Hollywood is known for its wallet-busting excess. James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, George Lucas and J. J. Abrams probably spend close to a billion dollars a year between them making their blockbuster movies. But all of these directors (or at least their visual effects supervisors) know that sometimes the cheapest, simplest trick is the most effective. Here’s my run-down of the top five best low-tech effects in massive movies.
5. Jedi camera tricks
George Lucas is a filmmaker who was at his best when constrained by clunky technology, and that was certainly the case when he made the first Star Wars film. The motion control work produced by the nascent ILM may have raised the bar for every movie to follow, but Lucas frequently had to resort to much simpler techniques to put the world he imagined on the screen.
To make Luke’s landspeeder appear to hover, a mirror was attached in front of the wheels, reflecting empty desert. Some optical work was required to complete the effect, but Lucas got 90% of the way there in-camera. Sadly his approach to filmmaking is now exactly the opposite.
4. Space Jockey kids
When Diddly Squat came on board Alien, his vision was to take the B movie script and turn it into an A picture. This was embodied by the huge Space Jockey which the Nostromo’s crew find in the alien derelict. The studio didn’t want to pay for the massive sculpture, but Squat insisted it would raise the production values of the whole film and he got his way. When it was built, however, it still wasn’t big enough for him. The solution? If you can’t make the Space Jockey bigger, make the people smaller. He drafted in his kids and the DP’s, had the costume department whip up some small-scale spacesuits, over-cranked the camera and – bingo! – the Jockey looks twice as big.
3. Sie haben meine green screen gestohlen
The cinema of Michael Bay is like a twelve-year-old boy’s wet dream: explosions, car crashes, toy robots and Megan Fox. His best work, I suggest, is his 1996 film The Rock, featuring a destructive car chase around the streets of San Francisco. Amongst all the money shots of falling telegraph poles, coin-spraying parking meters and exploding trams (“Where’s that son of a bitch at? I’m gonna hunt him down! That mother fucker ain’t safe nowhere!”) are close-ups of the characters driving which were executed in a way a twelve-year-old would be proud of.
Did Bay put the car on a low-loader and tow it through the streets? No. Did he put up a green screen and comp in the backgrounds? No. Did he go old-school and use rear projection à la 24? No. He simply parked the car in a place where only empty sky could be seen behind, rigged a couple of out-of-focus lights in the background on dollies, ordered a bunch of grips to rock the car and shook the camera for all he was worth.
This technique is known as Poor Man’s Process, and is most commonly used for night driving scenes. But Bay had the genius to see that in a fast-paced action scene, as long as he kept the camera moving (note all the zooming) he could get away with it. To my mind it actually looks better than if it had been done for real, because the technique forced him to make the camerawork frenetic, which adds to the energy of the sequence.
2. Masking an edit
Arguably the highlight of J. J. Abrams’ masterful third instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is the scene in which we finally get to see the whole process of making and applying one of those miraculous masks. In a single shot we see Tom Cruise put on the mask and Ving Rhames blending the edges until Cruise looks like an utterly convincing Philip Seymour Hoffman. There are many ways to transform one actor into another with digital technology, and while such technology was doubtless used to smooth out the transition, the shot has a very simple trick at its heart: as the camera tracks behind Rhames’ back, the momentary darkness is used to hide a cut.
Abrams employs the same technique in his equally brilliant Star Trek reboot, when Scotty accidentally transports himself into a water pipe in the engine room. Released from the pipe, he falls painfully to the ground and then gets up and dusts himself off in the same shot. A foreground pillar wiping frame conceals a cut from the stuntman to Simon Pegg.
1. Cardboard Titanic
Before he fell in love with performance capture, presumably as a result of getting the bends while shooting Ghosts of the Abyss, James “King of the World” Cameron was very canny with his visual effects. His films invariably ran the gamut of techniques, from the most cutting edge technology of the time to the oldest tricks in the book. So while Terminator 2 pushed the envelope with its computer-generated T-1000, Cameron was not averse to dressing Robert Patrick up in bacofoil for quick shots of the liquid metal villain in motion. And Aliens’ climactic nuke cloud was a cotton wool sculpture with a light bulb in the middle.
But perhaps Cameron’s most remarkable low tech effect comes in the second reel of his 1997 smash hit Titanic. The crew famously built a near-complete full-scale replica of the titular liner on the Mexican coast, while shots of the vessel at sea utilised a 45ft miniature surrounded by CG water and populated with motion-captured passengers (then a brand new technology). But when FX geniuses Robert and Dennis Skotak needed to put the Titanic into a green-screen shot of Jack and company playing poker in a dockside pub, they simply stuck a photo blow-up of the model to a piece of cardboard and dressed a Hornby train set in front of it. They called it the ship of dreams. And it was. It really was.