It’s hard to remember a time when computers weren’t the go-to solution for filmmakers who need to bring the impossible to life.
In the decades since we saw dinosaurs sprint and roar on screen in Jurassic Park, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has only become more and more accessible to directors…
…but even so, there have been plenty of unbelievable moments that didn’t actually rely on green screens or After Effects.
Here are some of the most memorable movie scenes and moments that are so incredible that you’ll have a hard time believing they weren’t done with computer-generated wizardry.
5. Ripley’s Behind-the-Back Basket (Alien: Resurrection)
Sometimes, amazing moments take place in otherwise underwhelming movies—like this scene in Alien: Resurrection.
While the movie itself is a mostly forgettable entry in the Alien franchise, the scene has a clone of Ellen Ripley showing off her enhanced strength and reflexes… by sinking a no-look, behind-the-back basketball shot.
It would’ve been easy enough to fake the bit using computer imagery or creative camera trickery, but Sigourney Weaver (the star of the franchise who played Ellen Ripley) had other plans.
She trained for weeks to make this basket, wanting it to be as authentic as possible. On set, however, the distance was farther than she had practiced, so she had trouble sinking it.
The director was eager to fix it in post-production and move on, but Weaver insisted on one more chance. This time, she sunk the basket perfectly, resulting in the take they used in the film.
Fun fact: Co-star Ron Perlman was so excited to see Weaver finally make the shot that he briefly breaks character and almost renders the take unusable. Fortunately, a bit of clever editing covers it up in the final version.
4. Peter Parker’s Lunch Catching Skills (Spider-Man)
Peter Parker might be the amazing Spider-Man, but actor Tobey Maguire is just a tad less impressive—which is what makes this iconic shot so awesome to witness.
It’s the kind of scene that looks like it should have been shot using special effects, but director Sam Raimi—who made his name with low-budget horror classics like The Evil Dead—had always been a fan of using practical effects wherever possible.
Sure, the tray in the scene is covered with a powerful adhesive that makes the food stick to it as it falls, but it’s no less impressive—especially considering that it reportedly took over 150 takes for Maguire to make the shot work perfectly.
The result? We, the audience, can really believe that Peter Parker is truly superhuman after witnessing something like this.
3. Performing Surgery on the Terminator’s Head (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
Scenes involving reflections pose a special sort of problem to filmmakers: how do you hide the camera when you’re trying to film what’s happening in the mirror?
Most of the time, the answer is to remove the mirror entirely and have the actors on the other side of where the glass should be. That’s not what happened in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
While Terminator 2: Judgment Day was full of top-notch special effects for the time, one of its most interesting shots relies on a bit of camera trickery rather than expensive CGI.
In a deleted scene where Sarah Connor is doing repairs inside the Terminator’s head, her reflection can be seen clearly in the mirror while she’s in the foreground with her wrist inside the cyborg’s skull. How was this done without the camera showing up in the reflection?
As it turns out, Linda Hamilton has an identical twin sister—and she’s the one playing Sarah Connor in the foreground, mimicking her sister’s movements on a prop of Arnie’s head and shoulders. Ha!
2. The Light Cannon (How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
Sometimes, movie studios rely on CGI and special effects because it’s the cheaper option that frees up the need to buy expensive props and build expensive sets and pay for actors’ time on set.
Other times, however, it’s the other way around—like in the case of Ron Howard’s live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas and its scene where a citizen of Whoville uses what appears to be a gatling gun to affix their Christmas lights to their house.
How did they pull this shot off? What’s actually happening in this scene is, the lights are being sucked into the gun and the footage is simply reversed in post-production. The effect is one of the simpler ones on this list, but it’s still an effective one.
1. Catwoman’s Whip Skills (Batman Returns)
Catwoman without her whip is barely Catwoman, so in 1992’s Batman Returns, it only made sense for Michelle Pfeiffer to wield the iconic weapon herself—for real.
In an early scene where she’s pulling a chaotic heist of a department store, Catwoman takes a moment to take out her frustrations on some helpless mannequins in the shop window. She knocks each of the heads off, one by one, before casually skipping away.
What’s impressive about this scene isn’t just that Pfeiffer did this without any help from special effects or clever camera trickery, but that she nailed the whole thing on her first take.
Behind-the-scenes footage that surfaced in 2021 showed the reaction of the film crew after she pulls it off, letting loose with loud cheers as Catwoman gleefully prances away—which, honestly, is the most appropriate reaction I can think of.