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Why We're All a Bit Nostalgic for the Days Before CGI

The practical special effects used in 70s and 80s horror films may have been clunky, but they were sure to give you nightmares.

by Charles Graham-Dixon
Oct 20 2015, 2:35pm

Jeff Goldblum looking a bit worse for wear as the Brundlefly in 'The Fly'

I love practical effects in films. By this I mean I love makeup, special effects, puppetry, animatronics, and prosthetics. This isn't because I'm a retro-loving luddite who wants to return to the past and have all computers destroyed. It's because practical effects have pushed to the absolute limits the power of the human imagination and what we can achieve with our bare hands. In this modern era where the vast majority of special effects—including desert scenes, medieval castles, and battling armies—are brought to life using CGI technology and most actors show their terror or awe in front of green screens, it's easy to forget there was a time when special effects were done by hand, not computer.

In the 1980s, special effects artists became stars in their own rights as their incredible skills and talents gained recognition and plaudits as they turned previously recognizable faces into unrecognizable monsters. Jon Moore, a special effects and makeup artist who has worked on Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, Prometheus, and Doctor Who, tells me that this groundbreaking period was a major influence on his career.

"In the 70s and 80s practical effects really found their feet and the pioneers gained recognition," he says. "Things were being created that hadn't been seen before and it opened up a whole new world of entertainment that had previously been reserved for art or imagination."

Who can forget Rick Baker's jaw-dropping transformation of David Kessler from man to werewolf in American Werewolf in London (1981), or Chris Walas turning Jeff Goldblum into the sickeningly oozing Brundlefly in The Fly (1986)? How about Bob Keen's retina-searing creations, The Cenobites: the sadistic leather-clad guardians of hell led by Pinhead in Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987)?

Modern CGI techniques supposedly make things look more realistic, but it is the monsters and cityscapes created by practical effects that linger longer in the memory of audiences.

"I think the issues surrounding CGI go deeper than merely filling in as a representation for the real thing," says artist Aramis Gutierrez, who runs the hugely popular ANTI_CGI, an Instagram account bursting at the seams with staggering imagery, much of it the exploding heads and tearing tendons of 70s and 80s horror. "When you can render just about anything you want, it eliminates the 'box' of pragmatism and the means you were facing prior to digital technology," Gutierrez tells me. "It took a tremendous amount of creativity and care to come up with solutions that were plausible and also meant that FX shots were shorter and left more to the viewer's imagination."

It is the imagination that is key to practical effects. Audiences want 'real,' but in an emotional sense. Real isn't necessarily how realistic something looks, it's the extent to which we can identify with a character's emotions based on their response to who, or what, they share the frame with. As Kirsty in Hellraiser is chased down a dank subterranean corridor by the Engineer—a snarling, slime-dripping monster—a technician pushing the creature along on wheels is clearly visible in the background but Kirsty's terror is believable.

"Practical effects seem to carry more weight in more than one sense," says Jon Moore. "They react with their surroundings naturally, regardless of how 'clunky' they can appear." Moore feels that despite looking impressive, CGI's lack of physicality means the technique still does not sit comfortably in the filmed world: "It's not quite there yet. That to me is what takes away the realism, even if it looks amazingly realistic."

A really not very nice image from 'Hellraiser'

CGI does have its place and when used sparingly it can be memorable. Think of T-Rex chasing jeeps full of screaming visitors in Jurassic Park (1991) or the T-1000 emerging from the floor of the mental hospital to stab his bladed hand into the forehead of the security guard in Terminator 2 (1991). However, the ease and availability of CGI technology means artists and directors now use it so often that mystery and terror of the unknown in films, whether in the form of a monster or a spaceship, evaporates.

"CGI certainly has a dulling effect," says Gutierrez. "Always providing long exposing shots of an enigma demystifies it. It kills its power."

The power of imagination is vital in allowing audiences to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. By never seeing the witch in The Blair Witch Project (1999) and watching the cast gradually go insane with fear and panic, we begin to imagine how she might look, picturing our worst unfathomable terrors. When a CGI monster or a city in the sky is constantly shown to us we begin to shrug our shoulders and take things for granted. How powerful and exciting can CGI Alien fighting CGI Predator for most of a film actually be? It's an overload and it becomes dull.

In the first Alien (1979), the creature is barely visible in the dripping shadows of the Nostromo, waiting to kill the ship's crew one by one. We see the creature but only for seconds at a time, so our anticipation and fear builds to a crescendo. When the alien finally appears with full clarity in an air vent and devours Captain Dallas, the popcorn goes flying.

A literally stomach-churning scene from 'Videodrome'

Keeping practical effect use to a minimum is not the only reason certain scenes and images are memorable and terrifying. There is something inexplicable and surreal about the raw clunkiness of puppetry and stop-motion animation, particularly in scenes of horror. Nightmares stay with us because they twist normality and allow the bizarre and freakish to somehow exist alongside us. Would robot ED-209 and his boardroom machine gun massacre in the original Robocop (1987) be nearly as unnerving were it not for the jerky movements of his stop-motion animation? Would the VHS slot/vagina merged into James Wood's stomach in Videodrome (1983) have the same impact in polished CGI? How powerful and simply disgusting would the flying flesh and blood of countless lawn-mowered zombies in Braindead (1992), or the flying head-drilling spheres of Phantasm (1979), be were they created using computer imagery?

Too often now filmmakers do our thinking for us, showing us everything rather than allowing us to use the most powerful tool—our imagination. While it has become something of a cinematic cliche, it remains true that what you don't see is more powerful than what you do. The practical effects employed by filmmakers in the 70s and 80s helped tell stories but, crucially, were not the story themselves. CGI is brilliant and versatile, but filmmakers should remember that less is often more: Polished and slick is not necessarily better than rough and raw.

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