Surprising Special Effects Stories From Popular Movies

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The first use of special effects in film dates all the way back to 1895 with the Execution of Mary Stuart. The director came up with a way to make the character appear to have her head cut off on screen and from that moment on, directors and effects experts have been coming up with increasingly clever and ingenious ways to make the impossible possible. Sometimes it works flawlessly, sometimes not. Sometimes it just makes for an amazing story.

10. Monkey Gremlins 

One of the most beloved movies of the ‘80s, Gremlins pushed the envelope for what a PG movie could show and created iconic little monsters that people still love decades later. And to think it almost didn’t happen that way at all.

The Gremlins in the film are animatronic puppets. The result of these practical effects, as CG wasn’t a real option back then, is that the Gremlins have a realistic if somewhat stilted quality to their movements and interactions. But in many scenes they have an eerie, almost realness to how the puppeteers were able to control their movements. It’s one of the many excellent features of the film and no doubt contributes to its ongoing popularity. But there was a time when the plan was to not use puppets at all and instead put costumes on monkeys. 

Director Joe Dante once said they actually got a rhesus monkey and put a Gremlin mask on it. The animal was not a fan and ran through their editing room pooping everywhere, and the monkey idea was scrapped. Just imagine what could have been. 

9. Highlander Sparking Swords 

For a critically maligned film that somehow cast Scotsman Sean Connery as an Egyptian immortal with a Spanish name, Highlander has really endured over the years. It spawned four sequels, three TV series, and an animated movie plus comics, games, an upcoming reboot starring Henry Cavill, and more. People really love immortal swordsmen decapitating each other across time.

The plot revolves around immortals who can only die when their heads are removed. The final immortal in the world will win a prize when all the others are slain. So there are lots of sword fights and lots of sword effects. One effect on prominent display is the almost inexplicable sparks and light show created when swords meet any kind of metal or stone. We’ve all seen this in movies – two swords clash and sparks literally fly. Does that make sense scientifically? Who cares? It’s a movie about immortals. But how did they do that?

Today the effect would just be added with computers in post production. In 1986 they had the actors strap car batteries to their legs with wires running up to the swords in their hands. Sword meets sword and electricity does the rest. Unfortunately, it had to be a slow process because after about three takes, the swords would be too hot to handle and would need to cool down before doing it again. 

8. Mary Poppins in the Tub

Back in 2019, Disney dropped a sequel to Mary Poppins, aptly titled Mary Poppins Returns. Emily Blunt plays the magical nanny this time around and, just like in the original, she can do some remarkable things that defy science. She’s a magical nanny, so that’s to be expected. But for us in the audiences, some of the scenes may seem surprising, with one particular as a standout. There’s a scene when Mary drops backwards into a bubble bath and just disappears. It’s a very simple and swift moment, but it comes across like a genuine magic trick. She’s simply swallowed into the tub and vanishes.

Of course an effect like that could be done with computers, but if there’s one thing we’ve all noticed it’s that computer effects, even to this day, don’t always look realistic. They’re never as good as the real thing in instances like this. So what really happened? Blunt legitimately dropped backwards into a bathtub. The tub was rigged with a trapdoor and a slide that allowed her to slide down to another level.

So the tub was real, the bubbles were real, no computers were needed for the shot at all; just a well-placed slide and an actress willing to convincingly do a trust fall into some suds. 

7. Shakespearean Blood Bladders

We said at the beginning that the first instance of special effects on film dates back to 1895. But that’s just because film hadn’t really existed before then. Special effects date back much earlier and, if you want to go with what would be considered pop culture even before movies were invented, who better to look at than William Shakespeare? Turns out the bard’s plays used some clever special effects to sell a story as well.

The Globe Theater was built in 1599 and was where people would have gone to see any of Shakespeare’s plays performed during his lifetime. The stage at the Globe was complete with trap doors and ropes that allowed for actors to be dropped down and raised up. Call it a primitive version of modern wire work. And while that must have been entertaining, it was the battle scenes that got the good stuff. 

Any sword fight or murder scene could be enhanced by some practical gore effects. In this case, the precursor to modern day squibs were used. Actors had bladders concealed in their clothing filled with animal blood. A well-placed sword strike would burst the bladder and real blood would gush from the wound. They even used animal bones and guts to enhance the effects if the scene called for it. 

6. Marty McFly’s Self-Lacing Shoes 

For whatever reason, one of the standout features of Back to the Future II for many audience members were Marty McFly’s self-lacing Nike shoes from the future. They appear in an incredibly short scene in the movie when, as the name suggests, the shoes just lace themselves. It was a neat trick and people loved them so much Nike literally made the shoes in 2015. But how did the 1988 effect work?

The shoes light up and the laces tighten to a perfect fit when actor Michael J. Fox steps into them. In reality, he was strapped with batteries to provide the lighting effect and the ground he was standing on was actually a stage. The laces were fed through the shoes and under the stage, where a production stagehand was waiting to simply grab the laces and yank them tight. The effect looked like the shoes lace themselves, but the reality was about as simple as you could get. 


5. Wesley Snipes’ Eyes 

The stories of Wesley Snipes’ onset behavior in the movie Blade: Trinity are legendary. Patton Oswalt detailed a lot of what went on some years after the fact, and it’s as funny as it is bizarre. Suffice it to say that working with an actual vampire probably would have been less trouble than dealing with Snipes. But Snipes behavior was so egregious, special effects had to cover for it at one point.

There’s a morgue scene in the movie that features Blade on the slab. He’s just laying down on a metal table as bodies are typically shown in morgue scenes. But hey, he’s a vampire, so he’s not dead, right? The character opens his eyes and it makes for a cool scene. That’s how it was scripted, anyway. Snipes wouldn’t open his eyes.

Turns out being childish was one of his major superpowers, so he refused to open his eyes on camera for the scene. No doubt the director was pretty fed up with him by this point, so they filmed it as Snipes performed it, then later they had to CG eyes onto his face

4. The Matrix Lobby Shootout

The original Matrix featured one of the greatest action sequences of all time. Generally just called the “Lobby Shootout,” it features the characters of Neo and Trinity fighting off about a dozen guards while the stone pillars and walls of the room are blasted to smithereens. The scene goes for over two minutes and it’s mostly non-stop mayhem.

While the Matrix movies were known for their snazzy effects, in particular the bullet time effect which allows Neo to dodge bullets, this infamous scene was done with almost no computer effects at all. Wires for some wall running and jumping were digitally removed, but all the shooting and explosions and utter chaos you see on screen were real, practical effects

3. The Nose Wiggle on Bewitched 

Ask anyone familiar with Bewitched what Samantha does before casting a spell and they’ll tell you the same thing: she wiggles her nose. It’s even on the Wikipedia page for the show. There are two things you need to know about that. First, she never wiggles her nose once. Second, it was a special effect, anyway.

If you pause right now and try to move your own nose without touching it you’ll notice it’s pretty much impossible. Actress Elizabeth Montgomery couldn’t do it either. But she could wiggle her upper lip, which is what everyone who tries to wiggle their nose inevitably ends up doing. In order to make it look a little more magical, the film was sped up and a sound effect was added. That simple special effect has somehow settled in people’s brains as a nose twitch that never really happened. 

2. The Breathable Liquid in The Abyss 

James Cameron’s The Abyss was known for a lot of things, not the least of which was star Ed Harris getting so angry and fed up he reportedly punched the director. Needless to say, there was a lot of tension on the set thanks to a rigorous and, according to some reports, abusive working environment. As an audience, none of us knew that when we watched it and we were all mostly blown away by the liquid oxygen part of the movie.

In the film, we’re shown a pink liquid that someone calls a “fluid breathing system.” The idea is that it’s a liquid saturated with so much oxygen that human lungs could still breathe it. It would allow divers to handle the crushing pressures of deep water diving. And, to show it off, they put a rat in the stuff and, after a brief struggle, it seems to be breathing the stuff fine. Amazing effect, right? Not exactly.

While it was amazing, it was not an effect. The liquid was real, and they really did put a rat in it. The rat was able to breathe the liquid and, reportedly, survived his little trip with no ill effects. 

Despite the fact that the substance is real, and the rat survived, later in the movie when Ed Harris is supposed to use it, that’s done with effects. People were willing to sacrifice a rat if something went wrong, but not the star. 

1. Nearly Every Star Wars Sound Effect

Star Wars is worth around $70 billion. The original movie was made for $11 million. Rise of Skywalker was made for $275 million. So, times change. But for that original movie, the icon that started it all, almost none of the special effects used in the film existed before the film was made. That’s part of the legacy of Star Wars and, of course, Lucasfilm that grew out of it. They pioneered some amazing effects, and they did so in some creative ways.

It could take hours to go over everything, but some of the most fun effects stories just deal with the sound effects in Star Wars. To this day, most of us recognize the sound of a lightsaber, a blaster, or a Wookiee without having to see one on screen. So what made those iconic noises?

The wizard behind the sounds, Ben Burtt, drew inspiration from everywhere you can imagine. The blaster sound? That was a rock being banged against a radio tower support wire. Chewbacca? He’s actually a mix of sounds from bears, walrus, dogs and lions, initially inspired by just a walrus he saw at the bottom of an aquarium complaining while its pool was being cleaned. 

Vader’s breathing sounds were achieved by putting a microphone in a scuba regulator. The distinct noise of Imperial Tie Fighters was made by mixing a slowed down elephant with cars on wet pavement. And lightsabers? That’s the hum of a movie projection motor mixed with the buzz of an old TV picture tube.


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