As I’ve written before, CGI is underrated. It’s allowed filmmakers to make us believe unbelievable stories about city-destroying aliens, shapeshifting terminators, and psychadelic racecar drivers. While movies like Tron and The Last Starfighter are laughable today, the ones that followed them have ushered in a new era for the medium.
That said, it’s always stunning to consider what people were able to accomplish when their only option was to get real things in front of a camera somehow. That’s what this post is about today. The action setpieces that were made with real things in front of real cameras, with no compromise allowed.
Though I’ve messed around with a view different special effects methods, I by no means consider myself any sort of guru. Thus, the following list is not meant to show the “best” pre-CGI set pieces, but rather my favorites.
Squid Attack – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
What with the frequency that the Kraken seems to show up in movies nowadays, you’d think digging up a giant squid attack from the 1950s would be an exercise in futility. But I’d submit that this seaborn monstrosity actually rivals the ones we’ve seen in more recent flicks like Dead Man’s Chest:
Yikes. I mean, it’s not perfect, but this is an impressive sequence — and NOT just for 1954.
You know, this scene shares a trick with what is probably the most famous visual effects sequence of all time: The T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park. Both use rain and darkness to mask any defects that the visual effects of the day couldn’t account for. Want to see how big a difference it makes? Look at this early version of the scene that takes place in broad daylight, where the squid seems to be approaching the Nautilus as if groggily looking for its glasses after a nap:
Thank goodness they reshot that.
Spinners in flight – Blade Runner
As crucial as it is to hide the parts of visual effects that don’t work, it might be even more important to make sure that the images onscreen are compelling in the first place. Brilliant production design can add an impressive amount of visual fidelity to a visual effect. Nowhere is this better shown than in Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner.
Blade Runner is one of those movies that’s still being mined for inspiration thirty years later, yet has never truly been equaled. Around every corner you’ll find a new bit of future culture, a new building or vehicle or costume to admire. My personal favorite? The “spinners.” Never before or since have flying cars looked so cool:
It’s so hard for futuristic cities to really look believable, but Blade Runner looks more “lived-in” than a lot of real ones. The visual effects perfectly capture the scale and futuristic look of the metropolis, while still retaining that ever-so-human scruffiness we all know it would have.
And if you’ll permit me to cheat a little bit on this entry — because there are a few scenes in Blade Runner that show off these iconic creations — here’s another great spinner sequence (this time, from the workprint version):