Sci-Fi Before CGI

Computer generated graphics continue to get better and better. Movies that could not possibly have been made even 30 years ago can now be made on a high-quality home computer. What can now be done with a green screen and some software used to require costumes, effects makeup, special lighting, and elaborate sets. While I can appreciate the huge advances CGI has made in the way of effects and animation, I feel that they are often used as a crutch to support uninteresting movies with bad plots and even worse acting. This is especially evident in the science fiction genre. There are so many films pre-CGI that were well done and are still impressive in this computerized era. Here are some of my favorites.

This first one is quite the golden oldie, considered one of the first full-length movies in the genre. It is a  film without spoken dialog called Metropolis, and it was released in 1927. Some of the techniques used in the film were incredibly uncommon, including what became known as the Schüfftan process—named after the effects expert who worked on the film—where mirrors are used to make miniature sets look the correct size in relation to the actors. The reason most of the effects look real is because they are. In the scenewhere the city is being flooded, those people were really in water. And at the end when Maria is tied to a stake and is being burned to death,that’s not special effects; it really is fire, arranged in such a way to look like she is being burned.

The original Planet of the Apes is one of the torchbearers of the genre pre-CGI. Because it could not rely on dizzying effects or computerized characters who weren’t really there, the film actually required good production and acting. Through believable acting, skilled effects makeup and costumes, convincing sets and locations, as well as a talented director and a well-crafted musical score, they proved that you could transport an audience into a completely imaginative and alien world.

What about the creature from Alien? Would it have been as scary or impressive if it had been computer generated? I doubt they would have gone that route even if they could have: the director, Ridley Scott, was quoted by David McIntee as saying, “It’s a man in a suit, but then it would be, wouldn’t it? It takes on elements of the host—in this case, a man.” He makes a good point. Their use of models, puppets, animatronics, costumes, and camera tricks (like filming scenes in reverse) made for a highly effective combination.

I would talk about Star Wars here as well, since the saga has been ongoing and both pre- and post- dated CGI (as did the Star Trek series) but I feel like that might be another post for another time.

Do you have any favorite sci-fi movies that lack computer generated graphics?