ByAmy Martin, writer at
Amy Martin

If you follow my posts often, you'll know that I am a big fan of practical effects, and definitely prefer them over CGI. Today I have compiled a list of what I believe to be the ten most incredible uses of practical special effects in modern cinema, and I'll try my best to explain how they were done! It's quite likely that I will be making a part two of this list, so do keep an eye out.

#10 - Yoda and The Millennium Falcon - Star Wars The Original Trilogy (1977 - 1983)

Cinema and CGI effects owe a great debt to puppets. From Chucky in Child's Play, to Gremlins and to Yoda in Star Wars, old school animatronics and puppetry have created some of the most iconic characters in film to date. Although they did a respectable enough CGI effort on Yoda in the more recent installments of the franchise, I definitely prefer the original puppet Yoda. I think the concept behind this practical effect is pretty easy to grasp - he was filled with animatronics, and controlled by a team of very talented people!

The various space ships in this franchise were also pretty impressive, but not quite as impressive on set as people may think. The very first 'star destroyer' that we see at the start of A New Hope was originally intended to be 50ft long, but when they ran out of money, ended up being made at a mere 4ft long - but who would have guessed! The Millennium Falcon was also made on the small scale at only 5ft long, and these hand made ships were placed in front of a blue screen to create the well known effects we see in the films.

#9 - Head explosion - Scanners (1981)

Probably one of the most famous scenes in the horror genre, the Scanners head explosion was grizzly, gory, realistic, and totally effective. It was basically everything you could ever hope for, and quite honestly the best movie head explosion I have seen to date.

How they did it: After several failed attempts of making fake looking rubber and wax head sculpts, the special effects artists made a latex mold of the actors head, filling it with pieces of left over hamburger, latex and fake blood, before blowing it up from behind with a shotgun!

#8 - Blood Waterfall - A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

Many people are baffled as to just how they made this iconic scene in this iconic movie, but the concept is really quite simple. Well, simple enough to explain, maybe not so simple to actually pull off. All the furniture on the set was glued to the floor, and then the room was rotated, so that the bed was on the ceiling. (This is the same rotating room they used for Tina's death). Hundreds of litres of fake blood were then poured from a hole in the centre of the bed, to the floor.

Trivia: This was an effect that could only be done once, so they had to get it right the first time. There was so much 'blood' on the floor that it over weighed the rotating set, causing it to turn over slowly and saturate the camera crew, destroying the equipment. This is why at the end of the scene you can see the blood veering off to the left of the ceiling, which is actually the floor.

#7 - Flipping A Truck - The Dark Knight (2008)

Christopher Nolan is well known for making incredible films, and he is also well known for choosing the old fashioned way of practical effects over computer generated effects. Saying this, I bet the majority of you thought this scene was made with CGI! Nope, absolutely everything you see in this scene was done practically.

How they did it: The team had to of course practice the stunt first in a deserted area, to ensure that the truck was going to flip straight over, and not keel to the side and go through a building during the actual shoot. The team developed a large, remote-controlled piston to be placed under the truck, which would go off at the push of a button by Jim Wilky - the stunt man driving the truck!

- Also to be mentioned is the whole plane hijacking sequence at the beginning of 'The Dark Knight Rises', which believe it or not was all done practically!

#6 - Bruce the Shark - Jaws (1975)

Jaws is the best animal horror film ever made, and there is simply no argument against it. The film may be almost 40 years old, but there is no doubt that it still makes people think twice before swimming out into the ocean! Bruce the shark was incredibly well done, especially considering it was way back in 1975, and it totally still stands up today. Okay, so there are scenes where you can tell it's a robot, but I personally much prefer that to all the failure CGI sharks in the modern day horror flicks.

As you can see from the picture above, the shark was jam packed with different motors and engines, wires and all kinds of waterproof electrical equipment, and as someone who is interested in engineering, I find the thing absolutely fascinating.

#5 - Melting Head - Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Now this scene made it into my list of '13 Genuinely Frightening Scenes In Family Movies' with ease! I honestly always presumed that this was done with awful CGI from the 80's, but it turns out it was done with some very clever practical effects, so in a way, the scene totally gained my respect.

How they did it: A mold of 'Toht's' head was made from a multi layered gelatin compound, and then melted over a matter of hours. The camera was put in time-lapse, so as to appear like the head melted in a matter of seconds! Creative, yes. Appropriate for a family movie? Totally not.

#4 - Dancing on the Ceiling - Royal Wedding (1951)

Seeing Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling and walls was absolutely incredible back in 1951, as absolutely no one had seen such a thing before. It's the same technique that was used in both Inception and A Nightmare on Elm Street - only 33 years earlier. Hence why, it is further up the list.

Just as in the other mentioned films, all furniture was glued to the floor, and the room would rotate as Mr Astaire danced his way around it. No matter how old the film is, I love watching this scene over and over.

#3 - 'The Thing' - The Thing (1982)

There are so many different practical effects in this movie, and not a single one of them ceases to amaze me. Due to the amount of wonderful effects, I'm not going to name just one, but praise them all as being completely break through and beyond what any old school horror fan could hope for.

Trivia: John Carpenter has stated that out of all of his films to date, 'The Thing' is by far his favorite.

#2 - The T-1000 - Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Although 'Terminator 2' is known for its breakthrough CGI effects, what many people do not realize is that there are one hell of a lot of practical effects in the movie also. Practical scenes include the T-1000's death, the T-800's battle damaged face (which was all makeup) and of course the scene pictured above.

How they did it: Giant molds of the actors distorted face and body were created (the arm slice for example), and although CGI was used to tidy up the rough edges, the majority of these scenes were all made practically.

- Also to be noted is the scene where Sarah Conner takes the chip out of the T-800's head, which was done by using a model of the Terminator's head, and having Arnie sat opposite acting as a reflection in what we all thought was a mirror.

#1 - Werewolf transformation - An American Werewolf in London (1981)

I bet you didn't see THAT coming did you? Okay, well maybe you did. When I hear the phrase 'practical effects' this is the first thing I think of, and for good reason! Considered the best human to werewolf transformation ever filmed, this scene has well and truly stood the test of time, and proves that no werewolf transformation could be done better with computer imagery.

In all honesty I can't even begin to wrap my head around how they filmed the complete transformation sequence, but I will tell you this: Many different props were used, ranging from latex and rubber suits, to acrylic hair and animatronic body pieces.

  'Chucky's' animatronic head
'Chucky's' animatronic head

So, do you agree with my list, or have I missed out your favorite practical effect? If you enjoyed this article, keep an eye out for part 2!


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