Catastrophic explosions, sparkly superpowers and gigantic monsters whose thuds echo across landscapes all encompass movies’ heavily utilized computer generated imagery, also known as CGI, to exhibit their visually thrilling stories.
These effects may appear cheesy to moviegoers who argue that they should be slashed from films, but the blend of CGI and practical effects is an efficient filming practice that cannot be undermined.
For example, films like James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Matt Reeves’ “Planet of the Apes” sequels showcase CGI’s power, which visually appeals to viewers along with its engaging storyline and peculiar creatures.
Brad Kean, an adjunct visual effects professor at Cal State Fullerton, said that CGI has faced backlash since it started being used in the film industry. He added that a constant problem that occurs with the use of CGI and one of the main reasons why it gets backlash from viewers is that it tends to be overused and abused in some films.
“Sometimes if you're using CG just for CG sake just to kind of have spectacle — if the point is the spectacle and not the story — then it better be really good. If it's not, then it's just frustrating and audiences point to it,” Kean said.
Although the overuse of CGI can batter the plot, there needs to be an equal fusion of practical effects and CGI that immerses viewers in a stimulating and hair-raising movie experience.
According to an article published on Master Class, “Practical effects are real-world special effects created physically on set without the use of computer graphics. Pyrotechnics, prosthetic makeup, animatronics and live-action weather elements are just a few examples of special effects.”
A great example of a film effectively utilizing practical effects to stand the test of time are the original Star Wars movies directed by George Lucas. Those films used almost every type of practical effect imaginable, including a spaceship model filmed against a blue screen, stop-motion-animated AT-ATs and optical printers.
The original Star Wars trilogy showcases how practical effects can excite viewers. In comparison, the effects of the prequel trilogy which made use of CGI are not as convincing as in today's standards.
“If you look at the 1977 Star Wars, you look at the miniature work in that compared to the CG in ‘Phantom Menace’ in 1999, some of the effects by today’s standards in ‘Phantom Menace’ would look kind of plasticy,” Kean said. “So, it's usually the CG breaks down. Nowadays, it breaks down when you go back and look at something from 10 years ago,” Kean said.
Although practical effects may be what some viewers prefer and believe to be the best form of visual effects in film, it is not wise to push CGI to the side and only use practical effects to tell stories in films. The development of CGI technology has made many strides over the past decade and utilizing those advancements alongside practical effects can achieve the best results for films.
“Practical effects and digital effects both have their advantages and a smart filmmaker understands them both. They have both those skills in their toolbelt, so they can use one or the other or a hybrid of both of them to most effectively tell their story,” Kean said.
Movie storytelling delivers to viewers when CGI and practical effects are intertwined. Kean said that sometimes in film and television the best shots are ones that utilize practical effects that actors and actresses can bounce off of and CGI elements that can be added in later to paint the scene with the director’s desired look and atmosphere.
“It's up to the filmmaker to be really wise about blending those things and knowing when to do practical and when to do digital and a lot of the good stuff that's done now is a hybrid,” Kean said.
This highlights the importance of combining both practical and CGI effects to immerse the viewer in a satisfying viewing experience.
One of the films that best showcases this blend of CGI and practical effects is Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Many of the dinosaurs were created with the use of CGI, but for closeups of the animals, physical practical models were constructed to frighten viewers with blood-curdling and life-like figures of the carnivores.
This blend of CGI and practical effects can plunge viewers into unimaginable universes. When an outlandish model is needed, CGI tools can breathe life into various characters. Adding practical effects to the mix humanizes the theatrical roller coaster on the silver screen.