In the age of AVATAR, practical effects aren’t extinct yet

cgi vs practical effects

Editor's Note: This article was written by our pal, Billy Graham. You can follow Billy on Twitter HERE.

When Steven Spielberg was working on JURASSIC PARK in the early ‘90s, Phil Tippett was tabbed in pre-production to create go motion effects for the dinosaurs. When the two were looking at the rendering of a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing a herd of Galamides by Dave Muren and ILM, Spielberg proclaimed, "You're out of a job." That was when Tippett corrected Spielberg, saying "Don't you mean extinct?"

Many movie fans may recognize this exact quote because it was implemented by Spielberg into the film, but they may not realize the sheer significance of the effects. JURASSIC PARK had ushered in a shift in technology; go motion effects and other stop motion variants were soon to be replaced by computer generated images, or CGI, in live-action films.

True, much of the film still heavily utilized complex animatronics and puppetry that CGI simply couldn’t replace at the time, but the game had changed. CGI was on the forefront and was ready to be implemented into major Hollywood films.

Flash forward to today, and many in the practical effects industry might be thinking along the same lines of Tippett when they got their first look at James Cameron’s project of love, AVATAR. Cameron used extensive greenscreens and motion capture to create a world called Pandora and the inhabitants out of thin air. Nearly every shot for the film used extensive CGI and the result is miraculous to look at. Coupled with 3D, Cameron managed to transport audiences into the world he had created, and blurred the lines between what was believable and what was not.

However, even with those gigantic leaps that Cameron made, practical effects aren’t going anywhere. In fact, for many current directors, they see CGI as a shortcut and insist on trying to create as much as possible before falling back on the green and bluescreens that have become increasingly popular as the technology has gotten cheaper.

I understand why so many use CGI to create something out of nothing, but in an effort to bring full immersion to your viewers, let’s take a look at the past. Where they failed, yes, but also where they managed to succeed despite their lack of technology. Look at films like JAWS or ALIEN, and realize how well they hold up on the screen today.

There was no use of CGI in these films, and the bits that had it were very minimal and archaic now. The technology simply didn’t exist to create believable CGI creations out of thin air. So what did they do? They got creative. In JAWS, they employed Bob Mattey and Joe Alves to create a fully-functioning (that was their hope), full-sized model of an enormous Great White shark, nicknamed Bruce. Yes, the thing looks oddly lifeless now, but they also made use of real Great White sharks as well, interspersing the shots to create the illusion that you were witnessing the same shark attacking Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss.

Perhaps current technology could have helped them, especially in the colossal failure that was the mechanical shark itself, but when watching the film, there is a sense of peril that can never be replicated by CGI. Audiences aren’t dumb and more often than not, they know how to spot something that has been added in digitally. Conversely, there is never any doubt that the shark trying to eat the crew of the Orca is actually there.

Yes, Bruce looks a bit odd, but they are all interacting with something that is right there, splashing and moving about. You can’t get that with pure CGI. Immediately audiences will doubt how real it is, even with some of the best technology at work, because you simply cannot substitute the look and feel of a practical effect versus a creation that never existed in any form.

Now let’s take a look at Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, in which a Xenomorph has boarded the ship and Ellen Ripley is trying to kick its ass. These Xenomorphs are created using an intricate mix of prosthetics, puppetry, and a complex head rig to create the effect. For the first film, Scott actually recruited Bolaji Badejo, standing an imposing 7’2”, to adorn the costume for a majority of the film.

They are able to interact with the actors and the audience is left with little doubt that the monster is in the actual scene. In fact, it worked so well that special effects master Carlo Rambaldi and artist H.R. Giger took home the 1990 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and it is still terrifying to this day.

There are others that simply get the nature of film and know that audiences aren’t easily fooled, but special mention has to be given to one of the hottest directors working today: Christopher Nolan.

While filming the stunning creation known as THE DARK KNIGHT, he strived for realism and wanted to film the effects, not just create them post-production. He even challenged the idea of a superhero flick by not only demanding true, practical effects in his billion dollar grossing baby, but by presenting them all in stunning, true IMAX, something long forgotten since the dawn of AVATAR and its success in the third dimension. Nolan grounded his film in reality, and the result is a piece of cinema that will hold up for years because of the lack of pure CGI effects. As Joker said, “It’s all part of the plan.’”

While Nolan strived for practicality, another super hero film strayed a bit. Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, in which millions upon millions were spent in making the alter-ego of Peter Parker soar through the air in spectacular fashion, loses a bit when viewed today.

In the web-slinging scenes where Spider-Man soars through the air, it simply looks fake, and because it is. Instead of wire-rigging and other gadgets to enhance the reality of the film, they took the step to create a completely CGI Spider-Man that swung in between sky scrapers. While I have to applaud director Raimi and his crew for attempting to capture what the comics did, the effect is a bit hokey.

However, SPIDER-MAN’s pitfalls weren’t repeated by everyone, and a new method had sprung up: the blending of CGI and practical effects. One of the best at this cooperation of effects is Guillermo del Toro, and we can simply look at his masterpiece, PAN'S LABYRINTH , for an example.

In the film, Doug Jones adorns a variety of prosthetics to create a number of del Toro’s twisted creations and gives them life. The faun, one of the most disturbing creatures, is completely prosthetic instead of CGI. Yes, the legs of the suit are green and will be digitally removed, as you can clearly see below, but the monster is there, and audiences are given little to doubt about the effectiveness of it all.

This is the best of both worlds; enhancing the practical effects to create something thrilling and add to the efforts of the makeup artists and costume designers, creating a result that is shockingly hard to discount as fake. Blending the practical with the impractical, and creating a mix that is hard for audiences to ignore or simply scoff at.

Instead, they create wonder and awe, making filmgoers gasp during the close-ups while never losing their effectiveness as the movies age. No, AVATAR hasn’t ushered in the shift in technology that Jurassic Park did years prior. CGI is not threatening to overtake practical effects at this time, and I’m sure many actors who would have to largely pretend they are interacting with something that isn’t there at all are thankful. Not every set ends up like TRANSFORMERS.

Thanks to filmmakers like Nolan and del Toro, audiences are treated to the best of practical effects and how engrossing the results can be. So, in this fast-paced world, let’s all take a deep breathe and slow down. Perhaps that next big effect you want doesn’t have to be completely CGI, so be practical about it.