There are films that have a timeless quality, that work in any era, and that used inventive techniques to create special effects (not computer animation). Some of our favorite films had very limited technologies to work with and yet managed to create stunning shots and breath-taking scenes using tricks of the trade to skillfully manipulate our perception in the moment. To get these effects today, filmmakers would need computers, models, sensors, and a host of other gadgets to get the job done. You can’t top these epic films for style and action. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: they really just don’t make films like they used to!
10. King Kong (1933)
This 1933 masterpiece introduced the world to the amazing things that could be done when scale was played with and when stop-motion animation was employed to make a mythological creature come to life. King Kong was a hit in many countries because it was not only an innovative film, but the action was easy to understand regardless of language. The nature of the rabbit fur that was used for King Kong’s coat meant that the fur showed where the animators hands had been, accounting for the lightening-like shivers of light that seem to move over his fur. Still, this film embodied the inventive spirit of the era with it’s unique concept and aesthetic. King Kong went on to inspire generations of fans and filmmakers alike.
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Visual effects at the had never produced anything quite like the galactic expanse of space and sleek technology presented in 2001. Among the many scenes that broke the mold, the ferris wheel set which simulated Discovery’s lack of gravity stands out as a phenomenal interpretation of what space travel might look like. Stanley Kubrick consulted with former NASA employees and with Carl Sagan in order to get the most realistic portrayal of spacecraft and potential extraterrestrial beings. This film was not a mere entertainment, but seemed to bring the future to life before our very eyes.
Attention to detail in all aspects of the film is apparent in every scene and all the special effects. The floating pen scene was created using a pen stuck to a sheet of glass with double-stick tape and moved in front of the camera to simulate floating. The Stargate scenes were another extremely inventive sequence of shots. Using slitscan photography, special effects guru, Douglas Trumbull set the bar very high for future films. The surreal flashes of light were not mere animations, but were refractions of light and distortions from transparencies of various colors.
8. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
This World War II epic drama was filmed deep in the jungles of Sri Lanka way back when it was called Ceylon. Just getting to the location proved to be a special feat, and filming in the intense jungle conditions created a host of problems for the cast and crew to overcome. Paths and roads into the jungle had to be created and housing had to built on location.
The bridge was no model or special effect. In order to get the right look, the filmmakers built a bridge in full scale over a small river based on a sketch of the era by a local man who had seen a Death Railway bridge firsthand and the explosive destruction of the bridge was overseen by the Industrial Chemical Company. This dedication to accuracy and realism is one of the aspects of the film that makes it a true classic.
Have a look back at this iconic scene from the film below.
7. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Hands down one of the most beautiful and dramatic films of all time, Gone With the Wind holds our attention every time we see it. From the sunsets to the costuming to the gorgeous sets, this movie raised the standard of what good filmmaking really could achieve. Not only was the usage of Technicolor in it’s infancy and therefore harder to shoot in, the scenes had to be retouched with precision. Areas to be touched up later were demarcated through matte black paintings on glass filters, a technique which was used anytime an element of the background needed to be filled in. This kind of pain-staking work created the stunning visual effects in this epic film. It is worth noting that for the burning of Atlanta scene, sets from other films were used, including parts of the King Kong set.
6. The Shining (1980)
Using the newly invented Steadicam, Kubrick takes us on a journey through the hotel, following Danny as he wheels across the floor on his tricycle. This shot perfectly exemplifies the intricate set design that makes this movie fantastic while also giving the audience a sense of the vastness of the hotel and repetition of day-to-day life all in one go. Scenes like these may be used quite frequently in films now using a variety of techniques, but back then it was new concept which brought art into a horror films.
The haunting visuals are inspired by the best aspects of design from all eras, combining Art Deco with Mod designs. The set design for The Shining was impeccable, with each area revealing the mood of the characters. The set was designed to be intentionally confusing to the viewer and it worked well to keep us in a state of suspense throughout this intense and unforgettable film.
5. The Ten Commandments (1956)
With a truly amazing performance from Charlton Heston, this film takes epic to a whole other level. With breath-taking scenes and fanciful costumes, The Ten Commandments tells the story we’ve all heard since our Sunday school days, but with intensity and flourish. This Easter favorite used a whopping 14,000 actors to complete the large scale scenes.
While the source material for the film is varied, historical and religious experts were consulted by Cecil DeMille and by staff throughout production to ensure historical accuracy on all fronts. And the costume design is on par with some of the grandest films ever produced, from Moses’ hand-woven robe to the seductive costume of Nefertiti. The sheer man-power, determination, and volume of actors is simply mind-boggling.
Watch Heston perform one of the many iconic scenes from the film below.
4. The African Queen (1951)
Filmed on location in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, The African Queen is one of those films that just has all the pieces in place. This Word War I saga runs us through all the emotions of life in with its A-list actors and ground-breaking practice of shooting exotic films on-location. The authentic scenery was unfortunately accompanied by genuine dysentery for nearly all of the cast and crew, most notably Katherine Hepburn. The star actress worked through her illness in order to meet the demands of the grueling schedule.
The role earned Bogart an Oscar and earned the film a spot on our favorite movies list. The dedication needed to pull off such a realistic depiction is truly astounding.
3. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Framing space travel in whole new light, the sleek spaceship the astronauts crash-land in is not only well-designed, but draws on our own newly-minted space program. The ship leads to another time in which human history has been muddled. This science-fiction hit utilized old-fashioned costuming and makeup techniques in order to create the iconic ape looks for the film. Each day, actors were fitted with new facial appliances and made up again in a routine that took hours.
The clever twist at the end, novel score, and amazing costumes won Planet of the Apes three Academy Awards and it’s one of our favorite sci-fi films of all time.
2. Cleopatra (1963)
Some films are known for their special effects, but some are known for spectacular costuming. With an incredible 65 costume changes (and accessories to match each one) for Liz Taylor, Cleopatra held the record for most costumes for a single actor and boasted a total of 26,000 costumes for all the actors and extras. Elizabeth Taylor astounds audiences to this day with her acting and her beauty, which is only enhanced by the gorgeous finery she wears in each scene.
The number of extras needed to complete the expansive scenes (shot in Rome) hovered in the thousands and there were a total of 79 sets for the film. So much lumber was needed that there were shortages in Italy due to the massive amounts needed for the film sets. This massive scale is part of what makes this film a stand-out among the many great movies of the day. The three-hour-long saga won four academy awards and remains a stunning example of how more is more.
1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Hands down the best movie for kids ever made, The Wizard of Oz crew used some truly unique methods to achieve the tornado, the smoke bombs, and the famous melting witch scene. For instance, the tornado funnel was created using muslin cloth and chicken wire, which was then moved around by crane. And, the brightly-colored horses? They were tinted with Jello mix powder!
To get the proper lighting for the Technicolor film, the set had to be lit much brighter than would have been required for a black and white film. The use of the extra lights caused temperatures on set to reach over 100 degrees. And, yet, they pulled off one of the most intricate and mesmerizing productions without a single computer! Amazing. Have a look below at one of the best scenes from the film: the Wicked Witch melting away (her dress was tacked to a the floor while she stood on a platform that lowered).
Whether they broke records, set new standards, or used low-tech special effects that rival any CGI we have today, these films stand out as spectacles of epic proportions that have inspired every film that came after them. The limitations of technology were not always seen as such, but as problems to overcome with original solutions. They didn’t have computers and yet made some of the greatest films of all time!