I often hear people express their disdain for excessive CGI use in films, often followed with the criticism that it is used in excess to make up for a film’s lack of substance or story. Does CGI get too much hate? Or are practical effects just better? I’m going to weigh in on what is a fairly frequent and heated argument between Practical Effects vs CGI.

A Brief Explanation

For the purposes of this article, I’ll define practical effects as effects caught in camera and not added in post production. This can be scale models, such as the iconic futuristic depiction of Los Angeles in Blade Runner, animatronics like the creatures in John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, or actually blowing up a hospital, which is exactly what Christopher Nolan did in The Dark Knight.CGI or computer generated imagery, is any part of the film that is altered in post production (after the film is shot) with, funnily enough, imagery that is computer generated. This could be whole 3D models and textures created in programs like 3DS Max and Maya, or simple 2D assets (like a photo) that is inserted into a scene using programs like Adobe After Effects.

This video is a good example of before and after results of the VFX compositing used in Game of Thrones, which although it’s a TV series, has a budget the size of a mid-level blockbuster:

Dogme 95 and Cinema Purist

Often CGI is generally derided by cinema purists. I feel this kind of started with film movements such as Dogme 95. Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg  back in 1995 created the film movement; the idea was to purify film making by refusing special effects and technical gimmicks.

They had a list of 10 rules, some of which included:

  • Optical work and filters being forbidden
  • Sound must come from within the scene (diegetic sound)
  • The camera must always be handheld
  • The film cannot contain any superficial action such as murder or weapons

That last rule has been broken by Lars Von Trier himself when he made Antichrist. Now if you haven’t seen Antichrist there is legitimately a scene of a woman cutting off her clitoris with a pair of scissors, she also does some messed up things to Willem Dafoe’s junk. So go figure, it goes to show that even purist are willing to break their own rules!

What We Notice

There is no debating that misuse or CGI done poorly looks bad, because it does. CGI in the past has not aged well, the practical effects used in Star Wars (1977) and Jurassic Park (1993) managed to age better than the CGI in Jumanji (1995) or The Mummy Returns (2001), because the use of CGI in Jumanji was done at a very early and immature stage in CGI’s life.
That being said, I feel there really isn’t any excuse for the waxy appearance of Dwayne Johnson in The Mummy Returns, it was released the same year as Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
A dated look however does not mean a film is suddenly terrible, there is a lot more to movies other than effects and CGI that determines if a film is good or bad. The latest Wonder Woman has some blatantly bad CGI, just like The Terminator (1984) had some dodgy practical effects, namely the scene when Arnold Schwarzenegger cuts his eyeball out. Regardless, both these films are enjoyable for numerous other reasons.

The argument I am making is that cinema is a collaborative endeavour with a common direction, it really is the ultimate art form containing so many different creative mediums, from acting, writing, soundtracks and scores, to set, costume and prop design, cinematography etc, and it is all organised to achieve a particular vision and end result.  

Excluding a particular medium or technology such as CGI seems to miss the overall point; “the end result is everything”. Often when a film is bad, it’s never because of excessive use of CGI alone, it’s lacking in other departments, and perhaps CGI is used as a crutch or distraction from lack of story, pacing, or character development. It’s just that bad and excessive CGI sticks out like a sore thumb and everyone notices that, but what about what we don’t notice?

Combining CGI and Practical Effects: What We Don’t Notice

Returning to The Dark Knight hospital explosion example, that is a real building demolition. Real demolitions have to be done with safety precautions, and one of those precautions is the removal of all glass and windows. CGI here is used to animate the glass being blown out, this is a perfect example of both practical and CGI effects being used effectively to create the best looking end result.

There are less extreme uses of CGI, such as Tom Cruise hanging from the side of a plane in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, they only used post effects to remove the wires and cables holding Cruise to the plane, and that makes for an awesome visual. Even big CGI filled movies such as Transformers use a mix of practical effects and CGI.
In fact CGI is often used in much more minor ways to add to the environment or story, you only seem to notice CGI when it is done poorly or in excess. When done correctly the audience is oblivious, there are thousands of CGI and VFX breakdown videos on youtube that will make you sing a different tune the next time you proclaim “CGI ruins films!”.


Neither is better or worse, there are good and poor uses, I think a filmmaker should use whatever tools they have at their disposal to achieve the best end result. The biggest deciding factor is usually budgets and deadlines, sometimes practical effects might require too much time to achieve the right result, that is when CGI may be preferred.

CGI and Practical Effects are both awesome, in my opinion to snob either comes from kind of a pretentious place. The goal should always be to achieve the best end result, if it wasn’t for innovators and CGI we wouldn’t have the level of quality we have in TV series today; Westworld and Game Of Thrones would not look as good as they do.

Judging the tools used to make a film is on par with judging Van Gogh for using certain brushes and techniques when we should be judging the overall painting itself.

What are you thoughts on this old debate? Join in and discuss in the comments.