An Ode to Practical Effects

Did you just spend three hours of your weekend in James Cameron’s motion-capture paradise of Pandora? Or maybe you’ve just bought tickets for Antman: Green-Screen Mania? It’s hard not to feel a little fatigued by all the virtual effects and CGI when everywhere from Gotham to Coronation Street is now on the 20-foot LED screens of ILM’s ‘The Volume’. So, if you’re in need of a little digital break and a reminder of just how great practical effects can be, here’s a list of some of the best physical sets, prosthetics and special effects cinema has to offer.

Warning for spoilers!

 An American Werewolf in London (1981) dir. John Landis

Landis’ 1981 dark comedy about an American backpacker’s fateful encounter with a werewolf is funny, terrifying and tragic all in equal measure. Rick Baker’s blood curdling and Oscar-winning prosthetics and makeup still have the hairs standing up on the back of your neck 40 years later and it’s hard not to recoil from the look of Jack’s slowly decaying body as we watch him go from a dripping, bloody pulp to skeletal, rotting corpse, with every stage in between. But of course, it’s David’s first moonlit transformation that makes for the film’s stand out moment. CGI might have made for a smoother transition from man to wolf, but it’s the physicality of the scene that really sells the horror. The stretching skin, cracking bones and close ups of sprouting dark hair are interspersed with David’s desperate and agonised expression as his gentle face slowly disappears into the heavy prosthetics. It’s strange, messy, and unsettlingly believable.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) dir. Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell

Perhaps not the film you were expecting to find on a special effects film list but hear me out. A delicate romance from technicolour greats Powell and Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death follows an RAF pilot who, after miraculously surviving the gunning down of his plane, finds himself fighting to stay out of Heaven and stay with the love of his life. In two of the film’s most pivotal scenes, we see the colossal escalating staircase to ‘The Other World.’ Made up of 106 20-foot-wide stairs, the 12-horsepower engine required for the set was so loud that the dialogue in the scenes had to be dubbed afterwards but the effect is well worth the effort. The set is solid and tangible, dominating the screen with foreboding, grey stone. The idea of Heaven should be comforting but the image of the infinite, moving staircase underscored with the sinister soundtrack of the piano makes the concept of rising to ‘The Other World’ as disconcerting for us as it is for our hero. Something about the rumbling, jolting mechanics of the physical staircase dwarfing the tiny forms of Peter, June and the Conductor creates the perfect thrum of tension in the otherwise gentle story.

The Thing (1982) dir. John Carpenter

The very definition of a cult classic, John Carpenter’s Antarctic locked-room horror is pretty spartan in all aspects with its small cast and restrained, nihilistic script, but its practical effects are as outrageous as they are brilliantly grim. Rob Bottin’s work on the film saw him using everything from microwaved bubble-gum to mayonnaise to achieve the various forms of the Thing, with each iteration of the shapeshifter being more gory than the last. The crawling, arachnid head of Norris and the unctuous, whipping tentacles of the Thing’s first transformation might be the most famous, but the real stomach-turning moments come when the line between Thing and human blur a little too close together. The autopsies and the half-transformation of Bennings find the perfect balance between the makeup and the human elements underneath. Not one for the squeamish, but a must for fans of horror in its most gruesome element.

Metropolis (1927) dir. Fritz Lang

A groundbreaker in every sense of the word, the science-fiction dystopia is an almost unimaginable feat of 1920s filmmaking. Set in a brutal vision of capitalist 2027 (try not to think too hard about that bit), the scale of Lang’s vision is a breathtaking blend of the futuristic, the industrial and the surreal. The centre of Metropolis, inspired by Lang’s own trips to New York, was created using a miniature of the city which was then used mirrors to create the effect that actors were actually occupying the tiny space. The Shufftan process, named for the film’s own effects expert, would go on to be used by Hitchcock and even by Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings. It’s Metropolis’ Machine Man that makes for the film’s magnum opus. The false-Maria’s mechanical form is iconic for good reason, managing to be both imposing and alluring despite the full body ‘plastic wood’ suit. The transference scene where the Machine Man is replaced with the wide-eyed new Maria, lit with rings of gas-filled glass illuminated with electricity, is transfixing to say the least.

Pacific Rim (2013) dir. Guillermo del Toro

 All of Guillermo del Toro’s filmography shines with lovingly crafted sets and prosthetics, but the monster maestro’s films are also perfect examples of finding the balance between the practical and computer generated. Pacific Rim got a bit lost in the action blockbuster craze of the 2010s but the robot vs alien epic is imbued with del Toro’s signature thoughtfulness and care. The grand battles might be CGI, but the interiors of the Jaegers and details on the Kaiju, like their surprisingly adorable parasites, were all created physically. The Jaeger bridges were built in all of their rusting, mechanical glory as fully articulated set pieces, and watching our heroes actually strain and push against the weight of the machine as they move⁠—sparks flying and lights flashing across their polished armoured suits—is an image motion-capture would struggle to replicate. Certainly not del Toro’s most revered or Oscar-worthy but a joy (and one of the writer’s all-time favourites) all the same, Pacific Rim feels like a reminder of how good popcorn blockbusters can be with a bit more time and care.

Tilly Holt [she/her]

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