ByWilliam Cloud, writer at
If's there's a fandom, there's a good chance that I'm a part of it. On Instagram: @thewillcloud On Twitter: @thewccloud
William Cloud

[Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation](tag:373501) is premiering this week, and in an interview with Extra, Tom Cruise said this about a possible Top Gun sequel:

I’d like to fly those jets again. But we’ve got to do all the jets practical. No CGI on the jets. I remember when I did the first one, I said ‘Look, in my contract I had to have three flights in the F-14.’ And it had to be in the film, a shot from that. So we had to film it. And luckily they wanted me bad enough to do it, so I was able to do that. I’m saying right now – no CGI on the jets.

Now that seems like an unreasonable demand, but he's Tom Cruise, so it'll happen, right? His statement on practical props and effects got me to thinking. For the last decade or two, the trend has been to use as much CGI as possible, and to advance the technology as quickly as possible. I'll admit, we've gotten pretty good at animating films.

And you thought that was a real Mosasaur...
And you thought that was a real Mosasaur...

Sometimes, though, we see too much animation *cough* Prequel Trilogy *cough* and the magic is lost behind manipulated pixels. The film industry has at times over-used the wonderful medium of computer generated imagery. One such film is Avatar. It was amazingly impressive, and realistic, and yet not any of that.

It's like Pixels, only more real.
It's like Pixels, only more real.

Look at this picture. It's beautiful, it's life-like, it's perfect. And therein the problem lies. Every detail is animated, fake, a facade. It's the greatest of farces. According to James Cameron himself, every leaf and blade of grass is "perfected". Nothing's wrong with this frame. In an article for, Graeme McMillan wrote this:

On the one hand, it's amazing what can be done with the technology, but on the other, it's depressing seeing what has been done with it, as well. CGI has become the atom bomb of movie special effects: Yes, we have the technology to "fix" everything, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we should use it.

Another problem of CGI-heavy films is that they can rely on the effects, and allow the story to slack. I think that the Transformers franchise is a good example of that. Visually stunning, but that stun was used to keep the audiences from noticing the flaws in the acting and story. Sadly, it didn't work.

Just because we can make film "perfect" doesn't mean we should. There is something to be said for practical effects, props, and sets in film. Probably the greatest example of this is the Star Wars Original Series.

Star Wars

Back in 1977, there was no such thing as CGI. Not like we know it today. Films had to be good stories first, visually impressive second. A studio couldn't add in ripped abs on a character or cause an earth-shattering explosion. They had to tell the story within the confines of real props and sets. It's amazing how we can watch Star Wars today, and it be able to stand with today's CGI-rich movies. The stars were black bedsheets with holes poked in them. The Death Star was a mass of battleship models pieced together. The lightsabers were bits of plumbing and camera parts. Yoda was a Muppet. And yet we got one of the greatest trilogies of all time. Why? Well, it was mostly the story and the acting, but everything was made to feel real. Because the access to CGI was a lightsaber blade or stop motion Taun-Tauns, every prop, every explosion, every set was real. Luke's house still exists in North Africa. The Forest of Endor is in California. The remains of Echo Base are hanging out at the South Pole. Sorry, I may have made that last one up, but the point stands. Nothing that you see in Star Wars, minus the blaster bolts and the things that were added in later, were faked.

Until the late eighties and nineties, that was the norm. Because of the practicality of film, you had a greater need for creativity, for ingenuity. The stories had to be better, and what audiences got was a realistic, relatable film. Case in point being the Original Trilogy, or even Jurassic Park.

A New Hope

35mm non-digital camera used on Episode VII
35mm non-digital camera used on Episode VII

Though we have over-done CGI in movies past, there are at least a few films that are trying to change the status quo. A couple that have already pushed the practical envelope are [Mad Max: Fury Road](tag:41445) and [Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation](tag:373501). While these films both utilized digital effects, much of what you saw or will see in theaters is real. Here are a couple of examples from behind the scenes:

And, as many of you know, the airplane stunt that Tom Cruise did in MI: 5 was quite real:


Perhaps the most anticipated 'practical' film is Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams has promised fans that he is taking the franchise back to the ways they used to be made. With the SDCC footage, and what we saw at Star Wars Celebration, he's not lying. Disney has gone out of their way to create a film that resembles the classics in style and in substance. That means that CGI is optional, real effects aren't. I'm sure you've already seen the SDCC footage a million times, but I'm going to share it anyway:


What we end up with is obvious. We end up with a more realistic movie. CGI may grant massive worlds, or impressive battles, but at the end of the film, we know it's fake. I think that computer imaging is an amazing cinematic tool, but you can't beat the practical effect. My hope is that films like The Force Awakens and others will create a new trend, one that is steeped in real effects and sets. That's not to say that I'm completely against CGI. I think that a balance can be reached. But, everyone loves the realism that practical effects brings, and I'm hoping that this is just the beginning of a new trend in film making. And who knows? Maybe we'll see Cruise take to the skies in a real F-14 after all.



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