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In a world where movies are mainly made with CGI, finding one that doesn’t rely that much on technology is stunning. Primarily because computer-generated imagery (CGI, also known as VFX) has that “fake” feel, despite the fact that it has advanced greatly. There’s always a “weird” motion behind computer graphics, or even some visual effects that leave the audience with a strange taste, like eating some fake laboratory meat, or the fish that comes from farming.

That “synthetic” feeling in movies is extending more and more, leaving behind a few examples of the practical effects that were used years ago. For obvious reasons, when the film industry first began, the only type of effects available were practical effects, which meant that if a stunt was performed in front of a train, the train was usually real, they were on the tracks, and death was truly imminent. Like those curious and funny bits of cinema created around the figure of one of the greatest stunt performers in history, the unforgettable Buster Keaton.

Even when practiced in advance and mostly “tricks” or “camera magic” effects, they are still very dangerous and, on some occasions, the stunt doubles used by modern actors end up with a few bruises, broken bones, or even their deaths. Even when many people dislike the movies made by the actor and director Jackie Chan, his practical effects and the fact that he never used an action double gave him a great deal of respect in Hollywood, finally earning him an Oscar in 2016.

Leaving behind the thrill

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The use of CGI created a new kind of actor and, of course, a very different kind of set, where people just perform in front of a green screen and let the digital artists do the rest. It’s not always a bad thing; it allows us to enjoy the imagination of J.R. Tolkien first hand, bringing to life most of the creatures he imagined, with impressive detail. The breathtaking views of some of the cities described in his books or the massive battles wouldn’t be possible without the magic of computers, but the tides are turning and everything in cinema is becoming a matter of visual effects.

Now even some locations that could be visited by a film crew are recreated via VFX, giving a weird feeling to water, trees, and even the sky itself. Of course, this way, producers save millions in costs, but there is something that leaves the audience with a strange feeling. Some directors mix both practical and visual effects to recreate scenes from books in a very realistic way, like in the Game of Thrones series, where the actual locations were modified after filming by adding castles and other mythical creatures like dragons or massive medieval fleets.

There were also massive battles that used to be recreated with practical effects, like, for example, those used in the movie Apocalypse Now, in which they set a large portion of the Philippines jungle to recreate napalm bombing. Or most of the terror cinema of the 70s and 80s, which relied on the use of makeup and prosthetics to recreate severed arms or legs, or even heads. Even when some of them didn’t have a great effect on the audience, eventually this evolved over the years, in particular in makeup and additions to the actors, which allowed, for example, the charming and very credible de-aging process of Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The effects used in “The Cursed”

In a recent interview, the renowned actor, Boyd Holbrook, talked about what was going on, on the set of his most recent thriller, and pointed out a lot of important facts about this production. He spoke about how practical effects are coming back. “The performance pointed out that “I’d say about 90, 95% of it was real, practical, in-camera effects. There have been films before where it’s on a broomstick with a tennis ball, and that’s supposed to be something. You can feel that, whether you can see it or not, in the end product of a film, and I think that was really important.”

He also added that “they probably spent half the budget on this animatronic puppet that’s operated by six people. It makes a really big difference, and I think it was really original and something that was scary in a different way.” This is part of the way that movies used to be made, with more or less success, but within the boundaries of what is real and what is a magic trick performed in front of a camera.

Nobody doubts that George Lucas didn’t film Star Wars in space, but also nobody can deny that they’ve felt quite immersed in that story. There’s nothing in that movie made with computers; back then they couldn’t create such detailed worlds, but it’s mostly great camera work, miniatures, and excellent acting combined. Even when the scale is incomparable, it’s great to know from the actors themselves that practical effects are coming back in The Cursed.

Combining both schools is key

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Directors like Charlie Kaufman picked up the flag of the pioneers of practical effects in movies, bringing them to full strength in his new movie “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”. In a very complex and interesting film, Kaufman managed to bring simple effects to the table and combine them with visual effects to recreate the dying mind of the main character. In this hallucination-filled ending, the director managed to immerse the audience as the old school directors used to do, earning this film a great reception amongst critics.

It’s about creating something unique with the help of powerful video editors like FXhome, where a new director can find a great ally to edit and add effects to a film. Combining these VFX with something creative and unique, like the great Andréi Tarkovksy used to do in his films, can end up in a masterpiece, like Solaris, or the forgotten Stalker, a movie that surely thrives from the use of practical effects.

There’s also the acclaimed film “Drive“, from 2011, which made use of every single piece of practical effects and a great deal of VFX to create a very sophisticated and delightful movie to watch. Their use of excellent framing and dynamic scenes gave this masterpiece a great reception as one of the most interesting movies to watch if you are thinking of studying cinema.