The sci-fi movie Tron (1982) is often cited as the spark that lit the CGI (computer generated imagery) fire. Today, almost every major effect in film is done via computer, or at least digitally augmented to marry practical effects with CGI. It’s more practical (ironically), less expensive, and less time-consuming than doing things for real, in front of the camera. Even still, there are plenty of naysayers who complain that CGI ruins the organic qualities of the medium. Yes, films like Avatar and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace look great, but they don’t feel real. Believe it or not, there were great special effects before the advent of CGI. Here are some crazy movies made before CGI.
One aspect we can’t ignore regarding movie effects before CGI is the painstaking process effects teams went through for mere seconds of footage. It took John Landis and Rick Baker months to plan the two-and-half-minute werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London. For their efforts, Rick Baker won an Academy Award for Best Makeup in 1982. The transformation scene is often regarded as one of the coolest scenes in horror movie history.
Prosthetics, makeup, miniature models, and in-camera tricks are just a few of the ways how they made movies before CGI. Check out these films with cool practical effects that were completely generated without the use of a computer.
When you think of Alien (1979), chances are you think about the scene in which an alien bursts from John Hurt's chest. Known as the chestburster scene, the moment was so shocking, legend has it spectators in Dallas, TX jumped from their seats and ran to the bathroom. Part of what makes the scene so great is the terrified, shocked reaction of the cast, who were told nothing of the alien set to come out of their co-star's chest.
Director Ridley Scott cleared the set to prep the shot, so the other actors wouldn't know what was coming. Hurt was sat in a deck chair with his head sticking out of the table. A prosthetic body was screwed to the table and filled with organs bought from a local butcher shop. Two members of the crew hid beneath the table with a compressed blood machine containing six gallons of red liquid.
The actors were called back to the set to see the crew wearing raincoats and the camera wrapped in plastic. Cameras rolled, but the alien didn't initially make it past the body prosthetic's t-shirt, so a crew member cut the shirt a bit. Tiny explosives went off as the cast anxiously leaned in. Then, suddenly, the alien burst out of Hurt's chest. Blood spewed all over actress Veronica Cartwright, who passed out from shock. The entire set was covered in organs and blood, and the chestburster scene made movie history.
We're so jaded in the CGI era, when we see King Kong atop the Empire State Building, it looks a fake and silly. But remember, the movie came out in 1933, and is known for its innovative use of stop motion, miniature sets, glass paintings, traveling mattes, full-scale practical creatures, and an array of camera tricks. King Kong's most iconic shot, of the ape climbing, then perched atop, the Empire State Building is an example of stop motion.
Kong may look like he's 50 feet tall, but in actuality he was an 18-inch model covered with rabbit hair. Special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien used stop motion to film Kong one frame at a time. In May 1933, Movie Classic ran an article entitled “King Kong – How Did They Make It?" The article described the effects artist's process.
"For each frame, O’Brien moved portions of the ape’s jaw a fraction of an inch and after photographing the position, moved the jaw again." Kong's hostage, Fay Wray, was shot separately. The footage was then projected together to make it look like Wray was right there in Kong's grasp.
Stanley Kubrick needed to a futuristic mise-en-scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film about the future and set in space. Previous to the release of 2001, sci fi movies were typically corny, thoughtless genre affairs. Kubrick forever changed this by using the enormity of his environment to address enormous philosophical conundrums, while exploring human concepts of meaning in an environment without humans. The look of the film had to match its grand designs.
The props and look of the film had be ahead of what NASA was doing, because Kubrick didn't want the set design to look outdated when the film was complete. He also knew how important the set would be in creating the theme, look, and feel of the movie.
One of the most iconic images from the film is the colorful, groovy Laserium effect of the star gate sequence. It was accomplished without a single computer, by painting psychedelic patterns on a piece of glass. The glass was blacklit and filmed through a slit on a different black pane of glass.
Fritz Lange's groundbreaking sci-fi expressionist allegory Metropolis (1927) is widely considered one of the great films of all time. It's unbelievable the filmmakers were able to construct their futuristic, dystopian city before films were made with sound. Miniature models of the city were the primary visual effect used in the film.
Metropolis also employs the Schüfftan process, a technique developed to make it appear as though actors were inside the miniature buildings. Lange and his crew achieved this by placing specially-made mirrors at a 45-degree angle between the camera and miniature buildings. Hitchcock would later use this effect in Blackmail (1929). The Schüfftan process has since been largely replaced with the use of matte shots, though Peter Jackson used it in 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.