There are loads of debates around the world that will never be settled and will never end. Who shot first, Han or Greedo? Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman? Coke or Pepsi? What came first, the chicken or the egg? Pluto's planetary status. Which is better, the book or the movie? DC or Marvel? Star Wars or Star Trek? PC or Mac? Which is better, special effects or practical effects?
Now, if the title of this article weren't a dead giveaway, we're here to talk about a movie's visual effects and why it is ruining movies.
To start off with, they both do the same thing just in different ways. Both special effects and practical effects are visual effects intended to enhance the movie experience. They're used to create things that we don't find naturally on our planet. For example: orcs, Yoda, miles and miles of endless ocean, space, and when they're done well, the movies are that much better for it.
Practical effects consist of props, models, puppets, and costumes. Examples of which include, but are not limited to: the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI), Jurassic Park, Jaws, and Alien.
Special effects consist of either blue or green screen being used to create scenery and objects that aren't actually there. Recently, they've even managed to create vast landscapes without any green screen, and just add it into the background. Noteworthy examples are: the Star Wars prequels (Episodes I, II, and III), Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, and Avatar.
Now that we know what these are, let's look at the differing arguments behind this debate.
Why practical effects are supposedly better
Practical effects are pretty awesome, though sometimes unbelievable. Let's look at Jaws. I saw this movie when I was younger and I wasn't a big fan. Mainly because of the way my dad sold it to me. He said it was one of the scariest movies of his teenage years. I was expecting some pretty scary stuff. And then I saw a mechanical, unrealistic shark that was slightly above average size. I wasn't scared.
Part of that had to do with my lack of fear, another part with my surprising knowledge on sea creatures (specifically sharks) for a ten year old, and the last part had to do with the way my dad explained it to me. Nonetheless, I wasn't afraid because I knew it wasn't real. Looking at that shark didn't scare me in the slightest.
The main argument for practical effects is that you know that there is actually something there on screen. Something the actors can touch and feel and feel fearful towards. Which is a valid argument.
These practical effects fanatics go on to say that when special effects are done poorly, they don't look real. Well, yeah. That's kind of what "done poorly" implies. When practical effects are done poorly, they don't look real either.
Why special effects are supposedly better
Special effects are just as awesome as practical effects and can tackle a lot of the same visual issues. Look at Mad Max: Fury Road. This movie was a visual masterpiece. From the expansive wasteland and dust storms left behind by the destruction of our race's foolish decisions all the way down to Imperator Furiosa's prosthetic arm. All of it was done beautifully.
I was able to believe that the scenery were real, if only for a short time. I find it incredibly impressive how much changes from the before and after shots of movies like this (as seen above). However, I've been scorned by CGI before. As people who make movies become a little overzealous and the CGI turns out iffy (I'm looking at you The Mummy Returns).
As far as the debate goes, it's said that special effects can handle more as it's able to produce realistic, vast landscapes. With CG, visual effects teams can make the final frontier look very real in movies like Gravity and Interstellar, or simulate being stuck at sea in Life of Pi, or create entire planets with colorful and vibrant ecosystems in Avatar.
Here's why this debate is ruining movies
After going over these two arguments, I'd like to point out that I have no opinion on the situation. I don't care if the dinosaur on screen is one I can pet and climb on like it's my own personal jungle gym or one if I have to imagine being there whilst secretly fearing that the guys in charge of the digital rendering make the T-Rex I'm cowering from a giant baby. Actually, now that I think about it, I'd much rather be the guy behind the computer deciding between a T-Rex and a giant baby.
Moving on. This debate, like most debates, makes watching movies difficult. Because an otherwise decent movie will get a bad rap for relying too heavily on special effects. When this happens, it's called the WETA effect. Those who believe in this effect claim that a movie degrades in quality because the audience sees a glossy like finish over the film, almost like it looks too perfect. Now, most of the movies that get listed in regards to this effect are movies with subpar CG. That which mainly came about because the director became overzealous and requested more special effects than the budget could cover. And as a result, it was done poorly.
Aside from this one issue, the movie could still have a pretty decent plot line with good character development, a believable conflict, a competent villain, satisfactory acting, and otherwise pretty great shots. But because there's "too many special effects" the movie is apparently not as good.
For example, when talking about the Star Wars prequels, I've heard many people make the claim that it relied too heavily on CG. When in fact, most of the scenes that some people believed were rendered on a computer screen were actually done using props and models. Now, I'm not one of those prequel apologists. They weren't very good movies. However, blaming the use of CG for its quality is a little ignorant if you ask me.
Similarly, people herald Mad Max: Fury Road as a project that showed how people needed to use more practical effects for the visuals they intend, when in actuality nearly every scene in the movie used CG. Sure, a good amount of actual props were used as well, but they didn't actually send their actors into a deadly and dangerous dust storm.
There's also the thought that special effects are putting practical effects out of business. Most visual effects guys are capable of both special and practical effects. Also, almost every movie done with special effects has needed at least a base in practical effects. One of the best examples of how this debate is actually useless is Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens which utilized both effects eloquently.
At the end of the day, it's not actually the CG or the practical effects that are ruining movies. A movie is ruined when it has poor writing, poor acting, poor casting, or poor visual effects. When fans say a movie is of lower quality because it used one over the other, that's when watching movies or even discussing a movie isn't fun.
It's one thing to say that you prefer one or the other. It's another entirely to say that a movie sucked because it used one over the other, when in actuality it most likely used both.