20 Movie Special Effects That Seemed Like CGI But Weren't

Ashley Hunte
Two men looking at a camera screen on a movie set.,
Unsplash | Gordon Cowie

CGI has come a long way over the past decade or so, and has made so many beloved movies look that much more realistic. But it doesn't need to be used in every instance. In fact, prosthetics, animatronic puppets, and other practical effects are still used in cinematography to this day.

The movies in this list may have used CGI in some parts, but they still had some pretty spectacular moments that didn't use CGI at all (or very little at most).

The truck-flipping scene from 'The Dark Knight' (2008) used a real truck.

Using a reinforced truck rigged with a small explosive, the crew actually flipped a truck over in Chicago's banking district. Amazingly, they did it without damaging anything (other than the truck).

The green mist from 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992) was filmed using a silent era technique.

According to Francis Ford Coppola, the shot was double exposed, where they shot the mist by itself, and then shot the actual scene over the reel. That honestly feels like real magic.

The zero gravity scenes in 'Apollo 13' (1995) were actually shot in zero gravity!

Director Ron Howard borrowed a NASA training test ship affectionately called the "Vomit Comet," also known as the KC-135. It only allowed weightlessness for 25 seconds at a time, which meant the cast had to make more than 600 dives in order to film all the scenes.

The TARS robot from 'Interstellar' (2014) was a 200-pound puppet.

The voice actor for TARS, Bill Irwin, carted the robot around set. The only instance of digital effects in this case was just to make sure Irwin wasn't visible in the final shot.

Killer Croc in 'Suicide Squad' (2016) was a work of prosthesis and special effects makeup.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who portrayed Killer Croc on screen, sat in a makeup chair for five hours each day of filming to get the prosthetics glued onto him, as well as makeup to cover any other visible skin.

Tobey McGuire actually caught that lunch tray in 'Spider-Man' (2002).

You'd think that, with a scene that requires superhuman reflexes, they'd just CGI it all in there in post. But as it turns out, McGuire, who played Peter Parker, did it all by himself. And it only took 156 takes!

The White House explosion scene in 'Independence Day' (1996) was created using a scale model of the real thing.

The film's crew spent time creating a 1:12 scale model of the White House, and then blew it up. The actual explosion only lasted less than a second, so they slowed it down for the final scene.

The flamethrower guitar from 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (2015) is real!

No CGI necessary. The flame-throwing guitar really worked, both as a guitar and as a flamethrower. As if you needed any more reasons to respect the heck out of this movie.

The rotating hallway in 'Inception' (2010) was an actual rotating set.

The crew built a giant centrifuge that rotated the set, which also meant attaching cameras to the set. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also spent two weeks familiarizing himself with the set so that he could perform this scene smoothly.

The squirrels in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' (2005) were real, and very well-trained.

They trained 40 live squirrels for this one scene, though Tim Burton originally wanted 100. Then, in combination with a bit of CGI and some animatronic squirrels, the whole scene came to life.

Mark Hamill milked an animatronic alien in 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' (2017).

As uncomfortable as it was to watch, it was probably just as uncomfortable to actually film. But at the very least, the green milk didn't taste as disgusting as it looked.

Much like its predecessors, 'Jurassic Park III' (2001) used real (fake) dinosaurs.

In order to make the raptors for this movie, multiple kinds of puppets were used, including suits that people could actually wear. Who needs CGI when you can have a man in a suit?

The different creatures in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' (2015) were real.

Nope, not CGI monsters digitally added to the scenes. They created animatronic puppets of various alien creatures and robots that appear throughout the movie. Now that's just awesome!

Christopher Nolan used VXF shots sparingly in 'Tenet' (2020).

I mean, if you can consider 300 VFX shots as "sparing" (which, compared to other movies, it actually is). For instance, Nolan blew up a real Boeing 747 that he bought, just for this film.

The T-1000 "Splash Head" from 'Terminator 2' (1990) was created using movie magic.

Using incredibly detailed clay sculptures of Robert Patrick's head being split open (which were then turned into foam sculptures), alongside a little bit of CGI, the incredible visual effects from this movie were way ahead of their time.

They shut down Pennsylvania Ave. to shoot 'Wonder Woman 1984' (2019)

As if watching Gal Gadot run and jump isn't cool enough, knowing that she did so on location in Washington, DC is simply mind-blowing. Apparently, the wires they used allowed her to run as fast as Usain Bolt, too.

The scene in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' (2017) when Spider-Man holds the ferry is (mostly) done without CGI.

Obviously, this scene (and movie) employ plenty of computer generated effects. But the actual ferry was filmed using a combination of the real deal in NYC, and a set they made specially for the movie.

When Pepper helps Tony with the arc reactor in his chest in 'Iron Man' (2008), they use a lot of practical effects and movie magic.

In order to film this scene, they used a prosthetic chest and clever camera angles to make it look like Gwyneth Paltrow was really sticking her hand in Robert Downey Jr.'s chest.

The 'Dunkirk' (2017) dogfight scenes used real planes.

Because Christopher Nolan prefers practical effects over VFX, yet another one of his movies makes it on this list. In Dunkirk, the dogfights were shot using a combination of actual WWII planes and miniatures built to scale.

The Lord of the Rings movies used optical illusions to make the hobbits look small.

Oversized props, clever camera angles, and other tricks were used to make the hobbits look as small as they were meant to be in the books.