Sunday Discussion: Practical Effects vs CGI - Is One Better Than The Other?
by Alex Billington
August 10, 2008
Back at Comic-Con I got into a small argument with a friend over the footage from Terminator Salvation and Watchmen. We were discussing which looked better and he was vying for Terminator because the footage McG showed was made up of only practical effects and barely any CGI, whereas Zack Snyder's Watchmen footage had an extensive amount of CGI throughout all of it. Thankfully our argument ended there, but my immediate reaction was to question "why do practical effects instantly mean it's better than CGI?!" We're at a point nowadays where CGI has advanced enough that it looks and works as well as practical effects. And referencing something like Hellboy II doesn't work because that movie was terrible in the end. It's an argument that will never reach a resolution, but at least one to discuss briefly today.
My interest in discussing this argument arose again yesterday while reading a few of the comments on article about James Cameron's Avatar. Andrew wrote: "5-10 years later they won't even need cameraman on the set anymore, who knows, maybe they won't even need actors since they can just bloody CG it." His argument isn't particularly on the side of practical effects, but I could easily see some people latching onto it and using it as leverage for the practical side of the argument. Avatar is a film that will be made up almost entirely of CGI and, although we won't be able to see it for another 16 months, I'm guessing it will look even better than most modern movies. This isn't Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within anymore, Cameron's version of CGI is going to be as photorealistic as all the other CGI visual effects that we see in movies today.
When you watched Transformers, did it feel like the robot characters were real and did it look like they were alive in the same world as Shia LaBeouf? When you watched The Dark Knight, did you ever noticed one second of CGI, even in Harvey Dent's burned faced? If Hellboy II is out of the question in the argument for practical effects, the next great example is Iron Man, where the late Stan Winston's armor was completely hand-built and used while shooting. However, could you tell when his armor changed from practical to CGI? I know I never knew the difference and that's a testament more to the CGI artists than anyone else. That's not to say that Winston's work wasn't amazing, as it certainly was what gave the CG artists a design to work off of, but it shows that the use of CGI is not a bad thing by any means.
The issue I have with this discussion is that people simply believe that practical effects are ultimately better than CGI in any situation. They don't realize that there can be a mesh of CGI and practical or that there can be CGI done so well you never know the difference (like in The Dark Knight). Practical effects are fantastic and certainly should not be detested, but they're not the only path to success and they're not the only way to make a movie look good. If anything, this whole argument is strikingly similar to the argument between digital projection and 35mm projection (which we're not going to get into). If there's anything I want people to take away from this discussion today, it's that CGI should not be immediately discredited - they're both cinematic tools and they can both be used very well or very poorly. It's entirely in the hands of the filmmaker. Practical effects vs CGI - is one really better than the other?