Top 10 Things We Thought Were CGI But Weren't

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Top 10 Things We Thought Were CGI But Weren't

VOICE OVER: Ryan Wild WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Look closer, because your eyes may be deceiving you. For this list, we'll be looking at various movie special effects that we thought were CGI but were actually done practically. Our countdown includes “Spider-Man”, "Jurassic Park", “Inception”, and more!
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Top 10 Things We Thought Were CGI But Weren't


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Things We Thought Were CGI but Weren’t.

For this list, we’ll be looking at various movie special effects that we thought were CGI but were actually done practically.

Were you fooled by any of these? Let us know in the comments below!

#10: The Food Catch

“Spider-Man” (2002)
Being an actor must be weird. Sometimes you nail an assignment on the first try, and sometimes it requires over 150 takes. Almost immediately after gaining his Spidey senses, Peter uses them to catch Mary Jane from taking a nasty spill. He also shows off his newfound reflexes by catching her falling lunch with the tray. To achieve the effect, Tobey Maguire’s hand was glued to the tray, and he was required to catch everything for real. It was even harder than it sounds. This five-second stunt took sixteen hours and 156 takes to get right. Just imagine if they bungled a line after all that.


#9: Pennywise’s Eyes

“It” (2017) & “It Chapter Two” (2019)
A large emphasis was placed on Pennywise’s eyes. Director of photography Chung-hoon Chung specifically lit his eyes in a different way to make them stand out, and Bill Skarsgård added his own personal touch. In some of the horror sequences, Pennywise’s eyes go in different directions, almost as if he’s shedding his human persona and revealing his true, otherworldly nature. Turns out, Skarsgård can actually just do that, so no CGI was required. While appearing on “Conan,” Bill Hader shared a funny anecdote about Skarsgård doing it on set and creeping him out.

#8: Landmark Destruction

“Independence Day” (1996)
This movie is filled with iconic scenes, including the destruction of various American landmarks. Numerous buildings are hit by alien beams and shatter into pieces, including the White House, the U.S. Bank Tower, and the Empire State Building. None of this was achieved through CGI. The special effects team built model miniatures of the famous landmarks and then blew them to smithereens. With the help of some clever camera positioning, the optical illusion was complete. To help the fire spread towards the camera, they were actually forced to build the model street on its side and place the camera at the top of the makeshift chimney. It sounds exhausting, but it all worked out perfectly.

#7: Exosuits

“Edge of Tomorrow” (2014)
Tom Cruise clearly enjoys doing movies in which he can go hard and do things for real. “Edge of Tomorrow” is no different. Some worse and cheaper movies would probably be content strapping Cruise and Emily Blunt into a prop chair and digitally adding the exosuits around them. Not this one. The team of filmmakers crafted over 100 prop battle suits, many of which weighed upwards of eighty-five pounds. When filming first started, it took Cruise about half an hour to climb in and out of the bulky prop suits. So if it looks like the actors are struggling inside those things, that’s because they most certainly are.


#6: Contortion

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (2021)
All sorts of movie tricks are used to depict demonic possession. Some include lots and lots of make-up, and others require some inventive stunt work. And sometimes you just hire a skilled contortionist. In the beginning of this movie, Ed and Lorraine are exorcizing a demon from an eight-year-old boy named David. The boy makes some crazy movements with his body, all of which was performed by a contortionist named Emerald Gordon Wulf. The only CGI involved in this scene was swapping Wulf’s face with that of child actor Julian Hilliard. The movements themselves are very real and very terrifying.


#5: The Dinosaurs

“Jurassic Park” (1993)
Some people may have misconceptions about “Jurassic Park.” Spielberg’s masterpiece is considered a landmark in the history of CGI, but very few of the dinosaurs were actually computer animated. Unfortunately, those that were look a little dated today. The dinosaurs that hold up - specifically the T-Rex - were made practically. The velociraptors were played by men in dinosaur suits, and both the dilophosaurus and triceratops were animatronic models. The T-Rex was also an animatronic model that stood twenty feet high and weighed over 17,000 pounds. All were made by the legendary Stan Winston, who earned his third Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

#4: Weightlessness

“Apollo 13” (1995)
It’s easy enough to do weightlessness with the help of CGI. Put the actors on some cables, fly them around in front of a green screen, add a digital backdrop, and call it a day. But Ron Howard wanted to do it for real. Howard approached Steven Spielberg and asked him how he should do the weightless scenes, and Spielberg recommended using a Boeing KC-135. By using a specific flight pattern, this plane would give the actors and filmmakers about twenty seconds of weightlessness. Yes, this likely required lots of takes, and it probably resulted in lots of upchucked lunches. They don’t call it the Vomit Comet for nothing. But the result looks spectacular.


#3: The Swinging Pole-Cats

“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
Much of “Mad Max: Fury Road” was filmed practically, and it helped the movie attain high praise. Everything looks amazing, and there’s just a certain satisfaction in watching real vehicles blow up and flip over. In the movie’s climax, the bad guys swing back and forth on massive poles that are attached to their vehicles. Action unit director Guy Norris hired a Cirque du Soleil performer to train his stunt team in the use of the poles, and they proceeded to do everything for real while speeding through the desert. The choreographed performance was filmed in one take and captured by numerous cameras, allowing George Miller to construct a fluid and exciting sequence in the editing room.

#2: The Spinning Hallway

“Inception” (2010)
Christopher Nolan is probably the only director who can say “I need a giant spinning hallway that likely costs tens of millions of dollars!” and the producers simply nod and say “Whatever you need!” Rather than using CGI for the hallway fight, Nolan and his team decided to craft a 100-foot-long corridor that spun on eight concentric rings. Joseph Gordon-Levitt actually did his own stunts inside the spinning hallway, and it required weeks of preparation and training. Nolan himself has even referred to the spinning hallway as a “torture device,” as it “thrashed” the actors and left them extremely disoriented.


Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Splash Head, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)
This Movie Revolutionized CGI, but This Effect Was Still Done Practically by Stan Winston

The Bank Vault, “Fast Five” (2011)
Six Different Vaults Were Made & Over 200 Vehicles Were Destroyed

The Arc Reactor, “Iron Man” (2008)
Robert Downey Jr.’s Head Was Lined Up With a Prop Torso

Making Bread, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” (2015)
The Rising Bread Was a Practical Effect. No, It Didn’t Taste Good

Zombie Horse, “Army of the Dead” (2021)
The Decayed Horse Shell Was Sculpted & Painted & Placed Over a Real Horse

#1: Plane Rescue

“Iron Man 3” (2013)
It’s no secret that Marvel uses a lot of CGI in their movies. So it’s always a nice surprise to see something done for real. In one thrilling sequence, Iron Man saves numerous people from free fall after they’re sucked out of a moving plane. This action scene was supposed to be done in front of a green screen, but the second unit director personally knew the Red Bull skydiving team and hired them to do it for real. There were small amounts of CGI used, like adding Iron Man’s armor and the Miami coastline, as the scene was actually shot in North Carolina. But the skydiving stunt itself was 100% real.
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