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Special FX house speaks out on why practical FX are being passed up for CGI

Jul. 3, 2014by: Sean Wist

While computer generated imagery is an ever-growing arena as far as film is concerned, we find that practical effects are falling by the wayside. CGI, when done right, can yield some amazing results. Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY immersed people in the cold blackness of space, so much so that you didn't even question where you were. Even characters are becoming central figures in films, such as DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, where CG can translate an actor's performance to another creature entirely. Now, those two represent the very best of what CGI is capable of. More often than not, films are working within a limited budget and limited time and yield far less results. A lot of the time we're left scratching our head at the discordance on-screen; movies that feel more like cartoons than anything else. That begs the question, "Why not go practical"?

Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. (ADI) is a practical effects house that specializes in prosthetic make-ups, animatronic puppets, actor duplicates and replica animals, to list a few. They've recently done some work on Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA, as well as PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS and THE THING (2011). You're seeing less and less of their work these days, and the answers might surprise you as to the "why". Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff of ADI take a few minutes to go into the reasoning behind film studios opting for CGI, rather than the more cost-effective practical route.

Having seen both THE THING (2011) and PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS, I find it a little frustrating to see what looks to be great practical effects, only to have it replaced with shoddy CGI for the final result (which doesn't even hold up now, let alone down the road). Even moreso, being the fact that studios see how much video games are grossing each year (and that amount is growing) and that they want to emulate that "video game look", in hopes that somehow that will translate to a box-office gross.

I think it's universally agreed upon that a marriage between practical and computer generated effects are the best way to go. We've all cited films such as TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY and JURASSIC PARK (as just a few examples) in regards to the best accomplishments in that field. What's funny about that is how old those movies are! No one's going to look at THE THING (2011) and comment in the positive about it's special effects, but people BELIEVE that those dinosaurs exist in a film that came out over 20 years ago. There is a need for CGI in some films, but as Dr. Ian Malcolm put it best, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

Extra Tidbit: Do you feel that CGI is being needlessly used, or is the amount on-screen generally necessary given the films that they're in?

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10:31PM on 07/04/2014

The other thing that wasn't mentioned

is actors deliver a much better performance when they're responding to a practical effect in front of them. It's easier for them to respond to something that's actually in front of them as opposed to "this post-it note is the monster. Now act scared."

It sounds like the major problem is a lack of pre-production in general, which results in cost overruns and weaker scripts. The irony is that the studios spend more time and money fixing these mistakes after the fact than if they just took a
is actors deliver a much better performance when they're responding to a practical effect in front of them. It's easier for them to respond to something that's actually in front of them as opposed to "this post-it note is the monster. Now act scared."

It sounds like the major problem is a lack of pre-production in general, which results in cost overruns and weaker scripts. The irony is that the studios spend more time and money fixing these mistakes after the fact than if they just took a little bit of extra time to get things right beforehand. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
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8:38AM on 07/04/2014
I haven't seen that prequel (?) to The Thing yet, but yeah that CGI looks bizarre, like they were going for some sort of hyper-real anim effect. I can see why effects houses like these would be straight up angry when they see their work getting butchered on screen.
I don't have a problem with CG done well - it has its place - but if you can't make it look real then it'll only hurt the film in the long run.
I haven't seen that prequel (?) to The Thing yet, but yeah that CGI looks bizarre, like they were going for some sort of hyper-real anim effect. I can see why effects houses like these would be straight up angry when they see their work getting butchered on screen.
I don't have a problem with CG done well - it has its place - but if you can't make it look real then it'll only hurt the film in the long run.
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4:09AM on 07/04/2014

fuck cgi

cgi is fucking awful.
fuck movies like gravity and gotg, if i wanted effects id play a fucking video game!
cgi is fucking awful.
fuck movies like gravity and gotg, if i wanted effects id play a fucking video game!
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8:01PM on 07/03/2014
The thing about practical effects is they're tactile. They're *there*, WITH the actors and the audience inherently knows they are things that can be touched, that have presence. This is a HUGE difference. With CG, too often you just wind up with a floaty spectacle that excites the audience with about the same staying power as a firework - and half the time the only reason the audience is even interested in the effect is so they can demonstrate their superior ability to recognize that it's CG
The thing about practical effects is they're tactile. They're *there*, WITH the actors and the audience inherently knows they are things that can be touched, that have presence. This is a HUGE difference. With CG, too often you just wind up with a floaty spectacle that excites the audience with about the same staying power as a firework - and half the time the only reason the audience is even interested in the effect is so they can demonstrate their superior ability to recognize that it's CG (after someone tells them, of course..), further cheapening the effect to nothing more than a checkbox audiences can mark to verify that the action movie did indeed count as a "blockbuster".
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7:00PM on 07/03/2014

Hmmmmm.....

I noticed something wit the cyclops... it does move faster when they showed the CGI.... the CGI dreadlocks looked real but I'd still prefer the practical efects for the close up shots.
I noticed something wit the cyclops... it does move faster when they showed the CGI.... the CGI dreadlocks looked real but I'd still prefer the practical efects for the close up shots.
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6:50PM on 07/03/2014

my opinion:

for horor movies, seemlessly mix the two or use practical FX straight through.
CGI still hasnt compensated for long flowing realiztic hair and blood splatters AT ALL.... folks if you're making a film, dont film your blood splatters against a green screen then super impose it later... just do it on the day of the shoot. and get the actors soaked with REAL fake blood... (and yes I know that it's still eal fake blood, but I'm opposed to using a green screen and then adding it in after...
for horor movies, seemlessly mix the two or use practical FX straight through.
CGI still hasnt compensated for long flowing realiztic hair and blood splatters AT ALL.... folks if you're making a film, dont film your blood splatters against a green screen then super impose it later... just do it on the day of the shoot. and get the actors soaked with REAL fake blood... (and yes I know that it's still eal fake blood, but I'm opposed to using a green screen and then adding it in after...
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8:05PM on 07/03/2014
Oh yes, good lord, keep CG the HELL away from horror. It just doesn't work, period. ESPECIALLY for blood. But the biggest problem with using CG is the pride of it - when practical fx are used, the director hides the flaws with lighting and winds up giving the creature a horrifying screen presence just out of necessity. When CG is used to make the character instead, everyone is so fucking proud of how "well" it was executed that they drop it front and center on the screen and make it about
Oh yes, good lord, keep CG the HELL away from horror. It just doesn't work, period. ESPECIALLY for blood. But the biggest problem with using CG is the pride of it - when practical fx are used, the director hides the flaws with lighting and winds up giving the creature a horrifying screen presence just out of necessity. When CG is used to make the character instead, everyone is so fucking proud of how "well" it was executed that they drop it front and center on the screen and make it about as unscary as possible for the sake of showing off. So stupid.
4:25PM on 07/03/2014
As a fan of cg and practical, this is something a 10000000% agree with, use both.
The new Star Wars movie, if they use practical and cg, have a better chance of less suckage. They talk about a Gremlins sequel/reboot and while part of me wants that, I would only want it if practical Gremlins/Mogwais are there with cg there to balance more difficult parts.
I've always thought that ch was there to make the impractical possible, but now that it is so widely used, it's practical but looks more
As a fan of cg and practical, this is something a 10000000% agree with, use both.
The new Star Wars movie, if they use practical and cg, have a better chance of less suckage. They talk about a Gremlins sequel/reboot and while part of me wants that, I would only want it if practical Gremlins/Mogwais are there with cg there to balance more difficult parts.
I've always thought that ch was there to make the impractical possible, but now that it is so widely used, it's practical but looks more improbable.
Mixing the two art forms is how it should be.
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+1
2:03PM on 07/03/2014

More video

These guys have a much longer version of this video on their YouTube page:

[link]
These guys have a much longer version of this video on their YouTube page:

[link]
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+1
1:54PM on 07/03/2014
I was watching Honey, I shrunk the kids last night and I got to thinking that if a kid watched that movie today they would probably take the grass jungle a little more seriously than the jungle of Avatar. And I'm not taking anything away from Avatar I'm just using it as an example but for a kid that grass jungle even though it was probably made of stirophome or something just looks like something you can touch and probably have made in your backyard while Avatar just looks like something from
I was watching Honey, I shrunk the kids last night and I got to thinking that if a kid watched that movie today they would probably take the grass jungle a little more seriously than the jungle of Avatar. And I'm not taking anything away from Avatar I'm just using it as an example but for a kid that grass jungle even though it was probably made of stirophome or something just looks like something you can touch and probably have made in your backyard while Avatar just looks like something from the video game Uncharted (wonderful series by the way). I'm almost thirty and I still get more out of seeing them kids eat that cookie over the awesome looking floating mountains because the kids actually touch it and eat it.
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1:46PM on 07/03/2014
This is why the world still needs people like Rob Bottin...
This is why the world still needs people like Rob Bottin...
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1:20PM on 07/03/2014

Extra Tidbit

I'd say the best FX are still the ones the strategically blend the two.
I'd say the best FX are still the ones the strategically blend the two.
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6:40PM on 07/03/2014
I'd say that the best FX are the ones you DONT SEE at all.
if you see the CGI, the effect is blown, but yes I'm a huge supporter of traditional makeup effects because you get something that typical CGI doesn't give you... HAIR.

that and CGI blood still looks fake on screen.
I'd say that the best FX are the ones you DONT SEE at all.
if you see the CGI, the effect is blown, but yes I'm a huge supporter of traditional makeup effects because you get something that typical CGI doesn't give you... HAIR.

that and CGI blood still looks fake on screen.
1:19PM on 07/03/2014
It's a very eye-opening video and I'm a big fan of the work ADI does, Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis pop up very often in the behind the scenes videos for the Alien quadrilogy. It's mind-boggling how much better the animatronic effects for The Thing and especially that Cyclops head for Percy Jackson 2 look when compared to the CGI replacements. I think that CGI does have it place and that the best results are always when the methods are mixed up, so the eye doesn't get used to seeing one way
It's a very eye-opening video and I'm a big fan of the work ADI does, Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis pop up very often in the behind the scenes videos for the Alien quadrilogy. It's mind-boggling how much better the animatronic effects for The Thing and especially that Cyclops head for Percy Jackson 2 look when compared to the CGI replacements. I think that CGI does have it place and that the best results are always when the methods are mixed up, so the eye doesn't get used to seeing one way of the effects being done, keeping the audience guessing than if it were all digital. I understand how hard CG artists work and I don't mean to disparage their work, but I've always found it a lot more interesting to learn about the techniques used by people like Stan Winston, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Shane Mahan, Rick Baker and so on and have always been a lot more intrigued by elaborately staged practical gags. The Alien Queen in Aliens was strung up on wires, and there was no digital wire removal done because it was not yet a widespread technology - it was all framing and editing to make sure the wires weren't seen, and that to me is really impressive.
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