Practical Special Effects – The Best Kind

There are some truly amazing special effects out there, and today io9.com takes us through some really great examples in The Most Insanely Complex Stunts From Science Fiction and Fantasy Films.  We get spoiled with CGI, which brings dinosaurs to life, allows liquid metal robots to mimic police officers and hunt us down, creates epic space battles for a fraction of the cost of the old way (lots of models, lots of careful camera work, and lots and lots and LOTS of compositing), and, of course, allows stunts to be performed that no human could actually achieve (though as io9 demonstrates, some of the ones you were probably positive were CGI actually weren’t — like that insane airplane hijacking in “The Dark Knight Rises”).

But what about other practical effects?  Here just three of my favorite examples:

2001: A Space Odyssey

Produced in 1967, you’d think this could be nothing but practical effects. In fact, “2001” was the first movie to use computer generated imaging — all of the computer screens you see are, in fact, actual computer screens displaying computer-generated diagrams (quite a revolutionary thing at the time).  But the spaceships and such naturally must be practical.  A tremendous amount of model work went into this movie, which to this day remains one of the most realistic portrayals of spaceflight ever made.  One problem in such movies is how to deal with gravity, or rather the lack of it.  Many movies do an end run around the problem with a magic gravity field, or by having the characters comically play-act at floating.  (Alas, this made me giggle out loud in “Star Trek VI”, when the Klingon Bird of Prey lost its artificial gravity and everybody immediately was propelled into the air.)  But “2001” would not stoop to that.  On the shuttle, the stewardess wears Velcro shoes, and moves slowly and deliberately — and reveals the lack of gravity when she casually walks up a wall to reorient herself to the right angle for going into the cockpit to serve the captain and co-pilot.  This was accomplished by use of a rotating set, and its seamless in the movie — but here’s what it looked like to the crew:

Later, the same trick was used on a much larger (insanely larger) scale for the centrifuge that allowed the crew of Discovery to endure the long voyage to Jupiter without experiencing the ravages of microgravity.  The entire centrifuge was built as a single, monstrously tall set which could be freely rotated and with a cunningly disguised track down the middle for cameras to move along — and almost completely enclosed.  Here’s what that one looks like from a camera that is not following along the centrifuge but instead panning from a  fixed location as the centrifuge set turns around it:

There were many other amazing practical effects, including poor Frank Poole’s death scene, and the much worse “pretending to be dead” scenes that the actor had to carry out.  To simulate weightlessness, the spacesuited actor was suspended from wires and filmed from directly below — then allowed to gently spin.  Worse was when the full-scale pod had to go and grab him with its manipulator arms; this went about as well as a real corpse retrieval would probably go, as it kept bumping him and sending him spinning.  And yes, of *course* Stanley Kubrick insisted on having the actor actually in the suit, so it would flop around realistically.

The Lord of the Rings

Of course this has to get mentioned.  😉  CGI was certainly used quite extensively, but Peter Jackson’s insane devotion to detail meant that CGI would never be enough.  Miniatures lack sufficient detail, and CGI seldom appears to be lit correctly, so for nearly all wide shots of complex Middle Earth locations such as Rivendell, the Argonath, or Helm’s Deep, they built “bigatures”.  (Jackson went on to use bigatures in other films as well.)  Technically speaking, they’re miniatures, but they’re miniatures that almost need an aircraft hanger to accommodate them.

Another in-camera technique used to great effect was forced perspective.  To get hobbits and dwarves alongside normal humans, you traditionally have two options: CGI compositing, which often looks terrible, and hiring only little people for the hobbits and dwarves, which is much preferable in terms of looks but severely limits your talent pool – and of course they will have all the physical limitations that many little people have.  The third option is the hardest, but gives you the greatest freedom in casting: forced perspective.  It requires insane devotion to detail and a lot of math to make sure that props to be used are built to exactly the right scale and shot from exactly the right location to achieve the desired effect.  In the end, they actually used all three methods: CGI compositing, body doubles (little people to double for the hobbits and dwarves when shooting human characters, and average people in giant suits to double for humans when shooting hobbits and dwarves), and forced perspective.  And to really sell the forced perspective, Jackson upped the ante by creating split, sliding sets that would move *just so* while the camera also moved, allowing the revolutionary use of trucking shots within forced perspective.  Normally, moving the camera spoils the effect . . . but not if you can manage to move the set as well.

The Dark Crystal

This is one of my favorite movies of all time.  There is absolutely no CGI, and not a whole lot of compositing either.  Almost everything is in-camera, and not just in-camera, but actually existing.  A world completely devoid of human beings and animals that you or I would recognize, and it’s all real.  Well, it’s all physical, anyway.  This was perhaps the greatest achievement of Jim Henson.  I mean, it’s certainly not the only amazing thing he did (we can’t forget the incredible effects in “Labyrinth”) but the sheer scale of this one is staggering.  It’s all done with puppets, but not just any puppets.  This film drove the development of wholly new types of puppets, treading new ground in remote-control puppets (which would later prove invaluable for such masterpieces as the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, allowing their heads to be operated without tethering the performers wearing them).  Really, I could list every single Henson movie here, but “The Dark Crystal” is, in my opinion, the most impressive.

Here’s a particularly lovely scene: the repulsive eating habits of the vile and decadant Skekses.  Remember: these are all old-school puppets, and while the Podling slaves move like Muppets, the Skekses are enormously complicated cable-operated creations with an impressive range of facial expression, each controlled by a puppeteer wearing them to manage the head and left arm, and a support crew to operate fine details.

For more fun, the Garthim Master (the particularly brutal one who sticks his head in the bucket of water at one point) is none other than Dave Goelz, better known for Gonzo the Great.  Aughra, whom the Garthim drag in to the feast, is operated by Frank Oz.  The gold-bedecked Ritual Master is Jim Henson himself.  (Unlike many other Henson productions, however, the voices were independently cast.)

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