Practical vs. digital effects: what really brings horror movies to life?

By Grace Hogsten

Elm Staff Writer

Halloween is just around the corner, and many are getting into the spooky spirit by grabbing some popcorn and sitting down to watch scary movies full of special effects – both practical and digital – that bring the horror genre’s ghouls and gore to life.

New horror films tend to use CGI for their special effects, whereas the older films utilize practical effects. However, some creators continue to use practical effects, and many debate whether practical or digital effects create a better horror experience.

According to the Los Angeles Film School, “Advancements in 3D modeling, high-quality and low-cost digital rendering [give filmmakers] the ability to create and digitize almost anything the mind can imagine.”

Digital effects are usually less expensive than practical effects, and it can be quicker and easier to film a movie when the effects are incorporated in the editing stage. However, horror movies that rely heavily on CGI often lack the connection to the real world that those with practical effects provide.

“CGI is relied on way too much in a lot of today’s jump scare horror movies, and it honestly cheapens a lot of the fright for me,” sophomore Ryan Morrow said.

Because most recent horror movies utilize digital effects, examples of poorly executed effects abound. “The Thing” (2011), a prequel to the 1982 classic of the same name, is one movie that illustrates CGI’s weaknesses.

According to a Screen Rant article, “One area the prequel proved to be a downgrade in was its monster effects. Whereas [the original] film sports practical effects that still wow to this day, ‘The Thing’ prequel realized its creatures via terribly unconvincing CGI.”

While many fans were disappointed in the computer-generated visuals of the 2011 prequel, the original “The Thing” from 1982 is well-renowned as one of the great classic horror movies. Many prefer the original practical effects because they make the film’s terrifying scenes feel real.

According to the Los Angeles Film School, “Using practical effects instead of CGI makes it easier for actors to interact with their surroundings, allowing for the creation of scenes and sequences that are more realistic.”

Well-done practical effects make a scene appear grounded in the real world; they naturally meet our expectations of how creatures move and substances splatter. Practical effects enforce limits on the visuals that a film can provide, but those limits force filmmakers to create a more realistic, and, thus, more terrifying, product.

Although recent technological advancements caused a surge in horror movies’ use of CGI, some continue to use practical effects, which remain an effective and valuable tool.

“I think practical effects are tragically underused in horror. I understand that creating unnatural and grotesque creatures and places [using practical effects] is hard…but when it is used, it can be iconic and amazing,” Morrow said.

Digital effects, while useful in many ways, cannot replace the amazing authenticity of practical effects.

“[W]hen practical effects are done really well, everyone seems to take more notice…we’re moving more towards CGI now, as it is a lot easier, but practical effects still have a place and…are more impressive when done really well,” sophomore Carter McIntyre said.

This Halloween, as viewers re-watch their favorite scary movies and look forward to future horror releases, they can’t help but wonder what the future of horror will bring. While digital effects may be popular, they cannot replace practical effects.

Horror fans watch new releases and sigh at the sight of gratuitous CGI, but also see great potential in some new horror films. Skilled directors of the genre still understand that only horror brought to life by practical effects will make horror fans’ broken hearts race again.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film “The Thing,” which follows a group of researchers who find themselves invaded by aliens, is praised by horror fans for its practical effects.

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