CGI and ‘Practical’ Special Effects Have (Finally) Found a Perfect Balance

Welcome to the a golden age of special effects in action films

star wars force awakens mad max

Before the era of digital effects-driven films like Avatar and The Matrix, nearly all action film special effects were ‘practical’ effects: stunts and visuals filmed with real people, real objects, tangible puppets and animation. In the early 2000’s, the pendulum swung in the other direction – epitomized, perhaps, by a completely digital Yoda, bounding weightlessly across the digital set of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Movies like The Mummy and I Am Legend were bloated with computer generated effects that were plastic, cartoony, and often just silly.

Recent films including Mad Max: Fury Road and The Force Awakens are finally using CGI and practical effects in perfect harmony. Fury Road director George Miller was interviewed today on Fresh Air. He explained his use of digital effects like so: “There’s a lot of work creating or enhancing the landscapes… Even though most of [the effects are] real world, virtually every shot has CG in it in some way.”

Real-world stunts and effects give the film an authentic, tangible sense of humanity. When Max is clinging to the belly of a moving war rig, you’re looking at actual Tom Hardy harnessed to an actual vehicle. But the character and environment are digitally enhanced: the harness is erased, and the hyper-saturated palette of Fury Road is brilliant digital color.

The Force Awakens is a gorgeous fusion of digital and practical effects as well. Director J.J. Abrams resurrected the puppetry and animation techniques that audiences so lovingly associate with Episodes 4–6. One wonderful example is the use of stop-motion animation for the chess game (called ‘dejarik’) aboard the Millennium Falcon. Unlike Star Wars Episodes 1–3, the characters and settings of The Force Awakens feel so tangible and real that one fan speculated that BB-8 is performed by a cat in a plastic ball.

George Lucas was not a fan of the ‘practical’ effects of The Force Awakens, dismissing it as a ‘retro’ film. What he failed to see was that the film’s harmony of old-school practical effects and modern digital effects is new, and that the spirit of Star Wars had been restored.

Check out this study of modern CGI for a thoughtful critique of its use in films like Mad Max: Fury Road:

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