The Practical Effects Switcheroo

Let me start this article by saying that I am not a CGI complainer. When digital effects are done well they have the potential to show things on screen that even 20 years ago would never have been possible. I actually have a problem with the opposite; the fact that practical effects are swiftly becoming a rare and dying art.

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The late 70s and 80s were a magical time in cinema. Practical effects were getting better and better. This meant we were treated to monstrous and beautiful creations on a regular basis, and the effects guys became almost as famous as the directors they were working for. It’s fair to say that the majority of 30+ film fans will recognise the names Rob Bottin, Stan Winston, Rick Baker and Tom Savini as being the titans of creature and makeup wizardry. As such it became exciting to watch a film knowing that one of theses such maestros were (quite literally) pulling the strings in the background.

Because of the great practical effects men and women, film monsters became more tangible and believable than ever before. You only have to look back at films like The Thing and An American Werewolf in London to see that combining a good director with a great effects team would create imagery that still stands up as totally realistic even by today’s standards.

So what is the point of this article?

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Well it’s simply that in the good old 80s, when something extraordinary happened on screen we were captivated by the magic of it. We wondered how it could possibly have happened, and only in a very select few cases did we find that it was achieved through computer enhancement. But now a lot of that magic has gone. Of course a CGI creation can be awe inspiring or jaw dropping but we know how it came to be; through a stack of servers and a lot of patient renderers. The really irritating thing is that so much of what we now see is computer generated, that practical effects work either has to be fought for by passionate directors, or gets lost in the mix.

Case in point is Pacific Rim. I saw the below video embedded on a website recently, and in the accompanying story, the writer stated that he had assumed that everything in Pacific Rim was CGI, so was surprised to see these creatures created practically.

It is genuinely upsetting that the writer had to point out his surprise at the use of practical effects. I find it sad that Hollywood can’t find more of a balance between practical and CGI. It would be so great if companies like Spectral Motion brought back the magic to cinema; to prove once again that the tangible quality of seeing something that actually did exist in front of the camera, will always ultimately be more satisfying than a realistic looking computer created character, whose existence will always be questioned by our brains, even if only on a subconscious level.

James is a movie obsessive with a particular love for scores and screenplays. He has written for numerous blogs, sites and cinemas and has been involved in several screenwriting projects. He can usually be found in front of a large plasma screen devouring Westerns, 80s pulp, Jimmy Stewart movies or anything by the Coens.

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