Are Practical Effects still Practical? Homogeneity of Visual Effects

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    This was a topic I suggested as a potential fanstream at least a month ago, but after watching some videos on YouTube related to the topic I decided to go ahead and discuss this topic in order to hopefully start some kind of conversation or whatever.

    Compared to other art forms, movies have a relatively short history, having been only around for only about a century. And throughout this century of history filmmakers have always made use of visual effects in order to tell their stories, from the use of sets for the actors to work within to the use of Claymation, miniatures, prosthetics, green screen, and more recently computer digital effects. Over time visual effects have evolved, from improvement of certain methods to even the creation of new methods.

    However I am not here to discuss the history of visual effects, but rather I am here to discuss a certain debate that always pops up within movie fans everywhere when it comes to visual effects: Practical Effects vs CGI. Or rather I would like to shed some light on the issue. On one side you have the argument that CGI tends to look cartoony and unrealistic (which can you really blame them for thinking this?) while practical effects, or rather involving real world items and tools, tend to look more immersive and believable. On the other side you have the argument that CGI is an amazing tool that allows filmmakers to create new worlds and visuals in ways that would have been other wise either limited or impossible with so called practical effects. And I think both sides are right and wrong. But I am not here to play it safe by being in the middle. As I said earlier I wanted to shed some light on a certain issue related to this debate. There is no denying the CGI is a great tool that has allowed filmmakers more freedom in what they can do visually, I feel as though more often than not this view tends to be very one-sided.
    There seems to be this stigma that practical effects are completely outdated in today’s modern 21st century world and that CGI is somehow this master race of visual effects. With this people also assume that anything done with CGI is ‘automatically more realistic’ than if done with practical effects. And this stigma is especially very popular in Hollywood. The thing about this stigma is that it assumes that there is no wrong way to use CGI, however as we have seen in numerous and hilarious examples such as the STAR WARS prequels, that isn’t the case. Even with CGI you still have to make sure that all the actors along with the real world props appear to be in the same plane of existence as the digital effect, which is something that tends to be forgotten since people seem to get carried away with the “pretty CGI”. For instance 1993’s Jurassic Park was groundbreaking for its revolutionary use of digital effects to create life-like dinosaurs, but to assume that the dinosaurs were life like solely because of the use of CGI is missing the point. In order to make the dinosaurs seem life like Steven Spielberg and his creative crew had to do a lot of research in order to get an idea how to properly convey a dinosaur, from movement to size. And even then Spielberg still made use of animatronics, and even one scale model of the T-rex’s head in order to convey the real world impacts these dinosaurs had on their environment. If they had completely ignored these vital details, they would have ended up with something like Roland Emeriti’s insulting 1998 Godzilla movie (a cartoon lizard that not only looks like it exists in a completely different plain of existence from the real people but also seems to change size for some reason).

    Even with Roger Rabbit had to pay attention to these vital details in order for the hand drawn and real characters seem seamless with one another. ( Which I might talk another day about hand drawn vs CGI in animation)

    There is also the stigma that practical effects are somehow outdated, which I can say is not even true at all. The thing is a lot of practical effects from older movies, such as the original STAR WARS trilogy and The Thing (1982), still look good today and there are even more recent movies that utilize amazing looking practical effects such as Batman Begins (which did actually use miniatures and scale models) and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (yes that one did use CGI also, but the movie also made use of prosthetics for the movie’s fairy tale creatures like the faun and the Pale Man).. Even STAR WARS VII tried to use as little CGI as possible, using the CGI mostly for the space battles and certain aliens while making use of prosthetics for most of the aliens and even using a neat mixture of map paintings, blue screen, and props for the final fight with Kylo Ren set in the forest.

    However, even with these examples, Hollywood seems to have this view that it needs to use CGI as much as possible, for everything if they can. With this I can’t help but wonder if the prevalence of CGI is because of some kind of “superiority” or just merely being another example of Hollywood not wanting to take risks while just using the same safe formula over and over again. What has made me speculate the latter was learning some interesting details about the development of 2011’s Prequel to 1982’s The Thing, The Thing (I know, confusing). While there have been several criticisms and reasons for the 2011 Thing not being all that great compared to the 1982 Thing, one of the more prominent criticisms is the CGI, or rather how it looks and is used. The funny thing is that originally the filmmakers behind 2011’s The Thing had intended to use mostly practical effects, like animatronics, for the movie. In fact, originally the movie was shot using said animatronics and real props, while the filmmakers also stressed how they felt it was important to try to use as much practical effects for the movie as possible given that it was a psychological horror film. However when the movie went into post-production Universal Studios had another visual effects studio replace the practical effects with digital CGI effects, because they thought that audiences wouldn’t accept practical effects and would be more accepting of a CGI version, which turned out to be BS as the movie lost a lot of money due to poor box office performance).

    Unfortunately just as we see many examples of studios interfering and ruining movies that could have otherwise been good, such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Fant4stic, the Warcraft movie (apparently Universal had about 30-40 minutes cut out of the movie in order to limit the runtime to only 2 hours long, taking out all the necessary exposition and world-building, turning it into a movie only super fans were able to enjoy), this is also true about a movie’s visual effects; if you are not a Ridley Scott or a Steven Spielberg then even your original vision for the visual effects of your movie will likely be put aside in favor of what the studios thinks will be “better”. And the thing is not every filmmaker necessarily wants to use CGI in their movie. Heck even certain visual effects studios prefer to use practical effects over digital effects, as seen in the interview from studio Amalgamated Dynamics on their work on the preproduction of the eventually canceled Ridley Scott adaptation of I AM LEGEND and how when offered to work on the Will Smith version that they refused when learning that Warner intended to use mostly CGI rather than practical effects.

    Now I am not trying to demonize CGI or promote practical effects as the “be all, end all” of visual effects. Both are tools that can be used to great effect. There are a lot of ways CGI is more convenient, as seen with certain movies like PACIFIC RIM and District 9 and Shin Godzilla (for Shin Godzilla director Hideaki Anno originally wanted to use a big animatronic suit but due to technical limitations the suit was reserved for close-ups while the movie mostly used motion capture CGI). However from what I have observed from Hollywood and learned from these videos and interviews it seems that most of the time the choice to use CGI over practical effects seems to have less to do with convenience and more to due with there being a homogeneity in movie visual effects in modern Hollywood; it is merely the preferred choice because of a formula rather than the filmmaker’s artistic vision. This even seems to extend to what kinds of designs and visual styles are deemed to be “visually acceptable” in Hollywood.
    Considering the increasingly unstable economic state of Hollywood at the moment however I do wonder if whether this might change for the better or if this trend will keep on continuing.
    What do y’all think?

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