13 Practical Movie Effects That Were MUCH Better Than CGI

Tom Butler - do not use
Senior UK Writer

As Quentin Tarantino once so eloquently put it: “This CGI bulls*** is the death knell of cinema. If I’d wanted all that computer game bulls***, I’d have stuck my d*** in a Nintendo.”

While we don’t agree with him completely (without CGI we’d have no Pixar, Jurassic Park, Avatar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes… need we go on?) we do think old QT has a point. Our problem with Hollywood’s over-reliance on Computer-Generated Imagery when it comes to special effects is that we know the majority of the visual trickery can be achieved WITHOUT computers.

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When done well, CGI can be awesome, but so often it’s not and the joins are blatantly obvious, thanks to poor compositing, dodgy animating, and dead-eyed “uncanny valley” character modeling. jarring you out of the movie experience. Practical effects however (in-camera, puppetry, stunt work etc) are tangible, real, and so much more effective.

Here’s 13 examples that show the old ways are the best.

Yoda/Jabba - Classic vs Prequels and Special Editons

The visual effects in the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy pushed the boundaries of what was achievable in movies, all without the use of CGI. The starkest comparison between the old and new can be seen in the characters of Yoda and Jabba The Hutt.

The character of Yoda was created using a combination of puppetry from the Jim Henson workshop and a prosthetic costume, worn by small actor Deep Roy for the shots of the Jedi master walking. Jabba was a huge one-tonne puppet, that took three months to build, cost half a million dollars, and was operated by three puppeteers.

When you compare them to the CGI versions of Yoda created for ‘Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones’ (Yoda) and Jabba for ‘Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope: Special Edition’, the CGI versions just don’t come close. They just don’t seem real.

Xenomorphs – ‘Alien’ vs ‘Alien: Resurrection‘

The original look for the xenomorph, inspired by the HR Giger painting ‘Necronom IV’, is considered to be one of the most iconic creature designs in movie history and rightly so. It was brought to life in the original film by a bloke in a rubber suit and some canny puppetry, however as the series developed over the time, CGI began to creep in.

By the fourth film, ‘Alien Resurrection’, CGI was used to create the creatures whenever their legs were in frame as director Jean-Pierre Jeunet decided that’s when it most obvious that it was a guy in a suit. The join is most startlingly noticeable in the scenes where you see the aliens swimming due to difficulties posed when compositing the images. They look like they’ve been copy and pasted from a video game and they just look terrible now in retrospect.

Swinging Spider-Man – 'The Amazing Spider-Man’ vs 'Spider-Man’

Considered groundbreaking at the time, the CGI used to animate Spider-Man in the original Sam Raimi trilogy hasn’t really stood the test of time and Spidey is clearly just an animated character. For the reboot films Marc Webb decided to employ a real-life stuntman to do a lot of the swinging in situ to give Spider-Man a more realistic look.

It’s one of the few things the new films do better than the old ones and behind-the-scenes videos of the stuntman in action is genuinely stunning.

Orcs - ’Lord of the Rings’ vs ‘The Hobbit’

Here’s a cautionary tale for you. Actor Conan Stevens quit his role as The Mountain in the hit show ‘Game of Thrones’ for the once-in-a-lifetime starring part in Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ films. He flew to New Zealand and shot his part of Bolg, the pale-skinned orc who pursues Bilbo and the dwarves across Middle Earth in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’.

Unfortunately, Stevens will never get to see his performance as Peter Jackson opted to completely replace his performance as Bolg with a CGI character. As you can see from the image from set (above), Stevens cut an imposing figure in his costume and prosthetics, but for whatever reason we got the uncanny CGI orc instead.

It still looks good, but when practical orcs were so effective for the entire ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, why opt for CGI instead?

Cityscapes - ‘Blade Runner’ vs ‘Coruscant’

The opening of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic is one of the most visually arresting ever committed to film. The camera slowly swoops through a gloomy cityscape, with flames spewing from skyscrapers, as we descend into the gritty hades of future Los Angeles. Inspired by silent classic ‘Metropolis’, Scott had special effects supervisor Douglas Turmbull build thousands of acid-etched brass miniatures which were then lit from below with fibre-optic lights through layers of smoke to create the showstopping opener.

Compare and contrast then with the home of Galactic Senate Coruscant, as seen in ‘The Phantom Menace’. It’s just not a fair fight is it?

Fights – 'The Raid 2’ vs 'Matrix Reloaded’

Where the first ‘Matrix’ blew our minds with “Bullet Time”, they planned to do the same in the sequels with the “Burly Brawl” which saw Keanu Reeves’ Neo take on 100 Agent Smiths in one huge bust up. The effects were pioneering, but looking back, it’s so obviously not real people fighting. The characters have no weight, therefore the punches are diluted and the scrapping is just one big cartoon.

In contrast, Gareth Evans’ ‘The Raid 2’ took fighting back from the clutches of the computers and put it firmly back into the bunched fists of highly-trained martial artists and the mud-splattered prison fight was like watching a hundred MMA fights taking place in the moshpit at Glastonbury. Epic.

Creepy crawlies - ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ vs ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’

Each of the original ‘Indiana Jones’ had a memorable creepy crawly moment. ‘Raiders’ had the snakes in the Well of Souls, ‘Temple of Doom’ has the insects in the locks, and ‘Crusade’ has the rats in Venice sequence. Each one required thousands of real creatures being shipped into set and the results are genuinely skin-crawling.

For the fourth ‘Indiana Jones’ film (no, we can’t erase from our collective memories, no matter how hard we try) the bugs of choice were giant killer ants. The scene itself is bereft of genuine chills as Spielberg and Lucas decided that CGI critters were better than real ones. And the less said about the CGI monkeys and groundhogs, the better.

Medusa - ‘Clash of the Titans’ (1981) vs ‘Clash of the Titans’ (2010)

Animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen created the stop-motion Medusa for the 1981 classic which would be one of his final film projects. She only appears on film for less than five minutes, but the monstrous beast was one of the most memorable mythical beasts committed to film. His half-snake design completely changed the perception of the character forever which, up to this point, had always been portrayed as a woman with snakes for hair.

For Louis Leterrier’s 2010 remake, model Natalia Vodianova was performance captured for the part, so you see her face, but the rest is computer-generated. The film as a whole was criticized for its over-reliance on CGI and this use is particularly glaring.

The Monsters – 'I Am Legend’ vs Ridley Scott’s unmade ‘I Am Legend’

A new version of Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ was kicking around Hollywood since the mid-90s before the 2007 Will Smith vehicle hit cinemas. Sir Ridley Scott was attached to direct with Arnold Schwarzenegger set to star. It was shaping up to be a brave and ambitious blockbuster, without any dialogue for the first hour, and a proposed budget of $108m.

The film fell apart due to concerns from the studio, but recently revealed practical effects tests showed that Scott’s vision for the monsters would have been truly terrifying.

In the final film, the bloodsucking monsters were replaced by CGI creations after director Francis Lawrence thought the actors in prosthetics he’d originally shot weren’t convincing enough. The film was roundly criticized upon release for the poor CGI used for the monsters which never looked convincing on screen. Should have stuck with practical effects guys.

Werewolf transformation - ‘American Werewolf In London’ vs ‘The Wolfman’

The transformation scene in John Landis’ seminal horror comedy impressed the Academy so much, they awarded the film the Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup in the inaugural year for the category. Using a combination of make-up, prosthetics, animatronics and false floors, combined with some gruesome foley work and perfect editing, the 2-minute sequence is still shockingly realistic.

When Rick Baker was brought on board Universal’s ‘Wolf Man’ 2010 remake, fans expected an 21st century update on his classic VFX sequence. However, director Joe Johnston opted to use CGI for the transformation after he was drafted in at the last minute to replace Mark Romanek. “I decided to basically shoot just Benicio, in the sequence where he transforms and decide in post-production what I wanted the transformation to be,” Johnston explained. "That was really my main reason [for using CG]; it gave me so much more flexibility.” What a shame.

Dinosaurs - ‘Jurassic Park’ vs ‘King Kong’

We’re well aware that ‘Jurassic Park’ helped to usher in the CGI era with its pioneering use of the new digital film-making tool, but what makes the CGI stand up to the test of time in Spielberg’s dino-thriller is the way it seamlessly blended the computer stuff, with the practical. Case in point: the T-Rex attack. A huge 9000lbs life-size animatronic puppet was built by Stan Winston for the first attack sequence and the effect is stunning.

For Peter Jackson’s big budget ‘King Kong’ remake, CGI was used to recreate a medley of extinct beasts including the huge brontosaurs seen in the stampede scene. On their own they look fine, but when composited with humans and the crumbling mountain, the effect is so glaringly CGI it looks awful. The whole sequence is regularly cited in the lists of worst movie CGI.

Stormtroopers/Clone Troopers - Original ‘Star Wars’ vs ‘Star Wars’ prequels

For some inexplicable reason George Lucas, in his infinite wisdom, decided that all clone-troopers on screen in ‘Attack of the Clones’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’ would be CGI. That’s right, every Clone Trooper you see on screen in built in a computer. There are moments when they remove their helmets, but that’s just the actor’s head composited onto a CGI body.

It’s totally jarring especially when you compare them to the iconic Stormtroopers of the classic trilogy. Thankfully, it looks like JJ Abrams has opted for physical costume for the Stormtroopers of ‘Episode 7’ as leaked photos showed real-life helmets, not lycra mo-cap suits.

Sharks - ‘Jaws’ vs ‘Deep Blue Sea’

Steven Spielberg’s biggest challenge when making his second feature ‘Jaws’ was the shark. The animatronic model caused him so many problems, he nick-named it Bruce, after his lawyer. That’s the reason its used so sparingly on screen. The moment it surfaces, leering at Brodie while he’s chumming the sea, is so unexpected and lifelike, it still manages to make audiences jump nearly 40 years later.

Fast-forward to 1999 to Renny Harlin’s ‘Deep Blue Sea’ and hulking animatronic sharks have given way to polygon sharks in this schlocky thriller. The film is actually a hoot, but the visual effects aren’t. The scene where Samuel L Jackson’s character is suddenly and unexpectedly offed looks like a five-year-old with After Effects knocked it up in an afternoon.

Are there any we missed? Or do you prefer the CGI versions? Let us know below.

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Image credit: 20th Century Fox/Sony Pictures/Warner Bros./eOne/Paramount/Universal