Going Back to the Roots: Practical Effects and Digital Effects

Everyone knows that before there was digital effects, the movie industry wizardry was done through the use of practical effects, props, make-up, animatronics, etc. This is not really the case anymore, as digital effects is the norm for creating the movie magic you see in many of the summer blockbusters. As time progressed, and talented artists constantly try to push their art form into more believable and realistic effects, whether it's an unknown creature or a distant fantasy land, digital effects became the prominent means for creating these illusions. However, it's important as VFX artists not to forget your roots, and look at practical effects for inspiration. You have probably heard the statement before, "Movie X has way too much CGI" Why is this bad? And how come many movies get pegged into this category of "too much CGI" and what can we as artists learn from that? Let's take a closer look at the world of practical effects and digital effects and try to understand why our beloved art form sometimes gets a bad rap. Both practical effects and digital effects are there to do many different things, from creating explosions in action movies that would other wise be much too dangerous to do in real-life or merely cost more than the budget allotted or to create worlds that simply do not exist in real-life like in the Hobbit trilogy. The things that digital effects allow movie makers to do are truly impressive and have created a whole new art form. However, it's important to remember that practical effects are still vital for the movie industry and can achieve things that digital effects sometimes can't, they both very much feed off each other. Names like Ray Harryhausen are still in the minds of countless VFX artists who use his practical effects work as inspiration. [caption id="attachment_34592" align="aligncenter" width="800"]the avengers image © 2012 Marvel[/caption] One question you may have heard before, and even as a VFX artist you may have asked this yourself, "Are movies relying too heavily on CGI?" Even though we all live and breathe CG, it's what we love, as a VFX artist, how would you answer this question? Sometimes, too much of a good thing can be bad. Things can become overused and more is not always better. A movie that has recently come under the radar as relying too heavily on CG is the latest Hobbit trilogy by Peter Jackson. Many movie goers have expressed their opinions that the movie just has too much VFX compared to his prior film's delving into the Middle-earth universe, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The VFX in the Hobbit movie is obviously top-notch with absolutely amazing technical feats, so it certainly isn't about the quality of the CG in the film. The Lord of the Rings trilogy also featured a large amount of VFX from Gollum to many of the large battle sequences, but it also featured an extensive amount of practical effects. As a VFX artist, how would you answer this question, if one of your family members or friends believed The Hobbit movies rely too heavily on CGI?" Maybe it's about immersion? Practical effects can sometimes make things more grounded in realism, and grittier. Directors like Christopher Nolan rely heavily on practical effects because it can help keep the immersion in a film, many of the special effect shots in Inception were done with camera trickery and practical effects, and the same for the Dark Knight trilogy. However, with other superhero films like The Avengers features a massive amount of CG, and that film is loved by many fans, but The Avengers is not trying to be realistic. It's a much more fantasy based superhero film. Maybe fans of Peter Jackson were just surprised by the whimsical approach of The Hobbit films compared to the grittier Lord of The Rings.

Practical Effects and Digital Effects

Let's take a look at examples of practical effects and digital effects from various new installments of films, because there are things that are better with digital effects and things that may be more logical with practical effects. Each medium plays a key role in the industry. [caption id="attachment_34583" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Lurtz and Azog Lurtz and Azog[/caption] The first example is Lurtz and Azog. Lurtz is from the Fellowship of the Ring, and Azog is from the recent Hobbit films. Both are extremely well done. Lurtz is an actor in make-up and prosthetics, and Azog is a full CG character, and both feature a significant amount of screen time with other actors. Both give off two different feelings; Lurtz is much grittier and real. Azog feels more fantasy like, and in the films he towers high above the normal-sized actors. The power and size of Azog that Peter Jackson wanted couldn't really be achieved with an actor in make-up because Azog needed to stand out from the regular Orcs and actors. Which creature do you feel more engaged with? Both the practical effects version that is Lurtz and the CG character Azog hold a unique benefit. Lurtz has a more realistic feeling to him. He is a living and breathing creature that is engaged along side the other actors in the film, while he certainly doesn't look much like anything in the real-world, his proportions and anatomy resemble what you see in real-life and the other actors in the film, it's something you can relate to; he's something that is believable. After all, it is just an actor in a massive amount of make-up. Azog gives off another distinct feeling. He is very much out of this world. His proportions greatly skew what is possible in real-life, and he towers high above any of the actors who are engaged with him, whether it's other Orcs or the band of Dwarfs. Digital effects are used here to create something that's not possible in real-life, which in turn can sometimes break the immersion of the viewers. While Lurtz is also a thing of fantasy, there is a small inkling that this creature could exist in the real-world some how... [caption id="attachment_34576" align="aligncenter" width="800"]jurassic park © 1993 - Universal Pictures[/caption] In addition you have something like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, this is an area where the same feeling simply can't be achieved with practical effects, the realistic motion and fluidity the VFX artists were able to achieve with the CG dinos couldn't be done with an animatronic dinosaur. It helped to create a whole other level of believability and realism. There were also many areas in the film where practical effects were used to create the dinosaurs, but they mixed both practical effects and digital effects beautifully in the film. [caption id="attachment_34581" align="aligncenter" width="800"]guardians of the galaxy image © 2014 Marvel[/caption] In the recent blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, it featured a large amount of digital effects, but it also had a significant amount of practical effects as well. Many of the sequences and areas the film took place couldn't be accomplished as well as it could be with the use of digital effects, like many of the space sequences and planets the film took place in. The movie also had many different alien creatures some were done with practical effects, and some were complete CG. It's a film with a mixture of both media that use each one to their strengths. Technology is constantly advancing on a daily basis; each new film tries to push the boundaries of what is possible with digital effects, creating more realistic characters, creatures and worlds. For instance, take another look at films at the turn of the century, just ten to fourteen years ago. Simply comparing the CG in The Lord of The Rings to The Hobbit trilogy shows a huge leap in technology. While the CG in The Lord of The Rings was groundbreaking for its time, what the artists at Weta could do some ten years later with the technology is extremely impressive. Whether its digital effects or practical effects both are significant to the film industry, and each medium has its strengths. As a VFX artist it's always important to go back to your roots and look at some of the great leaps in practical effects that play a key role in the industry. How do you feel about movies getting slapped with the title of "Having too much CGI"? Tell us what you think in the comments below!