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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, Muppets, 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. And there is an argument can be made that it's easier for actors to turn in a good performance when interacting with something physical.


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:

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  • In Alien the titular alien (being a man in a suit), the face-hugger, and chest-burster 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.
  • While the original film predated modern CGI, Blade Runner 2049 used in-camera effects as much as possible to an extent that most audiences didn't even notice, building the vast majority of its futuristic cityscapes as Miniature Effects and creating the scenes of Ryan Gosling walking through the ruins of an irradiated future Las Vegas via Forced Perspective statues and a massive matte painting background.
  • 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 spectacular 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.
  • The crew of Edge of Tomorrow built dozens of sets of physical prop "jackets" for the actors to wear. In an amusing and ironic twist, the actual props were most definitely not "powered" armor, meaning the actors actually had to walk, run, and fight in these things under their own power, and they were heavy as shit, too, which is especially hilarious for a movie starring infamously shrimpy Tom Cruise.
  • 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.
  • FX and its sequel are about a Hollywood practical effects wizard getting swept up in a thriller and using his skills to get an advantage over his enemies.
  • 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 (1984) 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 practical 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 it is likely due 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.
  • Nolan did it again in Interstellar, which heavily utilized practical effects for all but the footage of the planets, stars, black holes, and other space phenomena. The spaceships were done entirely with Miniature Effects and the shapeshifting robots were actually large puppets operated by Bill Irwin, who also voiced TARS. Even the dust clouds were done with giant fans blowing cellulose-based synthetic dust at the actors, and the brain-twisting "tesseract space" that Cooper finds himself in at the climax was actually a giant set that they dangled Matthew McConaughey in from a crane. Unlike most films featuring space travel, the cockpit scenes in the spaceships were shot "live" in front of projection screens rather than green screens, so the actors are reacting in real-time to pre-rendered footage on the cockpit screens rather than a blank green wall to be filled in later.
  • Independence Day won an Academy Award thanks to its extensive usage of practical effects. When it was determined that CGI fire would not do for the city destruction scenes, the team constructed models of city blocks and tilted them upward so that real fire utilized the model like a chimney. The alien destroyers were also portrayed by a number of scale models, including one complete model and one that was a detailed section of the ship's outer hull.
  • Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer was done entirely with practical effects, which admittedly makes the film a little dated in appearance.
  • 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.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road dealt with the problem of building a billion custom cars and blowing them all to smithereens by building a billion custom cars and blowing them all to smithereens. CGI was used for backgrounds, but most of the action was done for real. Yes, even the Flamethrower Guitar, which not only shot flames but also played music, after George Miller expressed disappointment that the original prop/set did not.
  • Oblivion (2013) 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.
  • Davy Jones and most of his crew in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and At World's End are Serkis Folk, but Bootstrap Bill is five hours' worth of makeup and prosthetics applied to Stellan Skarsgard. Occasionally in closeup something CGI moves on his face, but for the most part he's practical effects.
  • 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.
  • The special effects crew of Red Dawn (2012) actually blew up a building in Mount Clemens, Michigan for one particular scene.
  • 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.
  • Scanners has one notable example in its famous exploding head scene: after creating a replica of the head of the actor whose character's head explodes and filling the replica with fake blood and old meat, special effects adviser Gary Zeller got behind the replica head and blasted it into chunky bits with a shotgun.
  • Short Circuit: Almost all of the film's special effects budget was eaten up by the Number 5 animatronic, so most of the effects were practical by necessity. For example, Number 5 flipping pages while Super-Speed Reading was done by blowing air across the book to rapidly turn the pages, and Number 5 repeatedly flipping a coin was achieved through some clever editing of a single shot of footage.
  • Stalingrad (2013): Most of the film is set in one ruined square in the war-torn city. The square is one open-air set.
  • 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.
  • Star Wars
    • Ironically, the prequels actually used quite a bit of animatronics, make-up, and miniatures. And not just in The Phantom Menace either like some fans claim, a lot of the places seen in episodes II and III used miniatures, such as the diner and even the lava planet of Mustafar.
    • Episode VII: The Force Awakens goes out of its way to use practical effects to almost the same level as the original trilogy.
      • When the first trailers appeared and BB-8 was shown, the Internet went into an uproar about a CGI droid in Star Wars. A few weeks later, during a panel about the upcoming movie, lots of crow was eaten after they brought out the actual working BB-8 robot. Some scenes were obviously CGI, but the working robot was used in-camera as often as possible.
    • Following the example set by The Force Awakens, the subsequent new Star Wars movies have gone out of their way to use practical effects as much as possible.
      • As just one example, Solo was the first film in the franchise to shoot its space sequences and chase scene "live", much like the Interstellar example above: for the in-cockpit scenes aboard the Millennium Falcon (as well as the opening speeder chase on Corellia), instead of filming the actors in front of a blue screen and adding in the FX later, they built a massive, ultra-high definition projection screen around the cockpit set, rendered what the characters would be seeing through the "window" first, and projected it onto the screen as they were filming. Consequently, what you're seeing onscreen in the cockpit shots is the actual footage as it was shot "live" on set, and the actors genuinely freaking out to what they're seeing.
      • Unlike K-2SO, L3-37 from Solo was not entirely motion capture. Actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge wore costume pieces for L3's arms, outside leg plates, torso plate and head, with the only parts of her costume that were filled in with CGI later being the motors and wires of her legs and torso. Lady Proxima from the same film was done the same way as Jabba the Hutt: as a truly massive animatronic puppet controlled by a small army of puppeteers, some of whom had to wear scuba gear so they could manipulate her parts while submerged in her resting pool.
  • Killer Croc's appearance in Suicide Squad (2016) is done entirely in make-up and prosthetics.
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day came with groundbreaking CGI effects but still relied heavily on animatronics FX as showcases in this featurette.
  • 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. [1]
  • 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 (2003) 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! The Zorgons and the robot were both done practically too, the Zorgons were just (very well-made and convincing) People in Rubber Suits, while the robot's torso, head, and feet were worn by a guy in a motion capture costume, with the arms and legs added in later (since the robot's proportions would make it impossible for a human's arms or legs to fit into the robot's.)

     Live Action TV  

  • While it obviously used quite a fair amount of CGI, Falling Skies had quite a lot of beautiful prosthetic makeup designs and puppetry to depict its various alien races, including the hexapedal Skitters and all of the Volm. Even the towering Espheni Overlords were portrayed by a man in a costume.
  • Our Miss Brooks: Seen in several episodes, including:
    • "Life Can Be Bones": A prop-cat subs for Minerva when she jumps over the fence after tasting Mrs. Davis's spicy soup.
    • "Public Property on Parade" Similar to the preceding example, prop-birds flee Mrs. Davis' Limburger omelette.
    • "Here is Your Past": The effects from Mr. Conklin's big sneezes.
    • "Brooks' New Car": Mr. Conklin going through the wall when he drives his car atop a wagon left in the driveway.
    • "Do It Yourself": The garage Miss Brooks, Mr. Boynton and Walter Denton built falls apart.
    • "Pet Shop": The rainstorm.
  • Doctor Who, naturally (due to being a Long Runner from long before Computer-Generated Images were at all possible). Between tight shooting schedules and limited budget this led to the Special Effect Failure that the series is remembered for, although there was enough creativity and skill involved that Visual Effects of Awesome still happened occasionally, particularly in Seasons 13-14 and some of the gorgeous puppetry in the McCoy era. The new series uses a lot of CGI, but Series 8 had a stated goal to use more practical effects for various reasons (reduced budget due to the expense of the 50th Anniversary Special "Day of the Doctor", a less experienced CGI team than before and the desire to establish a unique visual identity for the show rather than aping effects seen in various golden-age-of-television fantasy shows that the BBC could never begin to achieve). This led to quite a lot of robot enemies and more detailed, claustrophobic sets.


     Multiple Media  

  • The Muppets are probably one of the few major franchises (outside of post-2015 Star Wars projects) to still use puppets in The New '10s.


Example of: