Why practical effects work better than CGI in movies


In the last few decades, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has largely supplanted practical effects in Hollywood moviemaking. Indeed, contemporary filmmakers now use CGI to craft fantastic vistas, startlingly lifelike inhuman creatures, and awe-inspiring virtual combat. Despite the remarkable things that can be done with digital special effects, movies made with animatronics, pyrotechnics, and miniatures still look better.

That is not to say CGI doesn’t play an essential role in modern filmmaking. The current superhero movie boom wouldn’t have occurred if digital special effects artists couldn’t make Iron Man’s armor and Superman’s flight look convincing. Still, generally speaking, quality practical effects create films with an unmatchable verisimilitude.

Here are three reasons why practical special effects can make movies better than CGI.

Practical Effects Require Creative Solutions

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film “Jaws” is about a bloodthirsty great white shark that menaces a quiet New England island. Thanks to the film’s first-rate performances, crisp direction, and clever high-concept, it became a massive $470 million hit upon release. Indeed, film scholars credit the movie with kick-starting the blockbuster style of filmmaking that remains popular today.

The film was also one of the most notoriously troubled cinematic productions of its era. Specifically, its titular monster, created by art director John Alves and special-effects artist Robert A. Matlin, was a nightmare to operate.

The movie’s crew made the creature with a hard polyurethane shell, a tubular steel skeleton, and a pneumatic motion system. The production team intended for the animatronic beast to mimic the fearsome look and movements of an actual shark. Unfortunately, Spielberg filmed his breakthrough picture on Martha’s Vineyard’s saltwater coast. As a result, the mechanical monster’s electrical systems frequently got wet and needed regular repairs.

Consequently, the director and his team had to improvise around their technical difficulties. Instead of being featured in 300 shots as initially intended, “Jaws’” antagonist only appears sparingly. As a result, the brief sequences where the great white is on-screen have an incredibly visceral impact that still chills audiences to the bone.

Today, Hollywood filmmakers spend millions of dollars on cutting-edge CGI to make their movie monsters stalk around the screen seamlessly. Yet, in doing so, directors undercut the fearsome nature of their monstrosities through overexposure. Besides, modern movie makers spend so much time focusing on their creations’ skin texture and hair movement, that they don’t work out how to maximize their appearances on screen.

So, while the gigantic CGI shark featured in 2018’s “The Meg” looks better than the one featured in “Jaws,” it doesn’t have a tenth of its predecessor’s visceral impact.

Too Much CGI Hurts Performances

There are many reasons why Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy disappointed fans of his infinitely superior “Lord of the Rings” movies. For one, the more recent series has an epic run time that doesn’t match its less than monumental narrative. Even worse, the films’ overwhelming use of CGI makes it feel less emotionally resonant than Jackson’s original J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations.

Though they were released in the early 2000s, Jackson and his team produced the “Rings” movies in the late ‘90s. As a result of the era’s technical constraints as well as budget limitations, the production used CGI sparingly. Instead, the filmmakers utilized models, matte paintings, forced perspective, and a wealth of prosthetics to bring Middle-earth to the big screen.

Coupled with the majestic landscapes of rural New Zealand, the trilogy’s special effects captured the imagination of a generation of filmgoers.

Unfortunately, Jackson and company had access to much greater financial and technical resources when making the “Hobbit” films. Accordingly, the trilogy features a version of Middle-Earth primarily made with green screens and computer animation. Sadly, the new vision of the fabled land looks and feels dispiritingly fake.

The film series’ CGI backgrounds lack texture and its characters feel disconnected because its actors filmed many of their scenes alone. Moreover, the broad array of computer-animated set-pieces lacks distinctiveness and falls flat more often than not. Even “LoTR” star Viggo Mortensen thinks that the “Hobbit” trilogy’s reliance on digital special effects made it feel inorganic.

Indeed, the “Rings” films stunned the world because of their groundbreaking rendering of the all CGI character Gollum. However, the warped hobbit lost his specialness in a world full of digitally rendered monsters.

The Wonder of the Uncanny

Released in 1993, Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” wowed audiences with its majestic vision of genetically engineered dinosaurs. The director and his collaborators brought the 65-million-year-old beasts to life using a combination of CGI and practical effects. While the film’s computer animation enhancements allowed the Tyrannosaurus Rex and raptors to chase down their prey, its animatronics gave them life.

The legendary Sam Winston Studios created a 43.5 foot tall Spinosaurus that utilized 43 individual hydraulic cylinders to simulate motion. Moreover, the group covered the prehistoric animal with a richly textured foam exterior comparable to the skin and musculature of a living creature. The effects house also gave the 1,000 horsepower mechanical creature a tail capable of producing 2 Gs of force.

Because of the studio’s meticulous work, the Spinosaurus had undeniable real-life weight and power. As such, the film’s cast didn’t have to imagine encountering a dinosaur, they could just react to the beast in front of them. Consequently, Spielberg’s reincarnated dinosaurs have an uncanny sensibility that evokes a sense of wonder in the viewer.

Comparatively, “Jurassic World,” the 2015 revival of the “Jurassic Park” franchise, features only CGI saurians. While its prehistoric creatures have a wide range of movement, they lack tactility. Accordingly, the revamp’s dinosaurs never feel as dangerous or awe-inspiring as they should.

This year’s “Terminator: Dark Fate” suffers from a similar problem. Gabriel Luna’s Rev9 Terminator can run faster and jump higher than the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick models. Yet, his physics-defying movements make him impossible to take seriously as a threat.

Recent advances in processing capability and storage capacity have allowed effects artists to create incredible CGI renderings. However, when placed alongside human beings in a real-world context, computer graphics still don’t look as good as practical effects.