CGI vs Practical effects: the effect they have on cinema

When George Lucas pioneered the developed of CGI in Star Wars through ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) no one would never of guessed the impact it would have on story telling on the silver screen forty-five years later.

There have been many debates whether CGI has improved cinema by making it easier for the production to create whatever vision are in their heads, or whether it has reduced the quality of film production by making it easier.

CGI is when it comes down it a tool – a tool that when used correctly can make something come to life that normally wouldn’t be possible, while at the same time just because it is a tool it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the right tool to use all the time.

In Star Wars: A New Hope a combination of both practical and computer-generated effects was used to create the now known Star Wars universe. However, since than film and in a sense, story telling has declined, and although it isn’t wholly CGIs fault that that is the case, it is an important factor.

A good way to understand how CGI has changed the way we watch films is in how we react to the visual stimulus of a given scene. An easy example of this is to look at a movie like The Thing (1982) starring Kurt Russell. The film is horror and in horror we as the audience are supposed to feel some sense of terror or fear in what we are seeing. The creature effect are fully practical and created by Rob Bottin. By having something physical to capture on film and for the actors to interact it makes it possible for the viewer to feel what they’re experiencing, which in turn is what cinema is about.

The viewer goes to the cinema to escape into a whole new world and to forget about the real world for a couple of hours. So, it would be reasonable to expect that new world in which they are viewing to seem as real humanly possible given the current technology as our disposal.

Now in contrast in the 2011 The Thing, the special effects are CGI, although there are some practical effects used in the film, it is hard to tell where CGI and practical begins as it goes from CGi to practical and back to CGI in a few frames. Some would argue that the CGI is good, the question is though is the movie scary, were the viewer afraid of the Thing or just shocked at the sight of it.

A tactic used in horror is shock-horror, being surprised by a sudden event of gore or some other means of horror which is what was used the 2011 adaption and the effect on the audience is lessened as the viewer know they came to see the creature, not multiple scenes engrossed in shock-horror.

The Predator (2018) suffers from the problem as The Thing (2011), and that is that the CGI takes over the film and spoils the intention of the genre. Additionally, by making the process of making films relaxed it in turns has the side effect of cheapening the writing process. Since the writing team, or director has access to his full imagination but at the expense of effort needed to create something new. The writer doesn’t try because he doesn’t have to, and why should he when the computer does it all for him.

In having no limits, the writing has in turn limited himself or themselves. When the production is limited by the technology they can use, it drives them to create something with more substance like real character in a real scene while also fighting a real antagonist. Continuing on from the Predator analogy, in Predator 1 Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) fights the Predator in a one-on-one, and since the Predator is a practical effect by way of a man-in-a-suit we feel his dread, knowing that one mistake can cost him his, and we can feel the power behind the creature with each strike it makes against him.

In the end although special effects and CGI makes it possible for film companies to create anything they want, however, it would be better used in the less-is-more approach during the production to create the best quality story, instead of quantity of CGI over substance. Films are stories after all and since a picture tells a thousand words, then you can imagine the amount of words are in an hour and a half film. A lot to be sure.


  1. I agree that CGI characters can make or break a film. It’s especially distracting when it’s a classic character that has gotten a CGI makeover. When used correctly, though, it can really amplify the quality of the movie (Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, etc.)

    Liked by 1 person

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