As The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug hits the big screens in Dubai this week in stunning 3D, we take a look back at five of the best special effects films of all time, via genre-defining werewolves to the first ever sci-fi.
The art of the moving image has entertained and delighted audiences for well over 100 years, and with the passing of time and recent digital developments, special effects in film has enabled viewers to suspend belief and enter a world of fantasy and imagination. Director Peter Jackson’s use of computer-generated imagery in this, the second in a trilogy of films adapted from Tolkien’s masterpiece The Hobbit, has created a stunning Middle Earth to marvel at.
In celebration of the staggering special effects artistry that graces our movie theatres today, we revisit some of the best behind-the-scenes wizardry through the decades.
5 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Peter Jackson’s massively popular fantasy trilogy has an eye-popping surfeit of special effects, but none is more impressive than Gollum, the diminutive creature with an insatiable lust for the One Ring. Gollum was created from footage of lithe actor Andy Serkis, who performed movements and dialogue on the set and in a motion-capture studio. Animators then used the material as a reference point to digitally mold the mythic villain around him. A CGI character with soul.
4 Jaws (1975)
The first mechanical shark they built sank like a stone in the water, the second one wouldn’t open its mouth, and the third one broke down with such alarming regularity that the movie was nearly scrapped. But once the star of Steven Spielberg’s definitive summer blockbuster – a 25-foot-long great white named Bruce, supposedly after the director’s lawyer – finally reared its toothy head, one could believe they were going to need a bigger boat. The creature that art designer Joe Alves and effects supervisor Bob Mattey came up with remains a doozy of a deep-sea stalker. Every phobia about oceanic predators had been rolled up into one fearsome beast. No matter how many times we’ve watched Jaws, that killer prop still makes us afraid to go back into the water.
3 Alien (1979)
Is this the most shocking effect in any movie? 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. Swiss artist HR Giger designed the chest-burster prop, along with adult versions of the soon-to-be-iconic alien. The stick-mounted puppet was anchored in a prosthetic torso filled with pressurised squibs.
2 An American Werewolf in London (1981)
No werewolf 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-molded 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 totally stunned as a result and the Oscars had to take note, creating an entire category, Best Make-up, for Baker to win.
1 A Trip to the Moon (1902)
We go back more than a century to reach the pinnacle of special effects: the very first science-fiction film and the forgotten repository of a worldwide spell of enchantment. Georges Mlis’s pioneering effects included double exposure, forced perspective seemingly spanning thousands of miles, animation and dreamlike prop work, all in a time before colour and sound. 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.