The Most Complicated Special Effects in Modern Movie History

Captain America: The First Avenger |
Captain America: The First Avenger | Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios
Captain America: The First Avenger | Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios

These days, special effects can make just about anything possible in the movies. Exotic aliens, exploding buildings, and raging tidal waves -- audiences have seen artists fully realize the unreal. But every now and then, there comes along a shot or sequence that leaves movie-goers wondering, "How did they do that?!" Here's a look at a few of these recent, ingenious effects shots -- and how they were pulled off:

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Regency Enterprises/YouTube

The Revenant (2015), "The Bear Attack"

It might just be the single most confronting, can't-look-away-from scene in a film released this past decade. The bear attack in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is six heart-wrenching minutes long and almost documentary-like in the way it holds its gaze at Leonardo DiCaprio as the frontiersman Hugh Glass and the grizzly that confronts him.

The realization of the iconic one-take scene required close collaboration between a number of film departments: directing, cinematography, stunts, makeup, costume, and, of course, the visual effects artists behind the CGI bear, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). To shoot the scene, DiCaprio acted with stand-in blue-screened stunt performers on the forest floor, who sometimes wore extra padding for the proper bear proportions. The actor was also pulled on wires to create the bear's jerking motions.

ILM spent months researching and reviewing bear references before animating a photorealistic animal complete with muscle and hair simulations, even adding dirt, pine needles, and blood into the bear's fur. The final shot (which was actually a combination of several shots to make it look like there were no cuts) also required painting in extra wounds on DiCaprio and crafting the interaction between clumps of dirt and moss on the forest floor as he is thrown around.

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Red Wagon Entertainment/Summit Entertainment/YouTube

Divergent (2014), "Aptitude Test"

This scene, from Neil Burger's YA franchise-starter, depicts Tris (Shailene Woodley) navigating a mirror room made up of an almost infinite number of Tris reflections. These soon turn out to be more than just her mirrored self.

The mirror room could not have been created simply by shooting with real mirrors, since the reflections of cameras and crew would be visible and the actions of multiple Tris' impossible to choreograph. Instead, the entire scene was filmed against green screen using six digital cameras (also covered to some degree in green-screen material).

Red Wagon Entertainment/Summit Entertainment

The cameras obtained front views of the actress but also a number of reflection views. Woodley performed the necessary actions one shot at a time so that she could play against herself. And all of this was carefully choreographed using pre-planned movements set out with cones and stickers on the green-screen floor.

Only then could the visual effects team at Method Studios combine all the views of Woodley, as well as add in computer-generated backgrounds and lights. What really sells the shots, though, are the mirror-like attributes -- the bending and warping of imagery, smudges and even a slight delay in the mirror imagery when Tris moves or turns her head. Not to mention a CGI dog, animated for the final jaw-dropping moment when the canine and Tris fall through the mirror room floor.

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20th Century Fox/Marvel Entertainment/YouTube

The Wolverine (2013), “Train Fight”

Fight sequences staged atop speeding cars, trucks, and trains are often too dangerous to film for real, so productions shoot actors against green or blue screen and add in the background environment later. The risk, as with the addition of any foreign element, is looking fake. To avoid that problem in The Wolverine’s Tokyo train-top fight, the effects artists at Weta Digital utilized real background environments, combined with green-screen wire-work stunts, for the most visceral action possible.

What they devised was a way to shoot the necessary backgrounds -- basically streetscapes and buildings whizzing by as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine fights off his adversaries atop the train -- from a van driving along an elevated freeway in Shinjuku, Japan. A specialized eight-camera array of digital film cameras was rigged to the top of the vehicle to acquire the highest resolution possible. Sped up, the footage looked like the train was going at 300km an hour like a real bullet train.

The real backgrounds were just the beginning. Weta Digital took footage from all eight cameras and stitched together the best angles, then enhanced the footage with extra CGI buildings, traffic, changing signs, and city details where needed. Further additions came in the form of low-hanging gantries that Wolverine and the bad guys constantly had to avoid. Jackman provided the grunting to sell it.

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1492 Pictures/YouTube

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014), "Into the Escher"

Getting your head around an M.C. Escher artwork can be hard enough, especially if it's 1953's Relativity, a lithograph illustrating impossible staircases and some tricked-out gravity effects. But when director Shawn Levy included an ode to the Dutch artist and that particular lithograph in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the 2D work had to be realized in three dimensions and be inhabited by several of the film's characters who also had to obey its anti-gravity rules.

As with some of the most complicated special effects, the solution lay in lots and lots and lots of planning. The line-drawing environment of Relativity was pre-visualized in simple form first. Armed with a schematic of where the actors would be running, jumping, and falling, the scene was filmed using motion-control cameras against green screen, allowing precise camera moves to be repeated down to the fraction of an inch. A technology called SimulCam allowed Levy to see his actors, including Ben Stiller and Robin Williams, overlaid on a simple version of the sketched environment, to help with camera framing and blocking.

night at the museum
1492 Pictures

Finally, visual-effects artists at Digital Domain gave the scene the signature "Escher" look with very particular line patterns and just a hint of color. They also built the staircases and other components of the lithograph in 3D, which allowed for dramatic camera moves, like a character jumping from one staircase to another and ending up in a completely different orientation. Sound confusing? That's kind of the point.  

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Paramount Pictures/YouTube

War of the Worlds (2005), "The Highway Getaway"

Amidst the computer-generated and miniature effects ILM produced to bring alien tripods and destruction to Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds were some incredibly seamless special effects, including a lengthy, single take of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his children speeding along a freeway. Miraculously, the camera seems to travel inside and outside of the car without any cuts -- the first hint that this was not a simple effect to achieve.

And it certainly wasn't simple. The scene made use of at least three separately photographed takes. First, exterior views of a freeway in Long Island were filmed with a 360-degree, car-mounted rig carrying several cameras filming at once. The second shot involved the real car being filmed driving along the road. Finally, the actors were filmed inside a prop car on blue screen, with camera moves replicating those carried out on the freeway. The magic of one seamless take came from ILM's "virtual cinematography" approach to stitching between the various camera takes, one of the earliest uses of the technique.

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Strike Entertainment/YouTube

In what is perhaps an equally engaging scene, a similar one-take, in-car shot is featured in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, released the year after War of the Worlds. Here, the camera traverses magically through the vehicle while its occupants are pursued by hordes of people on foot and on motorcycles. Julianne Moore’s character is even shot mid-conversation. The dynamic scene was made possible with a purpose-built camera car that had a moving camera and moving seats and doors -- all later augmented with subtle visual effects.

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Legendary Pictures/YouTube

Inception (2010), "Destroying the Concrete Fortress"

Director Christopher Nolan is well known for mixing and matching effects techniques. He'll use full-scale props wherever possible, though has no fear of incorporating digital effects and miniatures into key shots in his films. That approach is no more on display than in the destruction of the snowy mountain fortress in Inception. Here, a team of professional extractors, led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), are in multiple dream levels, only awoken back to reality by a massive "kick" that comes from the fall of the fortress.

That fall was orchestrated as a giant miniature by New Deal Studios, built with intricate detail on the effects company's backlot in Los Angeles and then detonated to collapse as if it were a real concrete fortress.

Legendary Pictures

The miniature was constructed at a scale of one-sixth the size of what the real building would be, and made out of mainly urethane foam and special pre-cracked molds sprayed with plaster.

Generally, plaster would suffice for such a miniature, but underneath Nolan's main structure were a complicated set of miniature scissor jacks (similar to scissor lifts) designed to give way at pre-determined times to help the floors and internal steel frames fall. Special flocking material -- and even table salt -- stood in for snow. The explosion itself utilized traditional prima cord rigged into the structure and lasted only five seconds in real time, with several cameras running at high speed to capture the moment. To make it just a little trickier, the team at New Deal filmed it twice.

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South Side Amusement Company/YouTube

Contact (1997), "The Reflection"

Robert Zemeckis' 1997 sci-fi drama Contact is notable for several splashy space scenes with high-value effects. But one dramatic sequence may have passed you by as an effects shot at all. In the scene where young Ellie (Jena Malone) races to the medicine cabinet in an attempt to save her dying father (David Morse), Zemeckis' moving shot downshifts into slow motion, and we suddenly realize, once the cabinet is opened, that what we've actually been watching is a reflection of the action in the mirror. It's moviemaking as sleight-of-hand magic.

To make the shot possible, a number of separate "plates" were filmed. The first was by a camera operator running backwards in front of Ellie as she moves up the stairs, and was used right up until her hand reaches out to the cabinet. Another plate was the medicine cabinet itself, this time from the front view. Malone was also filmed from behind against blue screen as a further plate. The final separate piece was a reflection of the photograph of Ellie and her dad seen as the door closes.

Visual-effects artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks massaged the three different plates together using digital compositing, a job that also involved the painstaking painting out of unwanted reflections. Some of the seamless additions included the mirror surface and even its bevel effect which slightly warped the final reflection of the photograph. The result is a shot that appears simple but serves to heighten the drama of the tragedy for Ellie.

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Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios/YouTube

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), "Skinny Steve"

When Chris Evans first appeared on screen as hopeful army recruit Steve Rogers in Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, he appeared as a much wimpier version of himself. But how could this be? The actor beefed up considerably to play the title role of Captain America. Was it a stand-in? CGI? Something else? The answer was pretty much all of the above, plus some crazy-complicated compositing artistry from effects company Lola VFX, which photographed the real Evans and slimmed him down.

Taking a 220lb Evans down to 140lbs involved several techniques, including the use of an actor double whose suitably sized body would act as a stand-in for some shots. However, Evans' head was always the real "Skinny Steve" head, made possible with either scaling down the on-set photography or by using special digital face-projection techniques.

captain america
Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios

These "youthening" effects never looked out of place because the real actor was always filmed in the real lighting. Lola also did extensive research on how our facial and body forms grow, from ears to noses and lips, making the reverse engineering all the more spectacular.

Prior to The First Avenger, Lola had actually already cemented its name in Hollywood with secretive digital beauty fixes and youthening work (for example, the young versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men: The Last Stand). Since, the company has dazzled audiences with these sorts of shots, creating a younger Michael Douglas in Ant-Man and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War.

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Ian Failes is a specialist visual-effects and animation writer who is now scared of CGI bears. Follow his VFX adventures: @vfxblog.