The 4 Coolest Movie Special Effects Ever Made Without CGI

Gravity Jog - 2001: A Space Odyssey

Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

In today’s modern movie making industry, special effects are used for everything. They are all over the place, both for small details or mistakes that need to be edited out, and for entire settings and even characters. Two perfect examples from recent history are Gravity with Sandra Bullock and Avatar. Bullock had to act through almost the entirety of the film on a green screen, pretending to be hurtling through space. And half of the characters in Avatar are themselves a digital creation, and a great deal of the natural world was artistically rendered using computer animation. These two examples are more proof that digital effects aren’t always negative, than a critique of the overuse of CGI, but the fact remains that some of the coolest film effects ever seen in movies were before the invention of CGI, or refused to resort to that particular solution to wild visual effect needs.

This sort of creative problem solving when it comes to special effects is so rare and unique that it often is far more effective than digital manipulation ever could be. One way to look at it is to consider Star Wars — or as Tracy Jordan from 30 Rock would say, “explain it to me in Star Wars!” — and the change from the stop motion models of creatures like the Tauntaun in earlier films to the creepier and markedly less lovable creations like the animated Kaminoan in the more recent Clone Wars.  Let’s take a look at films that have gone above and beyond the usual computer animation budget to create a unique series of effects.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

This classic film was marketed in part for its acid-like special effects when it came out in theaters, released under the tag-line “The ultimate trip.” The entire film has an interesting style to it, and there was a great deal of creative set design required to get certain weightless scenes in space. But perhaps the most impressive innovation was done at the end of the film when the main character is sucked into a wild and colorful ride through a hole in space. Some of the scenery is landscape with color editing but some of it is video recording of mixtures or reactions under a microscope.

2. The Fountain

The Fountain does something similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, creating unique visuals with size manipulation. In order to create some of the intended effects in the film, Peter Parks, a macrophotographer and marine biologist used materials such as baby oil, yeast, and curry powder

The studio gave Darren (Aronofsky, director) a really hard time. Nobody believed he could make this film without CGI. The studio thought he was crazy,” said Parks, according to NoFilmSchool. Parks put together video of chemical reactions in petri dishes in order to represent space, similar to what 2001 did, but also splicing that footage together with carefully constructed sets with incredible detail.

3. The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life has a very different storyline in comparison with The Fountain and 2001: A Space Odyssey in that it focuses on a young man’s growth into adulthood and his perception of the world as influenced by his parent’s views and his own existential crisis. Unlike the others, The Tree of Life still utilized a great deal of creative film-making. In particular, shots were taken using water to distort or change views.

There were a lot of experiments in water tanks, different kinds of turbulence tanks that I would design; lighting effects in tanks; combinations of dyes and liquids, paints and a lot of milk and half and half. It’s the way I like to work,” said filmmaker Doug Trumbull, according to “When we first spoke, Terry (Director Terrence Malick) was frustrated that even some of the best super computers in the world that were doing galaxy and Black Hole simulations tended to look a little synthetic. [Malick] said to me, ‘I don’t like CG.’ I said, ‘Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?'”

4. Tron

The film, released in 1982, was unique in how it dealt with color and film. Like other alternate methods for animating and adding dimension to the visuals of a movie, the strategy employed by the creators of Tron took a great deal more time and effort than they could have to make the movie into the masterpiece that it was. The movie, shot in black and white in parts, was then edited on the film itself by hand to add in colors to the characters. Some of the movie’s special effects were done with CGI, but this attention to detail is part of what makes the movie so unique — and its followers so disappointing and bland.

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