Nearly every film released these days has some computer-generated trickery going on. It's far less common to see a film that relies on the tried-and-true methods of practical effects, involving everything from painted latex to detailed miniatures to gigantic movable or water-filled sets. Such techniques reigned supreme in decades past, when films like Star Wars and Blade Runner represented the cutting edge; but the times, they are a-changing.
Occasionally, a filmmaker, whether seeking a particular effect or giving a nostalgic nod to past films, will still rely on the vintage methods they grew up with. Even rarer are the movies that solely rely on practical effects; such films are rare today. Even in movies featuring some CGI work, the practical effects that make it to the screen can be a sight to behold.
Though increasingly niche, practical effects are still a thing in Hollywood, and the films discussed below feature some of the best work between 2010 and 2019. Which ones do you find the most impressive?
Iron Man 3 includes a plethora of effects sequences, but not all were accomplished with CGI. One of the most impressive scenes shows Iron Man rescuing, in midair, a group of passengers who've just been thrown from a plane. The whole thing was done practically, in one of the most dangerous and astonishing stunts in modern filmmaking.
The scene involves 14 people falling to their imminent demise, and with the ability to only hold four people, Iron Man has to come up with a new plan, so he goes with the idea of having the passengers link arms in a high-stakes version of the game "Barrel of Monkeys." Producer Kevin Feige discussed how they managed to accomplish the stunt:
Why don’t we just throw 13 people out of a plane and film it? Over eight days, with ten jumps a day, that’s exactly what happened. So that sequence, which is one of the showcase sequences of the film, is practical, with the exception of Iron Man, of course, and a few certain shots. This amazing Red Bull stunt team jumped out of a plane, time and time again, day after day, and fell as if they were plummeting to their death, grabbing onto each other. In our movies, there are certain things that you can do for real, and there are certain things that that you do with CG. And while we love CG and we’d never be able to make a movie without it, if there’s something that you can do practically, it’s usually better to attempt to do it that way. This was by far the biggest practical stunt scene we’ve ever done in any of our films, bigger than anything in the previous Iron Man films and bigger than anything in The Avengers.
It's easy to watch Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens and assume BB-8 was made with CGI, but like R2-D2 and C-3PO, that little droid is entirely real. It was created by animatronic designer Josh Lee and engineer Matt Denton, who revealed the true character to the world at the film's premiere. What audiences assumed was little more than a well-made graphic emerged and rolled down the red carpet to everyone's astonishment.
He was created with a motor-driven pendulum inside a spherical shell, and that worked to control the placement of the head, as well as its movements around the body. BB-8 can reach a maximum speed of 4.3 mph (7 km/h), which is the average walking speed of an adult human. For the film, seven different models were created, each used for a different type of scene.
One was affixed to the floor so it could be wiggled from side to side atop a metal plate, and there was a puppeteer version made much like the other droids in the film. There was even a special model constructed with wheels in the back, which made it possible to navigate BB-8 along the sand when the filmmakers were filming in the desert.
All the vehicle scenes in Mad Max: Fury Road used practical stunts and a team of up to 150 stuntmen and women. The only use of CGI related to the stunts was the removal of safety wires; everything else was a well-coordinated and expertly produced series of practical stunts. One of the most dangerous stunts involved a group of people atop long poles. Guy Norris, the man responsible for orchestrating the battle scenes, discussed how this was accomplished:
The Polecats is probably my most favorite sequence. George [Miller, the director] always imagined that we would have to use CGI for safety’s sake, but it was my wish and dream that we could do that for real. A lot of effort went into training guys in Chinese pole work. Then a friend of mine who had worked for Cirque du Soleil took it a step further, heading up an eight-week training program. The real breakthrough was raising the pivot point of the pole, like with those old-fashioned desk sculptures where the duck puts his beak in the water.
The final chase sequence featured the most complicated stunts, many of which were incorporated from earlier scenes in the film into one long sequence:
That’s what we call the "dancing truck sequence." It was all designed to keep Max and Furiosa apart for as long as possible. Every time he came close, how could we interrupt that process and have another set-piece? The biggest thing to talk about here is the location. It’s difficult enough to do a chase scene with two or three normal cars on a normal street, but the incredibly flat desert that went for miles allowed us to have a whole armada of over 75 vehicles in one shot. Again, it gave us an amazing opportunity to do something that had never been done before.
Inception relies heavily on CGI to create most of its effects, but one sequence sticks with practical trickery. The hallway fight depicts several characters battling through a long corridor as it rotates on an axis, making it look as if gravity is shifting around the room. The combatants must continually adjust from walking on the floor to the wall, and then the ceiling.
This seemingly complex effect was attained through a rather simple technique, though achieving it wasn't cheap or easy. The set was built inside a huge rotating scaffolding, so when you see the characters shifting their weight to stand on the walls, they are merely moving alongside the natural gravitational pull as the room rotates around them. It's somewhat like the effect used to show Gary Lockwood jogging the full circumference of the Discovery's interior in an unbroken sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A total of 500 crew members were on hand to ensure the scene could be filmed realistically and safely. Joseph Gordon-Levitt trained for two weeks with the stunt team to get the movements down. Wally Pfister, the director of photography, described the experience in an interview with MTV:
We run the fight scene for as long as the actors can pull it off. We begin with a camera that's not fixed to the set and shows a bit of the rotation, and then you quickly jump to where you're rotating with the set. It creates this bizarre, strange movement. It's an exhausting process for the actors. Having rotated on that set myself, it's really quite challenging and a very strange thing to get used to. If you jump at the wrong time, you could be falling 12 feet through the air. We kept coming back to it. We'd shoot out a part of a sequence and then the riggers would have to adjust something. We'd duck out and shoot something else and come back a few hours later and shoot more. The whole thing was spread out over about three weeks. You've never seen anything like this before.