December 3, 2014

SFX vs. VFX: Two Effects Artists Discuss the Differences Between Practical & CGI

Are you a little obsessed with practical effects? Well, I amWhen I was a kid, I saw Jurassic Park when it came out in theaters, and I remember sitting up in the mezzanine -- wide-eyed and mouth agape -- staring at the ginormous T-Rex that I absolutely thought was real. Okay, not real real, but I just knew that it was present; it was something that shared the same space as the actors. It was made and controlled by human hands and I just thought that was amazing.

And then CGI came along. Essentially every creature, monster, mythical being in pre-Jurassic Park movies were done practically with models, puppets, animatronics, etc, but after Industrial Light and Magic's incredible innovations in CGI, which they first used in The Abyss, T2, and a few others, the world of special effects grew to make room for all of the creative beings and places artists would create: dinosaurs, aliens, new worlds, superheroes scaling buildings and swinging through New York City.

And this is how wars are started. Innovations. You've heard this argument before: "CGI is better." "No, you idiot. Practical effects are better." "Practical effects look fake as fudge, dude." "Are you kidding me!? You're going to tell me that the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in Paris looks more real than the one in An American Werewolf in London?" "Whatever, man." "Whatever, you. CGI is ruining the effects game." "If by ruining you mean bringing it to new heights then yeah, we're totally ruining the shit out of it!" "Go play on your computer, you nerd." "Yeah, go play with your dolls, dude."

Or how about the argument that CGI is putting practical effects out of business? Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis Amalgamated Dynamics, a special effects company based near L.A., had a chat about this very topic in this new video from Cracked. In it, they talk about everything effects-related -- practical, CGI, comparing the two in terms of production, pros and cons, and why artists from each camp should stop bickering over which is better. Check it out below.

Essentially what Woodruff and Gillis are saying is that CGI isn't your enemy, Practical Effects, and vice versa. In fact, they make a perfect team. It's not a "them or us" kind of situation, just ask two of the greatest practical effects artists in the world, Rick Baker and Tom Savini, who are anything but anti-CGI. In this piece for Tested, Baker said:

CGI is an amazing tool, and it’s only as good as the artist behind it. I think if you have a very talented director and give him good tools to use, he’ll make a good movie. If you have a crappy director and give him good tools, he’ll still make a crappy movie.

Savini follows up with:

My feeling is CGI makes it better. It used to be a challenge to try and create what was in the script. Now anything you can imagine can be created on the screen. I love CGI when it’s done well, I love the stuff they did in The Mummy. They still use the make-up guys to design the creatures and that’s what they work from. I don’t think you’ll see make-up effects guys hanging out on corners with signs that say: WILL DO EFFECTS FOR FOOD.

As someone who fell in love with practical effects at a young age, who loved my animatronic buddies from Critters, Gremlins, and E.T., practical has its place, as does CGI. There's a place for a guy in an alien suit to chase people through an abandoned Moon base, and there's a place for a super slow motion shot of that alien flying through the air and exploding in an aesthetically pleasing splatter pattern. There's a perfect collaborative opportunity in every film.     

Your Comment

9 Comments

You should check out these videos, too... http://youtu.be/nY_63Dlj83g & http://youtu.be/qdDwrY5KpvI These will give you much deeper insights into Gillis and Woodruff's POV on the matter. Also, if you haven't checked out their film projects Harbinger Down and Fire City, you're missing out.

December 3, 2014 at 5:23PM

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They both have their place. Great of example of bad CGI where they never had to use it, which really ruined a perfectly good movie? I am legend. There was absolutely no reason what so ever to use CGI creatures instead of really great makeup. NONE! And I love CGI creatures.....when they actually look good=)

December 3, 2014 at 8:12PM

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Josh.R
Motion Designer/Predator
970

you do know that a few of those iconic scenes in Jurassic Park were CG right?

December 3, 2014 at 9:31PM

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Michael Goldfarb
Senior Technical Director - Side Effects
338

Yeah, the ones that don't hold up and stick out like a sore thumb. The scene that I remember most was the T-REX trying to get to the kids as they hold up the glass or other scenes which still look amazing because of the lack, or very minimal use, of CG.

December 4, 2014 at 2:34PM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1306

December 4, 2014 at 8:59PM

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Michael Goldfarb
Senior Technical Director - Side Effects
338

I think there was a great opportunity to bring that up in the article. It's interesting that one of the most celebrated films for its use of practical effects was also among the first major releases to usher in CGI in a significant way. Granted, one category of its effects has aged far better than the other.

December 4, 2014 at 3:00PM

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Sean Parker
writer/director/editor
158

After reading the first paragraph and seeing that the author ignored this, I was so disappointed. The artisan CG development and work on Jurassic Park took the movie where it needed to go, and I think it's only because you want to be part of the ~vintage 35 club~ that you ignore this.

Obviously the difference between then and now is that CG has become totally self-aware and self-serving. Subtlety and balance is the key.

December 5, 2014 at 1:17PM

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IMO, The Lord of the Rings trilogy did a great job mixing SFX and VFX. If if could be done in a great way it was SFX, if not, VFX and so on. The Hobbit took it waaaay too far, and it felt fake and lazy.

December 4, 2014 at 1:19AM

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Olof Ljunggren
Student
220

The transformation in AWiP has always bothered me. Not the quality of the CGI but the quality of the creative choices. Particularly when her legs changes. We watch her knees bend backward and become her ankles while she grows new knees. This looks cool of course and I get it this is fantasy. People don't actually turn into werewolves. But if they did, the transition we just watched makes no sense. Wolves have the same bones in their legs that we do: Femur, patella, tibia, fibula, tarsals, metatarsals, and digits. The artists are asking me to believe that a person can turn into a person wolf hybrid. I can do that. But now they are asking me to believe that her tibia, fibula, and patella become the werewolf's tarsals? that the femur splits into a femur, patella, tibia and fibula? All because it looks cooler?

That's bad art. Da Vinci and Michelangelo studied cadavers so they could make more accurate and therefore life like figures. That clearly didn't happen in this case. And if it did, the person who did the research, did not effectively communicate the need for it the people who made the decision. It's bad art.

But this has nothing to do with the fact that it is SFX or VFX, CGI or Practical.

December 4, 2014 at 11:01AM

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Michael Markham
Actor/Filmmaker
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