Practical Effects vs. CGI


Evolution of Animation Technology

Here are a few things to keep in mind as a VFX artist

While practical effects and CGI both have clear benefits and shortcomings, the technique you choose for your artistic expression will likely vary from project to project based on factors we discuss below.

The production of Jurassic Park in 1993 was a watershed moment for computer-generated imagery (CGI). While making the movie, director Steven Spielberg pitted a CGI team against a practical effects team to create a T-Rex for the screen. Upon seeing the flawless design of the CGI team, the head of the practical effects team reportedly said, “I think I’m extinct.”

Since then, CGI has enjoyed ever-increasing popularity and usage across every type of media.

The Case for CGI

Thanks to advancements in 3D modeling, high-quality and low-cost digital rendering, and the ability to create and digitize almost anything the mind can imagine, the results that can be achieved by CGI have expanded astronomically. The CGI dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were an early example of how far the field has come.

Beyond cost and time factors, CGI also comes in handy for specific types of shots, such as long, aerial, and pan shots. Viewers may not necessarily be able to see or discern fine scene details in these shots, so CGI can be used to quickly create visibly accurate scenes at a lower cost compared to creating an actual, physical scene from scratch. Shorter turnaround times and the ability to create inexpensive mockups before the final design is decided are also good reasons to choose CGI over practical effects.

Finally, the ability to work with remote teams and auxiliary advancements in post-production editing (such as the ability to digitally remove ropes and safety equipment from shots) all make a strong case for CGI.

The Case for Practical Effects

On the flip side of the argument, many industry watchers have voiced complaints about the overuse of CGI and how it can detract from the authenticity of a scene. To put it simply, audiences know when they see special effects.

Using practical effects instead of CGI makes it easier for actors to interact with their surroundings, allowing for the creation of scenes and sequences that are more realistic. Having a physical structure or setting also helps with continuity. What happens on screen is what truly happens on screen, thus reducing the need for editing for technical accuracy.

Practical effects are especially good for close-ups as well. CGI cannot compete with high-quality makeup or prosthetics work; therefore, audiences know when they are seeing something real versus a digital recreation of someone else’s imagination. Just think of how any of the real characters in the Marvel or DC Comics movie franchises compare to digitally rendered characters; even to the untrained eye, the differences are stark (no pun intended).

Here’s another example: Consider a CGI team trying to recreate (and the use of the word recreate should be noted here) a scene with two actors chatting around a campfire, complete with smoke getting into their eyes, the moving glow of the fire, and its resultant shadows on the faces of the cast. By using practical effects with the actors actually sitting and chatting around an actual campfire, you as the viewer will likely believe they are really there, too.

So, Which Should You Choose?

Beyond (or in addition to) the obvious strengths and weaknesses of practical effects and CGI outlined above, as an artist and a creator, there are a few practical things you should keep in mind:

1. Art in the real world is different from art in school. In the real world, you will likely be faced with difficult choices. You may have a great CGI team on hand for one project, and a great practical effects team for another. Choose accordingly.

2. There is no real reason to stick to one or the other if you are faced with extenuating circumstances, such as requirements, budgets, deadlines, the availability of staff and crew, or other restrictions and/or limitations that you cannot work around. Be flexible and give a little to get a little.

Remember that CGI and practical effects are both tools, and they are only as good as the professionals crafting with them. Effects, whether CGI or practical, should never be used to cover what is otherwise a bad plot, unprofessional production or editing, or any other weaknesses demonstrated by your project.

You may be the auteur of your project, however, what you create, how it is perceived by and resonates with audiences, and how accurately it conveys your message is a team effort. Learn from other artists. Be open to discussing things with established pros and seasoned veterans, experiment with different formats in different settings, and build on constructive criticism. In the end, you’ll know whether CGI, practical effects or a combination of the two will work best for your project, whether it’s in or outside of school.

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