Good visual effects are a little bit of everything: one part art, one part engineering, and a strong splash of stage magic. Their supposed goal is to melt into the background, to become indistinguishable from real life, but the visual effect scenes we remember are the ones that emphasize their constructed-ness, that make the audience wonder, “How did they do that?” From stop motion to slit scans, here are Entropy editors and contributors’ top visual effects from cinema history.
Byron Alexander Campbell:
1) The opening sequence to Buster Keaton’s “The Playhouse,” in which Keaton portrays up to 9 on-screen roles simultaneously. Filmed in 1921, the effect remains virtually seamless. Wikipedia says: “Keaton’s portrayal of nine members of a minstrel show required the use of a special camera shutter. It had nine exactingly-machined strips of metal which could be moved up and down independently of each other. Elgin Lessley, Keaton’s cameraman, shot the far-left Keaton with the first shutter up, and the others down. He then rewound the film, opened the second segment, and re-filmed the next Keaton in sequence. This procedure was repeated seven more times. The camera was hand-wound, so Lessley’s hand had to be absolutely steady to avoid any variation in speed. Keaton relied on a metronome to guide him, not a problem in a silent film. It was decades before Keaton, who masterminded this, revealed his technique to other filmmakers.”
2) Pan’s Labyrinth and the Faun. A crazily unsettling mix of makeup, costume and acting chops make this character completely mesmerizing–you can’t take your eyes off of him, even as you are shouting at Ofelia to turn tail and run.
3) 1988’s remake of The Blob. The title creature creature is a pink, gelatinous membrane that will literally eat its way through you on a molecular level, an allegory for the AIDS epidemic. Filmed at a time when practical effects were about as good as they were going to get, but before digital effects took over, every one of these scenes is a treat, from the death of “Wait, he isn’t the main character?” Paul, which predicts effects designer Tony Gardner’s more recent work on 127 Hours, to the near-obligatory “date rape will get you killed” face implosion.
Sueyeun Juliette Lee:
2) Clash of the Titans, the whole gorgon fight sequence. It’s so terrifying and uncanny because of the jerky quality of the stop-action claymation techniques.
Joseph Michael Owens:
2) Avatar is also way up there.
1) The Ymir from 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957). Probably my favorite Harryhausen creation. Less a visual effect in many ways than a character, Ray imbues his Venusian with such life and personality, especially in its hatchling phase.
2) The Slit Scan sequences from Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Classic trippiness, the “true story” of which is arguably as interesting than the actual technique itself.
3) All of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988), honestly… but especially that moment when Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) reveals his true identity. That the effects here are rather minimal is what makes them so effective.
This used to scare the hell out of me when I was little:
1) One of the final scenes in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. After the three protagonists have reached the center of the forbidden area, The Room (an abandoned power plant), they argue, then disassemble the bomb one of them is carrying. They throw the parts into a dam that has collected on the floor and the three characters, knowing that they have reached the end of their journey, huddle together. It starts to rain through the roof, turning the surface of the water to bright light, then the rain ceases and the water turns smooth and reflective like a mirror again. This is the whole special effect; water, light, rain, but since Tarkovsky was a master of filming light and reflected light, this scene takes on an almost mystic note. I couldn’t find the scene on YouTube, but here’s a picture of it. To me this is one of the best and most poetic scenes in all of film history.
2) The opening scene of Blade Runner. I suspect the special effects are several; miniatures on a background of matte painting, overlaid with plumes of fire in post production, and then comes the flying car and Vangelis’ famous opening theme. At least this was made long before CGI and thus looks more natural but also more clunky than modern CGI. It must be one of the most distinct and complex opening scenes in film history.
3) One of the many harrowing battle scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Like many of Malick’s films, The Thin Red Line has a philosophical, almost zen-like message and depicts the horrors of war in a way that looks very realistic. The special effects here are mostly the masterful cinematography and editing: the sudden and matter-of-fact violence, the lack of sound, the multiple viewpoints and protagonists, the slow shots, the craning and panning camera, and the intense crosscutting. Plus the music and the voice-over: “We were a family. How’d it break up and come apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light. How’d we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?” Just one of the most accomplished films ever made about the nature of life.
I’m all about practical effects. There’s something I can really sink my teeth into with practical effects that’s lacking in movies with CGI polish. Here’s three fave effects that I feel speak to a larger aesthetic that I appreciate in movies (TW: Gore):
1.) Animatronics like the half-woman in Return of the Living Dead
2.) This amazing, single tracking shot from Hard Boiled
1) In Terminator 2 where the evil liquid robot guy melts up from being a b/w tile floor into being his normal liquid self again.
2) The scene in Donnie Darko where Jake Gyllenhaal is chipping at a mirror with a knife but you’re seeing it from the mirror so you see him chipping on cracking glass that you don’t know is there.
1) In a bunch of Luis Buñuel movies, there’s a moment when some kind of digetic noise (the roar of a passing truck, an adjacent clatter) overpowers the conversation and for a couple seconds even though the characters keep talking, we can’t hear what they’re saying. I’ve always loved that.
2) Live animals as protagonists! When I was a kid, animals served as the protagonists and antagonists in many movies, such as Milo & Otis, Homeward Bound, and The Sandlot. Knowing how unruly our furry friends can be, I’ve always been impressed by how “direct-able” the canine and feline stars of these movies seem. So for one favorite scene I’ll pick the chase from The Sandlot.
3) And for something more recent, I really like the car scene in Children of Men, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. I almost never get involved with the extras / behind-the-scenes / and makings-of for movies, but this scene really impressed me both in how it’s technically accomplished and how it mixes casual chatter and then cuts into violence so quickly.
1) They Live (John Carpenter, 1988). Slavoj Žižek says: “They Live is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. … The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. … When you put the sunglasses on, you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.” Viva late 80’s punk political subversion!
2) I guess I’ll go complete camp. The Prophecy (Gregory Widen, 1995). The film tells the story of the Archangel Gabriel (Christopher Walken) and his search for an evil soul on Earth, and a police detective (Elias Koteas) who unknowingly becomes caught in the middle of an angelic civil war. Virginia Madsen is a caretaker of the little girl Gabriel tries to get his hands on; Eric Stoltz is the Angel Simon who tries to warn the detective of the evil coming; and Viggo Mortensen plays the devil. Beyond the delight of watching all these actors play otherworldly beings that perch like gargoyles on buildings, rock formations, and furniture, we get to see Viggo at one point take a bite (literally) out of Gabriel’s heart (Viggo later referred to this as a “love scene”). Despite the convoluted story and extreme camp pervading the film, there were four sequels. Ah, Hollywood.
3) Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964). This anthology horror film is based on Japanese folk tales as written down by Lafcadio Hearn in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (an amazing text available online). The artificial sets and colorful backdrops, lit from behind, gave the stories a fairy-tale like quality. This is old-school technology, slow and quietly beautiful.