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Top 10 Practical Special Effects in Movies

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Emily Brayton. What you see is never what you get. In this video, counts down our picks for the top 10 best practical effects in movies. For this list, we’ve made our choices based on effects that use little-to-no CGI, and have instead decided to focus on-camera magic in the form of prosthetics, animatronics, puppets or anything else they can think of. We’ve ranked them based on their impact, and how well the effects stand up over time. Special thanks to our users Jonathan Cobbs, Alexander David Bourns, ZombieDawn78 and jackhammer for submitting the idea on our Suggestions Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Top 10 Best Practical Special Effects in Movies

What you see is never what you get. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 practical special effects from movies.

For this list, we’ve chosen films that used little-to-no CGI, and have instead decided to use on-camera magic in the form of prosthetics, animatronics, puppets or anything else they can think of. We’ve ranked them based on their impact, and how well the effects stand up over time.

#10 – “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003)

CGI helped bring their simulated reality to life, but the Wachowski Brothers know sometimes, computers can’t cut it. Coordinated with help from David R. Ellis, the famous freeway car-chase was shot almost entirely using practical-effects trickery. Agents trailing Morpheus and Trinity jump onto cars, imploding some and sending others flying – but the mayhem was actually the work of hidden ramps and cannons, with the actor added post-production.

#9 – “Scanners” (1981)

In an epic battle of brainwaves, somebody’s head’s gonna explode. David Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror flick features an iconic scene created by “The Godfather of Make-Up,” special-effects artist Dick Smith. Smith took foam, dog food and rabbit organs, stuffed them in a latex head, and fired at it with a shotgun to produce one heckuva head-rush. The movie itself may be average, but this image will stick with us forever.

#8 – “The Fly” (1986)

Poor Brundle: Oscar-winning makeup artist Chris Walas spent months planning Jeff Goldblum’s disturbing transformation into Brundlefly, and the result is both disgusting and mesmerizing. Seven stages of makeup and prosthetics were created, with no body part left untouched – Goldblum even wore contacts to make his eyes different sizes. When Brundle finally sheds his last pieces of humanity, it’s the crowning achievement in a film filled with sick effects.

#7 – “Alien” (1979)

With never-ending Oscar-winning effects, it’s tough to pick a favorite. Is it the alien-suit made of plasticine, snake spines and Rolls-Royce parts? Or the sheep intestine facehugger? No, we choose the chestburster, where a puppet is shoved through a fake torso, spurting real cow’s blood and guts into the faces of unsuspecting actors. FYI, no John Hurts were injured during production.

#6 – “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-03)

The goal of most movie effects is to get noticed in a big way, but the geniuses behind LOTR probably hoped you never gave theirs a second thought: Though WETA Workshop did use some CGI to fudge Frodo and Gandalf’s height difference, they also employed forced perspective and multiple different-scaled sets – which they labeled “bigatures” – to bring the Hobbits, Dwarves and other characters from Tolkien’s mind to life.

#5 – “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception” (2005-12)

Director Christopher Nolan has helmed many effects-heavy franchises, but this filmmaker prefers to minimize CGI’s importance, instead opting for good old-fashioned practical-effects. He used miniatures for some “Batman Begins” locales, but not everyone would flip an 18-wheeler with an air piston, drop an airplane to earth from another airplane, or use air cannons to blow-up a Paris street-scene. As for that hallway fight, well, it wasn’t just our heads spinning.

#4 – “Jaws” (1975)

Made by humans to scare humans, Jaws is terrifying given the right light and music. Art director Joe Alves’ 40-person team created three pneumatic prop sharks for “Jaws,” which crewmembers nicknamed “Bruce” after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer. But it was Spielberg’s insistence that the sharks be shot at sea instead of in a prop tank that helped carry the film well past its budget – but we think it was worth it.

#3 – “An American Werewolf in London” (1981)

A decaying buddy is bad enough – especially one who looks like a walking meatloaf. But we can also thank makeup legend Rick Baker, prosthetics, and some robotic body-parts for this incredible sequence where Baker’s and director John Landis’ vision of a werewolf transformation comes to life. Even though the flick is decades old, we’re as viscerally moved today as the first time we saw the Oscar-winning horror comedy.

#2 – “Jurassic Park” (1993)

It’s no wonder this Spielberg flick nabbed the Oscar for Best Visual Effects: years later, it still makes us hold onto our butts. Sure, the dino-flick uses plenty of CGI that would be at home in today’s blockbusters. But production also included a 20-foot-tall, almost-living-and-breathing, animatronic T-Rex, as well as impressive rubber suits. That’s right: our beloved heroes are terrorized through “Jurassic Park” by guys dressed up as velociraptors.

#1 – “The Thing” (1982)

Here’s proof that practical-effects do the job right: after working with director John Carpenter on “The Fog,” Rob Bottin was tapped for the makeup and puppetry of “The Thing.” And he uses tummy teeth, amputated limbs, severed heads, spidery whatevers and more to keep our jaws firmly dropped. As one of the older entries on our list, this practical-effects masterpiece definitely inspired many, and scared the bejesus out of all.

Do you agree with our list? Which are the practical special effects that blew you out of the water? For more top 10s about your favorite flicks, be sure to subscribe to

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