Before there was computer-generated imagery (CGI), special effects crews often had to use practical effects to achieve their cinematic vision. Many of these practical effects were surprisingly low-tech genius creations that prove creative thinking often trumps throwing loads of money at a problem.
Practical effects include any special effects created without the use of computer-generated imagery. It’s a kitchen-sink term that incorporates everything from prosthetics to pyrotechnics to miniature models.
Find out which grotesque movie monster was constructed in part with strawberry jam and creamed corn. How did they create that swirling tornado in The Wizard of Oz, which still looks great even by today’s visual effects standards? Some of these films were made more recently when computer effects were readily available. Yet, the filmmakers opted to get creative and go old-school low-tech practical effects that yielded a more authentic-looking result.
- 118 VOTESPhoto: Universal Pictures
John Carpenter brought on 22-year-old Rob Bottin to head the special effects crew on his 1982 science fiction horror movie The Thing. "He came in with a wild concept, which is The Thing can look like anything. It doesn’t look like one monster, it looks like anything. And out of this changing shape, this imitation, comes all the creatures throughout the universe that The Thing has ever imitated, and it uses these various forms. Rob was very daring in this approach.”
Bottin came up with the idea that the titular “thing” should be constantly evolving and changing, essentially a shape-shifting alien who can imitate other organisms.
The production used low-tech practical effects, “endless quantities of rubber foam latex, fiberglass, plastic, gelatin, creamed corn, mayonnaise, bubble gum, strawberry jam, and more" to create its grotesque monster.
"If you named it, we used it!" said Bottin.
- 229 VOTESPhoto: 20th Century Fox
George Lucas waited over a decade after completing Return of the Jedi for technology to catch up to his vision for the Star Wars prequel trilogy. After he saw Spielberg's Jurassic Park in 1993, he knew he could finally embark on making Episode I.
Despite The Phantom Menace's use of digital effects, the filmmakers also mixed in low-tech practical effects. In fact, Episode I uses the most practical effects of any Star Wars movie in the franchise.
In the mid-'90s, digital effects were still far from perfect. It was difficult to use computer animation for moving water. The special effects crew opted to use salt to make the waterfalls in the city of Theed, which is the capital city of the Naboo. The waterfalls are actually just salt poured from several feet up in the air.
“We built some sort of a platform about 20 feet in the air. The salt came in really heavy bags, and the modelmakers on cue would pour the salt, and then had to bring it all back up to this 20-foot high platform,” revealed special effects director of photography Marty Rosenberg.
They filmed the salt at a high speed against black velvet curtains. "We left the seam right where the salt would flow in the middle and poured it off a trough and it fell down,” added Rosenberg. “It looked great. Then we’d shovel up the salt and bring it up and do it again.”
- 326 VOTESPhoto: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Guillermo del Toro could have made his 2017 fantasy romance The Shape of Water using mostly CGI technology. However, the Academy Award-winning director instead opted to go old-school. According to digital effects supervisor Trey Harrell, about 80% of the finished film uses practical effects that are touched up with a little post-production CGI.
During the opening scene of the film, Eliza (Sally Hawkins) floats around her apartment in an underwater dream sequence. All of her belongings float around with her.
In lieu of making this surreal opening laden with computer effects, del Toro used a low-tech in-camera filmmaking technique called “dry for wet.”
"You put the actors on wires and fill the soundstage full of snow and film it at high speed with fans blowing,” said Harrell. “That gives the impression of being underwater."
Then, the visual effects crew simply added in a few computer effects. “We augment and we add Sally's hair. We float her nightgown. We do the facial performance for Doug," added Harrell. "We float props around. We add fish. We add bubbles and particulates. It's a blend of practical photography and effects."
It all clearly worked. The Shape of Water won four Academy Awards, including best production design, best director, and best picture.
- 424 VOTESPhoto: Universal Pictures
Kyle MacLachlan made his big screen debut playing Paul Atreides in David Lynch's 1984 sci-fi movie Dune. During the scene where Paul attempts to become a Sandrider, one who can capture and ride the sandworm of Arrakis, he opens up the sandworm's outer shell. The audience gets a good look at the beast's entrails, tendons, and flesh.
The special effects crew actually used thousands of gelatin-filled condoms for the sandworm's guts. "Latex and gelatin," said special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi. “I will explain no more. We must not destroy the illusion."