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Where Have All The Practical Effects Gone?

While watching Alien the other night, I wondered – why don’t films today use practical effects more often?

As technologies have developed and the use of CGI has become more and more common, many films are relying on it instead of practical effects to get shots done quicker and speed up the production process. Who has time to take hours to build something or spend half a day in a makeup chair when you can edit it on a computer?



That’s not to say CGI is all bad. CGI has done incredible wonders for the move-making world. Just look at Peter Jackson’s amazing company, Weta Digital, and the groundbreaking work they have done with motion-capture. King Kong’s design is nearly impeccable. They broke filmmaking ground when creating the character of Gollum. The huge epic battles in The Lord of the Rings would be nothing without the help of CGI.



But Peter Jackson also used practical effects in The Lord of the Rings, especially when designing the Orcs. Some Orcs were made with the use of prosthetics and makeup. But this was sorely lacking in the latest Hobbit films. Azog was completely motion-capture. For the all the stunning detail Weta used with Smaug it fell short with Azog. Where were the realistic Orcs from the original trilogy? Azog looked so fake and out of place- whereas the Lord of the Rings Orcs could believably stand head to head with Saruman, Aragorn, or any other character.

Peter Jackson even said about the Hobbit films before release, “You’re gonna see more of it in the second and third movies but i’ve kinda been using less prosthetic orcs and more digital orcs, and I’m really happy. I’m doing what I wished I could have done 12 years ago where we didn’t really have the means or the technology to do it properly back then, but we do now. So I think our Orcs, certainly coming up in the next two films, are going to be pretty formidable and scary creatures compared to what we have done in the past.”

But I find Lurtz far more scarier than Azog. I know Azog is fake, he looks fake and more like a video game character. Lurtz is real, and terrifying.



For another great use of makeup and practical effects, look at the famous transformation scene in An American Wereowlf in London.  Isn’t it much more realistic and believable seeing that than in 2010’s The Wolfman?

George Lucas even abandoned his famous models for Star Wars to make his prequels filled with CGI special effects (and some really awful…see Jar Jar Binks)


Some actors find themselves alone in the middle of a green screen room, acting with just a tennis ball to mark their other actor or whatever creature they’re battling against. CGI can never make up for something an actor can actually wrap their hands around. Practical effects allows for intimacy between actors, thus letting them give a more realistic performance. Isn’t all the more exciting knowing that the alien is really there?


We all know the story of the making of Jaws. Since the shark was such an excruciatingly tough practical effect to pull off, it resulted in the audience seeing less of it. That effect worked so well and is what made Jaws so terrifying to audiences, the use of music and camera angles substituting for the shark’s POV, leaving the big reveal for the end. If CGI was available then, who knows what we would’ve gotten?


There’s no denying that CGI has been beneficial to the wonders of moviemaking. Giant battle scenes and crowds, or even larger than life creatures are made more awe-inspiring because of it. (I think Smaug rightfully deserved CGI treatment, and it was done very well.)

But I think we should start seeing more practical effects done for the little things. If you can do it with practical effects, do it. Use those talented makeup artists or special effects designers to make that close-up more effective. Put your actor in the same room as the puppet you’re using instead of editing it in later with a computer. Don’t use CGI as a crutch.

About The Author
Caroline Madden
Caroline Madden
Caroline has a BFA in Acting from Shenandoah Conservatory, and is currently getting an MA in Cinema Studies at Savannah College of Art and Design. She served as the Entertainment Editor and writer for her college newspaper, The 'Doah. She currently also writes at Screenqueens, Bitch Flicks, and her blog. (check out the link below!) You can usually find her listening to Bruce Springsteen or watching movies.

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