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Why Practical Effects May Be Better Than CGI

Jan 24, 2023


An ongoing debate among film buffs is whether practical effects are better than CGI effects. For those out of the loop, practical effects are special effects that are physically, tangibly created for the screen. Animatronics, puppetry, on-set explosions, and make-up effects all fall under the practical umbrella.

CGI stands for computer-generated imagery, and is precisely that. These effects are created with a computer and are much safer and, in some cases, more realistic. Many film fans agree that practical effects are superior, even if they don’t look as real. But why is this? Why, in the age of computers, do so many prefer the old methods?
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As with any debate, this is purely opinion-based and subjective. Both practical and CGI are art forms in their own ways. Both should be respected and both can enhance the viewing experience, for better or worse. It seems, however, that a majority will sing praises of practical over computer-generated effects. Here is why this may be the case.

Pros of CGI

Paramount Pictures

As great as practical effects may be, there is a reason why CGI has evolved and is more widely used today. In fact, there are several ways CGI outshines practical effects. Before singing the praises of practical effects, here are some pros of CGI. For starters, CGI effects are far safer.

The art of film has evolved in such a way that a filmmaker’s wildest visions can be brought to the big screen. With more ambitious ideas, come more dangers for performers. Actors can have entire fight scenes on a tightrope dangling above New York City all from the safety of a sound stage. Slasher victims can be dispatched in increasingly gruesome ways without the stunt performers laying a hand on them. There have been many examples of tragic accidents that have taken place on film sets. CGI helps lower these accidents and ensure the safety of performers.

Warner Bros.

CGI can also bring things to the screen that practical effects simply can’t. Bizarre alien worlds and massive creatures can be brought to life thanks to computer imagery. While this hasn’t stopped filmmakers before, it is clear that the titular monster in 2014’s Godzilla looks far better than his rubber-suited counterpart from the 50s and 60s.

Related: The Best of the Worst Special Effects in Movie History

While there is undeniably a certain charm to seeing someone in a monster costume destroy model sets, it does look silly by today’s standards and takes away any fear the film is trying to convey. The MCU movies wouldn’t look nearly as stunning if not for CGI. Some of the more intricate set pieces in films such as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness simply wouldn’t be, for lack of a better word, practical without the use of computers.

Seeing Is Believing

Universal Pictures

When discussing practical effects versus CGI, the one pro-practical argument that is hard to debate is the fact that the effects are actually being seen. Regardless of how good CGI looks, fans know that they (and the actors interacting with it) are simply looking at a series of pixels. Whatever they are supposed to be seeing isn’t really there, and that may take them out of the movie.

With practical effects, they know that a team of people worked hard to bring these effects to life. Sure, the animatronic may still resemble a robot more than a killer alien, but at least it is there. The actors have something to physically react to which makes their performances more believable. Just imagine if the shark in Jaws was entirely digital; in fact, compare to Jaws to Deep Blue Sea, and you might get a good glimpse of why some filmmakers prefer practical effects

Warner Bros.

Having actual props on screen also helps bring the visions of filmmakers to life. Michael Keaton fighting crime in an actual Batman costume looks way better than a computer model of Tom Holland swinging through an artificial city. While this latter example does allow for more intricate stunts and intense battles, some audiences feel more like they are seeing an animated movie as opposed to a live-action one. Knowing a model of the Death Star really was blown up makes Luke’s victory at the end of A New Hope all the more satisfying.

Oftentimes, practical effects may look cheesy and clearly fake, but fans still find charm in the fact that they are really seeing something happen. This is why, instead of using effects in his film Fitzcarraldo, director Werner Herzog literally had a steamship pulled over a large hill.

Practical Effects Allow for More Exciting Stunts

Warner Bros.

The best example of something physically happening to enhance the viewing experience is with stunt pieces. Seeing cars actually explode on screen is far more satisfying than having artificial fireballs shooting everywhere. The car chase in The Dark Knight is one of the best examples of this, especially when a tractor-trailer was physically flipped and destroyed right on camera. It doesn’t get more realistic than this, and most fans agree CGI simply can’t compete.

Related: These Are Some of the Best Special Effects in Horror

Tom Cruise actually dangling off of a building in the Mission Impossible movies adds a level of suspense that can’t exist with CG. Fans would know he is simply hanging above a green screen so if he were to fall, he would be fine. Actually hanging from a building or even a plane flying through the air makes the dangers on screen feel more real because it was real. While the safety of the actors is certainly important, insane stunts being pulled off makes movies all the more enjoyable.

Violence Is the Answer

AMC Networks 

Ask any horror movie fan, and they will tell you that practical blood and violence trump CGI carnage any day of the week. A mold of an actor’s head being smashed in is insanely satisfying to witness. It may be obvious it is a dummy head, but horror hounds couldn’t care less. Wizards such as Tom Savini and the late Stan Winston could bring incredible creatures to life and have them perform the most heinous acts physically on screen. Seeing CGI monsters create CGI blood doesn’t pack the same punch.

The Walking Dead captivated audiences the way it did because it used real actors for the horde of zombies. They didn’t just clone a handful of actors, they painstakingly made up each zombie and gave each a distinct look. Seeing them rip apart someone is far more entertaining when they are ripping and tearing at the physical matter.

Regardless of a fan’s preference, both forms of effects can be great. Today, they are often at their when used together, with computer imagery utilized to enhance a practical effect. Still, it isn’t hard to see why so many prefer practical effects over CGI. While CGI is far more common today, it is unlikely that practical effects will be fully phased out. There are too many fans, and for that matter filmmakers, who still prefer to see things actually happen on screen. Movie buffs can rest assured that as long as there are movies, there will be practical effects.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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