Allan A. Apone, a film and TV makeup artist with 35 years experience, had a recent job on the set of a TV commercial shoot. As he prepared to cover up a blemish on a well-known actor’s forehead, the director breezed past the chair and waved him off, saying, “Don’t worry about it—I can take care of it in post [production].”
Apone overruled him. Makeup would take five minutes, he argued, as opposed to hours of digital tracking and erasing. But his angst spoke to wider unease in Hollywood about the future of practical effects, the industry term for illusions generated by physical means like makeup and models instead of digital manipulation.
Filmmakers have relied on technological tricks to create visual effects since the earliest days of cinema. But technology’s limits meant that shooting actual stuff—prosthetic wounds, mechanical sharks, carefully-controlled explosions—usually made for more beautiful and realistic images.
The tipping point came in 1993 with Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur thriller, Jurassic Park. According to the New Yorker, Spielberg put two separate teams on dinosaur design: one using old-fashioned stop-motion techniques, one on digital. The head of the go-motion team saw the digital team’s flawlessly rendered Tyrannosaurus Rex and reportedly deadpanned, “I think I’m extinct.”
Since then, the capabilities of computer-generated imagery (CGI) have surpassed anything that earlier generations of artists could have imagined.
Entire scenes and characters can now be created digitally, as New York magazine recently detailed. Missed shots or lackluster takes can be retroactively supplied in post-production. Digital buffing can take years off an actor’s face, drop their weight by a few pounds, or enhance their acting skills with artificial tears.
The flexibility of digital “solves marketing issues, story issues, actor issues. It became the panacea of the movie industry,” said Scott Ross, co-founder of the effects studio Digital Domain, which produced visual effects for Titanic and Apollo 13. (Its parent company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012.)
Audiences love it. Every single one of the 50 top-grossing films of all time is either entirely digitally animated or relies heavily on special effects—so studio executives looking for ever-bigger returns do as well.
“I think the studios would love to get rid of practical [effects]. They’d love to get rid of actors,” said Jose Fernandez, whose Ironhead Studio builds creatures and costumes for films like Planet of the Apes and the Batman films.
Ironically, this embrace of visual effects coincides with tough times for the visual effects industry at large, including digital specialists. Effects studios typically work for an upfront per movie fee. It’s a saturated industry, and the knowledge that a competitor is nearly always able willing to do the work for cheaper makes companies reluctant to ask for more money when projects run long and require costly changes.
Tax subsidies overseas have also drawn the movie industry away from its historic base in southern California, forcing effects studios and independent contractors to chase projects around the US and beyond as films move to new locations offering attractive financial incentives.
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.
Given the strapped status of the industry, practical effects face additional battles. The digital world offers flexibility that the physical world doesn’t. With a robotic dinosaur or monster, for example, a director needs to figure out well before shooting starts what that animal looks like and how it moves. A CGI creature can be tweaked up until the very end.
Even when physical props can achieve a visual effect for less money than CGI—as effects artists say is often the case—the investment has to be made upfront, before shooting begins, when studios are guarding budgets more carefully.
Survivors have found ways to adapt. The practical effects company Amalgamated Dynamics (ADI) won an Academy Award in 1992 for its work on the film Death Becomes Her. To keep the doors open in the post-digital age, the company has had to expand beyond film, co-creative director Tom Woodruff, Jr. said.
“ADI has gone through really lean times when we’ve turned to other fields—medical modeling, government work (I know that sounds mysterious, but that’s all we can say about it), architectural models,” said Woodruff.
After a period in which the “new toy” aura of CGI seemed to cloud filmmakers’ judgment—the cartoony look of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace is almost universally mentioned as a case of digital effects gone too far—blockbuster movies have recently been embracing a blend of both mediums.
Director J.J. Abrams made a point of populating Episode VII: The Force Awakens with practical effects enhanced and supplemented with CGI. The director Guillermo del Toro is a monster aficionado known for inventive use of practical effects. Jose Fernandez said he worked recently on a film with an A-list actress who balked at a studio’s attempts to put her in an electrode-covered suit and insisted on a real costume.
But these are big names, with the clout and experience to negotiate for what they want. CGI technology will only get cheaper and better. 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.
Others say that outcome, if it happens at all, is too far in the future to see. But they agree that the medium’s heyday of mechanical sharks, animatronic alien puppets, and indestructible exoskeletons has passed.
“The short answer is: The work is there,” said Woodruff, “[but] I don’t think we’re ever going to see [again] what practical effects was in the ‘80s and close to the ‘90s.”