CGI vs Practical Effects in movies

Let me preface this by saying that I will be referencing different age groups for the purpose of clarifying my ideas and not to suggest that any of this is based on statistical data. They are just my own general observations, so take them with a pixel of salt

CGI vs Practical Effects, I’ve head it brought up many times. I’ve brought it up myself. Different people feel very strongly on both sides. Something I’ve noticed is the apparent age groups for both arguments. It seems to me that not many people under 20 would make a case for older movie effects, even if they are familiar with a wide range of them. It also seems like the majority of people over 40 would be in the same category. I suggest that it is  group between 20 and 40 who defend practical and denounce CGI.

For one thing, no one every speaks out against practical effects unprovoked. The topic seems to get brought up by someone around 25 -35 years old who feels like a lot of the modern CGI effects are regressive and will never (or at least haven’t yet managed to) feel as true as the practical effects from the 80s and 90s. There are certain cases where I agree. Some practical effects are more practical. However I see this issue having more to do with what we were exposed to as children than an unbiased assessment of realism.

Those in the over 40 age group didn’t grow up with the same level of sophistication in practical special effects as did we. It is my assertion that the level of believability seen in effects based movies of their childhoods has been so far surpassed, that they can’t fool themselves into thinking CGI is inferior. They may still have fond feelings associated with older special effects, but the difference is so pronounced that their bias isn’t strong enough to sway their opinion.

I’m 30 years old. I spent a lot of my childhood in the 80s. As such, the majority of movies that are etched into my early brain are filled with way more excellent practical effects than CGI. So I do tend to prefer well done practical effects. I even prefer the look of hand drawn energy effects as apposed to more complex computer generated ones. I just don’t think I prefer them simply because they are superior. After all, hand drawn effects aren’t practical effects. They are as unnatural to the scene as any CGI, but somehow I lump them together. They seem more classy to me. They fail gracefully. That is where I think my bias lays, seeing one failure as graceful and another as awkward. I think this is also seen in the argument of video vs film. For years digital video cameras have striven to look more like film. Until fairly recently, film has had some pretty in-arguably superior qualities to video. But even as video matched it in resolution, color reproduction, latitude, and even exceeded it in low light low grain performance there were still these qualities about film that were not quantifiably advantageous. The grain of film was seen as somehow more pleasant and natural to look at as well as the way on the high end of the film latitude, it eased off more softly into pure white. Even the flaws of film are often seen as pleasing and emulated, such as vignetting and diffusion. Are these qualities really inherently more pleasing to the human eye, or have we just conditioned ourselves to like one over the other. It’s hard to know exactly where the line is between real observation and nostalgia for familiar imagery. The only way to know for sure is probably a series of extensive studies, and really to what end?

Now back to CGI vs PE, there is both bad practical effects and bad CGI. Bad practical can be quite stiff. Bad CGI can look to smooth and perfect. Practical Effects have the advantage in being made from real things, but the disadvantage of usually being the wrong thing pretending to be something else. CGI has the advantage of being designed from the ground up to look and act like the thing it is supposed to simulate, but that can also be it’s downfall. It’s not real at all, so not only does it have to look realistic, it also has to look as though it belongs in the scene to which it is destined. If I am to try and be objective, I think my eyes are harder on the flaws of CGI than Physical Effects. Why is my brain more critical of one problem over another, even when CGI has come so far in terms of realism? I think if I applied the same standard to both I would have to conclude that CGI in general has far surpassed Practical Effects in terms of being able to generate convincing simulations of things that do not exist. I do have to be that specific because there are still some instances in which CGI falls short. Although I can’t imagine that lasting even another decade, maybe not even another 5 years.

I’m speaking of things that are so similar to real things, it is much more practical (for now) to skip the CGI and use some paint or makeup. A good example of getting this wrong is the most recent adaptation of “I am Legend”. The zombies, or whatever you want to call them, were all done in CGI. I guess it wasn’t that bad, but there’s a reason zombies are almost always done with makeup. Zombies are people too. They are just malfunctioning people. It makes much more sense to slap some good makeup on a person and make them limp than try and try an reinvent the wheel. I am guessing “I am Legend” was done that way so the (zombies) could be more super human. It just doesn’t make sense to me since they were supposed to be people with a virus, they should have been very human. I think a few camera tricks and some good makeup would have made them way scarier, like in 28 Days Later. In the case of zombies, the furthest depths of the uncanny valley, is the Ideal goal. A CGI zombie that isn’t absolutely perfect will not be quite as far down the valley and thus not as scary.

When “Spiderman 2” came out, some criticized the CGI of Spidey swinging from building to building. Said it somehow seemed less realistic than even the first movie. I myself noticed some obvious transitions between CGI and live action. Despite that, it seemed difficult to tell exactly what was wrong with it. I heard it suggested that they simply had Spiderman doing such fantastic feats that we couldn’t see it as realistic. Even if it looked exactly as it should were it real, we just instinctively know he is moving in a way not possibly for a human, and see it as ambiguously wrong.

It’s an interesting idea. Though I didn’t give it much thought until I re-watched it a couple years later and didn’t find the CGI nearly as awkward. In fact I thought it was pretty good, even compared to more recent movies. Maybe I accept the possibility of someone moving like that a little better now, making it no longer seem awkward. Is it going to be like this for all CGI? Will I retroactively find older computer generated effects more realistic?

When I think back to watching T2 for the first time, I was a lot less critical of the CGI than I would be today. It seemed very new then, but is so widely used now, they really have to do something amazing to even warrant a second thought. When CGI has past the point of all rational criticism, will I look back at T2 with a renewed sense of appreciation? Will my bias’ be burned away by the next Planet of the Apes movie, or Avatar 2 or 3 (even if those movies suck) and let me look on the recent remake of The Thing, (half and half  CGI and PI) with the same loving eyes that saw the 80s version? Maybe, but probably not, and I’m okay with it either way.

Even if my love of 80s practical effects is mostly based on a childhood bias, it doesn’t change the fact that I enjoy them. They were very inventive and always pushed the boundaries in a way that is hard to see now in a world of finite incremental improvements. I don’t necessarily think the effects masters of old were inherently more creative, I just think they have to work much much harder to stand out with CGI. And with that I leave it. Did this whole thing have a point? I’m pretty sure it didn’t have a conclusion, but at least it’s over.


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4 thoughts on “CGI vs Practical Effects in movies

  1. Matthew says:

    My problem with CGI is that it’s become cheap and ubiquitous, leading to really bad special effects, often when no special effects would even be needed. Some examples of bad CGI that turned me off to the effects: the first “Hulk” movie where he bounces around like a super ball, the Green Lantern movie, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, and there are many more… just take a look at this list of the 20 worst…

  2. CGI is not cool, and here’s why:

    12-year-old me: Why did I get a “C” on my paper?

    Teacher: Your ‘Career’ paper was about being a makeup artist for horror movies. They do all that on computers now.

    12-year-old me: No, they don’t, not any of the good stuff.

    Teacher: I’m pretty sure they do, you should have done more research.

    12-year-old me: :::grumble grumble:::

    Now I work in an office. At a desk. All day. Every day.

    CGI is not cool.

  3. Jason says:

    I just watched the new movie THE THING and the original THE THING back to back – this is a great way to see the 2 side by side. Immediately I noticed how well the practical stuff stood the test of time – I was still blown away and had no idea how they did some of the FXs. Seeing something well done (in rubber) run across the floor looks amazing because you can tell it’s really there. My favorite use for cg fx is the subtle. Not crazy alien from another planet – because none of us have seen one – so it’ll always look fake. But a bridge collapsing, wound damage, that kind of stuff is great. (Take note Michael Bay)

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