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Movie Special Effects You'd Never Guess Aren't CGI

From the mass destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel to the full-length motion-capture madness of Avatar, computer-generated effects are ubiquitous in Hollywood—so when something amazing happens onscreen, audiences simply assume they're seeing a digital fantasy. But despite the surge in CGI, some directors are still committed to doing special effects the old-fashioned way—like they had to in the old days, because they were making movies before today's digital wizardry existed. From puppets to prosthetics to old-school camera tricks, we've rounded up some of the most insane scenes you'll never believe were created without computers.

Flipping a semi truck in The Dark Knight

You might think that Christopher Nolan, a director known for action-packed, ultra-modern, intellectually complex blockbusters, would be all about populating his movies with sleek computer-generated effects. But in fact, Nolan actively dislikes CGI and believes that audiences prefer the real thing as much as he does; hence, he uses practical effects in his films whenever possible. If he can create an explosion using large-scale models instead of digital imagery, he will.

And if he can do it full-size, in real life? Even better. Which brings us to the scene in The Dark Knight wherein an epic car chase concludes with a giant 18-wheeler going ass-over-teakettle, right in the middle of a real, actual city block (LaSalle Street in Chicago, which stood in for the fictional Gotham). The effects genies had to use computers to edit out some of the equipment involved in the stunt after the fact, but everything else, from the set to the truck to the end-over-end fliperoo, was completely real. A remote-controlled piston was installed in the semi to propel its rear off the ground, and the scene was filmed from seven different angles—because when you're making an 18-wheeler do a somersault in the middle of the night in downtown Chicago, there is no such thing as a do-over.

The blood-vomiting bed in Nightmare on Elm Street

CGI wasn't much of an option back in 1984, especially for a low-budget horror flick like Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street. So when Craven's horror franchise introduced audiences to the fedora-wearing movie monster of their dreams, it had to pull off its nightmarish special effects the old-fashioned way—and one moment remains a jaw-dropper even by contemporary standards. It's the scene in which a baby-faced Johnny Depp is dragged through a wormhole in the center of his bed, which then regurgitates his pureed carcass in a spectacular, Old Faithful-esque eruption of gore.

These days, the gravity-defying blood geyser would probably be animated with the help of computers. But for the original Nightmare, the effects team came up with an inventive (and remarkably budget-friendly) way to pull it off, building the bedroom on a rotating set that could be turned a full 360 degrees. What you see in the blood geyser scene is actually an upside-down image of an upside-down set; once the bedroom was flipped so that the floor became the ceiling, all the producers had to do was pour 500 gallons of fake blood through the bed, and let gravity do the rest.

Men becoming wolves in An American Werewolf in London

Animatronic heads, prosthetic body parts, and the most elaborate assortment of merkins in the history of film: oh my! A lot went into this film's groundbreaking transformation scene, which was achieved with nothing but good old-fashioned practical effects, seamless splicing, and genius foley artistry. Rick Baker, the effects guru who created the monster, made prosthetic versions of actor David Naughton's limbs, then fitted them with air bladders to make them bulge and elongate hideously as Naughton's character turned from man to wolf. For the facial transformation, two animatronic heads (along with Naughton's agonized screams and the overlaid sound of cracking bones) created the illusion of the actor's forehead bulging and jawline reshaping itself into a wolflike snout. And the furry overcoat? That effect was a real-life feat, using latex "skin" threaded with thousands and thousands of wiry hairs. Baker filmed the hair being pulled backwards through the skin, then reversed the shot to simulate rapid growth.

The final result was a transformation sequence so realistic and viscerally terrifying that it earned its creator the 1981 Academy Award for Best Makeup. And when the movie got its inevitable 21st century reboot in the form of An American Werewolf in Paris, the laughably terrible CGI effects couldn't hold a candle to this practical wizardry.

Dropping a plane in The Dark Knight Rises

Sure, Christopher Nolan prefers practical effects to digital wizardry—but surely he'd let the computers do the work when it came to, say, stripping a plane of its wings and then dropping the fuselage several hundred feet to create the epic plane escape that kicked off The Dark Knight Rises...right?

Nope! Although the actors weren't required to be inside the wingless death tube when it dropped (they filmed their bit inside a set piece planted firmly on the ground), Nolan really did dangle half a turboprop plane vertically from a helicopter—and then cut it loose to crash (in a pre-approved, unpopulated rural area).

Anti-gravity fisticuffs in Inception

Nope, we're still not done with Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight director didn't limit his commitment to practical effects only to his Batman franchise; it's something he swears by in all his films, including the 2010 blockbuster Inception. To create this gravity-defying dream-within-a-dream fight scene, the moviemakers built the 100 foot-long hotel hallway on a rotating set—a funhouse landscape the actors spent weeks learning to navigate. According to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the process required as much mental flexibility as it did acrobatic balance.

"I couldn't think of the floor being the floor and the ceiling being the ceiling," he told E! Online. "I had to think of it like, 'This is the ground. OK, now this is the ground. And now this is the ground.' It was just that the 'ground' was always moving under me. That was the mind game I had to play to make it work."

With a camera mounted on a track that ran the length of the set, Nolan was able to create seamless, stable shots even as the hallway itself spun 360 degrees.

The Jurassic Park T-Rex was the real deal

Hold on to your butts! There's a reason the lizard king of Stephen Spielberg's 1993 sci-fi thriller was such an imposing presence onscreen: he was a real-life, full-sized animatronic, no CGI trickery required. The T-Rex weighed 9,000 pounds and was built on a skeleton made of hydraulic motors and moving metal parts, like a giant erector set. And despite being man-made, he was decidedly dangerous: during the production, a crew member nearly lost his life (or at least some essential body parts) when he was unlucky enough to be stuck inside the belly of the beast during a power outage.

Meanwhile, even the digitally enhanced dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were often a combination of CGI and puppetry. For instance, the brachiosaurus that sneezed all over Lex was only a digi-saur from the neck down. The big cow-like head that the kids interacted with was really there...as was the copious spray of dino snot. (Poor Ariana Richards was repeatedly blasted with a cannon full of viscous goo to create that iconic gross-out moment.)

Little Hobbits, big world

Rather than shrinking Elijah Wood (or embiggening Ian McKellen) in post-production, Peter Jackson used an old-school optical illusion to make his Hobbits teeny-tiny in comparison to all the wizards, orcs, elves, and other full-sized folks who roam around Middle-earth. The trick is forced perspective, in which camera angles, cropping, and the actors' relative positioning combine to make them appear differently sized. In theory, it's simple physics; in practice, it meant that every shot had to be staged down to the millimeter. Jackson used forced perspective throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and stuck to the same method when he tackled The Hobbit a decade later—because unlike those cringeworthy green CGI ghosts in The Return of the King, this kind of classic effect never goes out of style.

The liquid metal villain of Terminator 2: Judgment Day

In 1991, Terminator 2 was a groundbreaking example of the power of digital effects, boasting CGI that went miles beyond anything else on the Hollywood landscape. But what made the movie so spectacular wasn't the CGI alone, but the way James Cameron seamlessly integrated the computer-animated cuts with practical effects. For every purely digital shot of T-1000 slithering around in liquid metal form, there was a scene rendered the old-fashioned way, with puppets and makeup and expert camerawork that gave the film a sense of real-world weight. Most incredibly, every time T-1000 was blasted apart—with a shotgun early in the film, or with a bazooka in the villain's climactic death scene—Stan Winston's special effects team would bring in a mangled, metallic-accented puppet (featuring a clay cast of Robert Patrick's head) to thrash around. In T-1000's last moments, the blown-up puppet is so seamlessly intercut with computerized motion-capture effects that you can't even tell where one ends and the other begins.

The zero-gravity jog in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick's legacy sci-fi film might have taken place in 2001, but it was filmed in 1968—which means that not one single scene in this movie was achieved with the help of digital imagery. That's impressive on a lot of fronts, but the most amazing, inventive practical effect has to be the one Kubrick used to create the iconic scene in which an astronaut turns the vertical circumference of his spaceship into a jogging track, running up the wall, across the ceiling, and back down to do it all over again. In practice, the actor playing the astronaut actually ran in place the entire time—while a set which was essentially a giant hamster wheel passed beneath his feet, and a camera swooped up and around and down to create the impression of a body in motion.

Blowing up the White House in Independence Day

Nowadays, it's de rigueur for Hollywood's biggest-budget blockbuster movies (like, say, the Independence Day sequel) to feature hyper-realistic computer-generated explosions that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. But back in 1996, animating a giant fireball using CGI was still touch-and-go—which is why Roland Emmerich and his special effects team went ahead and blew up the White House the old-fashioned way.

That is, building a 1:24 scale model with all the gorgeous detail of the original, and making it go kaboom. (What is this, a White House for ants?)

The five foot-tall model White House looked convincingly real even in close-up; it's no surprise that the scene of it being blasted to bits is still one of the most iconic explosions in the history of cinema. And when it came time for the effects team to blow up their plaster model, the actual big bang moment went off without a hitch—and CGI was more than up to the task of adding in an alien laser beam after the fact.