Forget big budget CGI - these are the best Hollywood effects
With Eid-al-Fitr on the horizon, the city’s cinemas will be unleashing a cascade of blockbusters after a month of relatively obscure releases. As we await the daring action sequences in next week’s Captain America, impressive CGI in Rise of the Planet of the Apes on September 8 and clash of genres in Cowboys and Aliens on September 15, we look at cinema history’s most impressive special effects.
5 King Kong (1933) Question: How do you make audiences care about a giant, enraged ape that’s marauding around New York City? Answer: You get Willis O’Brien to bring him to life. The stop-motion animator turned the four Kong models – notably the 24-inch one used for the Gotham scenes – into objects with as much personality as the film’s human protagonists. When you watch Kong, you don’t see a concoction of rabbit fur, foam rubber, aluminium and latex; you see a creature capable of sorrow, anger, chivalry, curiosity and, yes, love. O’Brien’s work here inspired a generation of future FX artists, though the pioneering animator never topped the heights he reached with Kong – nor, for that matter, has anyone else. DF
4 Alien (1979) Is this the most shocking effect of all time? Creature features had always relied on monsters, teeth and buckets of blood, but never before had the scare sprung from a major character’s pregnant body – all the more terrible for being a man’s (poor John Hurt). Conceptually, the idea was explosive, scorching terrain. Turning it into reality was the job of morbid Swiss artist HR Giger, who designed the ‘chest-burster’ prop, along with adult versions of the alien. The stick-mounted puppet was then anchored in a prosthetic torso filled with pressurised squibs. Hurt was partially hidden under the table. The other actors were kept in the dark about what was going happen; those shrieks are real. JR
3 An American Werewolf In London (1981) Transformations are probably the first goal of any aspiring make-up artist hoping to scare up a reputation. No werewolf, though, has enjoyed as loving a birth as the one designed by Rick Baker for John Landis’s well-received horror-comedy. Bristly hairs sprout through foam-moulded skin, snout and paws elongate via ingenious robotic propwork and, most troublingly, vertebrae realign with a sickening thunk. Tempting disaster, the whole sequence takes place in a well-lit living room, allowing for zero departure from realism. Viewers were stunned and the Oscars had to take note, creating an entire category, Best Make-up, for Baker to win. JR
2 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Its tagline promised ‘the ultimate trip,’ and thanks to an amazing interstellar-overdrive finale, Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opus kept its word. Viewers are treated to a hyperspace ride through pulsing lights, swirling nebulae and cosmic debris that was unlike anything seen on screen before. Award-winning special-effects maestro Douglas Trumbull utilised a slew of techniques to achieve this stunning sequence, from the low-tech (dropping paint into black water) to the advanced (shooting slit-scan images inside rotating drums). Though 2001… contains a host of other FX innovations (Kubrick’s use of front projection; those miniature spaceships), it’s Trumbull’s ‘Star Gate’ climax that remains the movie’s mind-blowing pinnacle. David Fear
1 A Trip To The Moon (1902) We go way back – more than a century – to reach to the pinnacle of special effects: the first science-fiction film (pictured above). Any attention we can throw to Georges Méliès’s 14-minute silent flick, a masterly bonbon of mysterious loveliness, we will (Martin Scorsese will be doing his part to right the historical record in this fall’s Hugo, a kids’ adventure rooted in the real-life story of Méliès). The filmmaker’s pioneering effects included double exposure, forced perspective seemingly spanning thousands of miles, and dreamlike prop work. You can YouTube it; go in with an open mind. The vibe isn’t realism, but rather the giddy kick of an unhinged bedtime story. Which is exactly what the best special effects do: turn us, once again, into agog children. Joshua Rothkopf