So much of movie magic these days is green screen and CGI – the work of animators and special effects artists. Given the fakery we”ve come to expect, when a movie comes along that pulls off some spectacular visuals on-set without a lot of post-production tweaking, that kind of movie magic makes us take notice.
The latest wowing practical stunt: “Furious 7.” The “Fast and Furious” franchise has always made its mark with impressive action sequences done practically. If the seventh installment was trying to top the previous six in that department, it succeeded. This time featuring Dominic Toretto and his team drive skydiving cars out of a plane.
To shoot the critical scene, the “Furious 7” stunt team actually dropped real live cars out of an airplane. Aerial cameramen followed the jump, doving with their own parachutes. The cars dropped first from an altitude of 12,000 feet in Colorado mountains, then again at 8,000 feet where a helicopter could get closer shots.
Check out the video above for more on how “Furious 7” achieved the stunt that kicks off a 22-minute action sequence in the film, which opens in theaters Friday, April 3.
“The Matrix Reloaded,” “Terminator 2” and James Bond films have also made their mark with crazy practical stunts and effects. Read on for details on how these movies and more pulled off their daring real-life movie magic.
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”: Tom Cruise on the side of the Burj Khalifa
Scenes like this make us wonder what Paramount spends on insurance premiums for Tom Cruise. The actor has had a longtime commitment to doing his own stunts, but he outdid himself with the fourth installment of “Mission: Impossible” when he climbed and leapt across the glass outer walls of the tallest building in the world. Cruise did have some very secure harnesses that were removed from screen in post (no, he didn”t actually have functioning high-tech “blue is glue” gloves). But that really is Cruise on the real 2,723-foot-tall Dubai skyscraper. A stunt double was present but only to test out the safety rigging. Doing the stunt for real paid off – the scene wowed audiences in immersive IMAX, making them feel like they, too, were on the side of the tallest building on the planet. – Emily Rome
“The Matrix Reloaded”: Freeway chase
What do you do when you need to film a complex high speed chase on the Interstate? Some movie studios might shut down a tiny stretch of freeway and use VFX to create a sense of scale. But not the Wachowski siblings. For “The Matrix Reloaded”, a movie crew took over NAS Alameda, a former military base near Oakland. Using a budget of $1.5 million, a two-mile stretch of highway was forged on top of two unused aircraft runways. The fake freeway included overpasses, onramps, offramps, highway signs, and sound barriers that served double duty by keeping the decidedly non-Matrix scenery hidden. After seven intensive weeks of filming, the entire set was demolished. All that remains today is the asphalt, which is still visible in satellite photos on Google Maps. – Donna Dickens
“The Spy Who Loved Me”: Union Jack parachute jump
By far the best of Roger Moore's outings as James Bond features perhaps the most impressive individual stunt of a film series that has preferred to rely on practical stuntwork over special effects. Stuntman Rick Sylvester had skied off the cliff of El Capitan earlier in the '70s, so he came in to impersonate 007 for the big jump off Canada's Mount Asgard. The crew spent most of two weeks there preparing for the jump, trying to figure out where the wind might take Sylvester so they knew where to put the cameras, and though at first the crew feared they didn't get the shot, a suitable take was discovered. The jump is at once elegantly simple and jaw-dropping, and the site of the Union Jack bursting out of Bond's pack to save his life reportedly inspired Prince Charles himself to deliver a roaring standing ovation at an early screening. – Alan Sepinwall
“Terminator 2: Judgement Day”: Helicopter chase
This little James Cameron flick cost $90 million to make, and that's partly because Cameron deserved a fat paycheck for ultimately shooting this stunt himself, because Cameron's steadicam dude was like “no,” and he was like “Yes, lemme show you.” It was captured at night with 10 miles of lighting the actual helicopter only feet from the freeway and actually flying under that overpass and a T800 stuntman actually jumping from there onto a moving truck. The crash was shot full-scale and took three takes to capture. Not practical? Growing a new head. – Katie Hasty
“Raiders of the Lost Ark”: Truck chase and a drag-along-for-the-ride
This number was a nod to John Ford's 1939 film “Stagecoach,” updated with some different unruly vehicles. The truck was designed to ride higher above the ground and the center of the ground was dug up for more Jonesian clearance, and the camera shot, essentially, in “fast-motion” to make the truck appear to be moving at higher speeds. Most often, it was stuntman Terry Leonard flying from the windshield… then to the hood, then to the grill, then the underbelly. It took eight weeks to set up and then shoot the quick, dirty and high-caliber scene. Boulder chase? Pshaw. Eat road, Nazis. – Katie Hasty
“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior”: Truck chase
One of my favorite conversations about this film took place with a legendary stunt coordinator, who had just watched the truck chase at the end of the film for the first time. He was shaken by it and talked about how he couldn't imagine staging at least half of what you see in the film. There's one stunt in particular, though, that stands out as insane and dangerous and impossible, when a motorcycle hits another accident, and the rider is thrown end over end at the camera. It was revealed in a short behind-the-scenes documentary that it was not supposed to happen that way, but the stuntman actually survived, and more than that, he's the actual driving stunt coordinator for “Fury Road,” which seems only fitting based on the footage we've seen so far. – Drew McWeeny
“An American Werewolf in London”: Werewolf transformation
Cinema's greatest werewolf transformation was brought to life by a young Rick Baker, who the following year would win the inaugural Oscar for Best Makeup. So how was it accomplished? Through a complex series of animatronics that are better shown – say, in this handy YouTube video – than explained by the likes of me. According to Cassie's House of Horror, the animatronic heads (that's plural, for the different phases of the transformation) were made up of “a fiberglass shell, foam and wolf hair,” and the articulated forehead and cheeks were moved by blowing air through syringes. – Chris Eggertsen
“The Thing”: Blair monster
The makeup effects budget for John Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi/horror classic swelled from $750,000 to $1.5 million during the course of production, and it's easy to see why: the effects work by Rick Baker protege Rob Bottin (only 22 at the time!) and a crew of more than 40 people featured some of the most groundbreaking practical f/x feats in history. The Norris “spider-thing” centerpiece is justly the most famous effect in the entire film, but the climactic “Blair monster” (which was intended to have a stop-motion double that was eventually scrapped) was also impressive, despite its limited screen time. The full-size monster was created with a whopping 300 pounds of foam rubber and had a total of 63 technicians operating it (including Bottin), who used a combination of cables, hand puppets and monofilament line to make the creature move. Fun fact: Bottin himself was the one to push the slimy dog head through the creature's midsection. – Chris Eggertsen
“The Dark Knight”: Truck flip
One of the wildest bits of Joker vs. Batman mayhem in this Christopher Nolan blockbuster is the moment Batman flips over the villain's truck in a Gotham street – and that”s not flipping over sideways but head-over-heels. It was a risky stunt because if the truck got halfway up and then did indeed fall over sideways, it would crash through the windows of a building in Chicago”s banking district, where the scene was shot. Stunt coordinator Paul Jennings tested out the flip on a runway to make sure it stayed straight. Also impressive? The truck wasn”t rigged to be remote-controlled – there was a real person behind the wheel when the truck flipped, a stunt driver named Jim Wilkey. – Emily Rome
“The Amazing Spider-Man”: Web-slinging
The Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” movies brought web-slinging to the screen with lots of CGI, but Marc Webb set out to do it at least some of it for real in his 2012 reboot of the Marvel superhero. Stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong brought an Olympic gymnast into his studio and filmed him on a high-bar from multiple angles. That”s when he realized that the downward motion of the swing is incredibly violent: a G-meter in the gymnast”s pocket revealed that he pulled three Gs at the bottom of the arc. To better emulate that, Armstrong and his team developed a track pulled by a high-speed winch with a stuntman at the end of a wire. – Emily Rome
“Skyfall”: Train fight
Believability was the prime goal for James Bond action sequences, Gary Powell told Hollywood.com. So he set out to do everything for real as much as possible as the stunt coordinator on the Daniel Craig Bond films, much like he did as a stuntman in the thick of the action on earlier 007 installments like “GoldenEye” and “The World Is Not Enough.” For the fight at the opening of “Skyfall,” that”s really Craig fighting and jumping on the top of a moving train. In the chase leading up to that moment, in Bond and Eve”s Land Rover, that”s really Naomie Harris behind the wheel, but stunt driver Ben Collins was on the roof of the car in a pod system, controlling the car”s movements. – Emily Rome
“The Ten Commandments”: Parting of the Red Sea
Long before computer graphics were available, Cecil B. DeMille had to come up with a way to film the parting of the Red Sea for his 1956 Exodus epic. John P. Fulton, head of Paramount”s special effects department, pulled off the scene with a huge water tank on a set that covered a 300 by 300-foot square area of both the Paramount backlot and the RKO backlot. Fulton filmed the empty water tank, which was split by a large U-shaped trough, as it was flooded with 360,000 gallons of water. He then reversed that footage, making it appear as if the water were flying upward out of the trough. An optical printer combined that footage with shots of the actors and matte paintings of rocks. The scene was arguably the most difficult special effect to date and helped earn the movie an Oscar for Best Special Effects. – Emily Rome