Practical effects are those which are done using props or special gear to produce an effect for the camera to film. Wind- and rain-machines, squibs, radio controlled vehicles, and pyrotechnics are all practical effects. So are breakaway furniture, walls or windows, and tilting or shaking platforms under the set.
They are probably the most common type of effect and often seen as giving the most realism. The truth of the matter is that they give rise to a lot of Hollywood Science
but we are so used to seeing them that The Coconut Effect
plays across nearly everything we see and we get used to them. Really all those car explosions
, spurting veins
and gun shots
would behave very differently in reality, it's a shame reality is so unrealistic
Rightly or wrongly, though, practical effects are seen by many as being in some way superior to Computer Generated Images
or CGI. Certainly early CGI was much more prone to Special Effects Failure
, the lower resolution, texturing and lighting flaws would push the images into the Uncanny Valley
while even a bad practical effect could be seen to be physically real. The more modern CGI can be very conspicuous
compared to well integrated practical effects.
A number of those who are Doing It for the Art
will therefore stick to practical effects and the audience will often thank them for it. They will make proud announcements during promotions that everything in their movies is real and will take extra costs and risks to ensure their "realism".
Compare/Contrast Off-the-Shelf FX
Examples In Alphabetical Order:
- Alien the titular alien (being a man in a suit) and the face-hugger are all practical effects. The film would likely not have aged as well had they used stop motion.
- Aliens not only delivers better looking aliens and a better array of practical effects but also introduces the Alien Queen. Courtesy of Stan Winston and his crew, she was a huge animatronic that required a full team to operate. They had apparently considered stop motion given her size before Winston was able to deliver something much better.
- Other items viewers might take for granted, like the dropship, the nuclear explosion, Bishop's severed torso, everything was made without the use of modern CGI, instead opting for models and puppetry. The iconic power loader was a full-scale puppet with a stuntman behind it moving in tandem with Sigourney Weaver.
- An American Werewolf in London is well known for its slow, painful transformation sequence done via an animatronic prop courtesy of Rick Baker.
- Many scenes that would normally be done with special effects in the movie Crank are in-camera, including the dramatic finale where Chev Chelios and Verona are falling thousands of feet out of a helicopter.
- The Dark Knight Saga: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were all very conservative on the post production special effects. Only the most extravagant or dangerous stunts were performed in post production. But certain scenes like Bruce saving Ducard from sliding off the edge of a cliff was done on location, with the actual actors wearing the necessary safety lines. The Dark Knight managed to film the flipping of an 18-wheeler by...actually flipping an 18-wheeler on the streets of Chicago. They got it in one try. The plane hijacking scene in Rises makes rather spectular use of practical sets and stuntwork. The director of the trilogy, Christopher Nolan is unsurprisingly a massive proponent for practical effects.
- In Deep Blue Sea they mixed in puppet and CGI sharks and in this case the puppets certainly moved and felt more realistic.
- Discussed in a featurette for Fast and Furious 6, where the producer feels that doing a certain scene for real, while more difficult, lent it a weight that couldn't be replicated with CG. The scene in question is a tank crushing oncoming traffic on a freeway at 60 mph. Similarly, in Fast Five, the climax, involving Dom and Brian towing a massive bank vault through Rio de Janeiro, was done with a specially-made vault and over two hundred squished cars.
- Remember the "Star Trek Shake", with actors leaning to the left and the right while the camera shook? Well, in Galaxy Quest, the whole set did the shaking after being mounted on a gimbal. A nice bit of Enforced Method Acting updating an old trick.
- Ghostbusters used heavy amounts of practical effects throughout. Many of the Library Ghost effects were practicals: books on wires, library cards being blown through copper pipes, etc. Also, when Stay-Puft kicks over a fire hydrant, the miniature actually sprays blue sand rather than have a gusher added in post-production.
- Good Night, and Good Luck., which was about the days of live TV, uses one effect for an elevator arriving at different floors. In most films this might be achieved by putting a Blue Screen behind the doors and overlaying a different background scene each time the doors open on a 'different floor'. In Good Night and Good Luck they used the old live TV trick of rotating the entire elevator set (with the camera fixed to the rotating floor) while the actors performed their scene in it, so that each time the doors opened you were looking at a different part of the exterior set.
- The Goonies has aged very well indeed due to its use of simply massive and quite simply awe inspiring sets. The final act features a fully constructed pirate ship sitting in a gigantic water filled cavern. And it was all real. Even the water slides used to reach it in the film were 100% practical (the crew spent weekends using them). Its only major special effect failure is an obvious greenscreen shot when Mikey is lining up rocks to his medallion piece. The Special Edition commentary even has joking cries of "worst greenscreen ever" but throughout director Richard Donner is notably very proud of the way movies used to have epic sets like this built, not to mention how well it's held up because of it.
- In John Woo's Hard Boiled the elevator trick similar to Good Night and Good Luck above was applied. During the final act hospital shoot out, a long take is made of Tequila and Alan shooting their way through that lasts for 2 minutes and 43 seconds and doesn't break when they get into an elevator.
- The earlier Harry Potter films mixed animatronics and CGI. Fawkes, generally speaking, is an animatronic when he's perched and CGI when he's flying. The animatronic Fawkes could even cry "real" tears for the scene when he heals Harry's arm. Supposedly, it was so convincing that Richard Harris thought it was a real bird, commenting "they sure do train those things well." In the spider grove scene from the second film, Aragog is animatronic and his children are CGI. Lupin's Werewolf form even had a practically suit with stilts made for certain shots though it was pretty much impossible to get realistic movement out of it so most of it is CGI. (CGI took over more as the series went along). Though is likely do to the rising complexity of the film. Word of God states that if they could do it practically they did. Many of the creatures in the later films such as the inferi would have been impossible to do practically. Ginny shattering the prophecies in the fifth film was another one that would have been impossible to do practical, at least not within any reasonable amount of time or budget.
- In the first Hellboy film, the writhing hair of the Sammael monsters was a practical effect — the hair was motorized! (Reportedly, when the producer saw the dailies, he was startled that they'd had time to put in CGI hair, when it wasn't CGI at all.)
- The practical effects in Inception border on the ridiculous. Most notably, the famous spinning/zero G fight scene was filmed using a full rotating set rather than any CGI or camera trickery. This is film is pretty much Christopher Nolan making a point about how good practical effects can be.
- Jurassic Park is constantly lauded for its great use of combining practical and digital effects. It stands among Stan Winston's greatest ever work, which is saying something. While the effects, both practical and computer generated, have aged very well (the CGI probably even has better musculature), scenes like the kitchen chase with the Velociraptors would have been much less taut without the ability for close ups of the 'raptors' faces or pots and pans being knocked and clashed and jangled by the dinosaurs.
- Oblivion had some great special effects but its most impressive visuals were the practical techniques used for the Sky Tower. Unable to actually build a set at such a height, the effects crew did the next best thing and filmed countless hours of the 360 degree view from the top of a volcano in Maui. They then projected this on a silver screen around the set. Take a look. Why does the skyline and lighting in the tower look so beautiful and ridiculously accurate? It's all being provided by the real thing. The actors gushed about how beautiful this made the set look and Tom Cruise even declared it the most beautiful set he'd ever seen.
- Pacific Rim: The Jaeger cockpits are dominantly this, as shown in the "Oversized Giant Robots" featurette.
- In the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes only the space scenes and some backgrounds were done with CGI (as well as some harness wires removed in post), but otherwise it was all practical effects (including, among other things, the apes outrunning galloping horses).
- The effects in Prometheus were a mixture of practical and CGI Most of the landscapes are sets or were shot on location, for instance in Iceland. The creatures such as the Hammerpede were either puppets or animatronics with some CGI used on them. Prometheus is praised even amongst detractors for being a very visually striking film as a result.
- Repo Man has an example that quite encapsulates the "practical effects are better" mentality. The otherworldy glow on the car at the end is glow-in-the-dark paint (bordering on Special Effects Failure if you let it), originally used because they didn't have the funds for CGI. Fast-forward to the present, however, and this ends up being far more convincing than the computer effects from the time it was made.
- In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Kirk and Saavik ride the turbolift, you'll notice that when it stops, a wall has been moved in to make it look like a different floor. The trick was used first in in the second pilot of Star Trek: The Original Series. When Kirk, Spock, and Gary Mitchell ride the turbolift, a corridor wall is visible outside the doors when they close and the bridge is revealed when the doors open. They simply placed a wall outside the turbolift on the bridge set and wheeled it away while the doors were closed.
- The Thing (1982) stands as an iconic example of practical effects. Animatronics and puppetry was used bring its ship-shifting alien creature to life. Its Signature Scene of a man having his arms bitten off was achieved with an actual double amputee as a stand in.
- Its 2011 prequel, on the other hand, had CGI added over the practical FX at the last minute for whatever reason. 
- Titanic 1997 might have used some CGI but most of its effects were still models, miniatures, and enormous sets. It was mentioned on the "making of" that 90% of the effects were practical. The combination of computer graphics and practical effects might be why its visuals are awesome. One sequence involved over 100 stuntmen rolling down the deck of the ship as it sank. Entire portions of the set had to be built to flood with water during those key moments. Here's a time lapse video of them constructing several full scale sets, one of which is the Titanic itself.
- The 2007 Transformers film only had a handful of actors in front of green screens. While the robots were CGI of course, most of the stunts were entirely real, involving the actual actors shitting bricks while running from timed explosions. And even still there were a handful of images of the robots that were actually puppets: Frenzy in a few shots, Megatron's legs and even Bumblebee when strapped to a flat bed trailer.
- Underworld and its two follow-up films made a point of using practical effects for the werewolves, with CGI only really used in their transformation sequence. They were costumes that had built in stilts with animatronics used to move their faces. True to the perception of this trope, in Underworld: Awakening the effects for Lycans take a rather blatant hit in quality due to relying strongly on CGI.
- While Walking with Dinosaurs (as well as its sequels, Walking With Beasts and Walking With Monsters) use a lot of CG, they almost always use mechanical puppets for close ups. Most likely they took a note from Jurassic Park's book in this regard.
- War Horse used very little, if any, CGI. In fact, some of the scenes in which Joey gets tangled up in barbed wire were done via an animatronic horse and rubber prop wire.
- In The Woman in the Window by Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson is shown waking up from a dream. This is done without any cut or dissolve. Instead the camera zooms in for a closeup of his face, while stagehands removed the tear-away clothes that Robinson was wearing and put in a new set behind him, all in a matter of seconds.
- Zathura. All the explosions and destruction felt very solid because they actually built the house interior on top of a tilt-able platform, filmed anything that required it to be intact, then proceeded to demolish the set as they filmed. Good luck doing a retake!