Sunday Discussion: Practical Effects vs CGI - Is One Better Than The Other?

August 10, 2008

Terminator Salvation vs Watchmen

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?

Find more posts: Discuss, Editorial, Opinions



People are just having a hard time accepting that anything can be done with a computer now

Mr. Pockets on Aug 10, 2008


I personally don't hate CGI, its a great thing when used properly. There's and time and a place for CGI and practical effects. People just get mad because there are loads of times where CGI is used at the wrong time or improperly and makes a scene just look silly (or and entire movie the the case of Indiana Jones 4). The article above listed a couple of huge budget movies that had people on board who knew how to properly use CGI and get it to look amazing, but it failed to mention all the shitty movies out there that have shitty CGI (and you all know they exist). Thats why alot of people still prefer practical effects, real effects will always look real.

Mark on Aug 10, 2008


My biggest arguement comes in the form of INDIANA JONES. To me, the big rolling stone which was filmed nearly 30 years ago looks more realistic and scarier than the Visual Effects in this years Chrystal Skull. Watching something hard, raw, real is better than watching something so smooth and digitally created. Also, from the production side, creating physical effects must be much cheeper than hiring Visual Effects creaters to make a false product. Now I say all that, but Two-Face's face just looked so real that I questioned it constantly. Some things I can let slide. Good discussion in my eyes, Ive asked myself the question numerous times before.

Marcus on Aug 10, 2008


I just want to be made to think it's real. If that means really nicely done CGI or practical effects I don't really mind.

Rick on Aug 10, 2008


CGI has gotten to the point where even the textures look real, which really has a tremendous effect. That and lighting. Visually, it is proximal to real life, but it is still discernable from real, concrete things. They still haven't perfected movement, and the best CGI effects involving human characters utilize some form of motion capture. The truth is, CGI will never entirely replace practical effects, and if they did, movies wouldn't be worth watching anymore. Voicing an animated movie produces less realistic character interaction anyway. You can't beat the kind of chemistry you get when real actors are interacting on set or on sight. And I agree with #2 that the best use of visual effects is in enhancing practical effects. Example: Underworld. It wasn't the best example of special effects, but it would have been terrible if the werewolves were done totally in CG. And whenever they shoot zombie films where brains are being blown out, they use dummy heads with small explosives, layered in with the zombie extras digitally, with lighting effects. Neither is perfect, and if I had to choose, it would be practical effects. But they work better when used together.

JL on Aug 10, 2008


i believe that practical effects have always looked more realilistic and until i cant tell if it is real or CGI then i believe more film makers should use practical effects

CHICKImonkey on Aug 10, 2008


Look, it really doesn't matter whether a film has CGI or practical effects. I mean there are certain movies that call for CGI and there are others that can do just fine (if not better) with pratical effects. I always go with practical because it just looks more real. The thing is though is that a film cannot just all be effects. The reason why we all go to the movies is because of one reason: we want to be see a good story. Special effects can definitely make a movie, but we have to fully understand the plot and actually give a shit about the characters. A film that actually concentrates on story and character is very rare nowadays because they are relying way too much on effects. If it sounds like you have heard this all before, its because you have and Hollywood just doesn't care. The Dark Knight is a prime example of how great a movie can be with both spectacular effects and, most importantly, a compelling story and characters. That's why it is still destroying box office records. Put it simply, films like TDK is why we go to the movies in the first place. By the way, I totally agree with you, Marcus. Indy 4 might as well have been made in front of a green screen.

Pat on Aug 10, 2008


Depends what kind of CGI they are making. If it is something that does not exists in real life then it looks weird with CGI. Hulk, zombies, robots, monsters etc never look quite real so I always prefer real stuff over CGI for this part. Weather effects, explosions, vehicles, planes, animals etc if made correctly are much more awesome made with CGI. Thats why the Dinos in Jurassic park are so awesome because they managed to create something nobody ever seen and make it look genuine.

Shige on Aug 10, 2008


They used robotronics for the big ones.

JL on Aug 10, 2008


...the upper bodies, at least...

JL on Aug 10, 2008


Old Star Wars trilogy ships > New Star Wars trilogy ships. Perhaps the best comparision, imo.

Korinthian on Aug 10, 2008


Each movie, creator, budget and studio will determine which is used. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's not applied well and it's not. Heck, in Titanic, how many scenes do you think used real water? Or sky or crowds? At times, it's cheaper to use CGI, at times, it's not. As technology gets better, it will become moot, but actors won't ever get replaced. The unions would go crazy. -Bruce

Brusimm on Aug 10, 2008


Practical FX look real because they are, therefore they can not take away from the movie viewing experience(unless filmed wrong). CGI on the other hand usually looks horrible because it simply is not real. Plus CGI is often abused by being overused(See Star Wars Prequels) and used when it is not needed because the director has the computer do all of the work(See George Lucas). CGI works best when the audience doesn't take notice and is used sparingly(See Master & Commander). CGI should be used as a tool. Not a crutch! Plus it's more exciting watching actors react to real things happening around em and I am sure they enjoy it more then faking it in front of a green screen.

Brandon on Aug 10, 2008


I personally pefer practical effects but using cgi is much more safer

A on Aug 10, 2008


I think that it depends on the case. But, what matters the most is the director. Even practical effects can look shitty,but they should be used when aloowed and budgeted for. I mean, look at MUMMY 3. CGI can look good insome scenes, but others you needed practical. I mean, look at the beginning chase scenes and ending. One practical, one CGI. Both good. Look at the other scenes in the movie both CGI and practical, NONE GOOD!

Ryan on Aug 10, 2008


All right if CGI can make the impossible act look real then I'd go with CGI, but pratical can suffice well enough to. With CGI anything can be done as long as it seems possible, but I like either CGI or pratical effects. Also Hellboy II wasn't terrible in the end, it ended the story with the closing of the department, an said H.B. was having twins, how's that bad? Really I need someone to give me a straight answer.

Xerxex on Aug 10, 2008


#2 said it best, use CGI to enhance practical effects will make a movie work best. As stated, an example of over use of CGI is the Star Wars prequels. While watching these, I never really felt or got into the Star Wars world as I did when I watched the Older films cause the CGI took too much away from the raw feel of the old movies. A good use of mixed CGI and practical effects would be Pan's Labyrinth and LOTR trilogy. Unless the movie is going for an all CGI movie like Beowulf or in this case Avatar then it's more expected and would work. Right now the best CGI are of metals or more concrete items, that's why Transformers worked well with the real world. Human forms/skin still has a bit more to go before it can make me totally forget that i'm looking at a CGI character. As for Two Faces disfigured CGI face, there were some scenes that worked well and in some scenes the CGI started to show. So my final say, I'm with most of the people in here... practical effects will always be more realistic but use CGI only to enhance or for scenes that's impossible to create using practical effects.

Omega728 on Aug 10, 2008


CGI is best used to augment. Iron Man is the best recent example. CGI characters fail when we have a frame of reference. For example fully human CGI characters always look awful because I know what a human looks like. You can't trick the human eye that much and when you try in this fashion it seems to react strongly. Thus Neo and the Hulk elicit a poor response. We have a frame of reference for flesh and bone. Yoda on the other hand is not a person however we also have a frame of reference for him thus his digital self looking a bit off to many fans. Golem works because we weren't exposed to him until the first time we saw him.

J'osh on Aug 10, 2008


The problem that most people, including myself, have CGI is when its used and its done poorly. This is often the case. Matrix Reloaded? Studios use it when they want to do something incredible and it often comes off looking terrible because the audience knows it cant be done and the CGI looks bad. In the case of Dark Knight it was used sparingly and in the cases where it was used it was done remarkably well. Also alex.....i know you are looking forward to Avatar but how can you say anything great about something that no one has seen yet. It could be Beowulf. Which would be fine......but i dont think its going to change cinema. But as i said.....no one has seen anything yet from it....so how about we wait and see before we get all pumped up.

heckle0 on Aug 11, 2008


CGI is like make-up. If I can tell it's there, it's too much.

MCab on Aug 11, 2008


Yeah, that's the problem. We give control to the computer. It's OK when we use computers for CGI and other stuffs, but when we give computer to control military...

J.C on Aug 11, 2008


Here's the bottom line. A great Director will utilize every tool in the toolbox. If you put everything together properly, Live effects, CGI etc, noone will notice where one starts and the other one ends.

Obiwopkenobi on Aug 11, 2008


J'osh, you give a really good point. Same with MCab.

Ryan on Aug 11, 2008


some CGI looks amazing like in Ironman and even The Incredible Hulk but then there is some that looks downright horrible like 10,000 B.C.

The Delightful Deviant on Aug 11, 2008


hey fuck u man hellboy 2 was good. Only one director ever got the cgi and the special effects stuff right and thats james cameron. if you want proof just watch Terminator 2.

Darrin on Aug 11, 2008


A lot of films have CG effects that people don't even realize. Often the entire background plate is just a matte painting, or buildings have been removed digitally, or trees have been added digitally. There's all kinds of crap like that in film all over the place, and most of the time people don't notice. They only notice when it's done as bad as it was in the Matrix sequels, or when it's obviously CG, like that new Vin Diesel flick (sorry, but the CG in that film looks awful). The watchmen, on the other hand, is an interesting sort of film in that it's not exactly an attempt at realism. It's an attempt at the reality portrayed in the book, and I think they've done a pretty decent job of hitting that mark, but it doesn't look like reality. I would argue that it's not meant to, in the same way that Hellboy II is not meant to either. Nor was 300, Sin City or The Spirit. Besides, there are times now when a director will use a practical effect and people end up thinking it's CG (The cars that crash around Bruce Willis in the tunnel scene in Die Hard) and times when they've used a CG effect and people think it's practical (that same scene wasn't shot in a tunnel, the long tunnel they're in is 90% CG effect). So I think a lot of people are really bitching about the really cheesy CG effects that some movies have, where they end up falling into the uncanny valley and hurt themselves.

Squiggly_P on Aug 11, 2008


Wow, I could not disagree with this article more. CG has not come even close to looking good enough to do everything director's use it for. Could I tell there was CG in Iron Man? Yes. Could I tell in Dark Knight? No, because it was barely used, except for the scarring of Two-Face. Which movie has broken records this summer? And it's interesting to note that Nolan used even fewer CG effects in Dark Knight than he did in Batman Begins. As CG evolves, so too does the audiences savvy. CG should be used as sparingly as stop-motion once was, but instead has become the panacea of effects.

Nate on Aug 11, 2008


Way to taint your article with a compelling amount of bias.

B33 on Aug 11, 2008


I have no problems with CGI, as long as it looks real. It's coming along, but not quite there yet.

L on Aug 11, 2008


CGI seems to be getting worse, as it's used more. Jurassic Park is still the benchmark as far as I'm concerned. That was 1993, and I've yet to see it used again so convincingly. I think the low point was Attack Of The Clones, which felt like a cartoon, with actors standing in front of clearly cgi backgrounds and all those highly detailed aliens. The worst of CGI are the ships and sets. I think in instances like Two-Face in The Dark Knight, the CGI is fantastic because it's non-obtrusive. It's the less-is-more philosophy that seems to be lost on a lot of film makers these days.

Scott on Aug 12, 2008


I could tell you when there was CGI in The Dark Knight and Iron Man because there IS a difference and the problem is with lighting. If you watch the Star Wars prequels it looks like you put people in the middle of an animated movie because everything is too bright. The areas in which CGI has excelled the most has been with darker colors. This is why "The Incredible Hulk" worked better than "Hulk." CGI IS NOT equal to practical effects. Yes, during Transformers and many heavy CGI films, I notice that it isn't a real robot flying around and because of that, the thrill is missing, the magic is missing. The car scene in "Death Proof" is magnificent BECAUSE there's no CGI, just a girl on the hood of a car going 40-60mph. If we don't believe that someone's at risk because we're thinking "Oh, they just CGI'd that" then it doesn't work. It's as bad as seeing the knife at the girl's throat in a horror movie is cardboard. Practical effects is what made Alien, Aliens, Predator, Predator 2, Terminator, and Terminator 2 so freakin' awesome (as well as the great 80's horror films): they were real things interacting with real people. Hell, even Cameron's "The Abyss" was great on the same level because they actually built the underwater set. Another example could be made with "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and "Pearl Harbor." Once the action kicks in to "Tora!" you're seeing planes blown up on the airfield, flinging out into various stuntment running for their lives. The reality grabs you in "Tora!", Pearl Harbor is like substituting a steak dinner for 2 pounds of cotton candy.

Remington on Aug 14, 2008


Also, I don't know how people could confuse Two-Face's CGI scarring with real effects, it seemed pretty obvious. Take a look at the wife at the end of "Pet Sematary" and then look at Two-Face. There's a BIG difference

Remington on Aug 14, 2008


(I'm extremely passionate (about practical effects) and angry (about the abusive use of CGI), so pardon so many posts) ENVIRONMENT The other thing to consider is that the environment for a story is a character unto itself. The only way a story works well with an audience is if the audience believes in the characters. So if you have shitty characters, the audience isn't going to come along for the ride. Thus, if your environment, one of the most important characters because it interacts with the story and the characters within, doesn't look real then the audience isn't going to by and neither are your actors. For example, the environment of "Children of Men" MADE that movie, whereas the environment in the Star Wars prequels KILLED all three of them. I have to argue with Comment 8. Nolan wanted to ground "The Dark Knight" in reality, so he made sure that all of his characters (including his special effects/environment) were real. It's a combination of a real story, characters, environment, AND special effects that makes "The Dark Knight" such a great film. If the car chase with the semi under Gotham went to CGI all of a sudden, it could have crippled the film. Nolan said he doesn't like CGI and deiliberately avoided it. The big reason "The Dark Knight" is so sweet is because they took a REAL semi and flipped that sucker ass end over. CONCLUSION I guess at the end it comes down to this: anyone can type things into a computer to make something, big deal. All you're doing is manipulating images you've created. But if you can create something unbelievable, in our world, something you can touch...that's why people go to the movie. I think using CGI to enhance practical effects is a good compromise, but CGI shouldn't be the main character unless it's 100% computer generated. Movies shouldn't look like moving comic books (unless of course it's Sin City). PS When it comes to CGI really wowing me, however, a scene in Jurassic Park still gets me: When the T-Rex climbs through the fence and steps between the Jeeps: it's a wide shot that captures it's entire body and it still looks ridiculously real.

Remington on Aug 14, 2008


You know that truck flip scene in TDK, yeah, the one that got everyone gasping in awe? Yeah, that was practical effects, and that little simple truck flip drew more awe from the audience and from me, than the entire CGI-drowned Transformers movie. I'm not against CGI, just the overuse of CGI. I think Chris Nolan's Batman films are the perfect blend of practical effects and CGI. Nolan knows that the audience isn't stupid; you can't cheat them with CGI where practical effects are better. But he does insert CGI for useful purposes (the flight scene in Hong Kong, the great bat-scene at Arkham's Asylum in BB). Whereas too much CGI is not only lazy, but you can still easily spot the difference, and leaves the audience feeling like they just watched a video game.

anonymous on Aug 20, 2008


There's nothing wrong with CGI but there is when practical effects could have easily been used but weren't. A movie like Transformers requires CGI because you can't practically build and operate giant robots but the CGI use in Watchmen is one of my biggest fears because the stroy really doesn't require much use of CGI yet in the trailers it's used everywhere. The Dark Knight was great because of it's minimal reliance on CGI but that's because the story didn't require any. Ultimately CGI is an amazing thing to have but overuse of it can make a film look cheap or degrade the storytelling ability of the film.

SlashBeast on Aug 25, 2008


I think the problem film people have with CGI, is that the general audience feels CGI is better and everything else old sucks. Ray Harryhausen is a legend, but how many times have I heard some ‘Tard call it sucky clay-mation. Martin Bower who’s work won an Oscar for his work on “alien”, does much less work today than he did 10-15 years ago. Most VFX studios like Stan Winston and others have felt the budget pinch from CGI and the internet. Studios love CGI, its cheap and the public loves it. So I feel hardcore movie fans miss the days of real artist making thinks small, but real. Ray said it best when asked about CGI, when Jurassic Park was released, like “go-motion” it’s a tool and will never replace practical work…

Dean Parks on Oct 22, 2008


Just the debate I have been listening to for a long time now. Thankfully there are least 4 endgame movies (or series) that define the best; "Star Wars/Alien" (1977/1979), "Jurassic Park" (1993), "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (2003), and "The Dark Knight" (2008). All of which have one thing in common; Combination of CG and practical with more practical then CG. And of course all of them broke box office records for years, not months. And as there is need to do so, here are the reasons why the worked so well (at least a few); 1. "Jurassic Park" (1993), in my books the scene that triumphed were the Rex walking in front of the car in the rain in its lights (a very dynamic piece of CG), where the Rex was the only thing CG. Niether CG or practical overwhelmed the other and the damage was practical. 2. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), its scene was the Oliphant clash, every oliphant in the fight was a combination of practical (oliphant or people around CG oliphant) and CG. CG used to do thinks that would cost too much practical while maintaining practical people smoothly blended. 3. "The Dark Knight", no question that two-face was the best effect combination. Practical person with a CG overlay the really hits the stop. Even I couldn't tell his face CG until it was mentioned in the making-of on the 2-disc edition. In fact the only time I could recognize his face even was CG at all was when the CG face barely showed through in the Moroni cab seen and even then the lightning matched with the CG. My only question of the blending lies in the movie Avatar (2009), becuase its seems almost straight with CG overlay practical sets and live action characters with CG overlay. But its still hard to say without the making-of feature I am wanting to see. Watch how they are made to get a better idea how scenes are made rather then think of each scene as one or the other.

Arcanus on Aug 24, 2009


^ Cool, but the CGI in LOTR sucked ass. It looks dated already.

Glass on Jul 10, 2010


I know this is old, but yes, I instantly noticed the CGI in the Dark Knight of the helicopter crash.

Jadotch on May 24, 2012

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