That time they used practical effects to make fake CGI


CGI is like seasoning for a movie in that it should be used sparingly to avoid the end product becoming an unpalatable mess. Similar to seasoning it’s also possible to find substitutes that are near indistinguishable to the real thing to all but the most discerning palates, like they did for the film Escape from New York and it’s “CG” New York. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the film or scene in question, there’s a point where the film’s awesomely named hero, Snake Plissken played by Kurt Russell at the most mullet-ed point of his career.

Needs to get to New York to whip some bad guy ass in order to prove he’s a bad enough dude to rescue the President. A trip he makes in a futuristic stealth glider that looks suspiciously like a cheap plastic model plane.

Anyway, during this scene we are treated to a wireframe view of New York as Plissken, in a scene that hasn’t aged poorly in any way whatsoever, flies a plane directly at the World Trade Center with a bomb lodged inside his body.

Though the film doesn’t draw much attention to the effect, keep in mind that Escape from New York was made in 1981 when computer generated effects like this were prohibitively expensive. Which is probably why director John Carpenter decided to just, not use CG and instead task his producers with figuring out a way to achieve the effect practically. You know, the effect that looks like it was made on a computer …

Despite sounding like an impossible feat, the effect was achieved quite easily and, most importantly, very cheaply. Reportedly using nothing more than a few square feet of cardboard, some tape and like three guys who were good at building mini-cities out of that first thing. Like that was literally it. 

As for how they made the city appear to glow like it was made of lasers, all they did was attach white tape to the edges of an immaculately constructed cardboard city, dimmed the lights then shone a blacklight on the whole thing. The end result being a city seemingly made of green sex energy they could whip a camera through at Mach 3 to simulate the cockpit view of a plane.

A move that not only saved production a ton of money, but blew almost the entire industries mind as even seasoned experts on CG at the time had no idea how they created an entire digital city for such a brief shot. Turns out, they didn’t and in fact used the same technique haunted houses that smell like beer and stale popcorn vomit utilise to make anatomically incorrect cartoon skeletons glow in the dark.