5. Aliens (1986, James Cameron)
James Cameron’s 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic, Alien, is a much more action-oriented follow-up. Due to the fact that there was more action, and more “xenomorphs” for that matter, more practical effects were required.
Aliens was released in the days before Cameron became a pioneer of CGI effects with The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and later on, Avatar. He had no CGI at his disposal, so he was required to rely entirely on practical effects in order to capture the battle between Ellen Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver’s) new team of space marines and their acidic adversaries on the planet, LV-426.
Enter the special effects genius that was Stan Winston. Winston had previously worked with Cameron in bringing the world of his first hit film, The Terminator, to life in 1984. In what is perhaps the film’s most iconic sequence, Ripley (who is operating another technically stunning effect, the exosuit cargo-loader) is put up against the 14-foot-tall alien queen.
The queen is a remarkable achievement in the field of practical effects through puppetry in film. A total of fourteen puppeteers were required in order to operate her. It is a stunning sequence which would not have held the same effect on the audience if it were made 10 years later, following the advent of computer-generated effects.
At the 1987 Academy Awards, Stan Winston won the Best Visual Effects Oscar, along with Robert Skotak, John Richardson, and Suzanne M. Benson. Aliens is not only a phenomenal sequel. It is also a highly significant film in practical effects history. It is a clear-cut example of a film with practical effects which continue to hold up almost 30 years after its theatrical release.
4. An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)
In writer-director John Landis’s quintessential horror-comedy classic, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) portray two American friends backpacking across the mountains of northern England. After leaving a pub full of superstitious townsfolk, Jack is mauled by a werewolf, who then bites David.
David wakes up in a hospital in London and is plagued by nightmares. He begins a relationship with his nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). David is soon visited by the decaying spirit of Jack, who tells David that he must kill himself before the next full moon, or he will become a werewolf.
An American Werewolf in London is sharply funny and viciously entertaining. Its practical effects are another part of what make it so memorable. Rick Baker won the Academy Award for Best Makeup for his work on the film. It was a well-deserved win.
David’s transformation sequence remains a landmark in horror movie history as well as visual effects history. Through Baker’s efforts, the audience can feel every ounce of excruciating pain David is undergoing as he is becoming a monster, morbidly set to the tune of Sam Cooke’s soothing version of “Blue Moon.”
The grotesque look of Jack’s mutilated ghost deserves a mention as well. He appears a total of three times, each time looking worse than the last. The actual werewolf David becomes isn’t shown until near the end, but it is well-done nonetheless. In order to look real, it is carefully filmed from all the right angles.
3. Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983, George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand)
The original Star Wars Trilogy was a cultural phenomenon which needs no introduction. It captured the imagination of millions of viewers worldwide and has led to what is overall the most marketable franchise in cinematic history.
Part of the reason the original trilogy is so well-loved is because of how groundbreaking the practical effects were at the time. This is in direct contrast to the prequel trilogy; a set of films which a good number of fans expressed disappointment with, partially due to its overreliance on CGI and green screen technology.
The unaltered editions of the Star Wars Trilogy are unfortunately hard to come by these days. The trilogy has been re-released a total of three times now, each with new modern effects and CGI added into the picture, causing an even further loss of aura each time.
If one digs through all the changes, he or she can still enjoy some of the practical effects from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) which haven’t yet been dubbed over- the Battle of Hoth, the space battles between the X-Wing and TIE Fighters, the lightsaber battles, and various alien creatures operated by puppeteers, such as Jabba the Hutt and Yoda, the latter of whom was brought to life and voiced by legendary puppeteer Frank Oz. The original effects which transported audiences to a galaxy far, far away are still a wonder to behold.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece is largely considered to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, if not one of the greatest films ever made.
The film is a truly breathtaking experience which takes the audience on a journey from the Dawn of Man, all the way to the next stage of human evolution at the film’s conclusion, depicted through the emergence of the “star child.” Kubrick’s space opera is much more about the visuals than it is about the narrative. The film has a running time of two and a half hours, in which there is only about 45 minutes of actual spoken dialogue.
Kubrick won his only Oscar for his work on the film’s visual effects. These effects are brilliantly accompanied by a classical, albeit occasionally haunting score. To this day, many of the effects leave modern audiences scratching their heads and wondering how they were accomplished.
In the scene involving the spinning space station, Kubrick had an actual 38-foot rotating ferris wheel built by Vickers-Armstrong Engineering Group for $750,000. A rotating room was used for the scene in which a stewardess is walking upside-down aboard the Aries 1B Translunar Shuttle.
Perhaps the most astounding (and easily the most mind-boggling) sequence in the film is when, after deactivating the murderous computer HAL 9000, Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is traveling past Jupiter through the “Star Gate,” a nebula-like part of space which transcends time. Slit-scan photography, a technique in which a slit is cut and inserted in between a camera and a subject, was utilized in order to create the multicolored lights in the sequence.
Live-action landscape shots of the Hebridean islands, the Monument Valley in Utah, and the mountains of northern Scotland were inserted into the film and colored over using slit-scan photography. The Star Gate sequence is the part of the film which is most directly attributed to the reason why Kubrick won the film’s Best Visual Effects Oscar.
1. The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
In what is inarguably one of horror-meister John Carpenter’s greatest films, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) leads a 12-man research team in Antarctica against a shapeshifting alien who has been buried in the ice for 100,000 years.
The creature infiltrates the camp by taking the form of a dog, and one by one, it begins to consume the team members. The tension and suspense in the film is greatly heightened when each team member becomes suspicious of one another, culminating in a blood test to see who is human and who is the thing.
Carpenter’s masterpiece of paranoia would not have been made possible without the efforts of special effects wizard Rob Bottin. Bottin is directly responsible for scaring the living daylights out of audiences in 1982 with effects which still hold up to this day. Although there are too many effects in the film to fully explore in detail- the creature consuming the dogs, the blood test scene, and the “Blair Monster,” there is one scene which truly stands out.
It is when Norris (Charles Hallahan) collapses unconscious. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive him using a defibrillator. Norris’s stomach then opens up and bites Copper’s arms off. Another head then comes out of Norris’s stomach and his real head stretches off of his body and snaps off.
It then grows a number of legs and walks around like a spider, only to be torched by MacReady’s flamethrower. The entire scene is a truly bizarre and twisted work of art. The effects are what place the audience at the very center of the terrifying ordeal, and are what subject them to the kind of imagery which nightmares are made from.