Note: Article may contain spoilers and graphic material. (Don't say I didn't warn you.)
To begin with, this is not another rant against CGI. In 1990, it became apparent to everyone that computer generated images were going to raise the bar, and change everything for film making, with the release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and then Jurassic Park. Anyone who was around during that time will remember that the news was everywhere. Artists and technicians had worked together and used computers to break new ground! According to the media, driven by all to eager studio PR people, the sky was now the limit. We could do anything. However, in everybody's new found enthusiasm for computer visual effects (or VFX) one small detail got glossed over, which was that CGI was only part of the equation.
Now, the fact that audiences didn't notice and simply accepted that it was all CGI is a credit to both the practical and computer effects artists of the time. They worked together, with an understanding of their materials and artistic principles, to make sure that everything matched seamlessly, so that people sitting in the theater accepted their cinematic world, and moved on with enjoying the story.
There were consequences though. Expectations soured to ever dizzying heights for the next summer movie spectacle, film made way for digital, and the learning curve that every pioneer of a new technology must face, got steeper and steeper. Audiences quickly learned to spot a computer graphic, if it wasn't done just right, because CGI was being used for everything, even when a practical effect was really what was called for.
As glaring and gaudy as some of these effects were, it bears pointing out that most of these effects were still cutting edge, and it is impossible to push the envelope of innovation without going through some growing pains. The problem was, that when things went right in a film, people either didn't notice the success, because they were to busy being swept up in the story (as they should be) or that proper credit wasn't going to the people who did the work. Someone would say, "That movie was so good. How did they do all that stuff?" and someone else would say, "CGI, man!" That was both true, and untrue. Perhaps the general attitude can be summed up in a meme you may have seen around the internet of the creator of Star Wars and repeat game changer, George Lucas standing among the models of the first trilogy and then standing in front of a green screen for the second, suggesting that everything for the prequels were created on a computer.
Love him or hate him, agree with his story choices with Episodes I through III or not, what I described in the above is an assumption, that Lucas went from doing all his movies with in-camera effects, to forsaking sets all together and having his entire movie made on a computer. Yes, there were loads of computer generated effects in his later movies, but what the mainstream press did not present to us at the time of their release, was that more model work, sets, and makeups were also used in the new episodes, than in all of the original ones.
Here's a short, behind the scenes look at how they blended all the various effects arts to achieve the creation of Episode I.
However, for a long time, these facts were largely ignored by audiences and studios alike, and the reign of CGI in the minds of the layman was complete. The damage had been done and it has yet to be more than just a little undone.
All the while, amazing practical effects have been, and are still being used in movies. After years of the faithful making their case for effects built by hand, audiences and film makers alike are seeing the light. It seems that they have finally grown tired of the stretchy, overly flamboyant, often cartoony feel that overuse of CGI has brought to the silver screen, and are longing for the more tangible and sober aesthetic that made them feel like what they are seeing could exist in the same, very real space that they also eat, sleep, and breath in.
People like Amalgamated Dynamics' Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. have been making this case for years, while never forsaking their passion nor bashing CGI, and have finally made some headway, with their films Harbinger Down and Fire City: Interpreter of Signs.
Special effects artist Steve Johnson has been exemplary at showing where practical creatures can work side by side with CGI and only improve the over all look of a film.
While other film makers have chosen to take a stand for their art, and only use practical effects, like in Tree of Life...
...and more recently the Evil Dead remake, which also bragged about "keeping it real."
However, these ideas are not lost on the big budget directors, who let's not forget, were also some the ground breaking pioneers of the pre-CGI era. Ridley Scott has been noted for wanting to use as little CGI as possible on Prometheus, resulting in some of the most stunning animatronics work to date...
...and now J.J. Abrams has made it a point to state that the new Star Wars movies will have as many practical effects as possible, in order to get back to the heart of the franchise. Clive Barker has also announced that his Hellraiser reboot will be an all practical affair.
It's not just film makers either. Many actors, like to say that acting is reacting. While addressing the subject, StudioADI FX artist turned director Alec Gillis, recanted his story of talking with FX legend Stan Winston, after wrapping Aliens, where he said "Do you know why audiences believe in what we create? They believe it because Sigourney (Weaver) believes in it." Actors are the audience's conduit into the theatrical world, and being in the same room with these creatures and set pieces allows them to channel their experience into a performance. Yes, a very talented actor can make do with less, but the more one has to work with, the better the result you can expect.
So, the next time you see an amazing special effect in a movie, remember that you might not just be looking at another digitally painted work of art, placed into a scene with an actor (or without an actor) after the fact. What you may be experiencing, no matter when the movie was made, is a blending of arts from all pallets and walks of life, from miniatures, puppets, makeups, or computers. Now go watch an amazing movie, and feel free to ask, "How did they do that?" The answer can still open you up to a world of wonder, possibility, and excitement.