The cinema world is at a very strange place right now as far as effects in films are concerned; the industry is transitioning from practical effects to CGI, and with this transition arrises two big groups of people, the ones for the change, and the ones against it. As somebody who sees the good in both, it’s hard to pick a side and say that one is always better than another. Watching an older sci-fi film such as The Thing, Star Wars, or Total Recall to name a few, practical effects can be used well, but also can be sort of distracting: mouths and eyes never look great and make communication in these films very strange. The xenomorph in Alien as well as the orcs in The Lord of the Rings were physically present on the sets of the film, and they looked amazing in the finished product. In comparison, some films are exceptional with their use of CGI creations including Avatar, Life of Pi, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and The Jungle Book. Of course, these could be considered outliers, as there is a lot of bad CGI today as well. In this essay, I’m going to outline the pro’s and con’s of both, and then choose a side at the end with my defense.
One film recently impressed everybody with its use of practical effects, but this praise turned into a rumor that the film didn’t use any CGI at all. Of course, that is one hilarious assumption as the film takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that has enormous lightning-sand-storms that throw cars hundreds of feet into the air, and of course I’m talking about Mad Max: Fury Road. This film used real cars, real stunts, and real people in an effects-heavy film that was shot on-location in the desert. Fury Road also blended these practical action effects with CGI scenery to give us a grounded yet surreal masterpiece. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is another good example of a movie that utilized both practical and CG effects, and the film placed an unusual emphasis on the practical since the original Star Wars Trilogy used these beautifully. In contrast, the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy is often looked down upon for its reliance on CG effects, which some say do not hold up to the original. The picture on this post compares the original Yoda to the prequel Yoda (practical vs CG), you can decide for yourself which you like best. For me, the practical Yoda reminded me of a silly muppet, and seeing this version of Yoda wield a lightsaber and get the respect of all of the Jedi around him is a strange notion. On the other hand, prequel Yoda was a bit of a badass in Revenge of the Sith, and I think that the CG was necessary for that to happen. In 2011, the saga was released with “specialized” editions, which hardcore fans were extremely upset about. They claimed that these changes ruined parts of the movies, and again, you judge that for yourself by watching this video here.
The newest film in the Saga, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (BEGIN SPOILER WARNING) brought back two characters from the originals to this film by use of advanced effects: Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia. While the effects were some of the best that exist today, these characters didn’t look perfect; they were life-like, yet, not quite life-like. If this was a video game, the graphics would get the highest praise known to man, but since this is Star Wars, some people were a little let down, and nit-picky about the whole thing (END SPOILER WARNING). The Turing Test for CGI is if you can’t tell that there is CGI on-screen at all, and sometimes it’s hard, and you’d probably be surprised as to how often CG is used in movies nowadays. Just because those two small moments attracted a lot of attention in the movie, there’s so much more CGI in the film that was overlooked because it was believable, and well done. The best CGI is invisible CGI… take a look at the video below to blow your mind on how CGI is used in some films:
As you can see in The Wolf of Wall Street, CGI can be a great thing when it’s done right. And that’s the other side of the argument: CGI is often used as a way to get out of practical effects, but it’s not done right. Sometimes substituting something real for something not on set is not the best way to go, and you can sometimes see that in lower-budget films. Child actors acting in films with CGI counterparts are difficult to watch at times because it’s apparent that they’re not looking at anything: the eyes don’t like up, and the lines are delivered in strange and awkward ways. One reason for which this is done is to save time: actors can wear motion-capture suits instead of sit through hours of make-up, hair styling and prosthetics in order to shoot quickly and efficiently. Shoots last less time each day, and less time overall with motion capture instead of prosthetics, even if the post-production takes longer. Because of this, CGI is favored in many cases as far as production goes.
In conclusion, looking at the orcs in The Lord of the Rings compared to the orcs in Warcraft, I have to say that I like the practical effects in TLotR better because they just look more appealing overall. Of course, watching older films that use practical effects can take the viewer out of it completely since the animatronics are goofy (The Terminator eye scene), but also, old films that use CGI age extremely quickly since it’s always improving. The point that I’m getting at is that there is no right and there is no wrong. There are good uses and bad uses of both kinds of effects (watch the bad of both here), and there is a time and place for everything. A film such as Terminator 2 has aged beautifully in both aspects, and still looks great to this day. I’m a fan of sci-fi and adventure, so I see a lot of effects, and there’s nothing worse than bad effects, which is usually CG nowadays, but not always. In American Sniper, a baby doll was used in a scene instead of a real baby, and it looked terrible and was noticeable the entire time. Even if the baby was CGI, maybe it would have worked better. So, there are ways in which both can be used to be effective, but there is never a guarantee that one will be better 100% of the time. What about you? What do you think about this topic? Check out this video for some more great conversation about this! As always, thanks for reading, share if you liked this, and I’ll see you soon!