Digital or practical effects: Which fake looks better? You be the judge.


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Warner Bros. Pictures. IMDb.com. 27 May 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0457430/mediaviewer/rm2110357760/

There’s an old adage that the magic of Hollywood is just smoke and mirrors. But don’t be fooled: that smoke and those mirrors cost millions of dollars and can turn a bad script into a mega-million dollar blockbuster hit. Since the beginning, set design and effects were an important cornerstone in creating a great film. To this day, people have to get creative with effects to capture a sense of realism within a film, yet effects have changed drastically over the last 100 years. Before the digital age, art designers and sculptors would come together to bring worlds alive with whatever they had on hand. Whether it was common household items or industrial-grade steel, effects artists had to create within and despite constraints.

Jump to modern times and it’s a night-and-day difference from what had to be achieved decades ago. Computers can now generate explosions, people, monsters, and even entire worlds in just a matter of hours. Things that couldn’t have been done using only practical effects can now be brought to life digitally on the big screen. But despite the technological advances, from a qualitative standpoint questions remain: Which style of effects is better, practical or CGI? Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but can one trick the eye better than the other? You be the judge! In this post, we’ll briefly discuss examples of great practical and CGI effects. Some films that will be discussed will have sequels and modern remakes in which the effects are different from the original.

Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Above: Blade Runner. IMDb.com. 27 May 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083658/mediaviewer/rm3431104768/. Below: Blade Runner 2049. IMDb.com. 27 May 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1856101/mediaviewer/rm679884032/

The Blade Runner franchise is one of the most beloved and respected sci-fi franchises in cinema. From the 1980s to now, the franchise has stunned the world with its groundbreaking set designs and impressive worldbuilding. In age, these films are decades apart and both hold up well against each other. As far as production budget goes, Blade Runner 2049 is blowing its 1982 counterpart out of the water with an approximately $185 millions dollars spent ($201,554,299.93 with inflation), while the original had a budget of $41.5 million dollars ($114,847,056.99 with inflation). A major difference between the two productions is the type of effects used. In the 1980s, CGI and computing technology were very far from what is possible today, and a major part of the budget had to be directed toward the practical sets and costumes. The artists really had to bring dystopian Los Angeles to life, and it was no easy feat. This article delves into the delicate art of miniatures, which were used to great effect in Blade Runner. In Blade Runner 2049, the production team blended practical effects (including miniatures) and CGI; it is done in such an intricate way that it’s hard to tell what is practical and what is computer-generated. When all is said and done, both of these films have pushed the boundaries of their times as well as reaching back to time-tested techniques, and they will continue to be excellent examples of what filmmakers are able to do with their creativity.

Star Wars: Originals vs. Prequels*

*IUCAT links provided at the end of this post

Star Wars. IMDb.com. 27 May 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076759/mediaviewer/rm2583643392/

Speaking of beloved sci-fi franchises, Star Wars is by far the most popular on the planet. Star Wars films have been entertaining generations of filmmakers, families, and sci-fi fans for over forty years. However, there is a divide within the greater fanbase about the trilogies. Depending on who you speak to, the original Star Wars trilogy is held in an almost god-like esteem in the film world. When the first film came out in the late 1970s, people had never seen sci-fi on such a large scale. Sure, we had Star Trek and Dr. Who, but from an effects standpoint, neither of those franchises were as sophisticated and innovative as the 1977 film. Star Wars enticed fans with an innovative story, an elaborate and never-before-seen style of set design, and iconic costumes. From the outset, Star Wars was an instant classic and paved the way for the summer blockbuster culture.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. IMDb.com. 27 May 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120915/mediaviewer/rm3935189504/

After Return of the Jedi in 1983, George Lucas put the franchise on hiatus until 1999 when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released worldwide. New and old fans of the franchise were beyond excited to get a new trilogy from LucasArts. However, actual reception was underwhelming. The film was met with poor to mediocre reviews and fans were not happy with the story. A large part of the criticism involved the new CGI effects in the film. A lot of the set designs and non-humanoid characters of the film were digitally rendered and seemed flat and lifeless, a complete contrast to the films of the 1980s. I personally feel the franchise went in reverse as far as effects quality is concerned, and similar assessments were expressed throughout the media, as they are here. However, there is still a huge fanbase for the prequels, and they contain some of the franchise’s best lore.

Which style of effects do you think is better? Do you prefer the tangible realness of practical effects or the otherworldly effects of CGI? Maybe you refuse to settle for either or and want films that have the best of both worlds. Whatever the case, both of these practices have been the cornerstone in cinema for over 100 years and continue to be the source of great creativity for each new generation of filmmakers.

Do you have any favorite films whose effects thrilled you? Let us know in the comments!

Guest blogger Donovan Harden is a filmmaker and an avid film fan. He has enriched the Media Services with his film knowledge for a number of years and is now off to film-related adventures in New York and beyond. We will miss Donovan and appreciate the many animated conversations about film as well as his many other contributions to the department.

Example of films with great practical effects that are available in Media Services (not all films are suitable for all audiences):

Examples of films with great CGI/digital effects that are available in Media Services (not all films are suitable for all audiences):

Star Wars films:

Original trilogy (1977-1983): Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope; Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back; Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Prequel trilogy (1999-2005): Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace; Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones; Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith\

Sequel trilogy (2015-2019): Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens; Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi; Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (this title unavailable at Media Services)