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10 Best Movie Action Sequences Filmed Without CGI

Oct 23, 2023Oct 23, 2023

Practical effects have provided the cinematic world with incredible moments and thrilling action sequences, all created without the use of CGI.

With the use of practical effects, the cinematic world has witnessed some of the most exciting moments in movies with incredible action sequences filmed without CGI. While CGI has become a prominent tool in modern filmmaking practical effects provide a sense of realism that CGI can sometimes struggle to create. The first time an early form of CGI appeared in movies was in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo and has since evolved to create the incredible visuals that can be seen in films such as Avatar and Interstellar. CGI advancement has led to life-like animation and images being created, but there is still a benefit to the use of practical effects in modern filmmaking.

Effects in a film have the power to fully immerse its audience into the world the filmmaker is trying to portray, as they add to the depth of storytelling and are vital to the overall production. While the advancement of CGI has allowed films to push boundaries in what can be created visually, practical effects still have benefits that set them apart from their CGI counterparts. Practical effects make it easier for actors to immerse themselves in the surrounding world, which provides more realistic sequences. These effects are often perceived as more believable by audiences and can allow for more exciting stunts to be shown on screen.

Christopher Nolan is known for utilizing practical effects in his films, over the now more common CGI, as he brings his grand action sequences to the big screen. This trend continued in his 2020 film Tenet, where he decided to crash a real 747 airplane into a building. To achieve this sequence, the scene was shot at a working airport as the plane was towed through the set as it was attached to a tow truck that could push the plane as far forward as needed. Nolan stated, "I think the audience is always aware on some level of the difference between things that are animated and something that's been photographed." With the use of practical effects, Nolan is able to fully immerse the audience in his films and create the incredible plane crash that can be seen in Tenet.

Steven Spielberg is the master of creating iconic scenes in the film, and one standout is the boulder chase in Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. To execute this practical effect, the boulder was constructed out of fiberglass, wood, and plaster, which ended up weighing around 300 pounds. The danger of the boulder's weight made it essential to ensure the safety of the actor. Harrison Ford was not doubled in the scene, as the stunt double would have had to cheat his head down in the shot. Ford ended up running from the massive boulder ten times, which created the incredible Raiders of the Lost Ark opening scene that kicked off the Indiana Jones franchise.

Director George Miller opted for the use of practical effects in his 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road as he showcased masterful truck chases, crazy pyrotechnics, and skilled fight scenes. The most involved action sequence in the film was the one that involved the Pole-Cats, where stuntmen climbed up on metal poles as the vehicles raced at 50mph. In research for this action sequence, Norris studied Chinese pole routines at Cirque du Soleil, then had their performers train the Fury Road stuntmen to make it as safe as possible. The final scene was pulled off by a choreographed five-minute take where the stuntmen would fight, dismount their vehicle, and climb up the pole, which brought to life the incredible scene.

The 2017 World War II film Dunkirk dazzled audiences with its up-close aerial dogfights between British Spitfires and German planes. Christopher Nolan avoided CGI once again, as he brought in three working Spitfires to bring the action to life. Prior to filming, the ground crew rehearsed each scene before the actor and aerial coordinator, Craig Hosking, would perform the scene. The IMAX cameras were mounted on the plane's wing, which gave the audience the sense of being right in the dogfight. The use of practical effects in Dunkirk contributed to the film's visual authenticity.

Christopher Nolan brought his use of practical effects to The Dark Knight as well, with the big car chase through Gotham City. Cinematographer Wally Pfister said, "Chris Nolan kept challenging everybody to come up with ideas of how we could beef up these action sequences and do something no one had ever done before." This led to the idea to flip the 18-wheeler over without the use of CGI. To pull off this Dark Knight truck flip, a truck rig was built with a large steel piston that could blast out the back. Unlike most superhero movies that heavily utilize green screens, Nolan's use of practical effects added to the cinematic immersion in The Dark Knight.

In the film Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire showcased his real-life reflexes in a memorable scene where Peter Parker catches all the items on a lunch tray after Mary Jane slips. While filming the Peter Parker tray catch scene, there were no special effects used, as Tobey's hand was covered in a sticky glue so it would be able to stick to the tray. From there, Tobey had to catch all the lunch items, which he nailed after 156 takes. Maguire's display of his own Spider-Man reflexes made this scene more memorable and is still one of the most iconic scenes in superhero movie history.

Buster Keaton is widely known for doing all of his own action scenes before the ability to use CGI even existed. One of his most notable and expensive stunts can be found in Keaton's film The General. This film was set during the Civil War, as Keaton played a train engineer who embarked on a train chase when the love of his life becomes a prisoner of Union spies. In a memorable scene from the film, Keaton rides on the front of a moving train as he clears off railroad ties from the path. This was particularly dangerous as he risked being crushed by the locomotive. It was a remarkable achievement and an incredible stunt to be pulled off in the 1926 film.

Ron Howard opted for practical effects when it came to him directing the space film, Apollo 13, as the actors needed to recreate the look of zero gravity in space. This came with the use of a Boeing KC-135, which was also nicknamed the "Vomit Comet" as it is an aircraft used to train NASA astronauts. The effect of zero gravity was created by flying the aircraft in arcs called parabolas. At the top of each parabola, there would be about 25 seconds of weightlessness. With the limited amount of weightlessness the aircraft provided the cast and crew would do about 40 parabolas every morning and 40 in the afternoon to achieve this practical effect.

Sam Mandes utilized practical effects in his opening action scene in the third James Bond film to feature Daniel Craig, Skyfall. This train fight in the James Bond film was shot over several months in Adana, Turkey, on a real train traveling at 40mph. The production juggled multiple elements to pull off the incredible scene with the train, actors, bullets flying, and falling vehicles. The authenticity of the action was heightened by the commitment of the actors, who fully embraced the real-life stunts. In the end, one of the most memorable moments of the scene is when Bond readjusts his cuffs after jumping inside the train car, which was totally improvised. The practical effects used here resulted in an unforgettable opening sequence.

Tom Cruise is known for performing a range of dangerous stunts in his films without relying on the use of stunt doubles. This trend continued with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, where Tom held onto a moving plane as it took off. To pull off Rouge Nation's plane stunt, Tom was in a full-body harness and used special contact lenses to protect his eyes. The production team faced a tight deadline to get the winning shot, as they had roughly 48 hours to pull off this incredible action sequence. Tom Cruise ended up taking off with the plane eight times. Cruise's dedication to his stunts and the crew's planning and execution allowed for the creation of this truly impressive practical effect.

Emma Wagner is a freelance writer for Screenrant, obsessed with all things film and TV.