Vintage special effects are among my favorite things to watch. I enjoy not only seeing them in movies but also breaking them down and learning how they were pulled off. In their latest video, folks at Film Riot break down the special effects from nine iconic movies, from 1901 The Man with the Rubber Head to 1993 The Fugitive.
The Man with the Rubber Head (1901)
The Man with the Rubber Head is a 1901 movie made by “the father of special effects” Georges Méliès. He’s also the filmmaker behind the iconic Journey to the Moon. To shoot the head-increasing scene from The Man with the Rubber Head, he used the simple multiple exposure technique. He shot the scene, rewound the film in camera, and run it again, exposing the film a second time and including a new element: his head.
There was only one shot to get everything right, but the black background helped immensely to get the clean shot. And when you think about the fact that zoom lenses hadn’t been invented yet, the head-increasing shot seems even cooler, because it looks as it was zoomed in.
San Francisco (1936)
Shot in 1936 San Francisco is considered to be the first big-budget disaster movie. And honestly, that earthquake scene still looks impressive today! The movie was shot on the MGM sound stages, using a mixture of miniatures, rear projection, and matte paintings. There were also some large-scale effects, like the set that was built on top of hydraulic rams so it could be shaken.
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The twin scene from 1942 The Palm Beach Story is “a bit of a cheat,” as Ryan describes it because no one actually knows how they pulled it off! It likely was some kind of a split screen, judging from tiny imperfections in the frame. But even the VFX expert Tom Vaziri doesn’t have the answer, as he pointed out in his Twitter thread.
That's Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea and duplicate versions of Colbert and McCrea in the same shot (they're two sets of twins in the movie).
This is one of the most impressive visual effects shots of its time–and no documentation of how it was accomplished exists. pic.twitter.com/8PwIIkJZrt
— Todd Vaziri (@tvaziri) January 20, 2022
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
At first glance, the trippy space effect from 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey looks like it was done with a set of mirrors and a screen with various visuals. But that’s not even close, actually. Created by Douglas Trumbull, it’s called a slit-scan effect and it’s way more complicated than it may seem. Trumbull built an entire machine for the effect to create the 3D feel. The machine would have the camera placed on it, moving slowly toward a black wall with a slit in it. Behind the slit, there was a large, backlit piece of art, also moving to one side. The camera had its shutter removed, so this was basically a long-exposure shot creating light streaks.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining features a scene of Jack Nicholson looking down at a maze model and seeing Wendy and Danny walking in its center. It’s actually relatively simple how this was pulled off. They recreated only the center of the maze, took it out to the parking lot of a hotel, and shot it so it seemed as if it was viewed from Nicholson’s perspective. They shot the miniature maze from the same perspective and composed the shot of its human-sized center. Simple and genius.
Escape from New York (1981)
John Carpenter’s team came up with a simple, cheap, yet effective solution to create a virtual map of New York for Escape from New York. It’s worth noting that computer animation was a thing, but it was still super-expensive and impossible to count on for low-budget movies. So, John Wash built a miniature of the city with everything painted black, only the edges painted white. Some say that the lines were actually made from reflective tape, but either way: they reflected the light and achieved the look that the director wanted.
The Abyss (1989)
The sequence from The Abyss looks brilliant even by today’s standards. Ryan explains that it was shot “dry for wet,” meaning they shot it in a dry environment, filling the studio with smoke to give the look of being underwater. They shot miniature submarines and used motion control to move them slowly through the room. But how come the actors look so real? This is the genius part: the miniatures had small projectors built-in, showing the rear projection of the actors from inside. Brilliant!
Terminator 2 (1991)
One of many epic scenes from Terminator 2 shows Sarah and John opening Terminator’s head in front of a mirror. But there’s no mirror. The “reflection” is actually real Arnold in another room with an opening made to look like a mirror. Doppelganger actors were used to make the illusion work (in this case, Linda Hamilton’s twin sister). And of course, the “real” Arnold in the shot is just a dummy. It’s a trick that’s been used a lot, it’s pretty simple, but genius.
The Fugitive (1993)
The tense train wreck from The Fugitive is, well, a real train wreck. Not many special effects here. It took 10 weeks to plan everything, and the team filmed everything in stages. They placed 27 cameras in different locations along the train’s path, and they only had one take per stage of the scene. But of course, the scene when Dr. Kimble off a train was composited. It’s obvious by today’s standards, but at the time – the entire scene was groundbreaking.
Do you have any favorite classic movies and scenes with special effects? Do you know how they were pulled off?