The 50 most special effects of all time

TONY ranks the most awe-inducing moments of our dreams and nightmares.

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  • Special effects: The Thing (1982)

  • Special effects: The Ten Commandments (1956)

  • Special effects: Scanners (1981)

  • Special effects: Godzilla (1954)

  • Special effects: Star Wars (1977)

  • Special effects: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

  • Special effects: The Muppet Movie (1979)

  • Special effects: The Matrix (1999)

  • Special effects: Forbidden Planet (1956)

  • Special effects: Zelig (1983)

Special effects: The Thing (1982)

20
THE THING (1982)

The Thing (1982)

For decades, the unspoken rule of horror was: Always keep the creature in the shadows. John Carpenter and FX artist Rob Bottin flew in the face of wisdom and offered up the most gory, Lovecraftian puppeteering ever committed to film. Bottin's seven-day-a-week grind (sustained for more than a year) necessitated his hospitalization for exhaustion after the shoot.—Joshua Rothkopf

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19
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Parting the Red Sea was a given, but the techniques Cecil B. DeMille used were secret ones, closely guarded by their spectacle-savvy director. Fans ultimately learned that this awe-inspiring effect was achieved via optical insertion of reversed footage and some industrial-sized tubs. In any case, it's definitely a watershed (sorry, God).—Joshua Rothkopf

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18
SCANNERS (1981)

Scanners (1981)

Any Fangoria fan will tell you that the money shot in David Cronenberg's sci-fi horror classic—in which a psychic's Excedrin headache ends with an extraordinary cranial kaboom—is a key moment in '80s gore FX. It may have been as simple as blasting a shotgun at a prop body, but the film's pice de rsistance remains the standard for onscreen head explosions.—David Fear

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17
GODZILLA (1954)

Godzilla (1954)

Special-effects man Eiji Tsuburaya's brilliant idea—let's put a guy in a rubber suit and have him walk on cardboard buildings—redefined the Japanese movie industry and came to be known as "suitmation." The process is still used in today's films, like Where the Wild Things Are.Joshua Rothkopf

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16
STAR WARS (1977)

Star Wars (1977)

George Lucas's epic space fantasy was a watershed for effects work: Tried-and-true methods like stop-motion animation and opticals were used alongside on-the-fly techniques (Ben Burtt discovered the iconic sound for the awe-inspiring lightsabers accidentally). It all changed the face of moviemaking; suddenly FX-heavy blockbusters became a Hollywood staple.—Keith Uhlich

15
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Industry giant Ray Harryhausen, a master of the laborious technique of stop-motion animation, inspired more moguls-to-be than anyone; he's the beginning of the FX artist as celebrity. Harryhausen topped himself with this three-man-on-seven-skeleton throwdown, a scene that took more than four months to produce.—Joshua Rothkopf

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14
THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979)

The Muppet Movie (1979)

There's no shortage of sleight-of-hand puppetry—or rather, Muppetry—in the feature debut of Jim Henson's felt-skinned superstars. But the sight of Kermit the Frog riding a bike unaided (!) remains the movie's most impressive feat. It's not easy being green, but it's even harder to make an amphibian pedaling away on a Schwinn look like the most natural thing in the world.—David Fear

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13
THE MATRIX (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

Watching Carrie-Anne Moss hover in the air while the camera rotated around her was only the tip of the "bullet-time" iceberg; by combining sequential still photography with computer software, the Wachowski brothers froze actors in mid-dodge and made speeding bullets visible to the human eye. Action cinema had reached a whole new level of hyperreality.—David Fear

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12
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

This futuristic take on The Tempest became a landmark for using visual effects to make '50s sci-fi seem believable: Its sophisticated miniatures and groundbreaking matte paintings redefined the word otherworldly, while such optical tricks as vaporizing a tiger became the template for how to merge the intergalactic with the fantastic.—David Fear

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11
ZELIG (1983)

Zelig (1983)

Working with ace cinematographer Gordon Willis, writer-director-star Woody Allen utilized antique cameras and worn film stock to sell the illusion that his chameleonic title character was really hanging out with Calvin Coolidge and Al Capone. It was impressive in its PG (pre-Gump) day, and still holds up now.—Keith Uhlich

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Users say

4 comments
B C
B C

How could you leave out the most elegant, most lyrical, most beautiful use of film, special effects, and stop motion, i.e., George Pal's The Time Machine?  


This is truly a movie that almost gives a person hope for the future of mankind, and does it in a way that touches a deep core of longing to know the future.  Big, glaring omission.

Aaron
Aaron

Okay hold on, I'm not saying it has to be #1, but how do you have a special effects list and Star Wars is not in the Top 10? That's absurd. No Ray Harryhausen either? Hmmm

David
David

Good list, on the whole. But two notable misses, for me: 1) Jaws worked despite the clunky mechanical shark, not because of it, in my opinion. It's because of a great score, script, acting, cinematography and direction that Jaws is so effective. It's painfully obvious that the shark is mechanical and in all of the scenes in which it is seen in full length, it's also obvious that it's being towed through the water. I don't think its tail is ever seen moving at all, and a tail is what propels a shark through the water. It just moves like a big, fat torpedo. They did the best that anyone could at the time, but were so far from being able to portray anything as fluidly graceful as a shark. Don't get me wrong. Jaws is in my top three movies of all time. But it's not because of the special effects. 2) You left out Dragonheart. Not a great movie, but the talking dragon (voiced by Sean Connery) was an incredible special-effects creation. I thought it was as good as or better than the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Certainly, it was more ambitious.

Baker
Baker

Wheres transformers I know its recent but tell me those arent some of the best special effects you ever seen on drk of the moon