What Great Movies Look Like Without Special Effects

Hollywood blockbusters have become increasingly
reliant on visual effects over the past few decades, and recent advances in technology
have made it so feats in VFX work that were considered impossible just a few years ago
are now well within reach. More and more studios are using CGI in films,
mostly because it’s often cheaper than the alternative. In fact, many modern blockbusters are covered
in so many digital layers that the original footage looks unrecognizable—and more often
than not, completely ridiculous. Here’s what these movies really looked like
before special effects were added. 300: Rise of an Empire
Zack Snyder’s 300 made heavy use of CGI, and the technology used to create it had advanced
immensely by the time its sequel, Rise of an Empire, came around. Which, of course, meant squeezing every ounce
of that tech into the movie. Director Noam Murro told Forbes:
“It’s amazing how the tools available eight years later continue to develop. A major difference is CGI and the ability
to create things in post that are convincing and complex and three-dimensional. The idea of creating a water movie without
a drop of water on the set is remarkable.” The filmmaker also revealed they relied on
some of the same techniques used in the Oscar-winning CGI blockbuster Gravity. Elysium Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his acclaimed
debut District 9 didn’t exactly go as planned, despite the star power of Matt Damon. The blockbuster sci-fi film cost a whopping
$115 million to make, but only returned $93 million at the domestic box office. But while Blomkamp took full responsibility
for the film’s failings, the South African director didn’t have any complaints about
the special effects team, which had to put together over three times as many VFX shots
as they had for District 9. Jurassic World When Steven Spielberg decided to adapt Michael
Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, CGI as we know it today didn’t really exist. Spielberg brought on Industrial Light and
Magic and tasked them with creating living, breathing dinosaurs using computer-generated
graphics, and their efforts proved revolutionary. Of course, it wasn’t just CGI that brought
the inhabitants of Jurassic Park to life. There were a number of practical effects used
too, and ILM mixed it up in the same way for Jurassic World. The fourth film in the franchise used detailed
white casts of dinosaur heads that would later be layered with CGI for close-up shots, and
they used actors in motion capture suits to make sure their movement seemed real. VFX supervisor Tim Alexander told Below the
Line: “It gave us a new natural look for the animation. We ended up casting a person to give us a
consistency in the performance. There were individual people being that raptor. We had suits that they would put on with a
tail.” Mad Max: Fury Road When George Miller returned to the world of
Mad Max with his critically acclaimed Fury Road in 2015, audiences were blown away by
the sequel’s frenetic pace and visceral action—much of which was achieved through the hard work
of inventive mechanics who built the vehicles used in the movie from scratch. The chase scenes were all shot for real, but
the final product wouldn’t have looked anywhere near as eye-popping if it weren’t for the
VFX team. Led by supervisor Andrew Jackson, hundreds
of CGI artists enhanced over 2000 shots in Fury Road, from adding characters to creating
an epic toxic storm. The Avengers When Earth’s Mightiest Heroes teamed up on
the big screen in 2012, the stakes were high for Marvel Studios and their team of visual
effects artists. Jeff White, the film’s VFX supervisor, told
MTV: “With Avengers, there were so many things
to get right. We created a lot of New York City for the
film and needed to build flying shots of Iron Man all from photography. We had to build a new Iron Man suit—the
Mark VII—and Stark Tower. We had to build the alien race. When you add all of those things up, there
are quite a few challenges there.” Green screens were used during most of the
film’s action sequences, so the cast spent a good chunk of time reacting to invisible
threats and taking cover from fake explosions. The biggest hurdle they faced was inserting
the Hulk into group situations. White explained:
“We wanted it to feel very natural when he’s sitting in that circle of Avengers. We spent a lot of time working on his skin
and his hair and his teeth, just to make sure that all of that was believable.” Man of Steel To create the illusion of flight, Richard
Donner’s Superman employed wire rigs to hang leading man Christopher Reeve in front of
different projected backgrounds. The film is a classic, and the effects looked
great in the ’70s, but watching it today it feels as though you’re flying with Superman
as opposed to him flying past you—something Man of Steel director Zack Snyder wanted to
avoid when he set out to make Superman soar. Snyder decided to use a handheld approach
to filming Clark’s flying scenes, which meant adding in most of the effects in post. Wire rigs and gimbals were used to suspend
Henry Cavill in front of green screens, and the CGI team did the rest. Iron Man 3 When the first Iron Man movie dropped in 2008,
director Jon Favreau wasn’t known for CGI-heavy features, but advances in technology had convinced
him to change his stance. “I’ve always steered away from using visual
effects whenever possible… That being said, in the last few years there
have been a lot of wonderful visual effects movies where it’s beginning to become seamless
even to me.” Favreau returned for the sequel, but Shane
Black took the reins for Iron Man 3, which contained some of the most challenging visual
effects yet. Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige explained:
“We wanted the ability to be able to suit up anywhere, anyhow, without a giant gantry.” The answer was having Tony Stark design outlets
he injects just below the skin, not unlike the comics, allowing him to call the Iron
Man suit from anywhere. To pull off the effect, each individual piece
had to be digitally added to Robert Downey Jr.’s body after the fact. Spider-Man: Homecoming Years of gymnastics training really paid off
for Tom Holland on the set of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the character’s eagerly anticipated
introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even with the advances in CGI in recent years,
it helps to have an actor who feels comfortable jumping around in tights and doesn’t mind
hanging around on wires all day long. This was the case with the film’s Washington
Monument scene—but while that was indeed Holland under the Spidey mask, the monument
itself was a fake, erected on a studio sound stage. “We couldn’t film at the real Washington Monument,
but we built very impressive, very large chunks of the monument for filming.” Holland got up the structure with the aid
of a wire rig, though even with his background it was far from a walk in the park. “We did two weeks and every single shot was
upside down. And my head just took a pounding, man, from
all the blood that was rushing to it.” The Jungle Book The CGI Jon Favreau used for Iron Man was
nothing compared to what he did for his 2016 live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. To create an entire jungle around a human
actor, they needed to pull out all the stops. The lighting was particularly difficult. The director explained:
“It’s very hard to fake light and shadow. So everything became about using panels of
LEDs to project light so if we had the kid bowing before the elephants, you have panels
where we actually would pre-animate the elephants and they would cast the shadows on the kid
in the exact right way.” This meant that 12-year-old star Neel Sethi
had to imagine the animals he was interacting with, though Favreau was on hand to make the
experience as real as possible for the young actor via puppets and actors in blue suits. RoboCop Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop got the most out
of the special effects available in the ’80s, using a combination of stop-motion and prosthetic
builds to create a movie that was disturbingly realistic at times. In the 2014 reboot, Murphy gets his injuries
in an explosion that was created digitally, but the suit he dons afterward was actually
real. “And there was a philosophy from the start
that we were going to have a head-to-toe suit.” The challenge was building a suit that was
mobile and easy for the digital department to add onto. The Martian Ridley Scott is no stranger to special effects,
but creating the red planet onscreen for The Martian may have been his biggest challenge
as a director. While some practical effects were used, a
huge amount of digital work was required to give The Martian Scott’s desired look. VFX supervisor Anders Langlands told Gizmodo:
“[Ridley Scott] is famous for doing his little sketches which are sort of really cool Ridley-grams. We’d ask ‘What do you want the background
mountains to look like in this shot?’ And he’d sketch out a little diagram of what
they wanted. So you just literally match that and he’d
be happy.” A lot of time was spent finding the right
hue for the skies and arid landscapes of Mars, though in the end it was a simple thing that
caused the VFX team the most problems: the helmet visors. “But of course glass visors would reflect
the crew, and the lights, and the sound stage, so all the helmet visors you see in the film
are actually added in digitally.” Suicide Squad David Ayer’s anti-hero ensemble Suicide Squad
definitely had its flaws, but few of those were the fault of the many visual effects
houses—18 companies in total—that worked tirelessly on it. Imageworks were the ones who handled the Squad’s
final battle with Enchantress, and the movie’s villain proved to be a huge challenge, according
to VFX supervisor Mark Breakspear. He told ARTofVFX:
“Enchantress was a unique challenge as the actress had been shot without a costume as
we had to add it in later to allow it to behave in a way that normal cloth or materials couldn’t.” Breakspear later told AWN that of the 300
shots they enhanced for the film’s third act, dealing with the Enchantress’ tattoos proved
the most difficult. “That was amazingly tricky to make sure it
looked like skin, but also had the translucency that we needed to see the sub-surface tattoos.” The Wolf of Wall Street
Watching Martin Scorsese’s ode to excess The Wolf of Wall Street, the only scenes that
stick out as being possibly computer-generated are the one during which Jordan Belfort’s
yacht sinks and the one when a lion wanders freely through his office. But a visual effects reel released by Brainstorm
Digital revealed that some of the most basic shots in the movie were rendered with CGI. From sun loungers to tennis courts, Brainstorm
made plenty of subtle touches to bring the film in line with the director’s vision. VFX producer Mark Russell told Digital Arts:
“Working with Martin Scorsese, everything is about propelling a story forward and contributing
to the film. I feel that with his movies, there’s a kind
of stylized realism to them that we have to integrate with.” San Andreas
The amount of destruction on show in this Dwayne Johnson-led blockbuster definitely
doesn’t come cheap, but San Andreas actually cost a lot less to make than many of the big
natural disaster flicks that came before it. According to Variety, the production budget
was only $114 million—roughly half the amount needed to bring Roland Emmerich’s 2012 to
the big screen. The film’s visual effects supervisor, Colin
Strause, was able to keep costs down by employing practical solutions to problems that most
visual effects companies would solve with only computers today. As he explained it:
“You can make a $100 million movie look like a $200 million movie. You can make movies way smarter. CG for the sake of CG is always a mistake.” They still had their work cut out for them,
though. Seven different companies worked together
to render 1,300 VFX shots for the movie. Thanks for watching! Click the Looper icon to subscribe to our
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