As I’m sure you, my readers, are all aware, CGI effects are incredible. We can create massive sets and have them take up no more space than a computer hard drive, or turn humans into monstrous aberrations without ever touching the actor in question. We can turn a beautiful garden into a place full of darkness and terror, and seem to fracture reality itself. But before computer generated effects, we had practical effects – building sets, using makeup to turn humans into still-fairly-humanoid-but-really-weird-looking creatures, and using camera angles and tricks of the light to make mountains from molehills. Of course, practical effects couldn’t do many of the things we can with CG effects, but they never ran the risk of finding themselves in the ‘uncanny valley’1. Jurassic Park, oft-touted as the best early film to feature computer-generated effects2, used many more practical effects than they did computer-made, and had only fourteen out of the one hundred and twenty-seven minutes for which it runs contain effects that weren’t practical. That’s not to say that practical effects are somehow inherently better than CGI, but rather that films using practical effects knew that they had to hide them, and avoided showing them for longer than necessary.
In stark contrast, more recently movie studios seem intent on showing off their CGI as much as possible, which can easily break the audience’s immersion, as it all continues to exist solidly within the ‘uncanny valley’. Take the difference between Jurassic Park and Jurassic World’s first dinosaur sightings. In Jurassic Park, the first dinosaur any of the actors interact with is a sickly Triceratops, which was made with practical effects3. It doesn’t move, but is fully solid. When the actors interact with it, they aren’t just talking to a guy in a suit with ping pong balls attached to it – this is a real, solid object. Their interactions with this prone creature become convincing simply by way of it being there, and it lends credence to movie’s claims of the solidity of these creatures, helping to suspend belief. Jurassic World, on the other hand, never uses even a single practical effect dinosaur, instead opting for complete CGI. In fact, even the monorail seen in one of the earliest scenes doesn’t truly exist – it’s CGI too. This choice was presumably made so as to avoid having to create a monorail set in a rainforest-like area, which would be expensive in terms of both time and money – CGI would be more expensive, but it would take far less time and effort. However, no attempt is ever made to hide this fact from the audience, which is in fact a problem, given that the human brain is incredible at picking up on subtle nuances, and when someone’s acting like they’re interacting with something that isn’t there, we can tell, even if it’s only on a subconscious level4. Of course, the less proficient the actors, the more blatantly obvious it becomes. When you get told to stand in a green room in a ridiculous outfit, then stare at and talk to a tennis ball suspended in midair like it’s your best friend, it becomes much more difficult to deliver a convincing performance. There are, of course, ways to mitigate these distractions from acting, but those would require the construction of individual sets and extensive makeup, both of which use time and money that could potentially be spent elsewhere. So which is more important? Great acting or doing as little hard work as possible?
1. For those unfamiliar with the term, finding oneself in the ‘uncanny valley’ is a colloquial term for the point at which a CGI person is almost human, but not quite, which causes sense of eeriness and discomfort in the audience.
2. Business Insider: ‘Jurassic Park’ Animator Shares How CGI Brought Dinosaurs To Life
3. Vulture: Why Don’t the Special Effects in the Summer’s Big Sci-Fi Sequels Look As Good As the Effects in the Originals?
4. Cracked: 6 Reasons Expensive Films End Up With Crappy Special Effects