The Wonderful World of Practical Effects

Welcome to the world of Practical Effects. Before there were CGI (computer-generated imagery) movie creators used to use practical effects to create the awe and gore in their films. The definition of practical effects is special effects produced physically, without CGI or other post-production techniques.

One of my favourite movies to use Practical Effects alongside CGI is, the OG, Jurassic Park. Using life-size scale animatronic models of the dinosaurs to create realistic results, that no CGI can get close to today.

Let’s check out some top picks of movies that used little to none CGI and all of the glorious handcrafted Practical Special Effect goodness.

The Fly (1986)

Now, this horror is iconic for its use of special effects makeup to create the eerie scene in which Jeff Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle, a scientist who during a failed experiment turns into a half fly-human-creature. Seven stages of makeup and prosthetics were used in this scene and actor Jeff Goldblum wore contacts to make his eyes appear bigger. Even though this movie was released in 1986 it still sends chills up our spines!

Alien (1979)

Now, there are so many good practical effects in this movie to really pick just one. The Alien suit, for example, is made out of snakeskin, plasticine and Rolls Royce parts. We all know about the infamous face-huggers, even though most of us have never seen the films. No other scene is more iconic in the Alien franchise than the chest-burster; it sounds gross because it looks gross. They created this special effect using a fake torso filled with cow blood, guts and, of course, the alien puppet. No CGI today can come close to the real deal.

Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)

Special effects are not only used in older movies; they are still a valuable part in modern movies to work alongside CGI. We all know that LOTR uses a lot of CGI, but there are also some effects that were done without it. The Hobbit’s scenes were sometimes shot using forced perspective with their fellow actors to make them appear smaller. Sets were built to appear bigger with bigger props to emphasize the height difference between the Hobbits and the other middle-earthers. Not to mention all the other cool characters and, especially, the Orcs makeup and prosthetics.

Jaws (1975)

What is cooler than a giant animatronic shark? There were 3 in total and they were named Bruce after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer. What made the movie so believable was the fact that Spielberg insisted on shooting the sharks in the ocean and not a prop tank.

Inception (2010)

You would never guess that there could be any practical effects in such a clearly CGI visual-based film. Director, Christopher Nolan, actually tries to use less CGI in most of his movies than good old practical effects. In the street scene where Paris is blown up, he used air cannons, props and set pieces to create this amazing scene. Another example of practical effects was when he put the actors into an anti-gravity chamber for a fight scene, no CGI included.


Personally, I am a big fan of practical effects. Seeing something happening in real-time is more effective in convincing your brain into thinking it’s real than any computer-generated images can ever do. What creepy practical effect can you remember from your childhood movies?

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Anriette van Wyk
Anriette van Wyk

Tech Editor

Anriette is an alumni of The Open Window Institute where she studied Visual Communication. Currently she is the Boss Lady at Kief Kreativ with more than 10 years experience in the creative industry where she works as a professional photographer on big productions and concerts with both local and international artists. She has a wide portfolio, ranging from weddings, fashion, studio and editorial photography under her belt. Anriette is a photographer, designer, illustrator, model, car fanatic, dinosaur lover and Indiana Jones wannabe.

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