16 Great Transformation Scenes That Show Special Effects At Their Best

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Vote up the most impressive moments of physical transformation.

Since the earliest days of the cinema, movies have been as much magic trick as narrative. And one of the best magic tricks around is to turn one thing into something else. Transformation effects have been a part of movies for as long as the moving picture has been around, and they've always been one of the most impressive in cinema's vast bag of tricks. From the earliest experimental and silent films to modern blockbusters, watching people, especially, turn into other things is something we never seem to get tired of - especially when the whole thing can be managed on camera, or we can be tricked into thinking it is.

These are some of the most impressive transformation sequences ever captured on film - moments of movie magic that remind us of what the medium is capable of, and showcases for some of the most impressive special effects ever conceived. Because these are all about people transforming, it should perhaps come as no surprise that many of them are in werewolf movies, but we also have retellings of the Jekyll and Hyde story, superhero tales, gloppy body horror, and much more. Several of these sequences helped the special effects technicians who built them win some of the industry's highest honors, while others went uncelebrated until years after they were released. In all cases, they'll make you stop and wonder, "How did they do that?"


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    736 VOTES

    Nanny In 'Sh! The Octopus'

    The seldom-seen 1937 old dark house comedy Sh! The Octopus has an unusual log line involving bumbling detectives, a sinister lighthouse, and a master criminal self-dubbed "the Octopus." While most people have never seen the picture, a 20-second clip from it went viral in 2022, when a post from Instagram user @wastedjr received more than 7 million views. The post was nothing more than a clip of the film's climactic transformation, along with the words, "Bruh how was this a visual effect from 1937?"

    The answer is surprisingly simple, even while it does nothing to reduce the potency of the effect. It's a trick that can only be accomplished in black-and-white film. Elspeth Dudgeon (who also had a role in the 1932 classic The Old Dark House) plays the Nanny, who also turns out to be the nefarious Octopus. As she reveals her true nature, she pulls off her wig and, at the same time, her face transforms into that of a horrifying hag. So, how did they do it? The makeup was actually always there. The scene is shot with a red/blue filter, the same kind that was used to see 3D effects in early movies. The "witch" makeup is done in red, so while the red filter is over the camera, it becomes invisible on screen. As soon as the filter is removed... voila, instant transformation!

    736 votes
  • "Stay off the moors." It's advice David Kessler, an American backpacking through rural England, should have heeded in John Landis's 1981 classic, An American Werewolf in London. Instead, he gets mauled by a beast and wakes up afflicted with the curse of lycanthropy - not to mention being followed around by the decaying ghosts of everyone he has killed while in wolf form. It's a pretty miserable existence, even if he is also falling into a relationship with his attractive nurse.

    The recipe produced one of the most beloved werewolf movies of all time, but it wouldn't be complete without a dynamite transformation sequence, which was provided by special effects master Rick Baker. In fact, the sequence was so impressive that it won him the first-ever Academy Award for best makeup, which was introduced that same year.

    427 votes
  • It could be argued that David Cronenberg's 1986 remake of The Fly is essentially one long transformation sequence, as scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) has his DNA spliced with a common housefly after a teleporter mishap. In fact, the film's makeup effects were so elaborate that they won effects gurus Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis an Oscar - no mean feat, given that the Academy tends to not honor horror movies, and certainly not ones as gross and grisly as The Fly.

    Because the transformation is gradual, taking place across nearly the entire film rather than one relatively short sequence, it happens in seven stages, as Goldblum is piled under more and more heavy makeup and prostheses before finally being replaced altogether with a mechanical puppet for the film's final scenes. It is a painfully heartwrenching process that has been regarded as a metaphor for aging, and it culminates in probably the film's most show-stopping transformation, as a horribly changed Brundle gradually breaks apart to reveal the monstrous, asymmetrical creature beneath, which the crew dubbed the "space bug."

    328 votes
  • There are movies filled to bursting with gloppy, glorious practical effects - and then there's The Thing, John Carpenter's Antarctic whodunit about a shapeshifting alien life form that can look like anyone or anything. Crammed with more goo and gore than any dozen movies, The Thing's breathtaking effects sequences are all the brainchild of then-22-year-old wunderkind Rob Bottin, who had made a splash just the year before working on some impressive werewolf transformations for Joe Dante's The Howling. In fact, Bottin put so much work into The Thing that, when production wrapped, he was hospitalized with "acute exhaustion, double pneumonia, and a bleeding ulcer."

    Was the end result worth it? Fans certainly think so, and there are few more striking sequences - in a movie full of them - than the moment when Norris seems to be having a heart attack, only for his chest to open up into a chomping mouth that bites off another character's arms, before Norris's own head pulls itself free and crawls away on spidery legs. So, how did they do all that? It was complicated. The chest chomp itself involved an elaborate mechanical dummy and a double-amputee. The mouth really did bite off the arms, which the amputee wore and which were made of gelatin and dental wax. As for the head, that was a combo of radio controls and puppetry.

    260 votes
  • Sure, the S&M-themed Cenobites became the centerpieces of Clive Barker's directorial debut, but Hellraiser is actually mostly about two very human villains, one of whom just happens to be deceased. At the beginning of the film, Frank Cotton is torn apart by Cenobites, the culmination of his hedonistic pursuit of the extremes of pain and pleasure. However, his brother's wife, Julia, isn't ready to let him go. She's still hung up on a fling the two had years ago, and a combination of her longing and his brother's blood brings Frank back from the world of the Cenobites - at least partly.

    The result is a sort of decomposition-in-reverse, as Frank reconstitutes himself from semen and spilt blood. It's the film's most jaw-dropping effect, and it almost wasn't included. Originally, the script just called for a cut to imply the rebirth, but when the film's financial backers saw a working print of the movie, they decided to throw more money at it, allowing for some additional effects shots, including the amazingly gloppy reconstitution of Frank, which was achieved using a false floor, reverse-photography of melting wax, and some incredibly slimy puppetry.

    265 votes
  • 1981 was a good year for werewolf movies, seeing the release of two of the most beloved classics in the canon: John Landis's An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante's The Howling. The two films almost shared a special effects crew, too, until Rick Baker was called off to work on An American Werewolf instead, and handed the special effects over to Rob Bottin, who was doing his first major solo film work. The result was one of the most grueling, grisly transformations ever captured on film, a sequence whose mistakes and limitations actually fed back into it, as when, according to Dante, "the motors would jerk and things would pop and those were actually mistakes, because originally the idea was that this was all going to be a very smooth transition, but when the sound effects people put bone crunches and pops on them, it made it seem even more unpleasant."

    Achieved with a wide array of techniques, including air bladders (which actor Robert Picardo, who played the werewolf, said were actually condoms) placed under latex skin, the sequence remains a high water mark of werewolf transformations, even several decades later.

    233 votes