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Why Do Practical Effects Get Replaced with CGI?

Yesterday, we celebrated the momentous decision to replace the practical effect-dinosaurs in Jurassic Park with CGI animation. Today, we look at the other side of the issue: the effect that CGI has had on traditional puppet-makers, animatronic artists, and stop motion animators whose work has increasingly been relegated to the sidelines.

In the following half-hour video, Hollywood veterans Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, founders of character effects studio Studio ADI (Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.), discuss why their work is seen less and less frequently in contemporary Hollywood movies. They’ve experienced the shift from practical effects to CGI first-hand as recently as 2011 when their character effects work on The Thing was replaced mid-production with computer animation. Even with the shifting currents in Hollywood, practical effects are often necessary, and Studio ADI continues to work on major films such as the Spider-Man and Alien series as well as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.

Both Gillis and Woodruff have been around Hollywood long enough to earn a keen understanding of the psychology of movie studio executives, and the two artists spend a good deal of time explaining why execs consistently choose computer-generated imagery over practical effects. Their discussion sheds valuable insights into the related issue of why animation studios only make CGI films and will no longer commit to hand-drawn features.

The whole video is worth watching, but if you’re short on time, here’s the TL;DR version of their video:

  • Practical effects and CGI can work well when blended together. It’s all about balance. Why not utilize the best of both worlds?

    • Jonathan Wilson

      The same can be said for Hand-Drawn Animation & CGI (like “Paperman” & the unproduced “Me & My Shadow”). It’s rarely done that way. Why bother when you can ride on the one that’s most successful at the Box Office.

    • Fried

      And also that both techniques can look great when done professionally and that just because one dominates the industry doesn’t mean that somehow films have gone down the tube or screenwriters are now suddenly hacks and Hollywood is just one big crapfest because we have CGI. If anyone here believes the 80’s was some golden age of cinema you’re kidding yourselves just because you loved the ‘splosions and accents.

      A person in the Alien suit looked great, but a person in a Godzilla costume is laughable. The new CGI Godzilla had much better scale and actually felt like a monster than any of the previous renditions.

      Then there are characters like Gizmo and Dobby who are both good for what they are. I don’t think one is better than the other even though the techniques for both were obvious how they were done.

      Then there are films like Clash of the Titans where the Medusa scene looks terrible for both of them.

      The humanoid fly monster in The Fly was great. So were the giant humanoid insect aliens in District 9.

      CGI Yogi Bear and Garfield is laughable. But guess what? So were the costumed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

      Some films came out better with limitations (Star Wars) but that doesn’t mean good films cannot come from tons of freedom (Avengers).

      • DangerMaus

        I thought the effects work in the original Godzilla was still qutie good, regardless if it was a guy in a rubber suit. I watched the original Japanese version of Godzilla and I didn’t laugh once at the scenes with him in it. It was a better film than the latest one, which was okay.

    • bob

      More or less because the opening numbers for something like transformers was 300 million.

  • normalized

    All what they do is amazing and really cool. But I don’t get it when they say that practical effects look better. In my opinion CG looks way better especially animation wise. Practical still look too mechanical and jittery. But as stated here, a hybrid combination will get the best results.

  • David Loomis

    Obviously there are trade-offs and blended can be great, but generally the more you actually shoot, the better. You’ll get better performances with puppets and people who have something to actually interact with. Practical effects tend to age better. We’ve gone too far in one direction. Different scenes are done by different groups with wildly differing quality levels. You get greenish-grey blobs floating around on camera that are poorly animated and poorly comped over plates that weren’t meant to be comped over. You can’t over-use one trick or you will give up the game. Audiences are savvy.

  • Tony

    What struck me most about the video is when they talked about executives wanting to make movies look more like video games because they’re making more money than movies. What executives forget is that the big attraction for video games isn’t how they look (although that is no small consideration) but how they play. It’s the interactivity factor that lures gamers, not how good the graphics look; the best looking videogame is still no match for the best live-action cinematography. They’re making apples that look like oranges in the hopes that orange buyers will be fooled. They won’t.

    • On the other hand

      I’d guess nearly *0* executives in film have ever said they wanted to make their film look more like video games. Ever.

      • khan8282

        Thank you.

    • Ryoku240

      What makes that crazier is knowing how video games have been trying to be more akin to films with releases like LA Noire and Heavy Rain.

      • Fried

        And ironically, the video game community tend to respond negatively towards that and say “A games feature should be its gameplay. If I wanted a movie, I’d watch a movie.”

        • Ryoku240

          I’ll admit to sticking to that too, movies should be movies and games should be games, to copy one another would be silly.

  • On the other hand

    There are plenty of opportunities for practical effects. For character work, however, practical’s time is sun-setting.

    One big reason is: Directors want to adjust things *after* they’ve shot them. They want that animatronic in just a few more shots that they weren’t in before, now that they’ve gotten into editing with all the footage. They want that eye blink just a hair longer and a few frame earlier now that they’ve seen a cut. They know they can do this in CGI.

    They’re not stuck with what they shot.

    And now that they’ve seen that creature’s muscle flexing and realistic secondary animation under the skin, and realize they can start from there *and* direct it further, that animatronic they built for some of the shots to save money on CGI, not only isn’t appealing anymore, it doesn’t match the other shots in the film. You can see which is which, and they don’t like that.

    They’re not paying for CGI to have the limitations of the animatronic.

    So the animatronics get removed from a few more shots in every iteration of the film, until the Producer runs out of money.

    It’s been that way in every film I’ve worked on with an animatronic. They turn into really expensive reference stuffies which need to be painted out. Sometimes the film starts out with the idea they’ll just “enhance” a few animatronic shots with CGI. But once that genie gets out of the bottle, it just grows and grows.

    Quality issues of each aside (and I *do* think great CGI moves better than great animatronics), you can’t overlook the plain fact that being able to change it as late as possible in the production process is a huge incentive to directors to use it.

    • elliot Lobell

      remember when there was a time when people settled for the hard work that was already put into it? :(

      • Ben

        Why is that sentence ending with a frowny face? Surely the fact that people have an easier time creating the vision that they want is a good thing not a bad thing?

  • ThatGuy

    Am I the only one thinking certain limitations make a film better? aka George Lucas and Star Wars IV A new Hope? He was FORCED to use what he had. he didn’t have all these toys and the film turned out great.

    • AnimationGuy

      110% with you there.

      I’m a firm believer in that some of the greatest works of art have come from limitations, not absolute freedom.

    • khan8282

      I and most of the people I’ve discussed it with would agree with that. But from what I hear about modern Hollywood, it’s seldom a case of people coming up with creative solutions to engage the audience on a limited budget. Quite often, half-baked screenplays are being rushed into production to meet release dates while massive budgets get blown trying to gloss over the weak stories with spectacle.

      • GS

        Just add lens flare, basically.

    • JawsWorked

      Look at Jaws, the shark didn’t work and most of the production was a disaster, but good story, acting and glimpses of the shark in certain scenes and it is still a film that looks great today.

    • Ben

      Yeah I don’t think the george lucas thing is really that relevant. There are a LOT of reasons the og trilogy was better then the prequels. The prevelance of easy CG is only one of them. The major one is that when he made the OG trilogy he had to take advise from other people, they weren’t purely his vision because…his pure vision was fucking stupid as shit a lot.
      When he made the prequels though he was basically given a blank cheque to do whatever he wanted.

  • What I don’t get is… when revisions to the effects are asked for, no matter the medium, it still costs money. Just because it’s done digitally doesn’t mean it’s free to change it.

    • alt animation podcast

      Well unless your VFX guy is on salary, then just ask him to stay 18 hours a day for the same pay because its “crunch time”

    • GS

      The practical guys are on a set and are probably paid a living wage. The FX guys can be paid peanuts in Mumbai.

  • Matte Object

    The death of practical effects can be traced back to one single root cause:
    Nobody in this industry ever wants to make a goddamned decision.

    If you want practical effects on set, you need to know months in advance what you need and what you’re going to do with them, you can’t decide at the eleventh hour to stick an animatronic cyborg polar bear into your Jane Austen period piece because that’s “what the kids want” but you can do it with CGI long after principal photography has wrapped.

    It’ll look like ass, but it allows producers to put off making any decision almost until the movie hits screens and then they can always blame bad ones on “running out of time”.

    • Pedro Nakama

      DING! DING! We have a winner!

      • nevilleross

        No, we have a loser. I disagree with both of you.

    • Ryoku240

      Thats why they use focus groups and all that too, hardly anyones got the guts to do their own thing.

    • Grant Beaudette

      I’ve had to spend days painstakingly tracking smears onto walls in found footage movies for exactly that reason.

  • khan8282

    I don’t doubt any of the anecdotal evidence these guys provide about truncated FX schedules and last-minute changes. They’re talented, and it’s sad to see their business in decline because of changes in the industry. But I think they make a leap in concluding that practical effects are the answer. When post production schedules are slashed, it affects the quality of a shot no matter how it’s achieved. There has been so much great CG work over the years, who is to say a shot won’t look just as good if not better if you gave a VFX vendor proper time and budget?

    And the assertion that people somehow crave a video game look because we’ve been desensitized to it or whatever is just self delusion. Nobody likes bad effects of any type. We suffered through bad latex prosthetics right up until CG started to take over, and now we suffer through bad CG work when it isn’t done right.

    It seems natural that they and many in the public should lament the passing of an important part of film history, but change is inevitable and going around blaming everyone else is just kind of … sad.

  • Matt

    They choose CGI over practical effects the same reason they chose CGI over hand drawn. Directors want to keep fiddling with things because they do not work out the story during the story process and the storyboarding process. Directors have come to rely on creating the movie as the movie is being made instead of working out the film in the storyboard/animatic phase. Careful planning goes a long way during the pre production phase that many studios seem to rush through.

  • Pedro Nakama

    In my experience a lot of movies are started without a complete script. I can see why they go CG so they can add or change things through the production process.

  • Ramiro

    P.E and CGI, are tools after all, just like the choice of filming in digital or theaters going to digital, sets, props, even actors!. A good PE or CG is only good if it helps to tell the story.

  • Who Knows…

    CGI costs less money if you want the effects to look like something from The Asylum. If you want the CGI to look like The Life of Pi then it’s going to cost a fortune.