Not to take anything away from the fine people who create digital effects in films, but there are certain things that just look better when done for real. One of which has and always will be chases, crashes, and explosions.
Trains are a solid example of this, so I’ve opted to share what I consider to be the best train crashes done primarily through practical methods such as model work or – in some cases – by just blowing up a damn train.
8. The metro derailment In Speed
If this scene proves anything it’s that the characters in this film are aware that they are the stars of an action film. When Sandra Bullock’s character is handcuffed to the runaway subway train heading to an end of the line construction zone, Reeves’s character sees the obvious solution: speed up.
The whole thing goes dramatically lurching off the tracks, barely missing the workers as it defies gravity in a non-stop uphill slide into the street. It’s ridiculously awesome in that it spits in the face of God.
According to the making-of video, the first part of the crash was a 150 lb model that they flung at 15 mph into a miniature construction zone. It’s one of those things that it’s hard to imagine someone being paid to do. They then jumped a fully sized metro car for the end, proving that there’s no such thing as having too many bus-shaped objects fly through the air in a film.
7. Sending the train into the ravine in Back To The Future III
Thank god for the Kirk Cameron hosted special The Secrets Of The Back To The Future Trilogy. Not only do we get to know how they did the awesome train crash, but we also get to realize just how terrifying the concept of Kirk Cameron with a time machine would be.
It was the wonderful folks at ILM who built a quarter scale model of the train used in the film. They set up six cameras and dumped that mother off of a ravine, giving us the excellent crash we see in the film.
No doubt most of you already know this, but much like how the Twin Pines Mall in the first film becomes the Lone Pine Mall after Marty goes back in time, the ravine’s name changes as well. It goes from being “Clayton Ravine” to “Eastwood Ravine” – named after Marty’s western alias. How cute is that?
6. Recreating the famous photograph in Hugo
Of course Scorsese can’t go a full film without someone getting killed. In this case it’s a dream sequence where our scrappy young hero is crushed by a damned train. The resulting accident becomes the spitting image of the famous Granville-Paris Express photograph where the train is hanging out of the side of the building.
Just like the train in BTTF3 they built this thing quarter scale, making it 16 ½ feet long. They were smart enough to build the set and train to be relatively fixable for multiple takes. Then they launched it out of a window for no doubt as many times as it took for it to not be fun anymore and grabbed some lunch. The result is amazing, much like the rest of the film.
This effects sequence is a perfect example of how CGI and model work can blend to make something that’s both believable and beautiful. It’s something that is used many times during this film, and proof that an abundance of CGI doesn’t always have to piss off the audience. After all, when it’s someone like Scorsese the art almost always comes first. Even if the art is some dude getting his head crushed in a vice.
5. Ra’s al Ghul’s demise in Batman Begins
Dude, that Nolan is something else. If there’s any way he can do something in-camera he will do it in-camera. Much like Hugo – this is another example of a film that perfectly balances model and practical effects with CGI augmentation. In Nolan’s case, however, the guy really goes above and beyond in terms of what he does practically… not just in this film but in every film he does.
As you can see in the DVD feature about it – the model was done on 1/6 scale and shot by cameras going four times their normal speed in order to give the effect of mass.
Other than that, everything is pretty much what you see in the film – the track gives way and the train goes hurling into its fiery crash.
For a man who is determined to save the city of Gotham, Batman sure likes to blow things up.
4. The subway bomb in Die Hard: With A Vengeance
Now we’re getting in the full-scale stuff.
Watching the behind the scenes footage of this scene you can’t help but to wonder why nobody died. They built a 1500 ft long functional track that went through the station set and drove a subway car full of real people at 45 mph into a somewhat controlled derail. Hearing the stunt guy talk to the extras involved it really sounds like they had a very vague idea as to where everything would end up.
The full-scale practical effect guesswork of this stunt really embodies the true spirit of 90s action. In fact, if I were to pick a single movie that would perfectly sum up moviemaking in general during that decade it would be this one. It’s a one-liner filled action cluster involving an elaborate heist by foreign enemies and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis. All that plus the gruff informal police force and sassy 911 emergency response operator and this is the perfect 90s action movie time capsule.
3. The bridge fire in The General
Since the managing editor would fire me for not including it, and because it’s awesome, Buster Keaton’s iconic bridge collapse earns a near-top spot. To create the effect, the set up a camera…and drove a train onto a burning bridge. Voila. Sending a train to the bottom of a river in two easy steps. That’s what you had to do half a century before computers could do it for you.
2. The train attack in Lawrence Of Arabia
David Lean is one of those amazing directors that could never make movies today. I mean… not because he’s dead – although that does prove a hindrance to anyone’s creative process – but because modern audiences just don’t have the time to watch epics that don’t chug along at breakneck speed. It’s nobody’s fault – movies just tend to evolve like that. You simply can’t stick five minutes of blank screen and music before your film anymore without half the audience walking out in boredom.
Whatever your opinion of the old David Lean epics are, they do have one thing that modern films can never hope to have: insane recklessness.
For example – to create the effect of a smoldering city in Doctor Zhivago, Lean simply had the crew light a pile of tires on fire in the woods. Yeah – not something that passes today. There was also the scene where the old lady gets run over by a train, which was done by having an old lady get nearly run over by a train. At least that wasn’t on purpose, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise either.
So you can kind of imagine how this train scene in Lawrence of Arabia went. They laid down rails, used 20 pounds of guncotton for the explosion, and had the engineer put the train into full throttle before having to jump off of the goddamn thing before it exploded. Yeah – holy shit.
1. Kimble’s escape in The Fugitive
Remember what I said about Die Hard: With A Vengeance being the ultimate depiction for 90s filmmaking? I take it back.
Recently watching the commentary for this film, as well as the making of features on the DVD I was inspired to make this list. If you ever want to see every aspect of big budget filmmaking you really have to look no further than this. It had everything from gorilla shoots during the St. Patty’s Day parade scene to amazingly elaborate indoor sets such as the stuff inside the dam. Hell – half the lines were even improvised on the fly, something you wouldn’t really expect from this film. It covers all the angles, including the big practical special effect that is the train crash.
You see – when it came time to create this amazing collision the special effects team achieved it by a little known technique called “crashing a train.”
Hell yeah. They just sent it all to hell and then added Harrison Ford in post-production. In fact, the remains are still there to this day! It’s as if they crashed it and then immediately packed up and walked away whistling nonchalantly.