Sometimes filmmakers face a difficult question, ‘how on earth are we going to do this?’ The methods they come up with are sometimes strange, often so simple you can’t believe you didn’t spot it and occasionally mind-blowing.
These are some of the coolest.
Escaping the giant space slug – ‘The Empire Strikes Back’
Think that big monster the Millennium Falcon flies out of looks kind of like a puffy sock?
That’s because it basically is, as this stray hand shows you.
Following Jason Bourne jumping through a window – ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’
Want to do a cool shot of a camera following Bourne as he jumps from a roof through a window the floor below? Don’t bother with special effects, just put a guy on a harness, give him a camera and then make him jump right after the stuntman.
Making the alien queen ready to take on Ripley in a power loader – ‘Aliens’
Director James Cameron tested the boundaries of puppetry for this sequel, by putting two puppeteers inside the 14-foot puppet’s midsection to work the four arms and then hanging it from a crane.
Fill the rest of the queen with hydraulics and cables and you’ve got a terrifying nemesis for Sigourney Weaver.
A guy’s chest bites through someone’s arms – ‘The Thing’
So much of what’s brilliant about John Carpenter’s horror classic is because of Rob Bottin, who suffered near-exhaustion to create the now-iconic prosthetic and creature effects.
This famous scene in which an infected corpse’s stomach opens up and bites the doctor who’s trying to resuscitate him required three things: building fake arms and their insides out of jelly and wax, attaching them to a double amputee, then putting a lifelike prosthetic mask of the original actor on his replacement. The result? Stomach-churningly awesome.
The crew of the Enterprise skydive at high speed in close-up – ‘Star Trek’
Because director JJ Abrams wanted to use practical effects as much as possible and because he also wanted a lot of close-ups, the crew came up with the idea of mirrors.
Yep, rather than hanging Chris Pine and co. upside down, they just stood on a mirror and looked directly up at the camera with a fan blowing in their face. Bet you never noticed.
Frodo and Gandalf look the same height on a wagon – ‘Lord of The Rings’
Parts of Peter Jackson’s movies were done with CGI and little person doubles, but he also utilised one of the oldest filmic techniques in the book – forced perspective.
By putting one actor further away from the camera than the other and then carefully setting up the angle, it looks like Elijah Wood really is a hobbit next to Ian McKellen.
The alien mothership creating huge clouds as it approaches – ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’
You’ve seen it in lots of other movies, but ‘Close Encounters’ is perhaps the best example of the technique known as the cloud tank. The process is quite simple – get a big tank (2000 gallons in this case), fill half with salt water, put a thin layer of plastic on top, then fill the other half with fresh water.
To create your clouds, you inject white liquid tempra paint into the freshwater section while the camera rolls. Genius.
Destroying the White House – ‘Independence Day’
The 1996 blockbuster was one of the first movies to truly harness CGI effects, but the filmmakers went back to basics when it came time to destroy the President’s home.
They decamped to the desert where they put together an incredibly detailed miniature replica of the White House packed with dynamite. Once night came cameras rolled, a button was pushed and the shot you see in the film is the one they got in slo-mo. The results became one of the defining sequences in modern movie history.
Moses parts the Red Sea – ‘The Ten Commandments’
Take a big tank at Paramount studios and flood it with water, then run the film backwards.
That’s the basic trick behind Charlton Heston’s amazing on-screen miracle, but the twist is then filming with the camera on its side, which makes the backwash at the bottom of the tank look like two huge walls of water.
Velociraptors attack! – ‘Jurassic Park’
There’s a reason why the scene in which the raptor chases the kids around the kitchen is so visceral and real.
It’s because the brilliant effects artist John Rosengrant from Stan Winston’s studio was dressed as one of them.
Marlon Brando sounds like he’s saying his lines for the first time – ‘The Godfather’
Bit of a cheat this one since it’s actually multiple iconic scenes, but here you can see a perfect visual representation of Brando’s idiosyncratic acting method.
Bet Robert Duvall is happy.
Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock, Paramount, Imgur, Stan Winston Studio, 20th Century Fox, Universal, New Line Cinema, Lucasfilm