A lot of work goes into classic movies. Some we see, like the actors, costuming and sets, while other parts (such as the director and cinematographer) stay strictly behind the camera. However, special effects are in a world of their own, because we’re supposed to be able to see them and identify them as an audience, but not identify exactly how they were done.
Especially in the case of classic movies, it can be fascinating to look back and see how the iconic stunts and shots were pulled off, which is why we’re counting down the top 20 classic movie effects that will blow your mind.
20. E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial
E.T is one of the most famous movies of the eighties, and has been parodied and referenced endlessly, in everything from Stranger Things to The Simpsons.
In one iconic scene, the group blend in with Trick-Or-Treaters on Halloween, and E.T is seen peering out of a white sheet, hiding as a ghost. This is how that scene was actually shot.
19. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
Some genres require more inventive special effects than others, and science fiction is one of the genres that needs a lot of extra help from the FX department. Star Wars especially needed a lot of miniatures, from spaceships and buildings to entire planets.
With that said, the most iconic image in the whole Star Wars franchise is the Death Star hanging ominously in the sky, both when it is whole and unharmed and when it had already been blasted apart. Both states were created by meticulously painted miniatures, ending in this effect.
18. Escape From New York
Nowadays in movies, we tend to recreate things in the computer that we want to make appear like real life. In the eighties however, it was more common to create things in real life that we wanted to look like were in the computer.
For example, in the movie Escape From New York, the heroes pull up a virtual map of the city in a computer. Real computers weren’t advanced enough to create the graphics though, so the FX team had to create the map practically and then film it.
17. Independence Day
Independence Day is a movie with a lot of special effects, from huge fireballs to collapsing buildings to plane crashes. The plane crash is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic moments in the movie, and was particularly hard to shoot.
They eventually landed on this blend of CGI and practical effects to make the crash feel as intense and realistic as possible.
16. Raise The Titanic
Raise The Titanic was a complete flop, there’s no denying that. It was based around the idea of dredging the Titanic in order to recover a lost treasure on board, treasure that could tip the scales in the Cold War. It had a budget of $40 million because of all the effects needed, and made only $7 million back.
Despite it failing at the box office and critically, the effects all came off without a hitch, largely because they were practical – such as these giant miniatures that had to be dragged back to shore by divers.
15. Honey, I Shrunk The Kids
You can tell from the title of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, that some kinds of wacky, out-of-proportion, props would be needed to create the movie. If you’ve ever seen the film, you no doubt remember the flying bee that the shrunken children ride on.
In reality, it was obviously not the kids who were tiny, but the bee which was huge. This meant that during filming, a giant animatronic bee was just hanging out in the studio, rigged to make its movement as believable as possible.
14. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel was directed by Wes Anderson, and if there’s anything anyone knows about Wes Anderson, it’s that he’s an incredibly precise and detail-obsessed filmmaker.
That meant that when it was time to shoot one character looking out of a train window as it moved, it was all done practically, rather than being shot against a green screen or without motion first. The result is this adorable, but completely functional, set-up.
13. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Terminator franchise is an excellent series of movies with brilliantly campy acting and some iconic lines, but one thing that they’ve never shied away from is destruction.
This meant that when it came to shooting car chases and action scenes where the cars and buildings were given a beating, miniatures had to be set up and replaced until the shot was got just right.
12. True Lies
True Lies stars the pretty unlikely costars of Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, with the two of them struggling to balance their family lives with his career as a super spy. It won a ton of awards despite being a comedy, including for VFX.
In one iconic scene, Jamie Lee Curtis is left dangling in peril from a great height, and has to be rescued via helicopter. The whole thing was shot practically, with the US Army even sending their own helicopters to help with shooting.
11. Back To The Future Part II
When it comes to eighties film franchises, it doesn’t get more iconic or more recognisable than Back To The Future. It’s one of the only series out there where every instalment is considered to be good, including the infamously difficult sophomore movie.
One especially awesome part of the movie is the awesome future tech, which includes the self-inflating and adjusting jacket. That was done practically, and took a lot of trial and error by a whole team of people to get right.
Bond movies have been a staple of spy cinema, and cinema in general, for over half a century at this point – and most people you ask will vehemently argue for their own personal favourite.
With that said, it’s hard to get more iconic than Goldfinger, and the infamous laser table scene which was partly shot by a real (but far less deadly) laser.
Jaws might have invented the blockbuster movie, but it also invented the nightmare special effects, since the many shark animatronics all proved to be murderously troublesome.
In the end, the director even named all the many sharks used for productions Bruce after his lawyer, because his lawyer was also allegedly super difficult to work with.
Face/Off is a weird movie with a weird premise, based around the idea of two super spy’s changing their physical appearances to become each other. Not only that, but it starred two of the most divisive and unusual actors in the business – John Travolta and Nicholas Cage.
This prosthetic was used for the actual Face/Off portion of the film, and looks creepily close to the real John Travolta thanks to it being based on a real casting of his face. It’s still the least strange element of the movie though.
7. The Muppet Movie
When you think about movies that take a lot of practical effects to pull off, you probably think of horror movies like Jaws, or at the very least action movies like Indiana Jones. There’s actually a way more obvious choice though – the Muppet movie series.
Creator Jim Henson had to pull all the tricks out of the bag to make the Muppets seem lifelike and believable, or even just able to appear in the show. This meant building all the sets way above ground level, so there was room for a whole cast of puppeteers to stand underneath.
6. Alien 3
Alien is a horror classic as well as a sci-fi one, but the sequels are a little maligned, both in the eyes of critics and fans. However, despite the weird lore changes, complicated alien evolutionary trees, and pretty bizarre action finales – one thing that hasn’t gotten worse is the effects.
The third movie involved a lot of props, including these huge full-body aliens. They were so detailed, since they were going to be shot in a bunch of different lighting set-ups, that they creeped out anyone who had to be around them on set.
5. The Hunt For Red October
The Hunt For Red October is a tense, Cold War era, spy thriller – following a Soviet naval team trying to defect to the United States. Unrealistic though it may be, it’s been recognised as a classic in recent years, partly because of the excellent design choices.
The star of this is the hydraulic tilting floor, which accurately mimics the tilting of a submarine in peril. It made the acting even tougher, but it was worth it in the end.
4. Jurassic Park
If you grew up in the eighties, you almost definitely watched Jurassic Park on repeat. The movie has a ton of memorable practical effects, from the running raptors to the peaceful herbivores, but the star of the show is obviously Rexy.
The Rexy animatronic was incredibly temperamental, and occasionally engineers had to climb inside of it to fix it, sometimes while it was superheated and smoking. Even so, it’s easily the most memorable part of the movie, as well as an iconic part of pop culture.
3. Men In Black
Men In Black is another iconic franchise that has gone down as an essential part of pop culture. It also has a plot centred around aliens, which means it obviously has more alien animatronics and props than it knows what to do with.
It’s impossible to pick just one, but the highlights include the alien pirating a human like a ship, and the several prosthetic heads that were needed for various comedic purposes.
2. Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom
Indiana Jones is another franchise that includes a lot of practical effects, which combines with brilliantly done stunt work to create super tense and exciting action sequences. However, some things you just can’t replicate with stunts, including the plane scenes.
Though a real plane and real footage was used at times, miniatures were also filmed for many of the insert shots, including the one above.
1. The Shining
When it comes to classic movies that have become icons of cinema, it doesn’t get that much more prestigious than The Shining. While it lacks huge practical explosions or faux plane crashes, its horror roots mean there are lot of awesome practical make-up effects that are seriously horrifying.
More iconic than that though, is the maze that the characters habitually find themselves lost in, including while running for their lives. The miniature made for overhead shots is so large that it almost can’t be called a miniature, and it’s both creepy and cool in equal measure.