Film special effects without computers

We are so used to computer-generated special effects in films that we have become blasé about them. While producing these effects takes a lot of skill and tedious hard work, there is something about it being done on a computer that makes it seem to be not as clever somehow, though that does an injustice to all the programmers and artists who work so hard to produce these magical effects. We also know that the actors are not in any real danger, that they are safely on some sound stage in front of a green screen and that the dangerous effects are being produced in a studio.

It is nice to see how special effects were done in the old days before computers. You can see a compilation of some of them at this site from the era of silent films where the actors actually did many dangerous stunts but also faked others cleverly so that the audience could not tell the difference between what was real and what was not, and felt that the actors were in real danger. The compilation includes the famous one with Buster Keaton Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above a street. They also had a clip of Buster Keaton riding a motorcycle over two moving trucks at exactly the right moment when they formed a bridge. Although this was a special effect where he was in little danger, Keaton actually did some of the other dangerous stunts that he appeared in, without any trickery.

For later special effects, here is how the scene with Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in the 1951 film Royal Wedding was done.

This article describes the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).


  1. Jenora Feuer says

    The compilation includes the famous one with Buster Keaton hanging from the hands of a clock high above a street.

    You sure about that? Harold Lloyd made that stunt famous in Safety Last!. Lloyd was one of the big three of film stars at the time, alongside Chaplin and Keaton.

    That said, Keaton did do his own stunts, one of the more famous ones of his being one where he was standing on the ground and a house wall fell down over him with him standing right where the window came down so he was untouched.

    Hooray for Harold Lloyd… ba-dah-da-da, ba-dah-da-na-da-dah…

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Harold Lloyd, the forgotten genius. The only one of the big three to make a successful transition to talkies, and yet hardly anyone seems to remember him.

  3. Mano Singham says


    You are absolutely right that it was Harold Lloyd and I have corrected it accordingly. I don’t know how I could have made that mistake since their faces are so distinct and Lloyd’s name is even written below the clip! That’s the problem when you think you know something so well, you get into auto type mode.

    I well remember the clip of the house falling around Keaton that you can see again here.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    The Keaton house-falling-down one is a favorite among my clown friends. The local commedia dell’arte group Faction of Fools did a show a few years ago which was extra funny to those who know that bit. At the end of the show, the Capitano character was being chased by everyone else in the cast, round and round the set, making up a tale of woe as he went, and ending up in front of the window out of which the female lover had been swooning throughout the show. Then without warning that entire wall of the set fell down, with the window falling right over the Capitano (former actual circus clown Matthew Pauli).

    Maybe next show they should do the Harold Lloyd clock stunt!

  5. Mano Singham says

    Johnny Vector,

    Your clown friends? Are you a professional clown too or a clown groupie?

    There is this weird thing going on in the US now where the clown, once a childhood favorite, has become seen as a sinister figure whom children should beware of.

  6. says

    We are so used to computer-generated special effects in films that we have become blasé about them

    Some of us haven’t. I want my special effects to be relevant to the movie, and to somehow make sense in context, rather than just “OOOOO LOOK EXPLOSIONS” The understated effects of 2001 being an example of how to do it right -- I doubt that Kubrick would have made stupid over-the-top SFX even if they had been available at the time. The fact that he did his effects in camera certainly limited him, but his movies are still masterpieces, especially compared to crap like Jackson’s “Goblin 3d Flume Ride” scene in The Hobbit and the “knock everything down” fight scenes of the Matrix or Batman Versus Good Taste and whatever.

    I wish that SFX were harder, and it’d make the directors actually think about what they were doing.

    As someone who’s been reading cinefex since the Blade Runner issue, I think the artistry of effects has gone up while consistently driving the quality of movies down. I cite as evidence: the tragic arc of James Bond films. I rest my case.

  7. says

    I watched the beginning of the 2001. stargate scene a few weeks ago, and it still holds up. Contrast that with some more recent films like The Mummy, and it is really telling.

    CGI or no CGI, it doesn’t matter. Just give me effects that don’t take me out of the movie.

  8. Smokey says

    Buster Keaton managed to break his neck in “Sherlock Jr.” but didn’t discover it until years later.

    @Mano Singham

    Have you watched Buster Keaton’s “The General”? If you haven’t, then shame on you. It’s one of the great classics.

    @Marcus Ranum

    Computer games have the same problem as movies. Choose between depth of gameplay or wonderful graphics. A great looking game can be played through in a few hours, while ugly ducklings like Minecraft have years of replay value. Apparently the pretty and shallow ones cater to the casual gamers.

    Let’s hope there are exceptions, although I can’t remember any right now.

  9. kyoseki says

    I wish that SFX were harder, and it’d make the directors actually think about what they were doing.

    As someone who has worked in VFX for nearly 2 decades, I agree wholeheartedly, not that VFX are particularly easy, we’re kind of our own worst enemies here, we never get production to understand just HOW hard this shit is.

    It’s also worth noting that getting VFX 80% of the way there takes 50% of the time & money, getting them the last 20% of the way takes the other half.

    The problem is that a lot of studios don’t want to pay for the extra half (and god forbid they actually stay on time when it comes to delivering plates to the VFX companies), couple that with directors who always want MORE ACTION, faster! Ridiculous camera moves which ignore the laws of physics and we’re left with crappy video game level effects. … and then there’s the problem of time.

    It’s hard to understate just how badly managed most film productions are. Visual effects & post production is pretty much the last stop before the movie releases, which means any delays during principal photography crunches the post production schedule, so a LOT of this shit has to be done in a quarter of the time it would take to do it properly. I recently completed work on a BIG movie that still had no third act 2 months before release, the VFX studio (not the movie studio, they had no clue what they were doing) had to literally invent the entire story, animate it and do all the lighting & FX in 6 weeks. It’s one of the worst productions I’ve ever dealt with in the last ten years.

    The “fix it in post” attitude used to just apply to mistakes in principal photography, like leaving honeywagons in the shot, but these days it even extends to the damned script, which is unsurprising when you consider that most tentpole movies now begin with a release date rather than a screenplay.

  10. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    @Mano: maybe you remembered Buster Keaton in “Our Hospitality”, where he was hanging from a rope at a waterfall.

  11. kyoseki says

    Incidentally, the hallway fight in Inception was filmed using a very similar rig;

    Again, though, the problem with this kind of thing is needing to know in advance that this is what you plan to do, which means scripts & storyboards ahead of shooting, rather than just ‘winging it’ and fixing it later.

    This is also why practical effects like prosthetics and animatronics have fallen out of favor, they need to be planned out ahead of time, which means someone, somewhere, needs to make a goddamned decision. So instead, what happens is you end up with some guy dressed in a green morphsuit or a green sock puppet for the actors to talk to while the VFX companies through dozens of concepts at the suits on the studio side and wait for them to run out of time before they pick whichever one their pet badger decided to shit on (presumably… If there’s any logic to the decisions these guys make, it escapes us).

  12. says

    I’m sure you heard the story of how Kubrick casually asked the camera-wrangler at WB if he could set aside this great big magic lantern lens, then years later used it to shoot the candle-lit dinner scene in Barry Lyndon. The great directors figure their VFX out long before they even start writing down the screenplay, but that’s only because they have most of the screenplay figured out before they even start writing any of it down.

    Since a lot of stuff is constructed with a writer’s room, there’s no single mind that holds a screenplay long enough to construct out the whole thing in advance, you get a committee where someone suggests some impossible visual effect and everyone wants to do it. I think the visual integrity of a movie has a lot to do with coming from a single mind.

    Blade Runner’s VFX being largely done by layering models and matte paintings, incredibly painstaking and -- again -- one person’s visual design. Adam Savage occasionally gets a good rant going about how gorgeous Blade Runner was and how nobody will ever bother to do effects like that again. He’s right: it required too much meticulous planning. Some of the scenes in the city required the film to be re-rolled and run dozens of times, with different exposures. I can’t imagine.
    ( )

  13. kyoseki says

    There’s certainly a lot of specifics that only exist in the mind of the writer, but the director needs to have a singular vision for the movie, they need to know what it entails and what it should look like.

    The third act shouldn’t be a single line “vfx boss fight”…

    Mad Max: Fury Road was scripted & storyboarded out LONG before the movie was shot, so while the edit wasn’t locked down, most of the scenes & shots were well planned out in advance, meaning that VFX was only necessary for supplemental stuff and the stuff that can’t be shot practically -- ie. exactly what it SHOULD be used for -- rather than fabricating entire sequences or shots out of whole cloth.

    This is really why VFX breaks down these days, the shot count has skyrocketed, the budgets and time frames have contracted. With enough time, you could build some absolutely phenomenal VFX, but the fact is that nobody wants to spend the time or money to do so, nor are they likely to again -- as evidenced by the fact that even with the same director, the VFX in Ridley Scott films never look as good as Blade Runner.

  14. EigenSprocketUK says

    “Moon” (Duncan Jones, with Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey) is a really good example of an excellent story, old-school effects, and top-notch VFX. None of the computer-generated stuff is where you think it is.
    OK, when you’ve got two Sam Rockwells in the frame, you’d be right to expect some computer-powered face-swapping made it possible but there’s not much of that and the story and direction is so good that by the time you get there your brain is absolutely expecting to see what it sees. The majority of the VFX is enhancement of on-set effects and practicals.

  15. Johnny Vector says

    Amusingly, it is possible for visual effects to be completely overdone while simultaneously serving the story. An example from live theatre, of all places:

    Broadway loves them some projections. And when I say “love”, I mean “is in an unhealthy codependent relationship with”, rather like the movies/VFX relationship. The 2008 revival of Sunday in the Park with George was an exception. To start with, the show all but calls for projection. I mean, it’s about a painting, fercryinoutloud. So they started with a blank wall, and as George painted in the air with his hands the projection was the canvas as he sketched the outlines in pencil. Throughout act I the projections were restrained and just what was needed for the story.

    Then in Act II, in State of the Art, where George Jr. is mingling at a party with donors, trying to move product, the actor walked away from one potential supporter, leaving a projected version of himself on the wall, continuing to talk animatedly. Then again, and again. By the time there were four projections of him around the stage, my first thought was “Okay, now you’re just jacking off, showing us how great your tech is without really thinking about narrative.” My second thought, immediately thereafter, was “OMG that’s exactly what this song is about!” Took me out of the story and put me right back down in it, with an extra level of meta-awareness! Brilliant design.

    I haven’t seen that level of self-awareness in a movie yet.

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