Practical vs. Visual Effects: It’s Not About One or the Other—It’s About Balance


Utilizing “old-fashioned” special effects is the newest trend in filmmaking. From directors to critics, many people are excited to see this shift from digital to physical.

Photo Credit:  Summit Entertainment  &  IMDBPro .

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment & IMDBPro.

Audiences want to hear the rumblings of an authentic 1970 Chevelle SS while they watch John Wick. They want their palms to sweat while they watch Tom Cruise clinging to a real Airbus 400 in Mission Impossible. People want to feel the heat of the post-apocalyptic desert in Mad Max: Fury Road. Today, it’s about being “real.”

However, this trend isn’t just some nostalgic renaissance, especially when it comes to film.

Unquestionably there have been some visual-effects blunders (Rampage, Wrinkle in Time, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), but computer-generated imagery (CGI) has also opened the doors to storylines that could have otherwise never seen the light of the film (Interstellar, Lion King, Christopher Robin, etc.). Though Grant Larson Productions (GLP) is a seasoned practical effects studio, we still think it's important to illuminate the pros and cons of each approach as well as explore why filmmakers should use them together.

The Appeal of Real

Photo Credit:  Warner Bros. Pictures  &  IMDBPro

As of late, studios are touting “real stunts” and “real sets” as a promotional differentiator, like seeing a box of Mac and Cheese where the box reads “now made with real cheese,” (what was it made with before?). From X-Men and Mission Impossible to Star Wars and Mad Max, directors are rediscovering these tools and marketing executives are positioning this vintage approach to conquer the box office. But the appeal to practical effects goes deeper than just a sales strategy.

First, fixing everything in “post” is expensive. Spending hours resolving issues that could have taken a makeup artist or set designer a matter of minutes to fix in pre-production is simply an inefficient strategy.

The same goes for getting the right shot. It’s still more affordable to capture what you need to with principal photography than creating the scene digitally.

Moreover, many directors believe practical effects drive a better, more passion-driven performance from their actors and actresses. Colin Trevorrow, director of Jurassic World, asserted in an interview with Wired Magazine, “There is a scene where [actors] Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard come across a dying apatosaurus…We had a team of puppeteers using every tiny motor in this robot's face. They drew a beautiful performance out of the actors—we couldn't have done it with a computer."

Photo Credit:  Universal Pictures  &  IMDBPro

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures & IMDBPro

There is something about practical effects that resonate with the audience as well. In a study conducted at the University of Oregon, researcher Vanessa Ciccone suggests that practical effects evoke stronger reactions within the viewer than digital effects. Interestingly, practical effects evoke more of an emotional response from older age groups due to older generations’ higher exposure to practical effects.

Why the Increase in CGI?

CGI provides an unrivaled level of control for directors. Entire worlds and characters can be swapped out in post-production by digital artists. Filmmakers don't have to deal with uncooperative weather, location scouting, or stunt doubles. From digital makeup to damn near perfect physical simulations, CGI has solidified its place in a director's filmmaking toolbox.

CGI can also potentially mitigate the expenses of shooting on-location and expedite a film's timeline significantly, as producers don't have to coordinate with local authorities, deal with scheduling conflicts, or contend with mother nature. They simply have to book the studio.

However, it's often the times when CGI is used as a mere financial crutch that good movies crash and burn. But when directors and art departments use it resourcefully, they can work their movie-magic.

With the advances in performance capture, casting is open to a whole new talent pool, as the age, size, shape, and even gender of an actor or actress plays less of a part in the selection. More specifically, art departments can digitally transform the original actor or actress into the movie character, all while preserving their performance. Motion capture technology has also led to a boom in video game cutscenes, where actors and real props are combined to create more profound levels of realism.

Photo Credit:  Paramount Pictures  &  IMDBPro

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures & IMDBPro

Furthermore, practical effects come with limitations and a level of unpredictability. Futuristic and fantastical worlds can be backbreaking and expensive to create and pale in comparison to how expansive a CGI setting can be. Battle scenes that once required hundreds of extras now need a simple software extension, and actors can now perform traditionally dangerous stunts safely in front of a green screen.

Will CGI progress to a point where it’s completely seamless? This remains to be seen. In a study published by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that CGI didn’t significantly increase believability and satisfaction among audiences. As an interesting sidebar, it had little to no effect on audience recall and learning retention.

The Day Practical Effects Died

When legendary makeup, costume, and prop wizard, Rick Baker, closed up shop back in 2015, it seemed like practical effects were dead and gone. Like some sad, cinematic estate sale, Baker decided to sell off some of his most famous props upon closing his doors.

This is a man who worked on American Werewolf in London, Star Wars, and Michael Jackson's Thriller music video. Vice noted that on the same day of Baker’s auction, it was the opening day for San Andreas, a CGI-disasterpiece featuring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Photo Credit:  Polygram Pictures  &  IMDBPro

Photo Credit: Polygram Pictures & IMDBPro

It felt like Hollywood had just pounded the last nail into the practical effects coffin—like the all-mighty green screen would forever bind the future of filmmaking. Don’t get us wrong, CGI can blast us into space or jet us through the barrel of a tidal wave, but there is something inexplicably flat and spiritless when a director saturates a film in digital landscapes and props. It's a feeling not only felt by the audience, but by the actors.

As Baker noted in his interview with Vice:

“When you have a good actor, in good makeup, and he's been sitting in the makeup chair looking at himself in the mirror, seeing himself become something else, and then he walks onto a set, and he knows where he is, he knows what he looks like, he gives a performance that he's never going to give on a motion-capture stage.”

Where Two Worlds Collide

In the words of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Space may be the final frontier, but it’s made in a Hollywood basement.” From the far reaches of the universe to fictional lands, directors and art departments are pushing the bounds of filmmaking. But to keep audiences grounded in the story, there needs to be a physical presence during shooting.

Photo Credit: Grant Larson Productions

Photo Credit: Grant Larson Productions

Real movie magic occurs when you can no longer tell where the physical and digital worlds end and meet. The real problem with CGI occurs when there is a fault line between visual and practical effects that shakes the audience out of the story—car chases become cartoons, city skylines look like video game landscapes, stunts stop obeying physics. While performance and motion capture continues to improve, there is still a rift between reality and the digital realm.

For filmmakers looking for an art department that can help bridge the gap between practical and visual effects, GLP is here to help you capture your vision. If you’re interested in learning about our product design services, visit our contact page and reach out today.

Matthew Flowers