There is just something about practical effects which CGI cannot replicate. Special effects wizards have been bringing directors’ visions to life since the dawn of cinema, occasionally winning awards for their efforts. Their talents play a tremendous role in capturing the audience’s imagination and leaving them in awe.
They can thrill or even sometimes horrify the audience. . From the stop-motion effects of King Kong (1933) by special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, to the age of geniuses such as Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, practical effects have had an undeniable effect on cinematic spectacle.
This is a list of 10 classic films which best utilize practical effects. It ranges from the science fiction and horror genres, to a modern mind-bending classic by an acclaimed director who has a reputation for using CGI as sparingly as possible.
10. Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi’s 1987 sequel to his 1981 cult classic, The Evil Dead, greatly ups the sheer amount of laughs and craziness. It is considered by many critics and fans to be a superior entry. It is a landmark film in what has come to be known as the “splatstick” genre. The stop-motion and gore effects, coupled with veteran cult horror film actor Bruce Campbell’s zaniness as the character, Ash, are what make Evil Dead II a work of genius.
Although a bit dated, some of the stop-motion effects towards the beginning of the film are a wonder to behold. These techniques are seen when Ash’s girlfriend, Linda, rises up from her grave and begins dancing, and when her headless corpse comes after Ash with a chainsaw.
Later on in the film, Sam Raimi’s brother, Ted Raimi, portrays the demonically-possessed Henrietta. He is put in a full-latex body suit, which was agonizing for the actor due to how much he sweated. The result is a creature which brings even more wackiness to an already overwhelmingly wacky horror-comedy classic.
9. RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven)
In Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent 1987 masterpiece, Detroit Police Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is gunned down by a gang of thugs led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Murphy then awakens to find that most of his body has been replaced by mechanical parts, and he has been recreated as RoboCop – a cyborg crusader for justice.
RoboCop was released in the heyday of 1980s action films. All of these classic films required a considerable amount of practical effects, and RoboCop was no exception, especially considering how it had a more sci-fi twist to it. Special effects guru Rob Bottin was hired to design and create the RoboCop suit. It cost a total of $1 Million to create. Actor Peter Weller was placed inside the suit and wore a bald cap to allow the helmet to slip on and off more comfortably.
RoboCop was one of the last significant films which brilliantly utilized stop-motion animation. RoboCop’s mechanical adversary, ED-209, was designed by Craig Davies and brought to life by Phil Tippett. The result is a classic battle between two mechanical titans which takes out the floor of an entire building.
8. Godzilla (1954, Ishiro Honda)
Director Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla movie was a stunning achievement full of social commentary pertaining to Man’s ascent into the nuclear age. When the 2-million-year-old creature, Godzilla, is awakened by hydrogen bomb testing, he goes on a fiery rampage through Tokyo, only to be ultimately defeated in the end by the scientist, Dr. Serizawa’s “oxygen destroyer.”
Godzilla is a dark, bleak, and ultimately haunting film. It is also famed for being the first film in the Japanese kaiju (giant monster) genre, and the first film to utilize the talents of an actor in a rubber monster suit to create a pioneering effect at the time.
Up until 1954, cinematic monsters were always created through stop-motion animation by artists such as Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. Godzilla was the first film to ignore this and try something more distinct. The effect is largely accomplished through low-angle shots which successfully create the notion than Godzilla really is a large and impending menace who threatens mankind.
It takes an admirable actor to go through all the pain of playing Godzilla in the suit. It is reported that stuntman Haruo Nakajima was only able to wear the suit for three minutes at a time in order to avoid suffocation. This agonizing process shows dedication to one’s art. It is also important to note that all the miniature sets in this film, as well as in all of the sequels, had to be built, only to be destroyed later on in a single take.
7. Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
Christopher Nolan can be looked at as a modern blockbuster auteur. With his Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan gave Batman the cinematic treatment he has always deserved. His most recent hit, Interstellar, took the audience on a stunning journey through time and space; an experience which echoed Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Throughout his career, Nolan has had a knack for focusing on practical effects and using as little CGI as possible, leading to incredible outcomes. One of the most prominent examples of a sequence in one of his films where no CGI was used was the spectacular zero-gravity hallway fight scene in his 2010 dream thriller, Inception, for which the film won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
The scene involves Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fighting off wealthy businessman Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy’s) militarized subconscious in the second of three dream levels while the rest of the crew is attempting to plant an idea into his mind in the third level. The scene was crafted by using a 100-foot-long, 360-degree rotating hallway. Not an ounce of CGI was utilized in this particular sequence, nor was there a hint of green screen technology present.
There are other examples of practical effects in the film as well, such as when Saito’s (Ken Watanabe’s) dream collapses on Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the beginning. Gallons upon gallons of water are sprayed onto Cobb when he is submerged into a tub of water in one dream level, which carries on into the next.
One might think this was accomplished through CGI. Water cannons were placed on the outside windows of the set, and 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water were sprayed from them onto DiCaprio. The hallway fight and Saito’s collapsing dream are merely two examples of practical effects which added a layer of realism to Nolan’s masterpiece.
6. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
Jaws is the original summer blockbuster. It is the film which took an entire generation of moviegoers by storm and made them afraid to go in the water. 40 years later, it still remains a landmark film in the suspense genre as well as a piece of motion picture history.
As any fan of the film is aware, a mechanical shark was used to depict the monstrous Great White which was eating swimmers and tourists off the coast of Amity Island. The shark, nicknamed “Bruce” by the crew, was infamous for almost constantly breaking down. The frequent failure of the shark to work properly was what actually enabled Spielberg to make a much more effective film by showing it less, and therefore focusing more on script and character development throughout the film’s first half.
The shark isn’t even shown until about an hour into the film. When it is, it proves to be well worth the wait. It is a technically outstanding achievement in practical effects history. Unfortunately the film was snubbed of an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects in 1976.
The effectiveness of the animatronic shark is largely based on what the audience doesn’t see. The painstaking process of getting the shark to work, and ultimately having the effort pay off in the end, can be seen as an example of art through adversity.