Op-Ed: Practical and Digital


From the late 70’s to the early 90’s the most popular form of special effect was the practical effect. All that changed with the release of Tron (1982), it was in Tron that movie audiences learned that artists could create a host of effects from a computer. Soon after this a small film named Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)called for a scene in which a knight would break from its frozen state in a stained-glass window and chase a priest from a church. This effect would be the very first photorealistic computer generated character ever on film. It was created by John Lasseter who was fired from Walt Disney and helped establish the effects company Industrial Light and Magic; the company charged with making this effect. Its interesting to note that years later Lasseter broke off from ILM to create Pixar only to return to Disney in 2006 now as its Chief Creative Officer.

So as you can see the groundwork for CGI was established in the early 80’s. But still during this time the use of practical effects was still king. Films such as 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), E.T. (1982), Blade Runner (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) used practical effects by way of layering film stock, creating miniatures that a camera on a jib would then pan through or through the creation of puppets and costumes.

While films like The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2 (1991) used extensive CGI to create characters, the flood gates didn’t open until 1993 when Steven Spielberg released Jurassic Park (1993). Here Spielberg, Stan Winston and ILM struck a perfect balance between the use of practical and CGI effects. Specific closeups were done using sculpted puppets and models, while the epic action and large scaled sequences called for CGI.

From this point on CGI has been improving by leaps and bounds. In fact by the mid to late 2000’s the balance of practical and CGI had shifted greatly to a near full reliance of CGI. This is the state in which we find ourselves now.

As a filmgoer who grew up in the 80’s and the heyday of practical effects I pine for the reality of practical effects. Now, understand that I am not saying I disapprove of CGI, in fact I’ve used CGI more in my career than practical. No, there is just something about practical effects that draws me to it. As an a filmmaker I would love to find that perfect balance between the two as I feel CGI is great to produce a the sprawling epic reality, but for those smaller local moments practical effects work better. I say this because practical effects, being crafted from tangible material, gives the character or surroundings weight and texture. For the audience this sense of weight and texture is paramount for immersing them deeper into the story.

After talking with several colleagues of mine I found their responses were very similar to mine. And the most interesting thing to note in these conversation is the fact that one of those colleague’s Kathryn is much younger than and I and another colleague Chris is a few years older, old enough to remember going to see the original Star Wars in theaters.

I posed the question, CGI or Practical to my colleagues and Kathryn responded by saying, “While I enjoy CGI, I prefer movies that are more practical. I don’t think any CGI can match the beauty of the natural world. I also think too much CGI takes out a lot of good camera work. Some movies/shows manage to accomplish good framing in CGI (I.e. Firefly) but I feel like most overlook it in favor of fantastic effects.”

Which I completely agree with. As I’ve said there is something to be said for the way a practical effects make things seem more tangible. For instance, you know Jabba the Hutt is a large puppet, but he’s tangible and you know he’s real even if he isn’t real. I don’t think CGI has reached that point yet, though I think we could see that happen soon. We came very close with Life of Pi (2012).

My colleague Chris then responded by saying, “I think what you are getting at ‪Johnathan is that CGI has become hyper real. With the limitless possibilities of CGI, contemporary corporate films are like 80’s guitar heroes showing off… It’s razzle-dazzle. You mentioned 2001, which in my opinion is loaded with content that supersedes anything visual. Maybe it’s my clay background, but form follows function. Concept rules.”

Chris is exactly right as well. Since we as an audience have become more aware of CGI, it’s easier for us to see the effects. The uncanny valley isn’t as deep as it used to be, but its still there. And just as Chris mentioned everything is more or less built for spectacle, where as the special effects of the past, even those early CGI effects were built for a purpose, the purpose of driving the story.

So, maybe that’s the key issue that I have with some of today’s special effects. They are all spectacle and no substance. It’s great to have fully fleshed out digital characters in the mise en scene, but only if those characters or landscapes don’t overtake the scene and instead help to support the scene and story. Remember story is everything. You can always have a great story and less than perfect visuals and come out on the other end unscathed, however if you have a so-so story and picture perfect visuals you’ll fall flat on your face.

As a filmmaker I try and model my approach to effects by looking at those that came before me. Specifically directors that have a keen eye for striking that perfect balance between practical and CGI, directors like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, JJ Abrams, James Gunn, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro.

While Avatar (2009) was a complete CGI spectacle, Cameron knew how to create that perfect balance. He made the film and experience not just a pretty film with unbelievable special effects. And while these other directors do use CGI, they do not use it exclusively. For instance Jackson and del Toro both balance practical and digital in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and Hellboy 1-2 (2004 & 2008). In fact they were so simpatico that they collaborated on The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014). And now we have the new crop of directors in JJ Abrams and James Gunn. Both are using extensive practical and CGI effects in their latest movies Star Wars Episode VII (2015) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

As a filmmaker I’m excited that audiences are wanting more practical effects. I’m also excited to see that audiences are becoming more aware of special effects and are calling for better quality. As I said before if special effects are needed for a film, a prefect balance of practical and digital is where the focus should be. Now, does that go for every film? Absolutely not. Each film is different and each film is a work of art and a vision of the director and his crew. Films like Avatar (2009) and Gravity (2013) made exceptional use of digital CGI, but they did so to execute the story, to convey their stories experience to the audience.

So, really in the end it comes back to the most important aspect of the entire film process. Story.

Once we lock down a good story we the filmmakers have to let our creative vision go and decide what works best for the story at hand.

Repost from Professor Paul’s website www.johnathanpaulonline.com

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