Defy Gravity: 9 Awesome Special Effects That Aren't CGI

I saw the trailer recently for the upcoming lost-in-space film Gravity, due out next weekend, and had to cringe. I mean, the story seems original enough -- spacewalkers suffer freak accident, become untethered and adrift in space with only themselves for survival. I have no idea how they're going to make an entire movie about that, but hey, Castaway worked. But what really bothered me was just how fake the special effects look. And this is why I can not stand CGI.

I get that, in order to appreciate movies from the get-go, viewers have to be willing to suspend even just a little bit of belief. Because movies are fantasy -- those things haven't really happened. But with the case of CGI, I just can't do it. I can't suspend my belief enough to get over just how shitty it looks. And the problem is often that the bigger the movie budget, the more unnecessary CGI is employed. Just compare the special effects in the original Star Wars movies to the prequels.

The trouble with technology is that it become obsolete SO QUICKLY. And some of my favorite movies have been made better by trying to solve the puzzle of how to make special effects that look truly realistic and believable without taking you out of the story. So I polled my fellow Art Attack writers for some of their favorite examples of movies with well-done, non-GCI special effects. Check out our list below.


The Ten Commandments

This one does look a little dated but come on -- it's one of the most storied special effects of all time. From IMDb:

The illusion of the Red Sea parting was achieved by large "dump tanks" that were flooded, then the film was shown in reverse. The two frothing walls of water were created by water dumped constantly into "catch basin areas" then the foaming, churning water was visually manipulated and used sideways for the walls of water. A gelatin substance was added to the water in the tanks to give it more of a sea water consistency.

The Thing

I have never seen The Thing but seeing this special effects montage is enough to ruin my sleep this evening.


Videodrome's sexy Blondie TV was an actual on-set prop. I am not sure if this is supposed to terrify me or turn me on.


2001 Space Oddysey

Ever wonder how this was shot? The spaceship is basically a gigantic hamster wheel. Doctor Frank Pool is essentially running in place while the entire set spins around him. Sometimes the camera is stationary, and sometimes it follows him

Independence Day

For the part of the scene that starts at about 1:25, filmakers built a miniature set of New York City, turned it on its side, placed a camera on the top and lit it on fire, so the flames rolled up the prop as it would in a chimney.


In the hotel room fight scene, just like in 2001 all those rooms really do spin.

In Camera Effects

Lord of the Rings

I LOVE forced perspective. It's like MC Esher for film lovers. Effects like these are known as "in-camera" tricks, and they will never look outdated because technically they are real.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I adore everything about this movie. Director Michel Gondry also uses forced perspective throughout the film, but here he manipulates both the set AND the shot footage to create a sense of confusion for both the characters and the viewers.

Bonus video: see if you can guess how Gondry did this.

Balls to the Wall Craziness


Not content with models or computer effects, Werner Herzog just decided to take a real, full-sized boat into raging rapids and film the results. Watch at the end of this video as he guzzles from a bottle of gin, totally nonplussed.

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