The use of special effects in Hollywood has changed over time. When movies were first invented, most special effects were created by hand, using practical methods like puppetry or miniature models. At the start of the 20th century, this changed thanks to advances in technology that allowed for more elaborate sets and costumes to be built. Around the same time, cameras became smaller and easier to transport so directors could shoot on location instead of relying solely on studios with huge stages. These days, CGI or computer-generated imagery has become an integral part of movie making—but there’s still a place for practical effects too.
Practical effects can also give a movie an aesthetic quality that is difficult to achieve with CGI. For example, in the original Star Wars trilogy, many of the spaceships and objects were created using practical effects. The result was an overall look that felt more real than some of today’s most advanced CGI movies.
Here are some of the most iconic practical effects in horror movies that you may have missed.
The Thing is probably one of the most intense and iconic horror films to date. Created by John Carpenter, the film still holds up today as one of the best examples of how to make great use of practical effects.
One of the most memorable scenes of the film involves a doctor attempting to defibrillate a man. As he pushes the defibrillator down, the man’s chest opens up to reveal a gaping mouth complete with sharp teeth. In this scene, the man was a replica created using fiberglass and the team used hydraulics to create a chest cavity that would open and close. They also used many different materials like creamed corn, bubble gum, and gelatin to create a realistic fleshy alien inside of the replica.
Ridley Scott treated audiences to a panic-inducing space horror adventure back in 1979 with Alien. While its special effects are certainly lacking compared to today’s visual effects, there’s one area that Alien still shines despite all these years of film advancements: the alien itself.
It’s not difficult to make an alien using CGI, but the challenging part is having it interact with the set and actors. So instead of trying to use visual effects, the Xenomorph was a giant suit designed by H.R. Giger, one of the most famous biomechanical artists of his time. It had many different points of articulation, such as the iconic retractable jaw, and it could easily interact with the environment and actors to make a more convincing horror film.
The Fly is another ‘80s horror film that made heavy use of practical effects to create a realistic and terrifying film.
As the main character of the film slowly transforms into a horrifying humanoid fly, more and more practical effects were used to maintain the illusion of his transformation. While it starts with makeup and a rubber suit, the team eventually uses animatronics and puppetry that required at least eight team members to control. The effects were so good for the time that the team won several awards, and the film still holds up today as one of the most terrifying horror movies around both in terms of the creature but also the character’s gradual transformation.
The Blob is one of the most well-known and beloved horror movies of the 1950s. As the earliest entry in this list, there were a lot of new techniques used in this film that would ultimately go on to become standard for many different applications and scenarios. While future remakes of The Blob would rely more and more on CGI, there’s no denying the creativity and realism that the original film offered.
For example, one of the most interesting uses of practical effects in The Blob is for the blob itself. The team relied heavily on silicone mixed with red vegetable dye to create the blob itself, and they also used time-lapse photography to make the creature look like it was moving fast. The team also used a dyed weather balloon to create a breathing effect that made the blob look like it was alive. While it was difficult to puppeteer, it was certainly an effective way to create an oversized blob creature.
At the end of the day, most directors will use a combination of practical effects and CGI to achieve the best results. Practical effects certainly aren’t dead despite CGI advancements, and they can add a level of realism and interactivity that is difficult to achieve with visual effects.