Like it or not, the future is here and it’s changing everything we know and love about the world of film.
With the advancement of computer animation software and camera technology, studios nowadays can bring just about any idea to life using a little thing called computer- generated imagery (CGI). Ever heard of it? CGI has undergone tremendous changes since it was first introduced to film around the 1980’s, but what some filmmakers don’t realize is that it has the ability to make or break your work.

CGI doesn’t always work and it should be used very carefully, or else you risk entering dangerous territory.
Some filmmakers these days have been using over- blown special effects as the bait hook to reel in their audience, but what they don’t realize is that this is only hurting them in the long run. When you fill your movie with CGI, you’re practically giving your work an expiration date. Technology is always advancing and the most revolutionary CGI created today will be a joke in years to come. Remember when The Polar Express was released in 2004 and audiences all over were blown away by the CGI? If you look back on it now, it’s almost like watching a cast of creepy video game children.

Of course there are some exceptions to this rule, for instance take Jurassic Park or Titanic. Both of these movies used CGI, but it was done so masterfully that the effects still work even to this day. Or take Finding Nemo or any other Pixar movie; The CGI may be outdated in years to come, but the stories and lessons they convey are timeless. I don’t think you can say the same thing for the newest Transformers movie.

With all these filmmakers looking towards CGI for their special effects, it’s become hard to decipher what is real and what is computer- generated. Let’s take a look at some filmmakers who decided to pull off some extraordinary special effects without the use of CGI.


1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Baby Joel in the kitchen


To escape the process of having Clementine (Kate Winslet) permanently erased from his memory, Joel (Jim Carrey) sends both of them back to a moment from his childhood, deep within his memory. In this scene, a baby version of Joel sits underneath his kitchen table, while Clementine tries to coax him out.

In the making of this intricately woven tale, Michel Gondry decided to skip out on CGI for special effects and, instead, channel his background in theater to create on- set visual illusions. For this scene, Gondry relied on a technique called forced perspective, which you may be familiar with if you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. This technique uses set design and camera angles to create the illusion that objects or people are larger or smaller than they actually are. To understand how this specific scene was accomplished you can take a look at this video here.

The majority of people probably assumed that Jim Carrey was digitally shrunk down to a smaller size or manipulated through computer software, but this scene, like a lot of other scenes in this film uses optical illusions and camera trickery to accomplish it’s effects.



2. The Dark Knight (2008): Tunnel car chase


After the release of The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan, audiences all over flocked to the theaters to bear witness to this groundbreaking addition to the Batman trilogy. This film seemed to capture the title of ‘Best picture of the year’ amongst fans and moviegoers and has even been put in the ranks of the best films of all time. However, some were a little more critical of this supposed cinematic masterpiece. Many film critics were outraged by this car chase sequence, in particular; calling it unnecessary and even claiming it went against every basic fundamental rule of film grammar. Whether you believe this scene works or not, you can’t deny that the visual effects in it are extraordinary, to say the least.

Christopher Nolan has always been a keen believer in using practical effects in his films when possible, rather than relying on CGI and it was no different for The Dark Knight. Although some stunts in this scene seemed not only completely impractical, but impossible to shoot, Nolan found a way to make each one work. In order to capture Batman’s tumbler crashing head on into the Trucker, Nolan’s crew built a set of miniatures since this proved to be impossible to shoot in real life. If you thought this was incredible, think about the very end of the scene where Batman single- handedly flips an 18- wheeler across one of the busiest streets in Chicago. Nolan and his effects crew used an actual 18- wheeler truck with an air piston attached to the underside to achieve this monumental truck flip, which will go down in cinematic history.  Any other director would’ve opted out for CGI, but not Nolan. This stunt can be further explained in this video.


3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Gravity defying jog

Just by looking at the date alone, you’re probably already aware of the fact that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was created long before the introduction of CGI in movies. Although he lacked the technology, Kubrick was able to pull off effects that are still impressive to this day. While watching this movie nowadays you could easily mistake some of the effects for CGI, that’s how cutting edge they are.

In this one scene, Frank defies gravity while taking a jog around the Discovery 1. The very clever illusion in this scene was accomplished through a massive centrifuge set which rotated while the camera remained fixed on a mount. Another simple, yet effective illusion Kubrick creates in this film is the floating pen. For the far away scenes, Kubrick simply attached a very thin filament to the pen and dangled it from above and for the close ups, the pen was attached to a transparent sheet of acrylic which was gently wiggled in front of the camera.


4. Inception (2010)- Parisian street explosion


For those who’ve experienced the action- packed thriller Inception written and directed by Christopher Nolan, it may come as a bit of a surprise that the majority of special effects in this film were accomplished without the use of CGI. For a film that takes up most it’s time in an imagined dream world, this film could have easily taken a different route and gone with CGI special effects. However, Nolan and his academy award winning visual effects team decided to take things into their own hands.

Take a look at this one scene where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) sit outside a Parisian café enjoying a cup of coffee when explosions begin to shoot off around the actors, who remain seated in a little bubble of stillness. This effect created by London’s own, Chris Corbould, was pulled off using strategically placed air cannons surrounding the area. They even added in a motorbike and car flipping over to intensify the effect.

If you take the time to re-watch the film, keep in mind that the gravity- defying hallway fight scene and the M.C. Escher inspired Penrose staircase were also created without the use of CGI.


5. The Thing (1982): Decapitated head spider


John Carpenter’s The Thing contains some of the most extraordinary special effects in a horror film, even to this day. The FX crew of over 40 members consisting of sculptors, illustrators, designers, painters, and mechanical effects technicians spent months brainstorming and crafting the creatures and props used for this film. Rob Bottin, the head of the FX team, worked 57 weeks straight, spending his nights at the studio and eating nothing but candy bars and cola. Upon completion of the film, he even had to check himself into the hospital to recover from fatigue and burnout from the stress. The crew used just about anything and everything they could to achieve the effects they desired. They even had real animal organs purchased from a slaughterhouse on set. This movie is a perfect demonstration of how much you can do with a puppet and stop motion animation.


6. Return of the Jedi (1983): Jabba the Hutt

We all remember Jabba the Hutt, right?  This famous slug gangster is one of the most iconic movie characters of all time and he was created without the use of any CGI. I’m sure most of you already knew that, but when you take into account that Jabba the Hutt is actually an enormous puppet weighing over a ton, it’s pretty damn impressive. The Jabba the Hutt puppet took about three months and half a million dollars to create. The puppet even had it’s own on set make up artist. Sure it’s much easier in this day and age to rely on CGI for creating these types of characters rather than working with a one- ton puppet, but I truly believe that this version of Jabba the Hutt will always take the cake.


7. 127 Hours (2010): Arm amputation

Let me begin by warning you, this scene is not for the faint of heart. In fact, this scene just recently landed in the ranking for our 15 Most Shocking Moments in Film. This gruesome amputation scene found in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours doesn’t necessarily scream CGI, but you never really know these days. To accomplish this shot of Aaron Ralfston (James Franco) hacking off his own arm, Boyle had multiple fake arms ready on set, but ended up only needing one take to get it right. The entire scene only took about twenty minutes to shoot. That’s pretty incredible when you think about it. It only took twenty minutes to shoot an amputation scene so realistic and hard to watch that it actually left some moviegoers in need of medical attention. Now that’s what I call special effects.

Kelsey Guerra
Kelsey Guerra, born and raised in the little land of New Jersey, moved to Philadelphia three years back to pursue a degree in Film and Media Arts at Temple University. Kelsey's greatest passions include photography (darkroom and digital), filmmaking, creative writing, and poetry. One day she hopes to bring her strange stories and ideas to life through film and entertain the masses with her unique vision. Kelsey has recently set aside her umbrella and stepped foot into the rain. She currently works as an intern at Raindance in London, providing help in various areas, as well as soaking up inspiration for her future in film.

36 thoughts on “7 Practical Effects in Films You Probably Thought Were CGI

  1. INCEPTION's Café destruction sequence does indeed make extensive use of great practical special effects from Chris Corbould's awesome team, but to achieve the final result lots of additional computer graphics and digital manipulation were required – a team of 50 digital artists worked on the shots for six months. Ariadne's POV shots of the exploding cobbles and second storey disintegration are almost entirely digital. As with all of the big effects moments in Chris Nolan's films, the digital work in the Café sequence builds upon a photographic base where what's filmed sets the tone and pace of the final result. This doesn't take anything away from the practical work, but it's good to give credit where it's due 🙂

    Paul Franklin, Visual Effects Supervisor.

    • Paul, I was a little spellbound by your response to this article and I apologize for the late response. I figured much of Nolan's effects were built upon using digital manipulation, but I just wanted to examine and bring attention to the underlying foundation that birthed these successful and realistic effects. I greatly appreciate your commentary and I apologize for the lack of credit. There's always time to make up for it in a future article:)

  2. I very much enjoyed this article, Ms Guerra, thank you. I am a little squeamish about watching the amputation scene from 127 Hours, so I will take your word on that one, but the rest I've seen and you're spot on. In fact, I came to this article because I was looking for some information on a practical special effect I had just saw again that astounded me—it's from Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, the moment when Freddy looks at a sleeping Nancy through a seemingly fluid wall behind her bed. That shot took my breath away when I first saw it and watching it again, it still looks as organic and realistic as any digital effect might have. Apparently it was just a wall of spandex and very good lighting. 😉

  3. I LOVE Both especially when its seamless! that you dont know when its fake or when its real! like in life of Pi the tigar is real when its not in the boat! when there is Pi interacting with the tigar its CGI. If you have seen the Hobbit its both CGI and Practical effects

  4. Paul I was slightly upset when you said on the dark knight rises blue ray that your team measured every square inch of the bat. I remember your crack team turning up with there note pads looking dumbfounded . I seam to remember me (ie part of SFX) providing you with a fully accurate 3D solidworks cad and 3dmax model. We also did this for the bat bike? So it seams rich asking for credit where credit is due if you do not do the same thing?

  5. I'm sorry if you took offense, Flimzy. During the interview I did talk at length about SFX and how we relied on your help to make the digital version of the Bat (as I always do in every interview and article), but it didn't make it in. We do rely heavily on the data that we get from SFX, and there wouldn't have been a Bat in the movie if you all hadn't built it first!

  6. Well not exactly. The Hobbit is mostly CGI. Lord Of The Rings was mixed practical and CGI and looked a lot better than The Hobbit.

  7. Oh come on. Half of those were made before CGI was developed enough to be viable as an effect. Someone would have to be twelve or under to not realize that there was a time before CGI.

  8. yup, spandex wall. The CGI version of that scene in the remake was nowhere near as effective.

  9. You know what a good practical special effect was? In Prometheus when they first enter the room where the engineers head was, David is inspecting the 'vials' and one has some thick, shifting/moving liquid. Think what you will about the movie but there are some amazing sets and practical FX in that film.

  10. I like real Clowns instead of cgi clowns. Its just hard to do their clown shoes especially if the scene is shot in space. True story, there was no cgi in Star Wars The Clown Wars….that was all real clowns with real big shoes

  11. I kinda disagree about Jabba…he is very obviously a puppet in ROTJ.

    You should have included Little Shop of Horrors. First time I saw Audrey II I thought I was watching a new edit with added CGI, that's how smooth it looks! Amazingly realistic puppeteering that has hardly been matched in the 30 years since!

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