CGI in recent years has become the go to method for producing special effects due to its innate predictability and reliability, which is a major benefit when dealing with film budgets. It should not be seen as a ‘cheap’ alternative however, as CGI when done well can still be hugely expensive, and outside the scope of many low and no budget filmmakers.
CGI was also seen as less of a risk, as at the time of the rise in its popularity, filmmakers still shot regularly on film; meaning any mistakes or unexpected results could be extremely costly, so the option of using computer generated effects that could be added in post production seemed a safer option than using practical effects on sets. CGI eventually became a known quantity, and regardless of the quality, people knew what they were going to get.
Today though this perception has changed, with many Hollywood Directors preferring to use Practical Effects over CGI. Christopher Nolan is a prime example of this, as he’ll go to great extents to produce amazing practical effects in his films such as The Dark Knight, Inception & more recently, Tenet. Horror legend Leigh Whannel, known for the Saw & Insidious franchises is another advocate for using practical effects wherever possible, as he once quoted “I love, and I’ve always loved, contained sci-fi films that utilize practical effects. I feel like the human eye can tell when something is actually in the frame and when it was inserted digitally later”. – in layman’s terms, you just can’t beat the real thing!
For new filmmakers, practical effects are a lot easier to incorporate into productions due to high quality CGI work being extremely expensive. For those wanting to learn, it’s a steep learning curve and a considerable time investment. Whereas practical effects were an expensive necessity in the past, today they can offer far better value due to developments in manufacturing, availability of materials and the relatively low cost of professional film gear. Practical can also give filmmakers far more bang for their buck when compared to cheap, ‘off the shelf’ CGI. Today’s generation of filmmakers are used to CGI being the norm in film & TV, they therefore know how bad CGI can look when overused or not done correctly (or both!). They also may not be aware of the true extent of what practical effects can achieve, and how well they still hold up to this day (look at Jurassic Park for a prime example of this, or the Mandalorian to see how miniatures are still used to great effect). The practical approach has truly stood up to the test of time, with effects so seamless you don’t even realise they weren’t real! Due to continuous advancements in technology, CGI quickly becomes outdated, and doesn’t always age well.
Nowadays you can find anything on the internet, and online there’s a plethora of insightful, educational articles, blogs & videos all about practical effects. If you’re interested in practical effects and want to delve deeper, there’s plenty out there to help any aspiring filmmaker; such as a YouTube channel whose videos provide an insight into the film production industry, and give detailed step-by-step tutorials on how to create and produce certain practical techniques. This is a prime example of content creators online that are working hard to revive the reputation of practical effects and who are inspiring others with informative, entertaining videos.
A catalogue of key practical methods can be easily learned now at the click of a button, including techniques such as:
The Use of Miniatures
A common technique that has stood the test of time, being used in the Original Star Wars Trilogy, but being so popular and reliable still to this day. A key technique for being able to shoot what appears to be life-size on a smaller scale, and smaller budget:
This is an essential skill for any filmmaker; knowing how to correctly light a shot to ensure you set the tone right and capture everything you want when shooting. This video is a brilliant, hands-on example combining the use of a miniature with how to light a shot by showcasing lighting essentials and some industry tricks to help you out:
These are another key aspect of Practical Effects, with prosthetics artists being responsible for bringing the look of characters on film to life. There’s many great videos online about the prosthetics industry and how they’re used. It’s great to hear from industry professionals and get an insight into the film industry with a behind the scenes look.
A great technique for any filmmaker wanting to make blockbuster worthy explosions on a small scale and small budget; it really is amazing to see what practical effects can achieve when done correctly (and safely!).
In summary, the art of practical effects is very much still alive in filmmaking; and the developments in manufacturing, availability of materials and the relatively low cost of professional film gear have massively contributed to the rise in the use of practical effects again. The practical approach to special effects is well and truly back in fashion, no doubt due to the public adornment of practical effects from industry professionals and passionate filmmakers alike. Aspiring filmmakers should see the practical approach as an opportunity when; a technique that has lasted the test of time and always proved reliable; now is a better time than ever to get into practical effects.