CGI or practical effects: What looks best on the big screen?

The debate around which special effects are the best continues


Award-winning movies like Pearl Harbour, Mad Max, and Transformers all have one thing in common: the use of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).

Photo by Rachel Dosant

The film industry has come a long way with the advancements of special effects in movies. The number of talented people who work to make movies look and feel real is fascinating. However, a debate has been raised about CGI and practical effects, which is better, and which one offers the most realism. Though each is different, both are designed to immerse the viewer with the authentic feeling of what’s happening in a movie, whether the scene is of a volcano erupting or a car crashing.

Canadian actor Emmanuel Kabongo is known for roles in the hit TV series Quantico and Rookie blue, and 2014 movie Pompeii, about a slave turned gladiator based in 79 A.D  who finds himself in a romantic historical disaster. The film gave audience members a dose of CGI effects.

“For myself, things looked pretty real in Pompeii and felt real while filming it,” Kabongo says.

Pompeii delivered a bunch of crazy things happening. Earthquakes, crumbling buildings, erupting volcano, people on fire, just endless scenes using CGI.

When it comes to filming movies that require the delivery of realism, it is key that it is done in a way that captures audience members everywhere.

“Some of us have a hard time diving into the fantasy, that is being portrayed to us and others find it easy to be swept off their feet… to each his own”, says Kabongo.

Kabongo adds that with the evolution of technology, people  can’t always tell if what they see has special effects or not.

Big screen movies that take people’s breath away, or that simply leave them wondering ‘how did they do that?’, all begin with a team of hardworking people focused on delivering the magic of movies. Key decisions are made that go into the making of things such as a car crash or a building being blown up, and believe it or not, details down to how an eyelash may look on an actor are considered. Every detail is very crucial to how scene images are selected and portrayed to the audience.

Wesley Sewell is in charge of visual effects as he is the supervisor for Spinvfx. photo by Rachel Dosant

Wesley Sewell, visual effects supervisor for Spinvfx, a visual effects studio based in Toronto since 1987 says,“One of the first questions that will be asked is do we do that practically or is that going to be visual effects, it could be… or is it a blend of both?”.

With 25 years in the film industry, Sewell has worked with many of the major production companies like Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures on feature films like  American Gangster, Gladiator, Thor, and The Avengers. Sewell knows how to get the ball rolling when it comes to making decisions about special effects.

“If there is going to be an explosion we will discuss the scene, and if there will be any stuntmen involved. The look that the client wants, is it supposed to be a very realistic looking fireball that stunt men are jumping away from, or the lead actor, for example. And then they say, ‘Yes that’s what we want!’ So I’ll say, ‘Look, shoot it practically because a practical explosion is done and they are gorgeous’,” says Sewell.

If the practical explosion is shot, and it is not as big as the client wanted it to be, Sewell says, that’s when he will decide to enhance it with CGI.

A CGI explosion becomes very difficult to make look real because of lighting, and having to make sure that once the explosion goes off, its reflections will light up what things are around it, which takes more time and of course a lighting team to deliver that perfect look of realism.

It is what’s better for the client creatively”, says Sewell.

When it comes to the differences both CGI and practical effects have, Sewell describes it this way: “Before computers, some stuff were done in a really cool way, and for decades this way of film was called special effects. From the very dawn of film making a guy named Georges Méliès a French man made these amazing films with visual effects, just tricks in film which was very cool.”

He continues, “Eventually digital arrived where we are now able to use computers to help with the process and that has its whole fantastic evolution that has happened in the last 25 years.”

If you ever sat down and watched Jaws or even Mary Poppins they all had the use of visual effects.

“Films that date back to the 1940’s, like Mary Poppins is a visual effects extravaganza,” Sewell says.

They were all done with film blending and photography.

“You had to put it together, no computers were involved, if it was put together practically then it is what we call special effects,” he says.

Grant Miller, visual effects supervisor for eight years with Ingenuity studios in Hollywood California says that practical effects is what actually happens on set and is filmed, where CGI is what they will add in post production.

“Things like explosions, glass and debris will be shot practically it is interactive, and things that are not possible to do practically, will be done in CGI,” says Miller.

Ingenuity studio worked on the 2017 thriller Get Out where both practical effects and CGI were used on some of the scenes.

“A lot of CGI blood was used for scenes of the movie, as well on other stuff, but minimal practical effects were used throughout the film,” says Miller.

Photo by Rachel Dosant

When it comes to how much time is needed between doing something in CGI and in Practical, Millers explains the difference with an example of a scene where someone getting shot in the chest. It would take 6 hours of a person’s time with practical effects, verses in CGI it can take an hour or two to do that first bullet hit and four hours worth of tediously going over details.

Many argue CGI is putting practical out of business, but is this true?

“I would agree with that to a certain extent,” says Miller.

“Every explosion we do is an explosion that a practical effects person doesn’t do. I think the people that are smart and that are collaborating with visual effects companies are figuring out where it makes the most sense to draw that line will always be in business. There is always a need to do that stuff practically,” Miller says.

The question is: Do viewers see the difference between practical and CGI special effects?

“It’s getting pretty hard to tell,” says Film Facility Professor James Warrack, who works with the school of image arts at Ryerson University. “Films done in the last few years like \The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, has a scene where [a car] comes over the bridge and goes off the road, it is a complete composite shot of a 3D model.”

Warrack explains that where there is risk of danger to a cast or crew member on set, the likelihood is that more CGI will be used.

“It is less risk for everybody involved,” says Warrack.

Warrack also teaches a visual effects entry level course at the Ryerson University’s Chang school for continuing education. He says it is much easier to teach CGI over practical to students and practical does take a lot of skill.

“The main focus is on CGI, but with physical effects, the people who actually do it in a VFX (visual effects) company such as Spinvfx, people who are designing have a large background in physics. They really understand what happens when a car blows up what flies around and what doesn’t, to offer what will look real,” says Warrack.

Although the film industry is evolving technically, the one most important thing Sewell wants people to remember is story. He says he would like nothing more than to see creative film makers continue to deliver that.

“There is an opening that has not been filled by visuals as storytelling tools. It will take creative filmmakers to come up with creative ideas, and creative visual artist to come up with great solutions. That’s the future I aim to see in film,” he says.

For now, Kabongo says CGI and practical effects both do exactly what they are supposed to do; by delivering scenes in movies with real life effects that entertain people who love to see movies like Star Wars.

“In the end, people want to be entertained and producers and filmmakers aim to give the people what they desire,” he says.

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