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Why Nolan prefers Practical Effects over CGI: A Breakdown

Christopher Nolan is a wonderful example of old-school filmmaking in an age of computer effects. His use of actual effects instead of CGI shows his vision and passion. Nolan's aesthetic makes his films feel real.

Christopher Nolan Directing the great Oppenheimer scene
Source: Cineva

Christopher Nolan is one of the most accomplished directors of today. One thing that makes him stand out is his use of practical effects over CGI. He often chooses to alter the real world with real equipment and real mechanics to get the perfect shot.

With the release of the much awaited film, Oppenheimer, Nolan has once again shown how he can do it the old way. Here’s more on why he chooses practical effects over CGI.

Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI)

Directors and cinematographers will go to lengths for one striking shot.

This shot can be strategically set up using the right props and the right landscape, and can be enhanced with CGI.

Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is the use of computer software to create new visuals or add visuals over existing media. CGI helps moviemakers bring life to characters, scenes, and entire movies and videogames. Movies, TV, advertising, design, engineering and virtual reality - there is no domain where CGI isn’t used.

There are several methods to develop CGI:

  1. Using algorithms to produce intricate fractal patterns.
  2. Using 2D pixel-centric editors to generate vector designs.
  3. Employing 3D graphics tools to:
    - Craft basic geometric objects.
    - Design intricate planar shapes using triangles and quadrilaterals.
  4. Using 3D software to simulate:
    - Light interacting with surfaces.
    - Effects of particles.
  5. Incorporating "compositing" techniques to merge computer-generated visuals with digital film clips.
    - The use of "green screen" has elevated the popularity of the technique.

The Origins of CGI

Various CGI scenes from over time

The origins of computer-generated imagery (CGI) can be traced back to the 1960s, with glimpses of its potential in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic, "Vertigo."

The 1970s and 80s saw significant milestones, from "A Computer Animated Hand" in 1972 showcasing 3D graphics, to iconic films like "Star Wars" and "Tron" utilizing advanced visual techniques.

George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, established in 1975, became a driving force in this era of innovation.

The 1990s ushered in a new era of CGI with cinematic marvels like “Terminator 2” and “Toy Story.” As tech evolved, we saw the seamless blend of CGI characters and live actors, like in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings."

By the time films like "The Avengers" arrived, a vast majority of their visuals were digital masterpieces, illustrating the astounding progression of CGI in cinema. “Avatar”, a film with heavy VFX and CGI is hailed as one of the most ambitious and extraordinary films of this time.

But even today, some directors like Christopher Nolan prefer practical effects over CGI. His new, mind-blowing (pun intended) film Oppenheimer boasted about having a CGI-Free Atomic Blast!

What’s so special about Practical Effects? Read on.

Practical Effects

A practical effect in movies refers to a special effect produced physically, without the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) or other post-production techniques.

These effects are achieved on set during production and are captured "in-camera." This means that the effect is present and recorded in real-time as the scene is being filmed.

Examples of practical effects include prosthetics, miniature models, building sets and using stunt doubles.

For years, filmmakers, with the aid of ILM - a company founded in 1975 for the original Star Wars trilogy and also known for its work on the Indiana Jones series - used physical models and practical effects.

When directing Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg cautiously integrated computer-generated imagery. Despite the film's two-hour length, CGI dinosaurs appeared for just six minutes, paired with animatronics and models.

Christopher Nolan and Practical Effects

Nolan directing different scenes in different movies

Stanley Kubrick is renowned to have used tremendous practical effects in his films. In his 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick relied on large, detailed models for spaceships and giant rotating sets to establish the film’s environments and visuals.

Christopher Nolan has been inspired by Kubrik’s way of directing films.

Christopher Nolan stands as a cinematic maestro, blending age-old techniques with modern tales. His dedication to realism is evident in unforgettable sequences, like the gravity-defying rotating hallway in "Inception" or the authentic aerial stunts in "Dunkirk."

His unique aesthetic choices are evident throughout his films. He often utilizes deep, emotive shadows, lighting reminiscent of documentaries, and the authenticity of hand-held cameras.

His choice of natural settings and genuine filming locations over studios sets him apart. Interestingly, Nolan has red-green color blindness, which has shaped the palettes of many of his films.

Symbols and motifs play a pivotal role in Nolan's work, from mazes and geometric shapes to impossible constructions, all as part of practical effects. One iconic example is the Penrose stairs from "Inception," which illustrates the peculiarities of a dream world.

At the heart of Nolan's filmmaking is his belief in the power of realism. By grounding his movies in reality through relying on practical effects more than CGI, he ensures they remain engaging and rewatchable. For Nolan, when characters feel real, audiences connect with them on a profound level, making each viewing experience unforgettable.

Flash in poor CGI
Source: Landmark Media

The cinematic world is at an intersection where the wonder of technology meets the heart of storytelling. With the rise of CGI, filmmakers have an unparalleled tool to use for making cinema more dynamic. But, as with all tools, it's how you use it that defines the outcome.

Franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and Star Wars stand as titans in the deployment of CGI. Think of Iron Man's armor, Spiderman's webs, the vastness of galaxies with Guardians of the Galaxy, or with iconic ships like the Millennium Falcon - these are all marvels birthed from CGI's magic.

But more isn't always better. The sheer power of CGI can, if unchecked, eclipse narrative depth.

For instance, while "The Avengers" adeptly married CGI with storytelling, others like "Age of Ultron" and "The Flash" have been critiqued for letting visual grandeur overshadow character and plot.

The detailed demands of comic-based narratives often push directors towards a more significant CGI reliance. It's easier, for instance, to digitally craft a scene or adjust a costume.

However, when CGI starts replacing the authenticity that practical effects or genuine locations bring, the result can feel fake rather than spectacular. Eyebrows have risen with movies like "Black Widow" where CGI-heavy scenes felt more artificial than authentic.

At the end of the day, audiences value the visual wonder CGI offers but not at the cost of character or story depth.

In this sense, Christopher Nolan is renowned for his commitment to authenticity, often opting for real-world settings to craft memorable scenes. A testament to this dedication is the prison scene in the opening of "Dark Knight Rises." Rather than relying on sets or CGI, Nolan chose the majestic Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India as his backdrop, traveling halfway across the globe for the scene.

Striking a Balance between CGI and Practical Effects

Shot from inception

In the realm of filmmaking, striking a balance between CGI and practical effects is the prime topic of consideration. Both have their distinct strengths:

  • CGI brings to life vivid visuals that escape even the brightest of minds and the most expansive of real-world landscapes.
  • Real-world settings and effects lend authenticity, gripping viewers in the most compelling manner.

Viewers crave cinema that's devoid of glaring errors - where top-tier visuals, impeccable sets, and optimal conditions contrive the viewing experience.

The magic unfolds when there's harmony between CGI and practical effects. A touch of CGI paired with authentic real-world visuals can craft cinematic masterpieces. Renowned directors like Nolan and Cameron exemplify this balance, each in their distinctive style.

The cinematic future requires filmmakers to tread this delicate balance, ensuring movies aren't just visual spectacles but also narratives pulsating with emotion.

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