Why Some Special Effects Age Well (and Others Clearly Don’t)

An in-depth look into what makes good special effects good, and how you can make sure your VFX stand the test of time.

Let’s play a little game. I’m going to say a phrase, and then you’re going to picture an example of the phrase. Okay, here’s the phrase: Incredible special effects. Got it?

If there are twenty of my fellow film nerds reading this, I’m willing to wager that at least thirteen of them just replayed the following scene in their head:

Their brain went straight to Jurassic Park. They didn’t go to The Lost World: Jurassic Park. No, they went to the OG ’93 Jurassic Park and started whistling the theme song. And that’s because one of these movies is, like, a fun dinosaur movie, and one of them is a magical, timeless, game-changing experience.

It’s been almost 30 years since that magnificent T-rex redefined the meaning of mind-blowing, and those special effects, to put it lightly, have aged well. You know what else came out in 1993? Leprechaun. Like Jurassic Park, it’s a creature-driven, special-effects-heavy genre movie. Unlike JP, it’s only going to pop into your brain if some blog writer sticks the movie’s trailer into an article to make a point.

And that point is simple: There are special effects that age well, and then there are those that do not. Obviously. But, really—why is this? What makes a visual effect a good one versus a bad one?

Let’s look into the world of VFX. We’ll highlight some of the best examples and then compare them against some that, well, just yikes.

We’ll also explore how you—as an aspiring film and video professional—can smartly use the right array of practical tricks and VFX to create special effects that stand the ultimate test of time.

What Are Special and Visual Effects

Let’s start at the beginning. Even the earliest of films featured examples of special and visual effects, and those effects served the same purpose then that they do now. They were meant to wow audiences by creating the illusion of something grand or impossible or unheard of. 

Whether it was Georges Méliès taking audiences to the moon in 1902’s Le Voyage dans la Lune or King Kong taking them to the top of the Empire State Building in the 1930s, these early visual effects were heavy on practical innovation. This was movie magic literally made by hand and achieved mostly with props, costumes, set design, and trickery like forced perspective and matte paintings.

You know what happened next. First it was stop motion, slit-scan photography, and green screens. And then, eventually, CGI. Along this long timeline of technological advancements, you’ll find VFX moments that are considered iconic, some that are long forgotten, and even a few that changed the industry forever.

Practical Effects

Okay, before we finally dive into some examples of good and bad special effects, we have to give a quick shout-out to the lost art of practical effects.

Seriously, if you truly want to throw this whole discussion out the window (and very likely save time and money in the process), then look no further than practical effects. Here are a few tips and tricks to get you ready for your next shoot:

Highlights: Examples of Good Special Effects

As we touched on before, this overview is “method agnostic,” if you will. So, it’s not about practical vs. digital (been there, done that) or fighting the good fight for claymation. It’s not even about “hey, this won’t embarrass me as a filmmaker ten years from now.” It’s about standing the test of time.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

One of the most famous examples of jaw-dropping visual effects in all of cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a master class in beautifully crafted visual effects. Kubrick used a wide array of tricks and techniques—models, massive rotating sets, slit-scan photography, real projection screens—to achieve his iconic film looks. Critics agree: No other film even got close to capturing the space-based poetry and grandeur of 2001 until almost twenty years later.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Another classic example of visual effects done right—Terminator 2 from filmmaking mastermind James Cameron. While it can be argued that the fantasy world of Avatar belongs on this list, T2 shines because of Cameron’s ability to seamlessly blend CGI into the real world. His liquid-morphing T-1000 stunned audiences in 1991—and thanks to its slick, simple design, it still looks believable and cinematic today.

Inception (2010)

With his brooding Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan introduced a generation of fans and filmmakers to the idea of gritty, grounded-in-reality superhero movies. Nonetheless, he remains wildly capable of creating fantastic, topsy-turvy dreamscapes that operate by their own rules.

Of course, because Nolan’s gotta Nolan, he still relies heavily on real-world techniques to create his otherworldly vibes. In his film Inception, Nolan crafted many of his scenes, stunts, and sequences using clever practical effects like rotating rooms and sets. When he did need to use digital or CGI, he did it sparingly, mostly for adding scale and scope to backgrounds in support of his in-camera elements.

Lowlights: Examples of Bad Special Effects

In general, most seem to agree that bad CGI is most often the culprit when it comes to effects that will fail the test of time. It’s funny, though. People don’t hesitate to complain—“FAKE. OMG SO FAKE!”—if you lightly de-age an actor in post. Yet they remain silent about an obvious puppet or someone wearing a a dead-eyed rubber mask. Huh.

I suppose it makes sense. Practical effects, no matter how cheesy or fake, are at least endearing on some level. Especially when stacked up against the digital monstrosities below.

Saturn 3 (1980)

Saturn 3 VFX
While its practical effects remain strong, the early digital VFX on Saturn 3 have aged . . . poorly. Image via ITC Entertainment.

There’s a good reason you might not have heard of Saturn 3. A box office bomb when it was released in 1980, Stanley Donen’s British sci-fi film—starring Harvey Keitel, Farrah Fawcett, and Kirk Douglas—was both a critical and commercial failure.

Despite featuring several big-name actors, the film is only remembered today for its phenomenally short-sighted visual effects, which, while groundbreaking at the time, are now held up as great examples of poor design and execution.

The Mummy Returns (2001)

And now, a quick call-back to Jurassic Park in the form of a quote:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could [use computers to turn The Rock into a giant scorpion], they didn’t stop to think if they should [use computers to turn The Rock into a giant scorpion].

— Audiences everywhere

The opposite of timeless is dated, and The Mummy Returns just screams late-90s/early 2000s. This is CGI as a life lesson.

Now that the film’s PS2 version of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Scorpion King is perhaps best known as a meme, it might surprise some to know that this sequel to Stephen Sommers’ breakout 1999 film The Mummy was actually a commercial success!

Green Lantern (2011)

Finally, while perhaps not as egregious as the preceding two films, Green Lantern might be one of the best examples of how—despite the industry basically having a handle on the whole CGI thing by the early 2010s—it was still a tall task to implement a good deal of CGI effects into a film without making it appear cartoony and simply unrealistic.

If anything, though, Green Lantern’s failures would lead to an increased focus on creating more realistic and authentic digital effects for big-budget blockbusters and superhero movies moving forward.

Tips and Resources for VFX

To wrap up, let’s recap a few of our findings. First and foremost, practical VFX can be a creative way to circumvent the entire debate on digital visual effects altogether. It can also be fun and invigorating. However, if you do want to go digital, it really comes down to artistry.

Technology will always quickly date itself. But, taking the time to carefully compose and create your effects with a focus on lighting, composition, and even colors can help you create visuals that don’t just look like flashy effects, but actually aid in the story that you’re trying to tell.

Try your hand at some digital VFX! Here are a few handy resources and tutorials to help you create some effects that stand the test of time:

Cover image via TriStar Pictures and Universal Pictures.

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