A Brief History of Practical Effects in Cinema in 10 Movies

From George Melies through to Peter Jackson and JJ Abrams' Star Wars film, the rise, fall and rise of practical effects explored...

From the very earliest days of cinema, practical effects have been the big draw for audiences. The very first films may have wowed the crowds with images of trains pulling into a station, but it was the fantastical made real that fired the imaginations of millions, and led to film as we know it – narrative flights of fancy which have entertained and made us gasp for well over 100 years. But the last 25 years have seen practical effects fall by the wayside.

Digital effects created in a computer took over, and allowed filmmakers to dream even bigger. But practical effects are beginning to make a comeback. Some of this is due to audiences feeling the CG burnout; no longer quite believing what they’re seeing, resulting in many films’ big action scenes lacking the stakes we need on a emotional level to truly engage with a film (as well as the literal and metaphorical heft of the ‘people’ involved in it, normally now just digital models).

Millennials have also rejected digital in favor of analog experiences in other facets of life, for example vinyl, paper books, Etsy, meet-ups, and a boom in outdoor adventures. It seems that practical effects fall perfectly in that trend. The most-hyped film release this year is basing its marketing almost entirely on nostalgia, and the fact that most of its effects are practical. 

So for now, here’s a brief history of practical effects in cinema, told in 10 movies. For clarification, a practical effect is any special effect produced by hand, and not in a computer. So this can range from a bullet squib to a matte painting, to miniatures, to stop-motion, and full on sets. I’ve tried to tell the story of how each new stage and/or leap in technology gained prominence via a successful film, but if you feel I’ve missed anything out, please do shout it out below.

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The first practical effects blockbuster


A Trip To The Moon (d. George Melies) – 1902

Melies’ seminal sci-fi classic not only paved the way for film form as we know it, with his use of edits to create an understandable narrative and create a clamor for all films to be told in this way, rather than as an actuality of unfolding life, but it also kick-started the effects industry. Through his use of sets, costumes, props, and smoke and explosion effects, he created a fully believable science-fiction world which brought to life the ideas of HG Wells which had captured the popular imagination of the time.

Telling the story of a group of scientists who fire themselves to the moon via a huge space cannon, then fight some moon aliens, before heading back home, Melies sold his visionary idea to the masses. Rather than document real life, Melies showed that you could create a fantastical life on film, through tricks. By marrying these practical effects with a compelling story, edited into what we now know as a standard visual film narrative, Melies proved that cinema was a more believable and natural home for practical effects than the theatre, where you could always see through the artifice, and effectively created the blockbuster as we know it.

Miniatures allow filmmakers to dream big


Metropolis (d. Fritz Lang) – 1927

The most expensive film ever made at the time, Metropolis has rightly gone down in history as a masterpiece, and still finds an eager and appreciative audience on the big screen to this day. But while you can see it’s influence in popular culture from Star Wars to Madonna, perhaps it’s biggest legacy is the pioneering work of Eugen Schufftan, who created not only the miniature city but also the Schufftan Process which allowed the actors to interact with their surroundings.

Miniatures allowed filmmakers to create scale in their films, by constructing huge objects which would have been far too costly to build full size, and shooting them close to camera or with high-speed photography to make them seem real. It also allowed filmmakers to indulge their wildest dreams, and create fully working futuristic cities.

But how to make them seem lived in?

The answer was a practical effect involving mirrors. The process involves placing a mirror at an 45 degree angle in front of the camera, so that it reflects the miniature. A section of the reflective surface of the mirror is then removed so that the studio set with the actors behind the mirror can be seen through the clear glass. By carefully lighting the studio set so that it matches the reflected miniature the final image captured by the camera is a seamless blend of the two.

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Painting the rainbow

The Wizard Of Oz (d. Victor Fleming) – 1939

The process of painting a environment that could not possibly exist, and then seamlessly blend it in to the finished film, matte painting is a true art form. At its very best it is impossible to spot, and has given us some of the most iconic images in cinema history, including the Statue of Liberty in Planet Of The Apes, and the secret government warehouse at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Matte painting had been employed by filmmakers since 1907, but it was only when cinema went technicolor that their golden age truly began. The Wizard Of Oz was the perfect showcase for the impact a truly great matte painting could have on a movie. Dorothy’s approach to the Emerald City wouldn’t have become a legendary image if it hadn’t been for the skills of artists such as Candalario Rivas, who worked on the film to create background images and entirely matte sets.

Matte painting lives on today in the digital world – digital matte paintings are in almost every film, no matter what genre. A whole lot of The Wolf Of Wall Street is surprisingly created via these techniques. Software such as AfterEffects allows anyone to try their hand at it at home, but I still feel the truly awe-inspiring work of the original matte painters will never be beaten.

Stop motion comes of age

Jason And The Argonauts (d. John Chaffey) – 1963

Stop motion is one of the oldest forms of animation. First recorded back in 1898, in Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus, in which a toy-shop comes to life, the process of incrementally moving a doll, clay figure, or object in between frames to give the appearance of continual movement by itself, has always had a loyal following, right up to Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Films such as the 1933 King Kong hugely popularised it, with the work of pioneering animator Willis O’Brien at the forefront of it. But it was O’Brien’s protege that would really make stop-motion an integral part of film’s practical effects repertoire. His name was Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen inspired John Lasseter, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Landis, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton amongst others. Over three decades he produced the most famous sequences in films such as The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, One Million Years B.C. and Clash Of The Titans. But it is his work on Jason And The Argonauts that is regarded as his masterpiece, and was Harryhausen’s favorite film.

Describing the climatic fight between Jason and the seven skeletons, Harryhausen explained:

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“Each of the model skeletons was about eight to 10 inches high, and six of the seven were made for the sequence. The remaining one was a veteran from The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, slightly repainted to match the new members of the family. When all the skeletons have manifested themselves to Jason and his men, they are commanded by Acetes to “Kill, kill, kill them all”, and we hear an unearthly scream. What follows is a sequence of which I am very proud. I had three men fighting seven skeletons, and each skeleton had five appendages to move in each separate frame of film. This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronised to the actors’ movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.”

A malfunctioning mechanical shark ushers in the age of the modern blockbuster

Jaws (d. Steven Spielberg) – 1975

A young Steven Spielberg knew that for Jaws to be a success, he needed to create the perfect shark. After being told that an animatronic shark which could work in the the ocean would be impossible to build, an undeterred Spielberg instead persuaded Bob Mattey, who had created the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, to come out of retirement and make his monster. What he delivered was to go down in history and change the way films were marketed and released.

‘Bruce’ as the mechanical shark was named (after Spielberg’s lawyer) was an engineering marvel. It was a marvel that was ahead of its time. So ahead of its time in fact, that the technology wasn’t really ready yet to make it work. So the $250,000 fake shark ended up causing delay after delay during the shooting of the film. It sank to the bottom, its motor would stop working due to salt water corrosion, and the shark would get entangled with seaweed. The original 55 day shoot ended up taking 159 days.

Far from finish Spielberg’s career, the malfunctioning shark taught Spielberg everything he needed to know about how to properly utilise practical effects. He decided to enact the Hitchcock principle of less is more, and hinted at the shark instead of showing it. Editing and music became his weapons, and glimpses of the shark proved far more effective at portraying the deadly menace than full shots. It’s a principle which many filmmakers should adhere too today, as we complain about yet another CGI borefest where the stakes seem limited. This is often due to the fact we have no anticipation, so sense of lead-up. We are instead saturated with spectacle from the off, which has the effect of killing the sense of wonder instead. Jaws proved that you could harness the power of practical effects into something truly awesome.

The delays went further than just forcing Spielberg to make a better movie. The release date was pushed to summer, traditionally a dead period then, and Jaws‘ huge success in test screenings prompted Universal to push for a wide release nationwide, and back it up with a massive marketing spend. It worked, and Jaws the modern blockbuster as we know and understand it was born.

Make-up becomes truly horrifying

An American Werewolf In London (d. John Landis) – 1981

The ’80s were truly the golden age for practical effects, and with hindsight their last hurrah before digital effects completely took over. George Lucas and ILM pushed boundaries with their continuing work on the Star Wars films, Jim Henson married puppetry and live actors with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and cult fantasy and sci-fi films blossomed like never before. It’s no surprise that retrospective articles extolling the virtues of 80s films can be found on almost every movie site. But perhaps the best work of the decade was done with make-up and prosthetics. Evil Dead II, The Fly, and of course the film that put them on the map, An American Werewolf In London.

The Academy noted this growing trend for complex effects by introducing a category for Best Make-Up in 1981, which Rick Baker promptly won for his incredible work in An American Werewolf In London, particularly the werewolf transformation scene. For many, it still ranks as the greatest werewolf scene in movie history, and even after 34 years feels as real and compelling as the day it was first seen. It has a veracity that CG transformations have never been able to capture, the sense of bones really popping and shifting, and the beast within truly emerging, rather than just an actor being replaced with a CG model that lacks a genuine presence.

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But even more than the fact it still holds up, maybe the most remarkable thing about the practical effects is that it was so pioneering. Rick Baker was 30 at the time, and with a crew whose average age he put at, “like nineteen. There were kids who had never worked on a film before.” But their work would go on to influence a generation of filmmakers, starting almost immediately with another werewolf transformation in The Howling, designed by Rick Baker’s protégé Rob Bottin.

Digital dinosaurs versus man in suit

Jurassic Park (d. Steven Spielberg) – 1993

Undeterred by the problems he faced on Jaws, Spielberg continued to push the boundaries of practical effects, and animatronics. But perhaps his finest work in this medium came with the film most people associate as being the crowning glory of early CG effects, Jurassic Park. The running herds of dinosaurs rightly gained the plaudits upon release, offering digital work which stands up to this day (whether that’s a testament to the work of ILM or a indictment of the often rushed CG work since is a matter of debate). But it was the puppetry, animatronics, and old fashioned man-in-suit effects that truly make Jurassic Park come to life. For this, we can thank Stan Winston and his team.

Perhaps best known for his work on 80s classic Manimal (and some obscure small scale films including the Terminator series, Aliens, Predator, and Iron Man), Winston was one of the leading figures who redefined what could be done with creature design and puppetry. Jurassic Park though was surely his best work. The T-Rex model itself was 20ft tall, 40ft long, and weighed 8 tons. If you’ve ever stood in the T-Rex encounter at the Natural History Museum in London, just imagine that thing is able to chase you as well.

Other notable dinosaurs created by Winston and his team include the sick triceratops, operated by 8 puppeteers, the venom spitting Dilophosaurus, which used a paintball gun to fire its toxins, and the chewing head of the Brachiosaurus.

The velociraptors though, remain the most terrifying creation. Especially considering that most of the tense kitchen sequence, where Lex and Tim are hunted by the deadly dinosaurs, was performed by a man in a suit. Perhaps the scene is so powerful due to the organic nature of the raptors movements, helping the audience truly suspend their disbelief and buy into the illusion that a dinosaur from 75 million years ago is in a kitchen, trying to eat some children.

But even though only 4 minutes out of the 14 involving dinosaurs were made using exclusively digital effects, the die had seemingly been cast. This was the future, and while practical effects would complement the digital work, their days of being front and centre seemed numbered.

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Practical effects get sunk

Waterworld (d. Kevin Reynolds) – 1995

There’s a lot of love for the somewhat unfairly maligned Waterworld here at Den of Geek. Despite the continuing negativity both then and now surrounding it, it really does have a huge amount going for it, and as we previously wrote, “it’s got an abundance of problems, but if you’re going to take $175m to make a big sea-based film set in a world that’d been all but flooded, at least put it on the screen. Waterworld very much does that. Relying little on computers (although there are moments it needs them), as a result, the practical sequences have very much stood the test of time.”

The biggest practical set of them all was the atoll, a custom built 1000 ton floating island in the Pacific Ocean that measured a quarter of a mile in circumference and required not only all the available steel in Hawaii, but specially shipped batches from California too. It’s no wonder that the film went hugely over-budget (by a reported $75 million). Added to horror stories about sinking sets, and tension behind the scenes, the myth about the flop of Waterworld was born. And its main culprit for its supposed failure was the practical effects.

Costly, ambitious, and time-consuming, Waterworld became the poster child for movie making from another age. As Jurassic Park had shown a few years earlier, CG was now at an advanced level, and soon would carry the bulk of blockbuster effects. They were cheaper, easier to work with in both pre-production, filming, and post-production, and allowed filmmakers to do far more in a shorter time. Swayed by the lure of new technology, and dismayed by the seeming chaos of productions like Waterworld, the heyday of practical effects such as these mega-sets seemed to be over.

Practical effects make a comeback

The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (d. Peter Jackson) – 2001-2003

Perhaps the films that have most successfully married digital and practical together make up The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It established Weta as perhaps the preeminent digital effects studio, especially when it came to their groundbreaking motion capture work on Gollum, but also gained as many plaudits for its work on everything practical, with five areas being focused on – armour, weapons, creatures, miniatures, and prosthetics.

Jackson has often said he wanted the world to feel ‘lived in’. It was this verisimilitude that distinguished The Lord Of The Rings from almost all other fantasy films, before or since. There is a sense of history in objects which look real to us. Characters interact with scenery, with things they can touch, and monsters are tangible. Weapons look like they can cut, and armour like it’s heavy to wear. In fact things are so real that the scream of rage Aragon lets loose when he kicks an Uruk-Hai’s helmet is actually the scream of Viggo Mortensen breaking his foot on a very solid prop.

But perhaps the films’ biggest success was in their reimagining of miniatures, built by Weta on a huge scale, and termed by Weta miniature supervisor Mary Maclachlan as ‘bigatures’. The Isengard bigature measures 22 metres wall-to-wall, while its Tower of Orthanc stands 15ft high. Small bits of craft, such as carving the tower using scalpel blades to give a shard like appearance, showcase what the handmade touch can still offer over CGI. The scale of these bigatures allowed computer controlled cameras to swoop through, giving incredible tracking and establishing shots.

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To really understand the difference the practical work added to the completed films, you need only watch the Hobbit trilogy. A CG animated fest, it at points looks more like a cut-scene from a computer game than an actual film. Gone is the sense that this world is real. That you can reach out and run your hands along the walls of an ancient fortress. It looks instead like a cartoon. So the films no longer engage us as the first ones did. It lacks that authenticity that practical effects added.

The circle is now complete

The Force Awakens (d. J.J. Abrams) – 2015

Digital effects will always do the heavy lifting, as they’re an incredibly valuable tool set that if used correctly, can shape a film to be exactly what the director wants. But perhaps they’ll become the unheralded stars of the background now, changing details to create believability, rather than become the stars of the show. For instance, nobody talks about the almost 2000 digital effects shots in Mad Max: Fury Road. Instead, the fact that 90% of the movie is apparently practical work has ranked high in the lists of praise deservingly given to George Miller’s instant classic.

Always a leader in technology, Star Wars changed the face of effects back in the ’70s, then ushered in the era of shooting on digital and creating complete CG characters with the Prequels. Now it’s doing it again, with a return to basics. Almost as a rejection of the pixel overload of the last films, the new trilogy is showcasing prosthetics, creature make-up, and new droids active on-set (witness BB-8 stealing the stage at Star Wars Celebration a few years ago). Episode VIII director Rian Johnson told the Girls In Hoodies podcast “I think people are coming back around to [practical effects]. It feels like there is sort of that gravity pulling us back toward it. I think that more and more people are hitting kind of a critical mass in terms of the CG-driven action scene lending itself to a very specific type of action scene, where physics goes out the window and it becomes so big so quick.”

The big push to sell the practical effects is rooted deep in nostalgia. The audience being targeted by this marketing and the recent behind the scenes video remembers the ‘good old days’ of tangible props, and associate this with their youthful wonder for the fantastical cinematic worlds on display. Perhaps in 20 years people will be clamouring again for all-out CG displays, complaining of the limitations of practical effects? But for now, it’s time to enjoy the start of what could be a film renaissance.

You can follow Nick on Twitter right here.

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK in 2015. It has been lightly updated.

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