Practical Special Effects: Death By Machine


Hollywood’s special effects industry is cratering, and an art form is disappearing along with it

From 2003 to 2013, 21 visual effects companies closed or filed for bankruptcy, according to the short documentary Life After Pi. The respected studio Rhythm and Hues declared bankruptcy 11 days before collecting an Academy Award for best visual effects for the 2012 film Life of Pi. When special effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer tried to call attention to the industry’s plight in his acceptance speech, producers cut his microphone off.


The most pessimistic in the industry believe practical effects are destined to go the way of vinyl or film, a purist passion with little application in the commercial market.

“At some point, I think it will be gone,” Fernandez said. “At some point, the money will make sense” for films to go all-digital.

This is tragic.

Digital effects often get the physics all wrong. Things lack mass and don’t move as they would in real life — or even as a miniature that’s constrained by physical laws. Explosion and fire effects still can’t match anything Derek Meddings did for Gerry Anderson productions.


The remake/reboot/zombie of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds series, Thunderbirds Are Go, is a mostly-CGI affair. Although it claims to contain miniatures, the overall look is so processed that the miniatures look like fake CGI. And in the rare instances when you can tell it’s a miniature, the look and the behavior are all wrong because the art of filming them properly seems to have been entirely lost. The miniatures are like something out of a laughable 1960s Japanese movie, such as Godzilla.


Even what I consider to be a masterpiece of CGI, The Incredibles, has an uncomfortable mixture of cartoony CGI with “too real” CGI. The water CGI, for example, is breathtaking but is a mismatch with the rest of the look.


I miss the days of practical effects and miniatures. CGI is the processed cheese of effects.

Practical effects inspire wonder. All CGI does is produce a yawn.

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