10 Techniques Used in Classic Films to Create Magical Realities

The topic of visual effects in movies has recently been a subject of complaint, and for good reason. We have become so accustomed to CGI and 3D graphics that their obvious inclusion often feels cheap. VFX artists themselves believe that a job is well done when people don’t notice or discuss the effects, which is unfortunate considering the amount of work put into them.

However, the past was a very different time. Despite our complaints about unrealistic CGI and effects, 3D graphics in the past were either unconvincing or nonexistent. Convincing effects during that time required a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief. Yet, these techniques have aged remarkably well and still look good even if they don’t look realistic. Let’s explore the ten most notable techniques today.

10 Puppets

Puppets in film aren’t usually associated with convincing special effects. However, puppets are actually much more versatile than we assume. While they have fallen out of favor with the rise of CGI, puppetry played a crucial role in creating iconic effects and characters in film history.

From Yoda in the original Star Wars trilogy to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and even the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, puppets have proven to be capable of achieving much more than what we usually associate them with. With skilled puppeteers, well-made puppets, and the physical presence they bring, the immersive and convincing effects they create are often underestimated.

9 Green/Blue Screen

Green screens, and later blue screens, have become a staple in modern film. We often joke about movies being filmed on entirely green sets, but this technology has been around for almost a century. Chroma key screens were used as early as the 1930s to layer different picture elements on top of each other. Even before that, double exposure was used in photography in the 1860s and in films by 1903.

The use of blue screens, and eventually green screens, in films has evolved and become popular over time. The color of the chroma key screen may have changed, but the technique itself has remained the same throughout the history of cinema.

8 Forced Perspective

Forced perspective is a deceptively simple technique that has been used since the beginning of photography. It relies on the fact that objects appear smaller when farther away and larger when closer. This technique has been used to create size differences between characters in films like The Lord of the Rings and Darby O’Gill and the Little People. With carefully crafted sets and optical trickery, forced perspective can convincingly sell size differences without the need for complex effects.

7 Paintings

Paintings have been extensively used in film to create iconic backgrounds without the audience even realizing it. Matte shots, which involve paintings, have been popular throughout the history of film. From acrylic paint on glass to digital paintings, the technique has evolved over time. Paintings have been instrumental in creating realistic and mesmerizing movie backgrounds.

6 Costumes

Before CGI, the task of creating creatures and monsters often fell to costume artists. While not always the most convincing, costumes have a charm that ages well compared to CGI. Actors wearing intricately crafted suits have brought iconic creatures to life in films like Godzilla and Alien. Elaborate creature costumes may appear cheesy today, but their legacy in the movie industry is undeniable.

5 Miniatures

Miniatures have been used in films for a variety of effects. Combined with forced perspective, they have played a crucial role in creating the appearances of older films. Miniatures were essential in Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and have been used in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars to create realistic spaceships and settings.

4 Rotoscoping

Rotoscoping, the process of tracing over images, has been a staple in film for a long time. It allows artists to directly change and interact with film footage. Before digital rotoscoping, frames of film footage were manually traced over on glass. Rotoscoping was used in early Disney films and even in Star Wars for lightsabers. It was a revolutionary technique that paved the way for digital rotoscoping in the 1990s.

3 Stop Motion

Stop motion animation is a time-consuming but timeless form of animation. It involves manually adjusting models frame by frame and combining the images to create moving footage. Stop motion techniques have been used for special effects, such as the Terminator in The Terminator. While the technique has improved over time, its charm and appeal have remained constant.

2 Animatronics

Animatronics, the use of complex robots that move in real-time, have contributed to impressive and immersive visual effects. Animatronic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the creature effects in The Thing are examples of how animatronics can create stunning visuals that can rival or surpass CGI. Many fans still appreciate the craftsmanship and realism of animatronics.

1 Creative Resourcefulness

Above all, the most impressive and creative effects come from the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the artists behind them. Creative thinking and the use of everyday objects have played a crucial role in creating incredible effects that amaze audiences. From Stanley Kubrick’s rotating set in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the artistic creativity behind The Lord of the Rings, it is the human imagination that makes film effects truly remarkable.


Written by Alex Miller

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