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10 Incredible Special Effects You’d Swear Were CGI

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Armchair Neil deGrasse Tysons put on their debunking caps as last year’s box office smash Interstellar recently made its way to Blu-ray. Following the plight of humanity as a group of scientists attempt to save the planet via wormhole surfing, the movie is mostly a solemn adventure — aside for a couple breakout characters. (No, not the moon landing-denying guidance counselors.) We’re speaking, of course, of the blocky and plucky robots, TARS and CASE.

Simple, efficient, and not much more than slabs of stainless steel in their default state, TARS and CASE are a far cry from the mechanically complicated automatons we’ve come to expect from futuristic space flicks. Nevertheless, it’s surprising to learn that, in many of the scenes, both bots weren’t CGI creations but literally slabs of stainless steel operated by on-set puppeteers. Take a look at how the special effects team pulled it off.


(Source: Giphy)

But the Metallic Duo isn’t the only effect that tricked audiences into thinking it was all just a bunch of ones and zeros. Here are 10 dazzling special effects you’d swear were CGI.

10. The T-Rex Attack, Jurassic Park

Part of the reason why the dinosaurs in a 20-year-old movie still look realistic is the impressive blending of CGI and practical effects. For the T-Rex attack, Spielberg and his crew seamlessly matched a head-to-tail graphical rendering of the beast with a massive animatronic puppet. (No easy task, since the latex skin kept getting soaked by the rain and caused reality-busting tremors.) While the CGI effects were breathtaking, the meticulous shots and edits of the puppet made audiences think there was no way to pull all of that off in real life.


9. The Hallway Brawl, Inception

The same practical effects that put Lionel Richie on the ceiling also tossed Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a hotel guard around a deco hallway. Rather than simulate the subconscious freefall using a green screen and a couple of harnesses, director Christopher Nolan constructed a 100-foot rotating hallway with a locked-down camera, effectively simulating a constantly shifting space by… making it constantly shift. The end results make it one of the most memorable moments in a film filled with fantastic visuals.


8. The Robotic Head, Total Recall

Get ready for a surprise: The transforming robotic head that Arnie uses as a disguise was actually a transforming robotic head. (Well, the scene required five heads in total.) As the woman begins to twitch and “malfunction,” we see the first mechanical prop head with an extending ear and then switch to the memorable second head with staggered retractable sections. The machinery that ran this prop was so heavy that it had to be lifted by hydraulics, requiring a mold of Arnold’s head to be positioned underneath as if he’s lifting the mask off. Then the wider angle shows Arnold slowly lowering a fourth mold, which he tosses to authorities for a simple matte effect before the explosion, which required a fifth head. It’s an amazing sequence of shots that a modern film would undoubtedly rely on (and ruin with) CGI to complete.


7. The T-800’s CPU Reset, Terminator 2

Speaking of fake Schwarzenegger heads, director James Cameron was no stranger to a few in his career — namely ones attached to a time-traveling cyborg. One such head was put to great use in a very creative and cost-cutting shot for Terminator 2 that was unfortunately left on the cutting room floor. (The scene was preserved as a supplemental for the DVD release.) In it, Sarah and John Connor operate on the T-800’s cranial CPU in front of a mirror as the camera swoops around for a closer look. The effect was pulled off with a false mirror, Linda Hamilton’s twin sister as her reflection (who mimicked her sister’s movements on the real Arnold), and a fake Terminator head used for close-ups in the foreground — all done with practical effects for a scene that would probably cost millions more if done with CGI.


6. The Star Gate, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Released 33 years before its title suggests, 2001: A Space Odyssey was produced long before CGI could take the majesty out of actual miniature spacecrafts. However, one colorful sequence appears to be a few decades ahead of its time. From a visual perspective, it was — but it was also pulled off without a single keystroke. The “Laserium” effect of the star gate was accomplished by painting psychedelic patterns on a piece of glass, backlighting it, and filming it through a slit on a second, blacked-out pane of glass. The results look like the de facto proto-screensaver of the cosmos.

5. The Car Chase, The Raid 2

If stunt coordinators ruled the world, then everything would look like The Raid movies. Filled with extraordinary practical effects and stunts, the movies’ plots take a backseat to the action-packed eye candy. And in one such instance where reality appears to be simulated, a camera appears to soar through a car window, into the interior, and out the other side. The truth: it was. With a camera operator disguised as a car seat, the gear is handed from one crewmember to another in one fluid motion.


4. The Transformation, An American Werewolf in London

When CGI is done well, the audience shouldn’t even notice it. When done poorly, well, it looks like 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris — a sequel that just underscores how perfectly the movie’s predecessor handled the special effects. And through a series of prosthetics, heavy makeup, a false floor, and in-camera effects, the groundbreaking werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London didn’t require a single computer graphic to accomplish.


3. The Defibrillator Scene, The Thing

Expertly evoking the feelings of isolation, paranoia, and all-out dread, John Carpenter’s The Thing turns every member of an Antarctic research team into an alien suspect. And when their identities are revealed, it’s far too late, as seen in the incredible arm-chomping, head-walking transformation during the defibrillator scene. Even as the gooey green-tendoned Vance grows jaws in his chest and segmented legs from his head, every mutation was done on set courtesy of special effects master Rob Bottin, who filled in for Stan Winston when the practical effects workload became too heavy. As you can see, Bottin didn’t need Winston or a computer to make it look great.


2. The 3D Wireframe City, Escape from New York

While it might be hard to fathom for those who grew up with Google in their pocket, it was prohibitively expensive (or darn-near impossible) for a Hollywood film to do a simple wireframe rendering of Manhattan on a 1981 computer. So, to pull off what would take mere seconds in a modern-day system, director John Carpenter enlisted the help of a twenty-something James Cameron to complete the effect on set. Cameron strategically applied reflective tape to a matte-black model of the city, flipped on some ultraviolet lights, and “flew” the camera over the model — creating what appears to be a perfectly rendered CGI wireframe New York City.


1. All of Innerspace

There isn’t a single use of CGI in Innerspace. Not one. Not for the miniaturized pod, not for the bloodstream waterslides, not for the half-shrunken Kevin McCarthy, not for the incredible Robert Picardo-Martin Short transformations. Director Joe Dante pulled all of these off with practical, real-time, or in-camera effects, ranging from forced perspective to prosthetics to incredibly detailed miniatures — and the results are spectacular. For their work on this madcap sci-fi adventure, the special effects team won an Academy Award. Rightfully so, because even today no CGI could make everything look as good as that team did in 1987.

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Inauguration Alternative

Bill Murray On Repeat

It's a movie "Murray-thon" all-day Friday on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs courtesy of GIPHY

Democrats, Republicans and Millennials agree: 2017 is shaping up to be a spectacle — a spectacle that really kicks into high gear this Friday with the presidential inauguration. Not only will the new POTUS swear in, but all the Country’s highest offices will be filled. It’s a daunting prospect, and to feel a little anxious about it is only normal. But if your anxiety is snowballing into panic, we have a solution:
Bill Murray.

He’s the human embodiment of a mental “Happy Place”, and there’s really no problem he can’t solve. So, with that in mind, how about we all set aside reality for a moment and let Bill take the pain away by imagining a top-shelf White House cabinet filled exclusively by his signature characters. Here are a few hypothetical appointments for your consideration…

Secretary of Defense:
Bill Murray from Stripes

His incompetence is balanced by charm, and dumb luck is inexplicably on his side. America could do worse.

Secretary of State:
Bill Murray from Lost In Translation

A seasoned globetrotter steeped in regional traditions who has the respect of the whole wide world. And he kills Costello in karaoke, which is very important.

Press Secretary:
Bill Murray from Ghostbusters

“Cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria.” Dude knows how to brief a room.

Secretary of Health and Human Services:
Bill Murray from What About Bob.

A doctor-approved people person who knows that progress is measured in baby steps.

Secretary of Energy:
Bill Murray from Groundhog Day

Let’s be honest, this world is going to need a lot of do-overs.

Feeling better? Hold on to that bliss. And enjoy a healthy alternative to the inauguration brouhaha with multiple Murrays all Friday long in an IFC movie marathon including Kingpin, Zombieland, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II.

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Home Run

Hank Azaria Gets Thrown A Curve Ball

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Unless you’ve somehow missed every episode of the Simpsons since 1989, then surely you know that Hank Azaria is one of the most important character actors of our time. He’s so prolific and his voice is so dynamic that he’s responsible for more iconic personalities than most folks realize. Basically, he’s the great and powerful Oz — except that when you pull back the curtain the truth is actually more impressive. And now Hank is coming to IFC to bring yet another character to the TV pop culture hive mind in the new series Brockmire. Check out the trailer below.

Based on the following Funny or Die short and co-starring Amanda Peet, Brockmire follows the story of imploded major league sportscaster Jim Brockmire as he tries to resurrect his career by calling plays for a floundering minor league team in a podunk town.

The series is written by Joel Church-Cooper (Undateable) and produced by Funny or Die’s Mike Farah and Joe Farrell, meaning that there’s funny in front of the camera, funny behind the camera–funny all around. Sounds like a ball to us.

Brockmire premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Car Notes

Portlandia On People Who Can’t Park

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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If flagrant bad parking takes nerve, then retaliatory note writing takes neuroses. Watch Fred and Carrie take passive aggression to next level in Car Notes, the new Portlandia web series presented by Subaru. The first episode is yours right here and now, and you can see every installment of Car Notes anytime online, on the IFC app and on demand.

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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