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Starring Special Effects

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"If I were an agent repping a vfx company, here’s a one-side transcript of what the start of negotiations might sound like: “Look, my client’s work is the anchor of your worldwide marketing campaign. They’re the real star of the movie. They’re not? Who is? Henry Cavill? Charlie Hunnam? Nice TV actors, but they’re not opening your movie. The only thing opening your movie around the world is my client’s visual effects. We are making you millions. You need to pay accordingly."
David S. Cohen of Variety, "Guilds? Nah. Here’s Who the VFX Biz Needs"
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He's got style. He's got personality. He's got top billing in all the posters. He is undeniably the best character in the whole damn movie. He is...a big budget special effect?

That's right, folks: You don't need to be a human being or even technically alive to be the star. With a big enough budget, a little imagination and some talent to provide a memorable voice (though this may not be the case for much longer), you can take a prop and turn it into a character.

This trope is all about movies that not only employ such special effect characters, but put them in the spotlight: if you can take the Muppets, Serkis Folk or Toons out of a movie without affecting the plot line or core cast, then it's not this trope.


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Examples:

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     Film  

  • The vast majority of movies with effects made by the undisputed master of Stop Motion, Ray Harryhausen. He treated each monster as a character in and of itself, giving them operatic deaths when he could. Special mention goes to:
  • Short Circuit features Johnny 5, an animatronic robot, as the lead character.
  • The infamous film version of Howard the Duck realized the title character with a performer in an animatronic suit, five puppeteers operating its functions, and a voiceover by actor Chip Zien, while the true form of the evil Dark Overlord that he confronts in the climax is a stop-motion creation. The Golden Raspberry Awards had this trope in mind when "The Six Guys and Gals in the Duck Suit" won the dishonor of Worst New Star for 1986.
  • Dragonheart, where Sean Connery voices a CGI dragon.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
  • The live-action Transformers movies are mainly a vehicle to show off a whole set of special effects characters. Some critics actually claim they didn't do this enough: Who came here to see a bunch of humans we don't actually care about? Give us the robots!
  • The live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies.
  • The live-action Garfield movies.
  • Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which merge live action and animation in much the same way as Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The credits for both films actually use "Bugs Bunny" as part of the starring role.
  • The live-action Alvin and the Chipmunks movies.
  • The live-action Scooby-Doo movies
  • The live-action The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle movie
  • The live-action Casper movie, and its sequels. Roger Ebert even described the first one in his review as "a movie that essentially stars computer programming".
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  • Andy Serkis has played three of the most famous examples:
  • Pretty much any Kaiju movie qualifies as this.
    • Godzilla. Both the original Japanese version (who was played by a guy in a rubber suit... as well as an animatronic head used for close-ups in later films) and the CGI versions of the 1998 and 2014 American remakes.
    • The titular stars (yes, there were two of 'em) of Rodan were played both by guys in rubber suits and by large puppets.
    • Mothra herself is an animatronic puppet. Though, later films also use CGI for the flying scenes.
    • Baby Irys was an animatronic puppet... and the main villain of the film Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys. Irys' adult form uses a mixture of "guy in rubber suit" and CGI for the flying scenes. Gamera himself is also this trope.
    • King Kong. Possibly the originator of the trope, to the point where Fay Wray was initially told that she would be appearing with the "tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood".
    • A borderline example in The Host, where the human characters are given far more screentime and rich backstories. On the other hand, the director treated the monster like any actual actor, overseeing every motion it made and taking an active hand in developing its performance. Presumably, this monster-as-actor idea is part of why the effects team named the monster "Steve Buscemi".
    • Pacific Rim is well aware that you came for the giant robots fighting giant monsters, and while it will offer you a genuinely engaging plot, most of it works to get the actors from one huge robot fight to another.
  • All the movies starring The Muppets. The policy of working with Muppets is that one has to treat them as legitimate people, to the point that many Muppeteers don't break character during the outtakes of the production. Muppets even get their own promotional interviews with the media!
  • The Dark Crystal was the first live-action movie with no human cast. Every character, however big or small, is a puppet. This adds to the viewer's immersion in Jim Henson and Brian Froud's World Building.
  • Their Spiritual Successor Labyrinth also qualifies as the vast bulk of the characters are realized with puppets, although the protagonist and principal antagonist are played by standard actors.
  • The Star Wars prequel trilogy has Jar-Jar Binks, Jabba The Hutt, and Yoda, along with many CGI supporting characters. (Yoda, of course, was always a special effect; he just didn't become a CGI special effect until the prequels.) In fact, there are points in which live actors are the exception rather than the norm.
    • Rogue One featured CGI versions of Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia.
  • Christopher Johnson in District 9.
  • Avatar
  • S1m0ne is an in-universe example.
  • The makers of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance seem to describe the movie as such while trying to downplay the role of the movie's actual star Nicholas Cage.
  • Variation: The film Battle of the River Plate included acting credits for the warships involved in filming it.
  • Ted co-stars a living teddy bear (done in motion capture) voiced by Seth MacFarlane.
  • The trailer for the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still made it clear that the special effects had the starring role, not Keanu Reeves.
  • The laid-back stop-motion monster in Flesh Gordon is the best part of the picture — even better than the sex.
  • Rod Taylor and Guy Pearce are leading men who found themselves playing second-fiddle to their respective time machines.
  • Though the Inspector Gadget films were critically panned, the best thing about them is how they seamlessly blend CGI and practical props (courtesy Stan Winston Studios) and bring the Inspector's gadgets into real, three-dimensional life, showing how they might look in the real world.
  • Darby O'Gill and the Little People: Disney's publicity department was advised to treat the character of King Brian not as an actor enhanced by special effects, but by a "real" leprechaun. Walt Disney even went as far as to make an episode of his television show in which he went to Ireland to convince Brian to appear in the film.
  • While the titular character downplayed this, being a mix of Ryan Reynolds' physical performance and CGI, Deadpool lampshades the trope in the opening credits, with "A CGI Character" listed among the cast (this refers to Colossus, who was Serkis Folk'd into the movie).
  • Robby the Robot was a breakout character in Forbidden Planet. Robby's subsequent career spanned decades and included appearances in many movies and T.V. shows, including The Twilight Zone and Columbo.
  • Like the above-mentioned Dark Crystal, Meet the Feebles is a movie with an all-puppet cast.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe: Some of the most popular characters are CGI creations:
  • The Mask: Jim Carrey and the special effects share joint billing and work together to startling effect.
  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu with not only its eponymous character, but a large number of other Pokémon species in secondary or supporting roles.
  • Downplayed with The Fly (1986). For the bulk of the film, the Doomed Protagonist Seth Brundle is played by Jeff Goldblum via a makeup-based Slow Transformation that incorporates People in Rubber Suits in the later stages. But in the film's final minutes, crucial Vomit Indiscretion Shots and Seth's One-Winged Angel form of "Brundlefly" — a completely inhuman-looking, voiceless monster — are realized via animatronic puppets, and the transitions between techniques are so smoothly handled that the audience just sees one single tragic character all along. The special effects company that realized both the makeup and the puppetry is listed first in the end credits to acknowledge its importance, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Makeup. The 1989 B-Team Sequel The Fly II, directed by the head of the previous film's effects team, plays this straighter by having the Spin-Offspring protagonist Martin mature into "Martinfly" at the top of the third act, meaning that about a fourth of the film's runtime is following an even more elaborate special effects creation.
  • The Call of the Wild (2020) might have Harrison Ford as the top-billed actor and narrator, but the central character is Buck, a Big Friendly Dog created through CG.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) has Sonic, of course. And Tails, in the Sequel Hook.
  • The live-action Peter Rabbit film prominently features the eponymous rabbit and his friends animated in CGI.

     Live Action TV  

  • ALF: By all accounts, the puppet was treated better than the human actors.
  • Max Headroom. The title character was played by Matt Frewer with lots of prosthetic makeup, bluescreen and editing.
  • The majority of LazyTown's main cast are puppets.
  • Sesame Street and The Muppet Show would be nothing without their Muppet casts.
  • The Jim Henson Company puppets of Farscape, two of which were in the main cast, went a long way in giving the show its distinct visual style and set it apart in a genre mostly populated by Rubber-Forehead Aliens.
  • Blue's Clues: The only real character is a single guy standing in front of a greenscreen talking to himself. Everything else is animated except the Thinking Chair, the letter, and the notebook.
  • seaQuest DSV had Darwin, an animatronic "talking" dolphin so realistic viewers couldn't tell the difference.

     Theater  
  • In the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the car takes the final bow. One wonders what the actual actors think of this.
  • Car Talk The Musical, with its mammoth talking car prop.
  • War Horse, though the story and other performances are perfectly good, is most famous for the magnificent horse puppets, and Joey the horse is at least a deuteragonist, if not quite the full protagonist of the story.
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