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How special effects reinvented filmmaking

By Imran Shaikh October 13, 2022

A dinosaur chases a soldier through a jungle, cornering him in a building. Moments later, a helicopter swoops in and saves the man just as the building explodes behind him. Alas, the aircraft drives straight into a tornado and the pilot ends up dangling from his vehicle. Such scenes would be virtually impossible to pull off if not for two different types of special effects: practical effects and CGI.

The formal definition of practical effects is the manipulation or alteration of a physical environment to create an optical illusion. Put simply, they are when a filmmaker uses physical materials to shoot a scene in a movie. Practical effects include animatronics, prosthetics, pyrotechnics and puppets. They were first implemented in the 1902 short film “A Trip to the Moon”. Director George Méliès used costumes, sets, props, smoke and explosives to bring his project to life. Since then, many movies have utilized practical effects, including “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), where stop motion allowed skeletal dolls to interact with actors; “An American Werewolf in London” (1981), which utilized prosthetics and fake limbs to transform the protagonist into a werewolf; and “Apollo 13” (1995), where zero gravity scenes were accomplished by filming on a set constructed inside of an aircraft that simulates weightlessness by climbing and dipping at high speeds.

However, as practical effects were bringing such marvels to the silver screen, a new filmmaking practice was also developing. CGI, or computer-generated imagery, first made its way to movies in 1958. The film “Vertigo” featured the first computer-generated animation—a series of spirals that emerges and dissolves to instill a feeling of vertigo. Since then, CGI has been used extensively throughout films, whether to complement practical effects like in the 1993 film “Jurassic Park” or to create an entirely digitally-produced movie, first seen in “Toy Story” (1995).

“Movies can benefit from using CGI instead of practical effects for the sake of efficiency and to have wider creative variety. Many science fiction films use CGI to gain more effect options,” Senior Sanjana Subramanyan said.

CGI appeals to filmmakers for two main reasons: it is cost effective and safe. For example, if a movie were to feature an explosion, CGI could be used to digitally create the image from any angle. To shoot such a scene with practical effects would be much more expensive and would pose a danger to the film crew and actors. Yet despite these advantages, filmmakers continue to utilize practical effects in contemporary movies since they foster a sense of realism and are easier for actors to interact with, as they are physically there when shooting scenes.

“I prefer practical effects in movies because they simulate events more realistically than CGI. If I were to watch an action movie with sequences including explosions, I would rather the explosion be practical since it would look much more realistic than a CGI explosion,” Junior Matthew Phan said.

Since both practical effects and CGI have benefits and disadvantages, filmmakers have been using them in tandem with each other. This way, they can save money on their films without sacrificing quality. The intersection of these practices delivers phenomenal films to audiences each year and will continue to produce even more awe-inspiring sights in the future.


About the Contributors

Imran Shaikh

Page editor

Imran Shaikh is a junior at Leland High School and is the current Community News and Feature World page editor for The Charger Account. When he isn't swamped with the typical junior workload, he enjoys sleeping, aimlessly watching videos, or just doing nothing

Kailey Hu

Art Director

Kailey Hu is a senior at Leland High school and is one of the Art Directors for The Charger Account. During her free time, she likes to spend her time drawing, going on walks, sewing, reading, and crafting.

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