In a sci-fi film, what is the best balance between CGI and practical effects?

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In a 2010 interview for Weekly entertainmentJames Cameron made a bold statement about the technology that made Avatar possible. The director said such technology could be used to make another dirty harry movie, “where Clint looks like he did in 1975”. More than a decade later, no such sequel has materialized – in fact, many fans have been put off by the prevalence of CGI, calling for a return to the practical effects that made movies like jurassic park timeless. While practical effects are always an essential part of the filmmaking process, there is still a lot that CGI can provide; indeed, the best sci-fi films usually rely on a combination of practical and digital effects to achieve their magic.

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Practical effects have been part of cinema almost since its inception. For creating an otherworldly setting in his 1902 short A trip to the moon, director Georges Méliès relied on techniques still in use today: miniaturized sets, fanciful costumes and props and advanced editing methods. Practical effects can be as simple as the split screen that allowed two versions of Marty McFly to appear together in Back to the future part II or as complex as the animatronic dinosaurs of jurassic park. Before CGI, filmmakers used travel mattes (the ancestor of digital compositing, with its ubiquitous green screen) to compose separate shots, allowing for films like the original star wars trilogy, in which miniature spaceships fly over filmed landscapes.


RELATED: Why practical effects in movies aren’t always practical

Although practical effects can accomplish a lot on their own, the evolution of digital processes used in post-production has supercharged their potential. For example, behind-the-scenes footage of stunts performed in Mad Max: Fury Road look much less impressive without the bright yellow tones the final film was bathed in. Similarly, viewers who managed to see The Empire Strikes Back before George Lucas began retooling his original trilogy for ‘Anniversary Edition’ versions, will remember the thick black lines that traced the AT-AT walkers as they traversed the contrasting white landscape of Hoth. These lines (along with other relics from pre-digital production) have been digitally removed, along with the blurring of Vaseline under Luke’s speeder in A new hope.


In star trek, practical effects were used to provide the actors with conditions similar to those their characters would experience on a platform above the planet Vulcan. Although the platform and the planet are digital, the actors still had to deal with strong winds, which gave their performance some truth. This balance demonstrates the most common use of CGI: placing real actors in digital environments. While most viewers probably associate digital effects in Avatar along with the many fictional species of flora and fauna native to Pandora, the film also includes numerous CGI shots of an Earth-like ecology, including computer-generated waterfalls flowing over digital cliffs, under digital mountain fragments .


Avatar also represents another important aspect of CGI: the generation of numeric characters. The most successful CGI movies rely on verisimilitude, and the best digital characters are always backed by strong actors. Andy Serkis has proven himself to be a superstar infusing characters like Gollum and Kong with depth and subtlety. Plus, his performances as all-digital characters proved there was still a place for actors in a CGI future. Indeed, CGI offers filmmakers the ability to significantly alter characters’ faces without limiting their range of expression, unlike practical effects such as prosthetics. Audiences might wonder what the point was of casting a talent like Colin Farrell in The Batman (besides letting Colin Farrell be in a superhero movie), when the layers of latex required by the role coat the essential instrument of his trade. The digital modification of his face, on the other hand, could have capitalized on his power of expression, rather than hiding it altogether.


At this time, it can be tempting for studios to incorporate CGI as digital tools become less expensive and more efficient for production. But the best CGI continues to be one that relies on at least some measure of practical effects, incorporating enough elements of reality to lend truth to fiction. Certainly, CGI has evolved to deliver seamless effects even in films that don’t include futuristic settings or fantastical concepts: the heads of stunt doubles and stand-ins can be replaced more effectively than ever with actor likenesses. Expensive location shoots may soon be a thing of the past as digital sets are incorporated into historical dramas and films. Still, actor performances will remain a necessity, as digital characters rely on the movements and expressions of real people.

So what’s the best balance between practical effects and CGI? The answer is the one that applies to most aspects of cinema: whatever is necessary to tell the story. The CWs the flash has often been criticized for its low-budget effects, but the series still chose to incorporate effects-heavy storylines from the comics, such as the appearance of King Shark. The fans didn’t care – just like the fans didn’t care about the black lines in the star wars trilogy. The films were always advertised as sci-fi marvels, giving viewers the chance to see spaceships, aliens, and lightsaber battles. Audiences will continue to gravitate towards good, well-told stories, regardless of the effects budget.


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