FX Freakout!

The debate of practical versus CGI

The debate over special effects, in my experience, glows hot. Traditionalists eschew the use of computer generated effects (CGI) while cutting edge tech fans and much of the younger generation drool over the slick digital effects spilling across the screen in everything from Michael Bay pictures to Oscar winners.

There was a time in my life when I was one of those who derided the use of CGI, claiming that digital effects weren’t organic to the visuals, didn’t entirely blend in, did not feel “real.” Practical effects, I argued, were at least actually there in the room with the actors, even if there was a zipper sticking out of a rubber suit.

CGI proponents balk at the alleged lack of realism inherent in many cases of practical effects. The argument here is that CGI is more realistic, detailed and convincing than practical effects, which cannot, so this side of the debate goes, achieve this level of verisimilitude.

Clearly there is plenty of polarization and there are valid points on both sides of this hot button fence.

For what it’s worth, I have since altered my viewpoint regarding CGI. Some kinds of special effects are simply much better accomplished by way of CGI. Big spaceships, crumbling cities, things on a vast scale.

Sometimes, CGI is exactly what is needed for more intimate FX, say, the creation of Gollum for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. CGI has achieved a level of representation that makes it possible to fully realize such stories as Tolkien’s massive fantasy epic, which, prior to Peter Jackson’s bold move in making these CGI assisted live action films, only saw moving picture life by way of some strange and dubious animated films.

Jackson’s effective use of quality CGI, both with Gollum and other fantasy creatures and also great, sweeping battle scenes with thousands of characters, enabled him to bring to life this terrific mythic tale. Formerly, gobs of extras and props (and the management thereof) would have been required to stage these huge scenes.

Bad CGI – such as the awful little cute alien thing in the Lost in Space movie – does exactly what I accused computer effects of formerly. It creates a bad representation that is so distracting and unmerged with the live action reality of which it is supposed to be a part. In such a case, animatronics are quality puppeteering might have been preferable.

Since then, CGI has progressed so much that with an A-list budget, whole realities can be created convincingly from whole cloth. And the indie filmmaker, whom we love and adore, has access to technology that would have been out of the hands of a backyard filmmaker not so long ago. These days, you can catch indie films whose CGI looks as good as what mainstream films used to look like in early CGI days.

But practical effects still have their place. They have a dimensional reality that CGI still hasn’t quite caught up to. Consider the brilliant Rob Bottin effects in John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. They are exquisitely well-done and hold up nicely even today. I can’t imagine those scenes without practical effects. Bottin’s creativity without the computer tech FX guys have nowadays is something to behold.

But then consider the prequel. The presentation of the shapeshifting alien therein unfolded in such a way that CGI was the optimal approach for representing the creature’s grotesque flesh formations.

In the end, both styles have their place and even low budget filmmakers can get away with CGI if they are clever enough to blend it in with the live action. (Pay attention to a number of Dustin Wayde Mills flicks.)

So the truth, as is commonly the case, is in the middle. Both kinds of effects need to be employed together, where appropriate for each, to create the movies we love. Can’t we all just get along?

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