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What Are Practical Effects in Movies? Examples and How They’re Done

Jurassic Park (1993) was the first notable, big-budget movie to use computer-generated effects well. It was the start of a big shift in special effects with fewer and fewer film productions opting for practical effects.

But there does not need to be a “practical effects vs CGI” battle. Both kinds of effects still have their place in modern filmmaking and can achieve brilliant results.

If you’re wondering what practical effects in movies are, here are some great examples.

What Are Practical Effects?

Special effects often fall into two categories: practical effects and computer effects. Practical effects are anything on screen that is real and is not made by a computer. These effects include but are not limited to:

  • Make-up and hair
  • Vehicles
  • Props
  • Costumes
  • Sets
  • Lighting
  • Sound

Everything listed can also be computer-generated. This is why it is hard to spot the difference when watching a modern movie in particular. For example, the orange hazmat suits in Arrival (2016) are the result of computer effects but audiences assumed they were real costumes.

Example: Forced Perspective in Elf (2003)

What happens when two average-sized actors are playing characters in a movie that are different sizes? Like Gandalf and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings and Hagrid and Harry in Harry Potter.

In Elf,the production team used a practical effect called forced perspective. This is an optical illusion created using props and furniture with different scales. It also involves positioning some actors closer or further away from the camera.

So, Buddy the Elf (who is human) ends up looking much larger than his smaller elf friends without the need for CGI.

Example: Terrifying Transformation in An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Nowadays, practical effects in horror movies are rare but there are some in older films that still look great today.

In An American Werewolf in London, the transformation from man to werewolf was 100% make-up practical effects. It took over one week to shoot and required months of prep to experiment with materials.

If this effect was computer-generated, it might not look as good compared to today’s modern computer effects.

Example: Foley Sound Effects in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Foley is a type of practical effect that recreates sounds for films when productions cannot create them on set for various reasons. For example, the munching of a carrot can sound like a bone crunch.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the ark itself was plastic so it did not create a realistic noise when opened. So, foley artist John Roesch recreated the sound of Indiana Jones removing the top of the ark with a ceramic toilet bowl.

This is a great example of DIY practical effects that anyone can do at home and you can go here to learn more about John Roesch.

Creating Movie Magic That Lasts

Though computer-generated effects can save movie productions time and money, practical effects are still necessary. They can help a film stand the test of time regardless of technological advancements and audiences can enjoy them for years to come.

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