The debate between the use of computer generated imagery over the more ‘practical’ special effects is one that has been fiercely argued for decades. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so too do the effects – helping filmmakers redefine what is possible while providing the movie going public a new yardstick by which to judge a film’s production value.

For many, the 1993 release of Jurassic Park ushered in a new age of cinema; never before had such lifelike creatures existed on the silver screen. And yet, for a film that is largely remembered for its defining computer generated special effects, some of its most memorable scenes could not have been possible without the use of animatronics.

While both the ‘real’ and ‘synthetic’ movie effects seemed to coalesce admirably with one another in Jurassic Park, it’s admittedly a little strange that there are two such adamantly opposing camps on the matter. Ironic isn’t it?

CGI may produce some pretty epic special effects, but have you ever stopped to wonder what it does to an actor’s craft? When Ian McKellen reprised his role as Gandalf for The Hobbit trilogy, the use of CGI and green screens actually brought tears to the longtime actor’s eyes – and they weren’t tears of joy. He was lamenting the fact that during some of his more powerful scenes in which he was conversing with his dwarven companions, he did not have the benefit of being surrounded by his fellow actors, as one might think – instead, he was forced to speak his lines to cardboard cutouts on a set which he alone occupied.

To his credit, McKellen pulled it off, but when you think about it, the argument that the overuse of CGI robs a film of its soul doesn’t seem so farfetched.


Diving Too Deeply Into CGI: A Cautionary Tale

If you were to ask one of the four people that actually liked the Star Wars prequel trilogy, they may tell you that the films were great just the way they were (these are the same people that are so ensconced in denial that they believe the ‘Jar Jar is a Sith Lord’ theory is credible). The fact of the matter is, those films were too heavily influenced by computer generated imagery to make the movie enjoyable – lending credence to the adage that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

For the new trilogy, the first installment of which released to record-breaking numbers in late 2015, returned to the roots of the series: combining real sets, real makeup applications, and real characters with CGI – where it made sense. Clearly the film’s director, JJ Abrams, thought it wise to harken back to the some of the techniques that made the original series the standard of great sci-fi.


Real Effects Just Make What You’re Watching More Believable. Period.

To be fair to those on the side of CGI, the technology certainly has its place in the film industry. Shots that would otherwise be impossible to shoot or too costly to get in real life can be created with a computer loaded with state of the art software. Exotic locations, done right, help transport the viewer into the story, allowing them to forget what they are seeing actually doesn’t exist (unlike Zack Snyder’s 300, which acted as a constant reminder that every detail was fake).

When it comes to character creation, there is just no comparing CGI with a quality special effects makeup. Where once the application of makeup and facial prosthetics was considered too old school to be relevant, many film and television productions are embracing the authenticity it can bring to the story they are trying to tell.

The progression of filmmaking is such that there is room for both CGI and practical effects in any blockbuster. The key is to identify the strengths that each technique brings to the project. One of the worst things a filmmaker can do is use copious amounts of CGI simply because it is available. To find an example of the right combination one would need look no further than the massively popular series Game of Thrones; a series that could easily have fallen prey to the overuse of CGI. Thankfully, the powers that be opted instead to strike a balance between the two, much to the delight of fans all over the world.


Published by Steffen Ploeger