Film 101: Practical Magic

by | Sep 16th, 2009 | 4:16PM | Filed under: Film 101

Jennifersbodypic2 This weekend, teen-horror-film fans will be treated to more than just Jennifer’s Body–they’ll also get Jennifer’s projectile vomiting of icky black bile. After all, she is possessed by a demon. Large amounts of puke are the number one sign of demon possession. Or bad shrimp at a summer street fest.

But there’s something special about Jennifer’s Body. And no, it’s not just that Megan Fox has finally found the perfect role, but because as much as possible, Jennifer’s Body‘s director, Karyn Kusama, wanted to shoot the gory horror flick with practical effects.

A practical effect is a type of special effect that is done right there on the set, in front of the actors and director. So when Erika talked last week about the stages of filmmaking, a practical effect would be done during the production or filming stage, while a visual effect–like CGI imagery, green-screen backgrounds, or model work–would be done during post-production. (Though for the sake of budgets and schedules, sometimes visual effects are being done simultaneously with principle photography, although most likely far away from the set in an effects shop.)

For example, when Jennifer is filled with the unholy spirit and starts blasting copious streams of demonic barf all over the place, that was done by clipping a tube to the side of Fox’s face and pumping gallons of chocolate syrup out onto the set. (Mmmmmm, chocolate syrup.) Other great cinematic moments in practical projectile vomiting include, of course, The Exorcist and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Spiely But practical effects are more than just spewing. They include stunts, artificial animal and creature puppets, and used to also include fires, bullets being fired and striking walls (or people), and wind and rain.

Today however a lot of that can be done with CGI. For a while it was hard for CGI wizards to convincingly recreate fluid
materials such as fire and water, so those scenes were still done using
old fashioned water tanks and big orange fireballs. But now CGI
has advanced to the point where much of the fire, explosions, and giant
killer waves you see on screen are computer generated.

Steven Spielberg made his name by
working with one of the most famous–and infamously malfunctioning and
fake-looking–practical effects: Bruce, the mechanical Great White Shark in Jaws. By comparison, when Renny Harlin made his own epic shark movie in 1999, The Deep Blue Sea
(BIG PLOT SPOILER in the linked clip, but it’s a riot), he almost
exclusively used CGI fishies. (And which one is the better film?)

So
when Spielberg returned to his “monster attacks” roots in Jurassic Park in 1993 he used both CGI dinosaurs and practical dinosaurs–life-size heads, arms, and legs that the actors could actually touch on the set.

For example, although the T-Rex was an amazing CGI creation (the
best of its kind at the time), this entire, gripping scene was done
with a practical T-Rex head.

Every year CGI effects are supposed to become more and more realistic. Back in 1991 James Cameron broke new FX territory in Terminator 2 by digitally imposing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face onto that of a stuntman jumping a motorcycle. However, at least there was still a stuntman actually doing a practical effect: ramping the bike. Now it’s much more likely that the bike, the ramp, and the figure riding the bike would all be done in CGI.

Advancements in CGI and other visual effects have made some of the massive, mind-blowing action films of the past decade possible: Obviously, The Matrix and George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels took full advantage of green screen and CGI technology to create entire worlds that are never seen outside the computer servers. (Yoda went from a practical puppet effect in the Original Trilogy to a CGI visual effect in the prequels.) And films like Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City, and Zach Snyder’s 300 and Watchmen are often shot on empty stages with almost everything except the actors added in later.

CGI has become so common that doing a lot of practical effects in an
action or horror film is considered to be a bold creative decision. But some directors have intentionally gone back to practical effects, even if they are sometimes more work and hassle (and more dangerous) on the set and may not look as slick and perfect as CGI.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse exploitation car-chase flick Death Proof, he made a point to not use any CGI during the daring and dangerous stunts–just like in Bullit and The French Connection. So when Zoe Bell (an accomplished stunt woman playing herself) is clinging for dear life to the hood of the Dodge Challenger, it’s the real Zoe Bell on the hood as the car races along and is battered by Kurt Russell’s death-proof Charger. Tarantino’s instinct was that seeing a real person on a real car would give the scene much more emotional impact.

[WARNING: The clip below contains the usual Tarantino foul language, but the stunt work by Bell is fantastic.]

And in 1992 Francis Ford Coppola purposefully turned his back on the sort of post-production visual effects his old pal George Lucas had helped pioneer. Coppola shot all of Bram Stoker’s Dracula “in camera,” meaning that every special effect on the screen–weird shifting shadows, a shot of a train going through the mountains, even Dracula turning into a pile of rats–was done right there on the set, in real time, sometimes using elaborate and old-fashioned in-camera twists and tricks.

You can see several of those in-camera effects in this, the original Dracula trailer:

Coppola wanted his Dracula to hearken back to the sense of magic and “how’d they do that?!” wonder found in the early days of film. Other directors feel that they get better performances from their actors when the actors are reacting to effects happening right before their eyes–not months later in a computer shop. (Fortunately George Lucas has never worried about acting performances in his films.)

And still others simply feel that real, on-set practical effects have a “weight” and authenticity to them that CGI, no matter how perfect and realistic it becomes, does not. Christopher Nolan tries to shoot as much of his Batman films practically as he can, in order to further ground the fantastical superhero tales in the real world.

After all, if you’re really being doused on set with actual high-pressure black goop, it’s not hard to look shocked and grossed out. Even if it is chocolate-flavored.


One Response to “Film 101: Practical Magic”

  1. brenda
    Posted on September 16, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    how in the world are you gonna have one of your machines in a store post a date for a movie an that movie not be available?