Adam Kempenaar emailed me last week to ask if I'd be interested in helping out with this week's "Top 5" on WBEZ Chicago's program, Filmspotting. I was asked to pick my #1 pre-CGI visual effects scene. While it was hard to just pick one, I finally did and chose one from my childhood. Adam and co-host Michael Phillips make some great picks.
Its important to think about Visual Effects in the context of their relative history. There are amazing visual effects in most every movie released this Summer but the technical feats that give rise to great tools for filmmakers have evolved over time. So when looking to list the top five pre CG visual effects scenes its important to keep in mind when they were released. So in the past films like A Trip to the Moon, Citizen Kane, Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Thief of Bagdad, King Kong, Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Rear Window, North By Northwest & Vertigo are all pretty big effects films with a number of sequences, or scenes, that utilize some kind of visual effects. In the early days it was most likely optical compositing of matte paintings on glass combined with the live action photography. In many cases it was the animation, forced perspective and miniature photography that helped filmmakers take audiences to places they’d never been before.
Other great works from my childhood include, Dragon Slayer, Alien, The Right Stuff, ET, Rob Botin’s work on The Fly and The Thing, Beetlejuice, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and of course, the original Star Wars trilogy.
But the top scene for me would have to be the Empire’s attack on the rebel base on Hoth in Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back. The compositing, animation and miniature work combined with pyrotechnics, live action and some beautiful matte paintings create a truly unforgettable sequence. With work by VFX Supervisors and animators like Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett and the whole crew at ILM that sequence is still impressive to this day.
As an honorable mention there is some amazing and groundbreaking work done earlier by Douglas Trumball in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trumball's use of hard lighting on the miniatures, the use of opticals and particularly the traveling matte photography were incredible. Trumball also pioneered work using his “slit scan” photography technique to create the psychedelic “journey beyond the infinite” sequence in the film. Trumball’s subsequent work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind & Blade Runner also share his unique artistic signature.
Click on the image below to listen online. The Top 5 segment runs at: 1:14:38-1:48:41
Thanks to Adam Kempenaar, Michael Phillips and the whole Filmspotting gang for having me on.