Today is the anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film that launched the legendary Indiana Jones franchise. In this exclusive video for io9, Backyard VFX artist Joey Shanks recreates the Ark reveal that melted a million faces. The video also features behind-the-scenes interviews from Raiders that demonstrate what makes practical effects like these so memorable.

Indiana Jones isn’t just a series about a guy in a cool hat, it’s a monument to an iconic era in action films. And the reason the series has thrived—even in spite of certain nuclear refrigerator moments—isn’t just because of Harrison Ford’s good looks (though those certainly help). It’s also because of the groundbreaking special effects. Nowadays, most special effects are done digitally, but Raiders of the Lost Ark didn’t have that option. So, it had to be a little more creative.

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In the final climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana and Marion look on in horror as Belloq and the Nazis prepare to open the Ark of the Covenant in an effort to gain power. Only, upon opening it, they realize the Ark is full of sand—and murder ghosts. A vortex of power shoots up, throwing bolts of energy into the crowd and horrifically killing everyone there... except for Indy and Marion, who refuse to look at the Ark. In the final moments, the Ark’s lid is blasted into the sky, only to be dropped down and sealed. This is the moment Shanks has replicated with a Shop Vac, some glittery sand, and a toy replica Ark.

Digital effects may be producing some incredible work, bringing us closer and closer to the Uncanny Valley, but they will always be lacking something that practical effects have always had. Practical work is a challenge—both for the filmmaker and for the audience. The filmmaker is challenged to experiment, trying new things in order to create or replicate something that doesn’t exist or isn’t easily available. For the audience, it challenges us to see moments like the Ark reveal as representative of something else. Something bigger. We all can tell the Ark isn’t filled with angels of death. We also know the melty wax face isn’t a real person. But we allow ourselves the room to believe it’s real. That’s something special, unique only to the realm of practical magic.

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Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

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DISCUSSION

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Citizen-Snips

The problems with even good CGI come down to granularity and physics.

When an effect is done practically (or “real”), there are all kinds of little details that happen that your brain recognizes as real. Like smoke reacting how it really reacts, or the density of particles in an explosion, that so far cannot be replicated by CGI. Either due to technical or artistic limitations. Your brain recognizes these tiny differences and is not tricked at all. Whereas really good practical effects can trick you.

The second related problem is physics. CGI allows directors to abandon physics, so they do even when it makes no sense. So people fall impossible distances and live, or they simply don’t fall the way our brains recognize how an object should really fall. Or how concepts like weight and leverage work in the real world versus something simulated.

This is why good practical effects from 40 years ago still hold up, and good CGI from 10 years ago looks like shit, and good CGI from today will look wholly unconvincing while a real fight scene from a 50 year old film will look better.

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