Five scenes you'll never believe aren't CGI
Hopefully everyone realised that the outer space shots in Gravity, realistic as they looked, were the work of some impressive computer generation. But it’s not always so obvious. Some of the most mind blowing, unbelievable scenes in film were actually created by clever in-camera trickery. Or in the case of Christopher Nolan, by just actually doing the real thing. Here’s our list of some of the most unbelievable film shots that you’ll never believe weren’t CGI.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
In a deleted scene from Terminator 2: Judgement Day the Terminator’s scalp is peeled back to access the CPU in his head. Now the Governor of California isn’t actually a disguised robot, working its way up the American political system in an evil plan to enslave humanity... Right?
So how was it done?
Terminator 2 Judgment Day - CPU Reset Extended... by conscience-tranquille
We’ll give you a clue - that’s not a real mirror. In a classic trick also used in Sucker Punch, a window with the actor on the other side is used to create the appearance of a reflection. The sliced open head in the foreground is, reassuringly, animatronic.
But hold up just one second. There are two Sarah Connors in the shot too, and unless 90’s animatronics had enhanced far beyond the level we realised, neither of them is a puppet. And it’s not like Hamilton just happened to have an identical twin hanging around is it?
Well yes actually. That reflection is Leslie Hamilton Gearren, Linda’s identical twin, perfectly mirroring her sister’s movements.
Now that’s ingenious.
The Lord of the Rings VFX team created legions of CGI orcs, a flaming CGI Balrog, and the incredibly lifelike CGI Gollum. So making a bunch of actors a little bit smaller doesn’t really strike you as that impressive. After all that, digitally shrinking Elijah Wood seems like a doddle. But many of the sizing effects throughout the film were actually done in camera, using a range of complex technical tricks - such as having the hobbit actors kneel down.
The niftiest device though was the use of forced perspective - the same trick as when you place your hand close to the camera lens and pretend to be picking up a building. In Lord of the Rings they used a telephoto lens with a very small aperture to get a long depth of field, so both characters are in focus. Slightly more technical than messing around with your cameraphone but still pretty old-school
The Dark Knight
Other directors use clever trickery to create the appearance of the impossible. Christopher Nolan doesn’t know the meaning of the word. That 18-wheeler flipping over in the streets of Gotham for The Dark Knight? He actually flipped it. Not a scaled down model - that would be cheating - an honest to god, full size, 11-ton truck. Just in case you’re not registering how insane that is, watch the scene again here.
SFX supervisor Chris Corbould explains how he attached a nitrogen air-ram capable of 210 tons of force to the underside of the truck, had a stuntman drive said truck through the streets of Chicago at 22 mph, then set off the air-ram. With the stuntman still inside. Still don’t believe us? You can watch the un-edited rehearsal here.
The model-making department on Independence Day created more than twice as many miniature buildings as had ever been built for a film before, and the wall of flames rolling through a miniature New York created one of the most impressive scenes in the movie. All the more effective at a time before we became inured to computer generated scenes of citywide destruction.
Now we’re no physicists, but we’re pretty sure flames go up. Not sideways. To achieve the effect of a wall of fire rolling through the city, the VFX team simply turned their model vertical, lit a charges at the bottom and recorded it with cameras at the top. Simples
At the time it came out the CGI in Jurassic Park was so well done it almost made you believe that those were real physical dinosaurs trying to bite Jeff Goldblum's head off. And that’s because they were. Ok not real living dinosaurs exactly, but an incredibly clever combination of animatronics and people wearing raptor suits. (And voila we’ve just found the world’s best Halloween costume.)