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The Evolution of Special Effects in Blockbuster Movies: The Rise and Fall of Practical Effects in Hollywood

Blockbuster movies have come a long way since the days of practical effects. In the early days of Hollywood, movie magic relied heavily on practical effects, with filmmakers using puppets, miniatures, and models to create elaborate sets and scenarios. But with the rise of CGI or Computer Generated Imagery, practical effects started to take a backseat, which sparked a debate in the film industry. Is CGI the future of filmmaking or is there a chance for practical effects to make a comeback?

The Early Days of Practical Effects

In the early days of Hollywood, budget constraints and technical limitations often forced filmmakers to rely on practical effects. In some cases, it resulted in legendary cinematic moments, such as the scaled-down models of the White House and the park in “Planet of the Apes”, or the intricate puppetry used to create the monsters in “Alien”.

These practical effects required immense planning and execution. For instance, constructing the miniature of the White House for the movie “Independence Day” required two weeks of pre-production planning and four weeks of construction. The same level of dedication was required while creating other practical effects as well. In fact, special effects pioneers like Harryhausen and Stan Winston were recognized for their creativity and excellence in practical effects during the pre-CGI era.

The Introduction of CGI

The advancements in computer technology opened up new possibilities for Hollywood filmmakers. With the use of CGI, filmmakers could create bigger and more elaborate sets, characters, and special effects without the need for practical effects. Spearheaded by movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2”, the use of CGI in Hollywood soon skyrocketed.

Certainly, there were benefits to the use of CGI. It allowed filmmakers the opportunity to create bigger and more spectacular scenes than ever before, giving audiences a wholly new experience of movie magic. With the use of computer-based technology, filmmakers could create scenes that were impossible to film in real life, such as underwater or in space. Additionally, CGI animation allowed directors to manipulate images to suit their interpretation of the movie and introduce more creative liberty into their work. But, as with every innovation, there were certain limitations.

The Limitations of CGI

Despite its benefits, CGI could not replace practical effects entirely. It has its limitations, and one of them is the loss of continuity. With CGI animation, there is no sense of visceral interaction between characters and sets. While an explosion might look impressive in motion, the impact of the detonation does not resonate in the same way as practical effects. Additionally, CGI animation comes with a significant cost, and the financial burden of producing CG enhanced films is often a challenge for smaller studios and projects.

As CGI became more and more prevalent, many filmmakers began to miss the tactile, hands-on approach that practical effects offer. Meanwhile, studios and moviegoers alike expressed concerns over the mounting costs of creating computer-generated effects and the potential for CGI to make movies feel cold, and detached. This led to a resurgence of interest in practical effects.

The Resurgence of Practical Effects

Practical effects started to make a resurgence in the 2000s and early 2010s. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan prefer practical effects over CGI animation, as they believe it allows them to establish a sense of reality in their films.

Other filmmakers like J.J. Abrams have taken a hybrid approach to filmmaking, using practical effects when they enhance the scene’s overall effect and turning to CGI when practical effects are not possible. This approach helped the revival of practical effects and has allowed them to continue to thrive in the modern age.

The Future of Special Effects in Hollywood

As we look to the future of special effects, it’s expected that the revival of practical effects will continue to gather steam. Practical effects are highly sustainable, as they offer a more physical, tactile approach to filmmaking, which will always have a unique appeal. Meanwhile, advancements like AI or machine learning, are expected to expand the capabilities of CGI animation. Still, it’s unlikely the practical effects will disappear entirely from Hollywood filmmaking.


The argument between CGI and practical effects will undoubtedly continue to rage in Hollywood. The undeniable fact, though, is that both have their place in filmmaking and that they can even coexist. While CGI has revolutionized the way movies are made, practical effects offer a visceral, tactile approach that is unparalleled. The trend in recent years indicates a shift back towards practical effects, but future advancements in computer technology are sure to expand the possibilities of CGI animation beyond what we can currently imagine.

At the end of the day, it’s the movies that matter. As long as viewers are entertained and immersed in the story, films can do without the big, shiny special effects. But when used in moderation or when they enhance the narrative’s emotional impact, special effects can offer an impressive spectacle that will leave audiences in awe.

So, there you have it, folks – the rise and fall of practical effects in Hollywood. What do you think about the use of practical effects in the movies? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!