Behind the Scenes: What Green Screens and CGI Can Really Do

The Hollywood movies we all love to watch look completely different while in the making. And the movie industry has come a long way due to major advancements in technology, including impressive CGI (computer-generated imagery) and green screens. I think it’s safe to say that we’re no longer in the era of smoke and mirrors. Hollywood has evolved and oh, boy, can we see the results!

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While we used to have to use our imagination or settle for less than impressive “special effects,” now we don’t have to. And it’s because Hollywood has done such a convincing job for us. But if you’re even somewhat curious when seeing some impressive scenes, you must have wondered, “How do they do that?” Well, most of the time, they’re actually in a big hangar in front of a green screen. And then there’s post-production, which involves a heck of a lot of “after effects.” Check out these cool behind-the-scenes photos revealing the magic of Hollywood.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

If you were happily under the impression that the world of Harry Potter was a real place, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. The truth is that green screens, and hands, are the real deal. But we should be happy that this works because it means the wizarding world can come to life on our screens!

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In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from 2001, the floating candles in the Great Hall were done using candle-shaped holders with oil and burning wicks that were suspended from wires that moved up and down on a special effects rig. It made it look like they were floating. But one of the wires snapped, due to the heat, causing the candle to fall to the floor. While no one was injured, the decision was made to re-create the candles using CGI for the next movies, as using real candles was a safety hazard.

Game of Thrones

Sure, we didn’t really expect that it was a real dragon that she was petting. But a green stick with some fabric on the end? We didn’t expect that either. Considering how dragons are huge beasts, you would think they would use something more intimidating. This way must make Emilia Clarke’s job easy…or harder?

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Targaryen’s three dragons are identifiable by the color of their scales; Drogon is red, Rhaegal is green, and Viserion is yellow/gold. So they kind of resemble the three dragons in the classic Atari 2600 game, “Adventure.”
Oh, and by the way, after filming her final scenes, Emilia Clarke got a tattoo of three dragons on her wrist. I guess she needed to mark their place in her heart and also her body.

Life of Pi

The incredible movie ‘Life of Pi’ was so well done that we actually forgot that it was a film comprised mostly of special effects. The movie was almost entirely shot in a studio, and the animals were computer-generated. But aside from all the CGI and special effects, it’s amazing to see just how well Suraj Sharma acted with only props to work with.

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Four real tigers were used in the filming, for reference, motion capture, and for actual pivotal scenes. Having to include footage of actual tigers forced the effects crew to make their digital tigers look as realistic enough as to be indistinguishable from the actual tigers. I think they pulled it off!

Remember ‘Space Jam’? Cartoons and humans means green screens!

Space Jam

We’ve all seen this feel-good movie way back in the day and never really thought about how they did it. We didn’t care so much – we just wanted to watch the movie! But now, it’s something else. Sorry folks, but Michael Jordan wasn’t actually talking to cartoon characters…

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Almost all the effects that you saw on the screen are due to the rapid progress of applying computers to the field of animation, which is virtually every aspect of Space Jam. Early in the movie, after we meet Michael Jordan, the camera pans up and the standard live-action world is left behind as we see a mini rooftop. The camera moves higher up to a computer-created sky and the Nerdlucks’ home planet.

Titanic

The most famous movie scene from the most famous movie was in front of a green screen. And this is just one of the many scenes that looked nothing like the finished product. The truth is, having to act convincingly under these conditions isn’t as easy as you may think.

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James Cameron is a director who specializes in special effects. He’s been at the cutting edge since his movie “Aliens.” Before that, he worked in films where the budget and the technology were not ready yet. He eventually became the king of special effects, with movies like “The Abyss,” “Terminator II,” “True Lies,” and “Strange Days.”

Do you want to know how they shot the movie ‘The Avengers?’ See next…

The Avengers

Were you impressed by Mark Ruffalo’s depiction of Bruce Banner in ‘The Avengers?’ You might be even more fascinated by how they bring the Hulk to life. The man behind the CGI Hulk has his work cut out for him, too. At least we can see that he really was on his back. So it’s not all fake.

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When filming for The Avengers, in the scene of Loki yelling at the Hulk, actor Tom Hiddleston had a rope tied to his leg, and because the Hulk is just CGI, when the rope was pulled it appeared as though the Hulk had grabbed him. Tom knew it was going to be pulled during the speech, but he didn’t know exactly when, so he wouldn’t be anticipating it.

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones may be the only production on air capable of spending the money required to pull off such a scene. And there’s good reason for that. With each season, the show’s budget steadily increased. In its sixth season, producers spent $10 million per episode. That was up from $6 million for earlier episodes. Game of Thrones redefined the scale, budget, and even ambition of TV productions by pushing the boundaries in special effects.

Green screen behind the scenes of Game of Thrones

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For the dragon scenes with Daenerys, GOT went to BlueBolt, a visual effects studio in London, to make three photorealistic dragons. They wanted to have one, Drogon, perch itself on her shoulder. “We were given a sculpted maquette to base our CGI build on,” BlueBolt’s visual effects producer Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor said. “But when we began the build we realized that the spikes on the back of its neck were too long to allow it to turn its head without stabbing itself. We also made alterations to how the wings and legs worked so that we weren’t creating any design problems later on when they would grow up — we knew [the dragons] were going to fly in later seasons.”

Mad Max: Fury Road

So you thought they were really driving this steampunk jeep in the desert? ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ was deemed as one of the best films of the decade, and it could be due to the convincing special effects. The cars themselves are authentic, but all the flips, explosions, and the dystopian desert are all very fake. But hey, action is action. And we all loved to watch it.

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Over 80% of the effects seen in the film are practical, including stunts, make-up, and the sets. CGI was used only sparingly, mostly to enhance the Namibian landscape, remove stunt rigging, and for Charlize Theron’s left arm, which is a prosthetic limb.

Who isn’t talking about Game of Thrones these days? The hit show is next…

Game of Thrones

A show as extravagant as ‘Game of Thrones’ is going to have its share of CGI and green screens. And if anything, it’s going to be the dragons and this wall. Thankfully HBO has a massive budget. So we got to see Jon and the Wildlings climb the wall. It looks like they really did use a vertical wall for the scene, but the ground was probably only 30 feet below.

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“It all starts with opening a script and reading, ‘There are giants riding mammoths’ or ‘Dany climbs on Drogon and they roar off to safety,’” GOT visual-effects producer Steve Kullback said. “You close the script and go, ‘Holy hell, how are we going to do that?’” It looks like they knew what to do, though.

I Am Legend

One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in ‘I Am Legend’ was this scene with the dog. When Robert (Smith) is attacked by the mutant dog, his own dog protects him but unfortunately becomes infected too. But did you ever wonder how they filmed that scene? All it requires is a man in an awkward tight green suit holding a prosthetic dog. Oh, and some amazing acting skills by Will Smith.

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The original plan for part of the film was to have the infected people played by real people wearing make-up and prosthetics, but the tests results made them look more like “angry mimes,” as the crew said. The choice was then made to use CGI to depict the creatures instead.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Bradley Cooper may be credited for playing Rocket in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ but it’s a bit disappointing to see that it wasn’t him in the green suit. Instead, effects actor Sean Gunn took the job. He actually had to pose very low to the ground for long periods of time to pull it off.

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James Gunn said how Chris Pratt’s audition for the part was so good that he was prepared to offer him the role even if Pratt didn’t lose weight or get in shape in time for filming. Gunn joked around that he was even willing to CGI a six-pack on Pratt’s body. But, Pratt asked Gunn to give him 6 months to lose 50 pounds, and he ended up losing 60.

Still curious about the Harry Potter scenes? See another behind-the-scenes look, next…

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Every wizard world needs a character to fly on a broomstick. And not only witches get to have that kind of fun. Here, Harry Potter got to fly around, but no, not literally. Daniel Radcliffe was more pretending to fly than doing the actual deed. Either way, he pulled it off, and it looked cool.

Harry Potter green screen

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For anyone who’s interested, the Nimbus 2000 was named the “fastest broom” in the world when it was released in 1991. Before that, the Nimbus 1000 was said to have reached 100 mph. The Nimbus 2000 was Harry’s second broomstick, given to him by Professor McGonagall after making Seeker for the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

Any Matrix fans? See some of the cooler special effects from the film, next…

The Matrix

One of the first and best CGI movies is ‘The Matrix.’ The film that set precedents of action movies of the future was mostly filmed on a green screen soundstage. All the insane action shots had their own secrets, like this one we see here. This is how they managed to do the scene where Trinity and Neo lean back in slow motion to dodge the bullets coming at them.

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Remember when Neo’s mouth is melted shut during the interrogation scene? The scene was accomplished with CGI as well as practical effects. His lips joining together and separating as gooey flesh before sealing shut was all CGI while the rest of the shots were practical. Plaster and prosthetic makeup was on Keanu Reeves’ mouth to simulate the effect.

Another scene from ‘The Avengers’ is next…

The Avengers

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans had it easy wearing their superhero costumes. Mark Ruffalo, on the other hand, had to switch from being an awkward scientist to being an 8-foot tall and 1,400-pound monster with no shirt on. And as you can see, he needed to wear a suit full of sensors to pull off scenes like this.

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Mark Ruffalo’s performance as the Hulk is the first one created by motion-capture. Previous live-action versions of the Hulk have either involved Bruce Banner and the Hulk being played by separate people (for example, Bill Bixby and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno), or were key-frame animated.

Next up is some behind the scenes fun from the movie Gravity. Remember how mind-blowing that one was?

Gravity

This remarkable film was based in outer space, so obviously it’s going to include green screens and CGI effects. But that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t need amazing acting or a great story. ‘Gravity’ has it all. Again, it takes some real imagination for actors to convince us that what we’re seeing is real.

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In the film’s opening scene, when Kowalski flies very close to the camera, you can see astronauts holding a movie camera and boom mic reflected in his helmet visor. This was actually an inside joke by director Cuarón. The production crew’s “reflections” were added afterward with CGI to make it look like the scene was filmed in space, and that the post-production team “failed” to digitally take out those reflections.

The Matrix

Half of ‘The Matrix‘s’ plot revolves around Neo being inside the Matrix, meaning it’s all about the CGI when filming those scenes. This is one of the scenes that was set in a warehouse where the entire background is a green screen. Everything about this movie is notable – from the plot to the making of.

Source: @BehindScenesPic/Twitter

In the interrogation scene where Neo is implanted with the bug, a combination of practical and digital effects were used. A prosthetic stomach was used when the agents hold down Neo. You can see the small indentation a few inches away from his belly button where the plastic was slightly bent. The bug was a combination of CGI and an animatronic.

One of HBO’s hit television series had its own share of green…

Boardwalk Empire

Any fan of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ knows that it was beautifully shot and the sets were extravagant. This is one shot from the show that proves how only a few strips of green screen can transform an entire scene. Back in the day, movie producers would have needed to film a scene by an actual body of water and put actual ships. But that’s no longer the case.

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A 1920s Atlantic City was re-created for the series in a set in Brooklyn, New York. Martin Scorsese was so keen on accuracy that (for instance) he insisted that the planks on the boardwalk be the same exact size as they were in Atlantic City at that time. Yeah, that’s the idea of a perfectionist.

The Avengers

Marvel is a powerhouse in the action film industry, so they’ve really excelled at green screen and CGI work. These films are chock-full of explosions and action scenes, and if they don’t get them right, viewers are going to be upset. But for now, the movies are doing really well, so it looks like they know what they’re doing.

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All of the Quantum Realm suits that were worn in “Endgame” are VFX creations. “Endgame” VFX producer, Jen Underdahl explained how “Endgame” was shot back-to-back with “Infinity War.” The production had a tight schedule and so waiting for the costume designers to finalize the suits was not an option.

‘X-Men’ is another movie full of special effects. See how they do it, next…

Godzilla

Were you a fan of ‘Godzilla?’ The original or the remake? As much as they made it look like Godzilla was real, it’s just due to the fantastic work of the behind-the-scenes people. They used real tanks and real people, but it’s all green screens after that. Even the bridge is fake.

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Godzilla was portrayed through CGI and keyframe animation. Andy Serkis consulted on how to make Godzilla’s movements more realistic. VFX supervisor, Jim Rygiel said Godzilla’s fighting style was based on bears and komodo dragons when they stand up tall with their arms. Godzilla’s movements were also based on lions and wolves, designed to be as biologically plausible and “realistic” as possible.

See, next, how Thanos was animated in Avengers: Infinity War…

Avengers: Infinity War

Thanos, the most relentless villain of all time from the Marvel Universe, had to be created somehow right? He made his full-length film appearance in ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’ So how did they make the character? They took Josh Brolin’s facial scans and matched it with the CGI. Whatever Brolin did, Thanos did too. And the rest is history.

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The final scene where Thanos comes out of a hut facing the sunset was shot in the Philippines. Josh Brolin was only into the scene through CGI. According to the comic books, Thanos exiled himself to a land far away to reflect on his loss, which was adapted by the movie with the Banaue Rice Terraces in Ifugao, Philippines as Thanos’ chosen place.

Kill Bill

Regardless of all the behind-the-scenes tricks, Uma Thurman is still pretty badass when it comes to pulling off her own stunts in ‘Kill Bill.’ Of course, she can’t fly, so she needed a little help. To give her the balance and height she needed, they attached wires to her. That way, if she fell on someone’s back, they wouldn’t both come crashing down onto the floor.

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Remember the shot where the Bride (Thurman) splits a baseball in two with a samurai sword? It was done for real on the set. But not by Thurman herself. It was done by Zoë Bell, Thurman’s stunt double. Zoë Bell injured her back working on this film, but didn’t mention it because she was worried that she would be replaced.

Avengers: Infinity War

Many audiences are in awe of how they make buildings that get destroyed look so real. You would really think the destruction was real by the way they make it look. In the movie ‘Infinity War,’ there was too much destruction to count. Here, as Tony Stark prepares for battle, the damage was just beginning. But instead of a green screen, the buildings were covered in blue for editing later on.

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Random Avengers: Infinity War fact: The filmmakers wanted small physical rules that would allow the characters to stay in the fight with Thanos. The idea that Thanos would have to close his fist to use a stone was the minimum that allowed for a fight to be put up.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

As much as Caesar seems real or that monkeys could literally lead a revolution, it isn’t the case. What’s amazing is how the producers brought this character to life. The filmmakers used a similar process to that of Thanos from the Marvel films. A headpiece, receptors, and an actor and you have yourself a talking monkey.

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Caesar’s speaking voice was created by the sound designer, Chuck Michael, who mixed the sounds of adult male chimps’ vocalizations recorded at Chimp Haven with Andy Serkis’s voice. Serkis based Caesar’s behavior on a particular chimpanzee named Oliver. But his red shirt and black pants, how he looked and his ability to sign well are based on another chimpanzee: Nim Chimpsky.

Remember ‘300?’ how could you forget! See how they did a fighting scene, next…

300

The beautifully shot film ‘300’ was done mostly with the help of computers and green screens. What else is new! But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the movie was incredibly fun to watch and the actors still had to do some “fighting.” It was just in front of a green wall and not in an actual field in Rome.

But all those 6-packs? Those are real.

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The film script demanded that almost all of the male cast spend most of their screen time bare-chested, like in Frank Miller’s original graphic novel. The entire main cast underwent a rigorous 8-week training program organized by Marc Twight, who is a world-record-holding professional mountain climber. Gerard Butler said that the training was the most difficult thing he ever had to do in his life. Twight admitted that he pushed the actors as hard as he’s ever pushed anyone before, even himself.

A Good Day to Die Hard

Die Hard’ fans, this one’s for you. You all know that as badass as Bruce Willis is, there’s no way he’s actually risking his life to make these movies. Regardless of how much they pay him. So here’s how a classic explosion looks like when it’s in the making.

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The helicopter firing scenes took place at a military shooting range. Major Peter Simon, the Air Operations Commander of Szolnok Helicopter Base (the pilot of the helicopter in all scenes) operated the gunship’s Gryazev-Shipunov GS-30-2k auto-cannons and S-8 rockets with live ammunition to ensure the shooting effects would be as realistic as possible. The background and targets were added in post-production.

Tron is another fun movie to watch. And it’s also fun to see how it’s made…

Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy is clearly filled with special effects as it’s based in the world of a video game. And oh how they did a good job. If it was actually possible to enter that world, we all would go. The cool design and lights and music. Yes, please!

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Jeff Bridges said in an interview that as he was being scanned by a laser into a computer for CGI effects, he realized that the same thing happened to him (but fictionally) in the original TRON movie from 1982.
The CGI version of the young Jeff Bridges is from footage of him in the movie Against All Odds (from 1984). It was retrofitted onto mo-cap performance by Bridges himself and his stunt double John Reardon. The whole thing took 2 years to complete!

The Wolverine

Sometimes the special effects don’t require the color green or any big screens and receptors. Something as simple as a nasty scar is also done with CGI. As much as we like to think that Wolverine has the actual abilities to regenerate on his own, we have to really thank the man behind the curtain (aka the editors).

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David Leitch said the stunt work in this movie is grittier and more grounded in reality, which is a contrast compared to the previous movies. They decided to tackle more of the stunts using practical methods, and not rely so much on post-production CGI. Every director has his ways, and this was his way.

If you haven’t seen ‘Robocop,’ you really should. See why, next…

RoboCop

If giant robot policemen were really to roam the land, it would be a little more than scary. The first Robocop movie has nothing on the effects of the more recent remake. As you can see from this shot, the terrifying cop is just a regular guy with some headgear on. Like always, it’s the end result that everyone sees.

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During production, José Padilha phoned his friend and fellow Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles to express his frustration in the lack of creative control in the filming. Padilha said how for every ten ideas he brought, the studio refused nine. He described the making of the film as “The worst experience of his life.” Now, that’s a bummer. But at least people liked the film!

Life of Pi

How amazing would it be if real-life tigers in all their beauty were able to just lie down on our laps and let us pet them as if they were their domesticated cousins? But sadly, that isn’t reality, and the actor in the movie was not allowed to risk his life petting a real tiger. So they had to resort to using a blue stuffed toy instead.

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Apparently, the Bengal tiger used in the film almost drowned on set in an incident. An American Humane Association official revealed the near-disaster in an email that was leaked as part of an extensive Hollywood Reporter investigation into the Hollywood film industry’s treatment of animals. Twentieth Century Fox denied that King (the tiger) had come close to death.

Narnia

The film is based on the beautiful book that sparks imaginations, so the movie remake has to really do a good job at making that world come to life. As you can see, in the real world, it’s not so magical. But with some creativity and amazing computer skills, Narnia comes to life on the big screen.

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In the original book, the islands with the water that transform anything into gold, and the island with the enchanted golden treasure, are two separate locations. It was a choice by the filmmakers to merge those two islands into one place for running time, and also budget concerns.
Speaking of budgets, on top of the $140 million budget for the making of the movie, another $100 million was spent on marketing.

300

It’s scenes like these that make us forget that there’s a whole production needed to make this look real. Large statues fit for a king are really there, yes. But the whole ambiance is computer-generated. The bed is real too, but if you noticed, even the fire is not what it is in the scene.

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Post-production for this film was handled by Montreal’s Meteor Studios and Hybride Technologies who filled in the bluescreen and green screen footage with more than 1,500 visual effects shots. Ghislain St-Pierre, who led his team of artists, described how “Everything looks realistic, but it has a kind of a gritty illustrative feel.” Various computer programs, including Maya, RenderMan, and RealFlow, were used to create “spraying blood.”

See how one of your favorite Marvel characters is brought to life…

Iron Man

Here’s a look at the process of making the character come to life on the screen. There’s always a storyboard involved when making a film, and these movies require heavy-duty CGI-incorporated storyboards and a lot of planning. From grayscale to full color – not so bad!

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Director Jon Favreau chose Industrial Light & Magic to do the film’s visual effects. He chose them because he watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) and Transformers (2007). This, by the way, is the last film special effects expert Stan Winston completed before his death.
Shaun Toub, who helped Tony build the first version of his suit, coincidentally was born the same year the comic book character was created, which was in 1963.

Wolf of Wall Street

Even a movie like ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ which you wouldn’t expect to involve green screens, does indeed use special effects! Who would think that such a simple scene would need a green screen? It must have been a matter of budget and accessibility that made them choose this method rather than the real deal.

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Fun fact: Martin Scorsese needed a shot of the “fasten your seat belt” sign for the airplane scene, but he didn’t want to waste time and money on setting it all up. So, Robert Legato, the effects supervisor, took a reference video of the sign during a flight he was on with his iPhone to show Scorsese. Scorsese saw it and said “Great. Let’s just use that.” This film became Scorsese’s first to use footage taken from an iPhone.

Superman

Looks like even Superman needs help to fly at the speed of sound. And this scene is actually considered quite easy to execute. Just suspend him in the air with ropes and throw a green screen behind him. Oh, and you can’t forget the handy dandy wind machine. His hair needs to flip in the wind.

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In Justice League, Cavill seemed a bit off and it’s because his mouth was CGI-ed. He had grown a mustache for “Mission: Impossible 6,” but he couldn’t have a mustache while playing Superman/Clark Kent, obviously. Paramount didn’t let him shave it off while doing “Justice League” reshoots. Warner Bros. used CGI to give Superman his clean-shaven look. But it was very obvious that heavy CGI work was done because he makes some unnatural expressions.

Hunger Games

You know all those scenes were scientists are hard at work in their futuristic labs? Well, it’s really just a long green table! And those scientists are actors in white lab coats, pretending to press buttons that are meant to do something important.

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Fun fact: for the first movie, Jennifer Lawrence was paid what was (for her at the time) a high fee of $500,000. It took her three days to accept the role because she was unsure how it would affect her career, since her background was largely in the indie film circuit. Then, for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in 2013, she was paid $10 million, which comes out to twenty times more than the initial offer. Not bad.

Walking Dead

One of the best zombie shows has its own green screen effects. The show wasn’t actually filmed in a desolate city. It’s more of a backlot of a studio. The money spent on CGI and editing is a lot cheaper than using a real city with real destroyed cars and props.

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Fun fact: The show was made into a haunted house at Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando. There was even a maze in Universal Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights.
While Woodbury is indeed an actual town in west Georgia, the scenes featuring the ghost town were filmed in downtown Senoia, Georgia, which is about 30 miles away.

The next, and final photo, is from Iron Man. See what it is…

Iron Man

Marvel Studios got better over the years at capturing Iron Man on screen. By the time they introduced War Machine, they had it down pat. But considering the fact that there’s always room for improvement, only time will tell what trick they have up their sleeve for the next movie.

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Iron Man 3 was the first movie in the franchise not to be directed by Jon Favreau, who turned it down to direct Magic Kingdom instead. He later admitted that not directing the film allowed him to have more fun with his character “Happy” Hogan. He said how he was like “a proud grandfather, who doesn’t have to change the nappies, but gets to play with the baby.” Aw, how sweet…

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