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Different Ways Movies Use Practical Effects

Many modern films heavily rely on computer-generated imagery (CGI). But some celebrated filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro have gone back to old-school techniques to bring their visions to the screen.

Practical effects have created some of the most iconic imagery in cinema because they allow audiences to suspend their disbelief and fully immerse themselves in the story. Discover what goes behind the different practical effects used in films and how they’ve made dreams a reality.

Puppetry: Unveiling Its Charm

Believe it or not, puppets have played a significant role in some of the most iconic movies of all time. We’re not just talking about Kermit the Frog here.

In the 1982 classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a team of puppeteers brought the lovable alien to life. A series of cables and levers controlled the puppet, giving E.T. his distinct movements and expressions.

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Miniature Scale Models: Small but Mighty

Miniature scale models have played a role in many films over the years. They form a crucial part of practical effects in cinema.

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Crafted meticulously to mirror larger settings or objects, these models offer filmmakers a manageable way to manifest grand visions. Every detail in these models, from towering skyscrapers to expansive landscapes, reflects reality, providing a cost-effective alternative to full-sized sets.

Cinematographers film these carefully constructed models under controlled lighting using a technique called forced perspective. This manipulates our perception of scale, making the models appear larger and more distant than they actually are. Thus, miniature scale models contribute significantly to the overall cinematic experience, offering a visually rich and authentic alternative to digital effects.

Related: The Top Film Cinematographers You Should Know

Makeup and Prosthetics: Letting Actors Disappear

We cannot overlook the indispensable role of makeup and prosthetics in the realm of practical effects. These tools transform actors into creatures, age them decades in minutes and even bring mythical characters to life.

Take Gary Oldman's Oscar-winning performance in Darkest Hour. The makeup team spent hours each day transforming Oldman into Winston Churchill, complete with a heavy jowl and balding head. This transformation was so convincing that it led to an Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

Darkest Hour
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James (Actors)

Pyrotechnics: The Art of Controlled Chaos

Pyrotechnics, another key player in practical effects for movies, introduces us to controlled chaos. It’s necessary for the explosions, fires, and smoke on screen. When you see an explosion in a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, you’re witnessing real pyrotechnics at work, not computer-generated effects.

Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee, Nicholas Hoult (Actors)

Mechanical Effects: Real Action in Motion

Mechanical effects, often referred to as special mechanical effects, involve machinery or mechanized props. A classic example is the DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future. It was an actual car rigged with lights and other equipment to create the illusion of time travel.

Back to the Future
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson (Actors)

Related: 5 Fun Facts About the Back to the Future DeLorean

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Weather Effects: Conjuring Magic in Cinema

Finally, let’s not forget weather effects. Rain, snow, wind, fog—filmmakers can recreate these conditions on set. For instance, in The Revenant, the crew used a giant fan and a snow machine to simulate a harsh winter environment.

The Revenant (4K UHD)
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson (Actors)

Practical effects provide an authenticity that CGI sometimes cannot replicate. They’re testaments to the creativity and resourcefulness of filmmakers, proving that the old ways can still be the best ways.

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