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Firsts: 9 creepy creature effects firsts, from T-Rexes to tentacles

Contributed by
Jan 31, 2018

Creature features have been crawling onscreen since 1915, when The Golem haunted audiences with its cinematic take on a mythic monster. But creature effects have evolved since the silent film era — and the ones that tend to lurk in the backs of our minds were also the ones that made effects history.

In 2018, we're so spoiled by visual effects that we might forget how the TV and movie monsters that terrorize us first spawned. Werewolves didn’t always just break out in digital hair during a certain phase of the moon, tentacles could only sink ships with hydraulics and pneumatics, and dinosaurs were more … prehistoric. Before we had the technology to merge actors with CGI, they were transformed into anthropomorphic beasts by donning rubber suits. You have to admit, it's eerily fascinating to think that the first CGI-rendered creature, a hummingbird created by Charles Csuri and James Shaffer for an experimental film contest, led to the pterodactyls soaring overhead in Jurassic Park.

Go behind the webbed feet, reptilian skin, disembodied limbs, and extra appendages with these nine groundbreaking creature effects. Be careful, though — they may still freak you out.

First stop-motion animation creatures

The Lost World may be a fossil compared to Jurassic Park, but the 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book of the same name spawned our fascination with dinosaur films long before those raptor eggs hatched. The first dinosaur movie ever was also the first feature-length stop-motion animation film and the first film ever shown on an airplane.

The Lost World featured special effects by Willis O’Brien, who was later behind King Kong’s iconic scaling of the Empire State building. Sauropods and brachiopods appear to mingle with humans because they were later added in by double exposure — but it was shockingly real to the audiences of that era.

So what if the dinosaurs in this movie look like the toys you used to stage epic prehistoric fight scenes with? That T-Rex sinking its teeth into the triceratops is pretty badass, even if it does have to pull some awkward moves to get to the jugular.

First hairy anthropomorphic creature

Long before a fur suit of galactic proportions could call itself Chewbacca, the first onscreen hairy humanoid made a transformation in Werewolf of London. Fur suits didn’t exist any more than werewolves in 1935, so, makeup artist Jack Pierce had to glue yak hair onto actor Henry Hull’s face for that full-moon realness.

It didn’t help that Hull growled at Pierce's original plan to give him the full lycanthrope treatment like he would later do to Lon Cheney in 1941’s The Wolf Man; this was supposedly to keep from obscuring facial features, since Hull insisted the werewolf had to be recognizable to the humans in the film. Hull was so fierce about remaining identifiable that he went straight to Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle when Pierce refused to make him look more human than lycan. An audio blend of Hull’s voice and a timber wolf gave him that spooky howl, which was never duplicated quite so hauntingly with another movie werewolf.

First movie monster that was mutated by an atom bomb

The evolution of movie dinosaurs continued with not Godzilla but legendary SFX artist Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion Rhedosaurus in the 1953 thriller The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Harryhausen's creation amped up the fear factor, giving it more bite than the monster in Ray Bradbury's story the film was based on. Bradbury had described the enormous neck of something similar to the Loch Ness Monster surfacing from a dark sea, but that just didn’t have enough teeth for Harryhausen.

Bringing such a dinosaur (especially one that never roamed the earth) to life was a monster project. Since the original script left the creature up to the imagination, Harryhausen came up with several designs and eventually rejected a rounder head for a more threatening T-Rex profile. He even used non-extinct reptiles, such as crocodiles and iguanas, as his models. What eventually crawled out of the studio was a fully articulated scale model with simulated bones made of resin and eerily lifelike scaly skin.

First creature suit (it’s not what you think)

Sorry Godzilla, but Gill-Man was actually the first human in a rubber suit to terrorize moviegoers back in 1954's Creature From the Black Lagoon. The film’s release beat Godzilla by about half a year.

Gill-Man actor Ben Chapman would get so overheated by the amphibious foam rubber suit (worn over a latex body stocking) that he was often found being hosed down in the lake behind the set. The suit was swamp-moss green with creepy yellowish eyes to make Gill-Man look even fishier, and was highlighted with gold and copper paint around the scales after Chapman put it on — not that the shimmer really did much for a black and white movie. Chapman’s underwater double, Ricou Browning, kept cool since he was usually submerged, but he had just as much difficulty as Chapman did seeing through the suit's eye holes. Luckily, Browning at least had less trouble holding his breath — he could do it for an unreal four and a half minutes. Maybe he was the real Creature from the Black Lagoon all along.

First animatronic Disney movie monster

Clash of the Titans may be best known for its mammoth cephalopod, but Disney released the (animatronic) Kraken decades before that with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, the same year that Gill-Man stalked the murky waters of Florida.

Jules Verne would have been proud of the Imagineered leviathan that almost sank the Nautilus. The original was red like the real giant squids of the deep, but it wasn’t necessarily built for assaulting ships, as filming would have to stop when chunks of its tentacles fell off or intense lighting made the wires too visible. The revamped squid was powered by hydraulics and pneumatics. Air pumps were connected to its tentacles, and when someone activated a pump behind the scenes, air filled its writhing appendages, which would go up and then coil when the air left. This monster was the precursor to the Audio-Animatronics that would later appear in Mary Poppins a decade later.

First Muppets

It wasn’t Rolf. It wasn’t Piggy. It wasn’t even Kermit. Jim Henson’s first Muppets were Wilkins and Wontkins, who advertised Wilkins coffee and tea on TV through a series of often violent face-offs that involved Wilkins using all sorts of tactics to try to get Wontkins to drink the brand’s brew. Because local stations only gave Henson 10 seconds of Muppet antics, the commercials had to be shot at warp speed, with eight of those seconds to pitch the perfect cup and two for a product shot. Not that time was an issue for these two. The deceptively perky Wilkins would do everything from firing ornery Wontkins through a cannon to smashing a cake in his face to tarring and feathering him, threatening him with a guillotine, and even blowing him up with dynamite.

The only time Wontkins escapes this torture was when he snuck behind a palm tree on a tropical island and confessed he actually liked Wilkins coffee.

First creature without a face

Appropriately billed as "itself" in the end credits, Thing (full name: Thing T. Thing) was imagined by Charles Addams as a creature that was so grotesque, the only part of it that wouldn’t make you shriek in terror was its arm. That eventually led to Thing creeping onto The Addams Family TV series as a disembodied limb in 1964.

Before CGI, creating the illusion of an arm without a body was something of a magic act. Lurch actor Ted Cassidy literally lent a hand to play the unidentified life-form, which meant the 6’ 9” Cassidy often had to lie on a trolley below camera level and stick his hand through the bottom of the box Thing lived in.

Thing also managed to singlehandedly get the mail, help Morticia with her sewing, hand Gomez a cigar, flip records over in the phonograph, and change the channel on the television. Sometimes Cassidy would even use his left hand instead of his right just to see if anyone would notice. They usually didn’t.

First CGI and animatronic creature mashup

When Jurassic Park rose out of the mists of Isla Nublar in 1993, audiences were just as shocked as Dr. Grant to see a brachiosaurus in their faces. Getting the dinosaurs to look like they could stomp through the screen at any moment required a few genetic experiments that merged animatronics with the latest CGI technology. Even special effects artists such as Dennis Muren and Stan Winston, previously of Terminator 2, were nervous about bringing them back from extinction. Not all the animatronics could be life-size — have you ever seen a dinosaur skeleton in person?

Steven Spielberg also knew this, which is why most of the giant lizards were really just the upper or bottom half. CGI filled in those DNA gaps when Spielberg felt they weren’t photorealistic enough. The director decided to go full-on CGI with some shots after Muren and his ILM team rendered some of them digitally. In case you were wondering, that T-Rex that broke loose and terrorized the park was one of the rare few full-size animatronics in the film, which is probably why it proved to be so horrifying at the time.

First motion capture of a human actor with CGI effects

Middle-earth was magical because of the special effects dreamed up by WETA for the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). This included everything from epic battles to curious creatures such as Gollum, a tricksy humanoid (or hobbit-oid) CGI mutation of Andy Serkis. Serkis initially had no idea how Peter Jackson planned to warp his human face into a creature that was often depicted in fan art as a skeletal thing with huge glowing eyes.

In the end, the actor donned a gray unitard for the role, and multiple cameras tracked him using reflective markers attached to pivot points on his face and body as he clawed for the Ring or crept up on sleeping hobbitses. Serkis' movements were then reconstructed in 3D by using triangulation and matching the marker tracks. What’s really creepy about his transformation is that all those snarls and stares might have been laid over with gray skin and half-rotted teeth, but are not special effects in themselves — Serkis is just that frighteningly brilliant.