Behind the amazing backdrops and unforgettable environments (and inhabitants) you see on the big screen lie the extraordinary efforts of countless craftspeople – from production designers and stunt co-ordinators, to artists and make-up experts.
We’ve looked back at some of the most iconic films from the worlds of fantasy, sci-fi and more, and explained how some of their most memorable imagery was achieved.
If there’s one thing you should take away from this, it’s that CGI will only do so much.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner was a beautiful mix of the familiar and the obscure that is still beautiful today.
Giant neon advert hoardings, overpopulated streets, weird food and outlandish outfits; aside from maybe the dystopian aspect, Ridley Scott basically envisaged a less welcoming, clean and polite version of modern day Tokyo.
Until you look closer. On the surface a detective looks as he always should: trench coat and cynical attitude, while his leading lady sports a hair style that would look at home in 30’s magazines, drinking in bars that look like 50’s diners with an injection of cyberpunk. It blends eras and styles seamlessly.
So how do you create a city so big you can’t see the sky for the buildings and lights, in the time before CGI?
With this in mind you can no longer argue that a film is not a piece of art.
But it was the ‘little things’, as well as the big things, that required some rather clever innovation.
The glimmer across Rachel’s eyes during her interview is one of Blade Runner’s most memorable moments, and was a technological touch created with the simplest of tools: mirrors.
With the help of Fritz Lang’s “Schüfftan Process“, the crew bounced light off a mirror sitting at a 45 degree angle to the camera, and into Sean Young’s eyes.
The film’s world was brought to life using ingenious practical special effects.
It must have been a long excruciating process, but I think we can all agree it was worth it.
Labyrinth was a world where gruesome met beautiful, and anything odd was welcome.
The late great David Bowie provided a great deal of its charm, but the stars of the show were arguably its incredible puppets, created, operated and voiced by the same team brought who brought us The Muppet Show, with Jim Henson himself directing the film.
Although appearing as simple (but detailed) rubber and fabric, the puppets were filled with advanced animatronics.
On creating lovable Ludo, the production notes said,
“Once [inside the Ludo puppet], the puppeteers view of the outside world was mostly obtained from the screens of two tiny TV monitors strapped to their stomachs.”
Hoggle was considered the most difficult to work with.
Looking like the distrusting corner shop owner on your street, Hoggle had performer Shari Weiser inside, together with remote-controlled facial expressions controlled by four men.
Bowie is said to have had trouble with the puppets.
“I had some initial problems working with Hoggle and the rest because, for one thing, what they say doesn’t come from their mouths, but from the side of the set, or from behind you.”
American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty‘s world had to be perfect, as that’s the point of the film. Everything must be perfect. At least to its inhabitants.
Although this was a very real setting (Sacramento, California, to be exact), and seemingly mundane world, there’s an air of falsehood and plastic around the white picket fences that makes you think there’s something more.
Director Sam Mendes was said to be going for a minimalist effect, with as few distractions as possible.
“It had a sparse, almost surreal feeling—a bright, crisp, hard edged, near [Rene] Magritte-like take on American suburbia.”
This world was about looking closer, at the little details.
Some very clever shots were used to create the sense of cracks in the perfect world, such as the feeling of imprisonment in Lester’s dull office job.
He is literally confined to his computer screen.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth was inspired by fairytales before the censors got involved – when The Little Mermaid returned to sea and turned to foam and Cinderella’s step-sisters were cutting off toes to get into that glass slipper.
It’s filled with warped versions of fairies, royalty and myth that has the touch only Guillermo Del Toro can give.
Doug Jones, Del Toro’s go-to guy for squeezing into an elaborate costume, played the fairytale-inspired Faun.
It took five hours to get him into it, and he had to see through the nostrils.
Plus, the faun’s ears and eye movements were so loud he couldn’t hear Ofelia speak.
The creature that haunts your dreams most though, is The Pale Man.
He is a pathetic, rubbery, deformed creature made through extensive make up and costumes and some animatronics.
Bonus fact: there’s a rumour that when he’s eating the fairies, he’s actually biting into condoms filled with fake blood. Nice.
inception is a film of multiple, very apparently elaborate worlds, that defy physics and logic, and yet less of it is computer generated than you’d think:
The Penrose Staircase that would have you climbing forever, was in fact real and like its creator intended, just an optical illusion, which took a lot of maths and logic to pull off.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s spinning hotel scene is definitely one of the most memorable fight scenes ever. The extraordinary sequence was created using a one-of-a-kind stunt.
Rather than let the computer do the work, and direct Gordon-Levitt to pretend to stumble at every step, director Christopher Nolan chose instead to build an actual spinning set; a mechanical hotel corridor that swung round.
All this, with one camera fixed to the floor and a remote-controlled camera outside following the fight, allowed for a more realistic performance and a truly mesmerising sight.
“If you lock the camera on the ground the audience doesn’t see the room spinning. The audience just sees us moving all over the place. It looks like we’re jumping on the ceiling and stuff.
“In order to actually get it done, I couldn’t think of it like that. I had to think ‘This is the ground. Okay now, this is the ground. Now this is the ground.’
“There’s no substitute for real human energy and performance.”
Right on, Joe.
Black Swan (2010)
It’s Nina’s world we’re in, which is so directed and controlled it’s somewhat ironic that it’s a film about a form of expression.
Nina’s gruesome transformation into a swan was mostly CGI, but part puppetry and make-up too.
Darren Aronofsky’s right hand man, Dan Schreker, was in charge of effects and most importantly, giving Nina her wings.
“We looked how a swan’s anatomy had to correspond to a human body. At one point we stretched Natalie’s face into a bill shape, but it never quite looked like a swan. We tried a swan head on a human body, but without the long neck, it just looked like a duck.
“In the end, we figured that since it was a beautiful moment for Nina, she needed to stay beautiful. So we used her face, rendered the swan’s wings in CGI, and used motion capture to transfer the movement from the arms to the wings. From there, it was a matter of finessing the nuances and timing of the shot, such as when her hands turn into feathers.”
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Mad Max was a refreshing reminder of how action movies used to and should be, not just an aging film star blowing up stuff whenever he could.
Miller was famously old-fashioned when re-creating his dystopian desert world in which oil is the most important currency.
Real sets such as the mill the War Boys worked in, props like the religious effigy of steering wheels, plus stunts and explosions were all created without the use of CGI. In fact the only important use of CGI was to remove Furiosa’s forearm.
Even the prosthetic was a solid prop.
The most chilling aspect of the dystopia was Immortan Joe, who is seen as a god therefore cannot show any weakness. His mask is decorated with horse teeth to make what is essentially an inhaler, terrifying.
He went through many initial changes, but the one thing that never changed was the mask.
But our favourite guy was The Doof.
You know: the onesie-wearing warrior on top of a rolling mountain of stereo speakers who shot flames from an axe-guitar hybrid apparently made from bedpans!
Sean Hape, who played the blind, but rockin’ creature told VIce,
“It wasn’t a great guitar. It spent a lot of time out in the desert, you wouldn’t want to record with it. Most of the time, I’d just try to make noise. I pulled out some AC/DC, some Soundgarden, some Zeppelin, but after eight hours, you do just start thumping on it for a while.
“Yeah [it shot real flames], it was gas and it was controlled by the whammy bar.”