1. The skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, 1963
The four-minute skeleton fight, orchestrated by special effects genius Ray Harryhausen, took over four and a half months to shoot via stop-motion animation. Harryhausen also rear-projected footage of the actual actors (who, when filming, were basically battling air behind the animation) and then combined the shots to make a realistic (and scary) skeleton-argonaut battle.
2. The parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, 1956
How do you PART A SEA before the era of CGI (and with the lack of divine assistance)? Cecil B. DeMille filmed two large “dump tanks” being flooded with water, then spun the film in reverse. The two frothing walls of water were created by water dumped constantly into “catch basin areas”; the churning water images were then flipped sideways to make the walls of water. A gelatin substance was also added to the water in the tanks to give it more of a seawater consistency.
Fun fact: A portion of the tank still exists today on the Paramount lot. It can still be flooded for water scenes, but when not being used in a production, it is an extension of a parking lot.
3. The ape in King Kong, 1933
Kong was actually an 18 inch high, poseable model, covered with rabbit hair, that was filmed one frame at a time by stop-motion photography artist Willis O’Brien and his crew. The producers filmed Kong and Fay Wray, who played the ape’s victim, Ann Darrow, separately. They then projected the two films together to create the effect of Fay Wray right there with Kong.
4. The werewolf transformation in American Werewolf in London, 1981
Rick Baker’s legendary transformation scene is created entirely through a combination of prosthetics and robotics. For the section where the long wolf hair seems to be crawling out of his skin, the process was actually filmed in reverse. A fake patch of skin was made, and the hairs drawn into it. For the full body shots where he is seemingly stretching out over the carpet, David Naughton, the actor, is mostly under a false floor; a dummy wolf body makes up the rest of him from the torso down. His facial transformation included two robotic skulls.
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5. The tornado in The Wizard of Oz, 1939
The scary twister was actually a huge silk stocking filled with sand and twisted by a blowing fan on a miniature set that replicated a Kansas farm. However, some shots of the tornado at a far distance used actual tornado footage.
6. The landing of the Delorean in Back to the Future Part 2, 1989
Director Robert Zemeckis used a streetlight to hide the transition between tiny model car and actual car, and considering how hard it must have been to perfect all the shadows and lighting detail, the effect is quite stunning.
7. The body-journeying scenes in Fantastic Voyage, 1966
This science-fiction classic won the year’s Academy Award for Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects. The story of miniaturized human beings voyaging into the bloodstream of a human body, it was created using a real-size high-tech military submarine that was shrunk to microbial dimensions on film. The interior of the body was created by using large, highly-detailed sets of various body parts (i.e., the brain, the heart). Actors were suspended on wires explorers to journey through the body.
8. The chest-bursting scene in Alien, 1979
Alien is still best-known for the shocking special effects scene in which actor John Hurt had a bloody alien explode through his white t-shirt and terrorize everyone in the room. The trick shot required a fiberglass chest piece placed over Hurt, tubes to squirt fake blood, a single hand puppet for the alien, and wires to help the alien zoom across the table.
9. The UFO landing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977
Spielberg’s film used a 400 lb. fiber-glass model that was four feet high and five feet wide to create the famous landing scene. The UFO model was wired and lighted by fiber optics, incandescent bulbs and neon tubes.
10. The Nazi face melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981
The gristly melting scene used prosthetic face and head masks made out of gelatin, which were then actually melted. The layers in the masks were designed to melt in a certain way to create the gruesome effects.
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11. The spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
Stanley Kubrick’s futuristic masterpiece included a 30-ton rotating “ferris wheel” set built a British aircraft company at a cost of $750,000. Using centripetal force to mimic the effects of zero gravity, the set rotated at a speed of three miles per hour. The actors would stand at the bottom and walk in place, while the set rotated around them. Chairs, desks, and control panels were all firmly bolted to the inside surface.
Read more here.
12. The Death Star explosion in Star Wars, 1977
George Lucas’ trilogy was famous for changing special effects forever, and while the Death Star explosion in Return of the Jedi might be more technically advanced, the one from the 1977 film remains the most iconic. Lucas originally planned to animate the explosion, but instead filmed the scene with an innovative motion-controlled camera — its first use. The camera was placed on the floor, and a cardboard box filled with black powder (sulfur, potassium nitrate and charcoal) and titanium shavings was hung from the ceiling above. When the powder mixture was ignited, the resulting explosion propelled debris toward the camera, as if it were traveling through the vacuum of space.