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10 Ridiculous Movie Sets Created For A Single Scene

by Aaron Short
fact checked by Jamie Frater

These days, it’s hard to be impressed by movie set pieces. While watching films like The Hobbit, World War Z, and The Avengers, we’re all too aware that we’re seeing computer-generated special effects. However, there was a time when grand set pieces had to exist in the real world in some shape or form, and you won’t believe the lengths that some directors went to to create them. Even in some modern films, practical effects are still used over cheaper CGI. Here are some of the biggest, most expensive, and most insane movie set pieces in history that were created for single scenes.

10The Blues Brothers Dropped A Car Into Chicago

The Blues Brothers Nazi’s car drop

The Blues Brothers was directed by John Landis and starred two of the biggest comedic stars of the era: John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. It was a miracle that the film even managed to be released given Belushi’s insane cocaine consumption (the film had its own cocaine budget), the movie’s never-ending filming schedule, and its mammoth, ever-expanding budget. Luckily, when the film was finally released, it went on to become a huge hit, due in part to some of the huge set pieces it employed.

In the above clip, Jake and Elroy are being chased by the Chicago police department and a group of American Nazis. The Bluesmobile leads the Nazis on a merry chase and loses them when the Nazis overshoot a jump and are seemingly catapulted into the stratosphere. In order to make the scene, John Landis hired a helicopter to lift a Pinto 360 meters (1,200 ft) into the air and drop it. Bizarrely, Landis actually got permission from the FAA and the city to do this over Chicago. Luckily, the car landed on target—in a vacant lot—where it was crushed to a height of just 45 centimeters (18 in) by the extreme force of being dropped from a helicopter.

9Raiders Of The Lost Ark Used 6,000 Real Snakes

Indianna Jones: Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?

Indiana Jones hates snakes. This is readily apparent in the above scene where Indiana comes face to face with thousands of them crawling over every inch of an ancient Egyptian tomb. In order to shoot the scene, Steven Spielberg decided to use thousands of real snakes. Some sources say there were 6,000, but Steven Spielberg himself claims that there were more like 9,000. Either way, that’s way too many snakes. The kicker: All of them were biters, and some were even highly venomous.

While filming, the crew eventually learned how to handle the snakes, figuring out which ones were harmless and which were deadly. Only the cobras were kept away from the cast and crew behind Plexiglass—in the scene above, you’ll see that Harrison Ford’s reflection is present when he comes face to face with the king cobra. That’s because the cobras still had their venom. All the other snakes were just scattered around the floor like Halloween decorations.

8The Wachowskis Built Their Own Freeway For The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded-Highway Fight Scene Part2 (HD)

The Matrix Reloaded features what is arguably one of the best car chases in movie history. The Wachowskis pretty much threw everything they had at this scene, and it went on to become the one thing that everyone actually liked about Reloaded. Although the scene clearly uses a lot of CGI, one thing couldn’t be generated by computers: the road.

In order to shoot the climactic scene, the Wachowskis had to actually build the road itself. It was constructed on a naval base in California and was 2.4 kilometers (1.5 mi) long, complete with off-ramps and a 5.8-meter (19 ft) wall. (The wall hid the city of San Francisco just on the other side.) The cars are also real. General Motors donated over 100 for the scene, all of which were destroyed by the Wachowskis.

7Gandhi Had Over 300,000 Extras For One Scene

Gandhi – Funeral Procession

The funeral in Richard Attenborough’s epic biopic Gandhi is huge. Looking at the clip, it’s easy to suspect digital trickery of some kind. Seeing that many people in a single scene seems just a bit unreal. The movie needed that effect for good reason; it’s estimated that over a million people attended the real Gandhi’s funeral. In order to accurately portray the pure sense of scale of the real event, Richard Attenborough needed to do something big.

Attenborough hired 3,000 extras and taught them to march in the style of the 1940s Indian military. Another 98,000 were bussed in, and at least another 250,000 turned up in response to adverts for further extras. What you’re seeing in the above video is not some sort of special effect. Nobody knows quite how many extras were there, but Attenborough estimated that the final number was somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 real people. This set a world record, making Gandhi the film with the largest number of extras ever.

6The General Destroyed An Antique Train

The iconic train scene from ‘General’ by Buster Keaton, 1927

The 1926 film The General, starring Buster Keaton, is the only silent movie on this list. The reason for its inclusion is the fact that the above scene cost $42,000 to make. That may not sound like a lot in modern movie terms, but in 1926 that was a staggering amount of money, making this scene the most expensive of the silent era. Even as far back as the ’20s, Keaton realized what Michael Bay has known for the last few decades: Film is about spectacle, and people really like to see things get blown up.

In order to shoot the scene, Keaton purchased a real antique train and collapsed the bridge as it was going across. Everything here is real (there are no miniatures involved). They had one shot to do it right, and luckily everything went off without a hitch. Apparently, while filming the scene, a group of nearby townspeople turned up to watch. They were so convinced that the dummy on the front of the train was Keaton that they screamed in horror when the bridge collapsed.

5Ben Hur Had One Of The Biggest Sets Of All Time

Ben-Hur (3/10) Movie CLIP – The Chariot Race (1959) HD

Younger movie fans may not have seen this movie, but we’d encourage them to do so. Although the film looks quite dated by today’s standards, the lengths that the filmmakers went to to create the huge, climactic chariot race is mind-blowing. At the time of its release, Ben Hur‘s chariot arena was the biggest movie set ever built. It covered a gigantic 18 acres and included a 450-meter (1,500 ft) straightaway and 9-meter (30 ft) statues. It took one year and 1,000 men to build. If that doesn’t seem excessive enough, they also reportedly imported 36,000 tons of white sand from Mexico for the track.

And then there were the horses—there were 82 on hand for the scene, although only 36 were used. The audience in the stand is also completely real. Over 8,000 extras were brought in to whoop and cheer at the spectacle. Heston and Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, did nearly all of their own riding and stunts, except the big crashes. And although plenty of real accidents made it into the film, the rider who falls and is dragged under the horses was intentional. Apparently, they tried to do the stunt with a dummy but it looked fake, so one of the stuntmen strapped on some steel pads and threw himself under the horses for real. Miraculously, he wasn’t killed.

4Stanley Kubrick Recreated A Vietnamese Town In Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket scene

This iconic scene shows American GIs inching their way through the apocalyptic landscape of a bombed-out Vietnamese town crawling with enemy VC, but rather than Southeast Asia, this scene was filmed at Beckton Gasworks in London. The gasworks, which were due for demolition, had a similar style of architecture to the Vietnamese town of Hue, and all Kubrick had to do was fly in a few real palm trees. Although you don’t get a true sense of scale from the picture, the surrounding buildings had some of their foundations smashed by sledgehammers to give the appearance that they’d been bombed out.

Kubrick wanted to actually blast the abandoned gas works with dynamite, but the British army put their foot down at that. He settled for attaching thousands of squibs (small fireworks) to the building so that when Hannibal (Adam Baldwin) charges the enemy sniper, you really get a sense of what it would be like if a whole troupe of American GIs were to open fire on a building. In typical Kubrick style, he got the actors to repeat the scene over and over again for a full month.

3The Train In Inception Was Completely Real

Inception train in the city

Christopher Nolan appears twice on this list because he is one of the few modern directors who still creates large practical effects for his films. A lazier director (or one with a smaller budget) would probably just do what he does digitally, but that wouldn’t look anywhere near as impressive. Luckily for us, Nolan has the money and the work ethic to do it the hard way. One of the most striking scenes in Inception occurs when a freight train comes barreling down a busy street, smashing cars out of its way.

This was filmed by building a realistic train around a semi with an extended axle and driving it down an actual street. The cars it smashes into are also real. In fact, the only CGI element is the damage done to the street by the train’s wheels, an effect so subtle it’s pretty hard to notice. Everything else is 100 percent real.

2Francis Ford Coppola Burned Down A Real Forest For Apocalypse Now

I Love The Smell of Napalm in the Morning ::: Apocalypse Now

In the opening scene of Apocalypse Now, The Doors’ song “The End” plays over what must surely be archive footage of a Vietnamese jungle being napalmed by American planes in the Vietnam War. It seems utterly impossible that such destruction could happen outside of a real war. Except, of course, it did. Coppola chose to film in the Philippines, a country very similar to Vietnam in terms of its climate and look. Due to his fame (he’d recently made The Godfather), he was pretty much allowed carte blanche to do what he wanted.

With the support of the Philippine army (who gave Coppola the use of their helicopters), he burned several acres of real jungle to the ground. In the scene, the helicopters are actually dropping gasoline on the palm trees. As if that wasn’t crazy enough, those are real military helicopters. Apparently, Coppola was severely annoyed by the fact that they kept flying off to fight in a real war while he was trying to film.

1The Dark Knight Built And Destroyed A Hospital

Batman Dark Knight – Joker Hospital Scene HD

The Dark Knight is the film that truly set the bar for all comic book adaptations. A large part of what made the movie so memorable was the huge set pieces it employed, along with Heath Ledger’s uncanny performance as the Joker. One scene in particular combines both those aspects perfectly—the hospital scene. There’s no digital trickery going on here. In order to create the scene, Christopher Nolan actually built the hospital around the shell of an old parking lot and blew it up while filming Heath Ledger capering around dangerously close to the blast.

What makes this explosion stand out is the utter complexity with which the building is destroyed. It took weeks just to rig the various charges that would allow the building to collapse sequentially. Clearly, they only had one chance to film this right. Luckily, the stunt went off without a hitch and was filmed in one glorious, mostly unedited long take. There’s an apocryphal story that the Joker’s slight pause was unscripted because one of the charges didn’t blow. According to the “making of” documentary, this is completely false. Every aspect of this stunt was planned out with precision, including that slight comic aside.

Aaron Short is a freelance writer and film student who lives in Edinburgh

fact checked by Jamie Frater