CGI vs. practical effects: Impacts on the authenticity of film


The use of CGI has skyrocketed over the last few decades, making it easy to forget that it hasn’t always been a part of the film industry. However, some filmmakers continue to stick by original practical effects and animatronics. With these vastly different techniques being used – each with their individual advantages and shortcomings – a question arises: Why is CGI the industry standard today, and does it compromise the authenticity of filmmaking as an art form?

CGI is used in many types of media other than films: It can appear in video games, advertising, news, animation, art, and more. Many AI image generators can simply use text prompts to create artificial images. 

CGI, which is a type of computer software used to create realistic images on screen, can be dated back to the 1960s, with its first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Vertigo in 1958. Since then, its prevalence has only grown, with today’s movies such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” using CGI for thousands of shots. And while it may seem that CGI isolates the actors from the digital elements, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” demonstrated differently, with Gollum being the first CGI character to interact with real actors. 

CGI has become, without a doubt, much more realistic over time, but even the newest technology very rarely looks as authentic as practical effects on a high definition screen. Additionally, since practical effects use physical objects, actors’ performances can be enhanced by this element of realism. Rather than having to imagine what it is they are interacting with, they are able to see it, which gives them the ability to focus more on their performances. 

Some directors, such as the renowned Christopher Nolan, deliberately avoid CGI in projects like “Oppenheimer”.  According to Screencraft, Nolan said that he chose not to use computer graphics because it “tends to feel safe”. While he acknowledged their versatility, he said they’re hard to use in horror movies because they make it difficult to feel danger. 

The Trinity Test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon by the U.S. Army, was a key moment in the film, and Nolan stated that this had to feel threatening to the audience in some way. This was achieved through practical effects rather than CGI. Scott Fisher, the Practical Effects Supervisor, on “Oppenheimer” said that gasoline and propane were used to create the intense blaze of the explosion sequence, and then mixed with aluminum powder and magnesium to create the blinding flash. A variety of different oils and powders were used to produce these astounding images. Throughout this entire process there was a lot of experimentation to figure out how to best create these images. 

Practical effects can undoubtedly create emotions and reactions that CGI cannot replicate, but CGI has become so prevalent for a reason. It allows for worlds to be created in a way that cannot be done with only practicals. “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” are only two examples of this. 

Practical effects are essential to the foundation of filmmaking and can allow for actors’ performances to be enhanced. However, CGI has its well-deserved place within the film industry and does not diminish the creative art of filmmaking. There are benefits and limitations to both, and it is up to the individual filmmakers to decide how to best communicate their messages and evoke emotions on the screen.