re assumed to be fake.
Not so with Nolan’s truck flip in his Batman Begins sequel – a ‘trick’ he pulled off by, well, flipping a truck. Driving a real lorry over a pneumatic lever, Nolan’s stunt crew upended the vehicle in the middle of Chicago.
The Effect: The chestburster.
Practical Magic: Not to be upstaged by the full size xenomorph, the baby Alien gets the best entrance in the film. Famously, none of the actors stood around John Hurt (rigged up with a prosthetic torso, stuffed full of pig blood and a puppet on a stick) had any idea what was going to happen – making the grisly eruption all the more horrific.
Jurassic Park (1993)
The T-Rex attack
Sure, JP is best known for the landmark steps it took in the field of CG, but most of the really iconic scenes were made the old-fashioned way. Most impressive is the moment a giant (life size, fully operational) animatromic T-Rex head crunches down on an upturned car – the real weight, spit and gristle all selling the illusion more than an entire army of digi-dinos ever could.
An American Werewolf In London (1981)
The Effect: Man becomes wolf.
Practical Magic: Still help up by the industry as the greatest ‘transformation’ scene ever filmed, Rick Baker’s creature work on John Landis’ ultimate were-movie has never been bettered.
A mix of prosthetics and robotics are used to get the effect – looking about as painful and horrifying as turning into a wolf is meant to look. Computer graphics have their place, but they’ll always be trying, and failing, to beat this .