Why We Should Embrace Special Effects That Don’t Look Real

How's YOUR sense of wonder?
Special Effects Dont Look Real

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that unpacks the question of why we’re so obsessed with special effects that look like the real world.


One consequence of being Very Online is a desire to couch a potentially spicy opinion in as many qualifiers as possible. I think the hope is that, much like a pillow fort or a very thick down jacket, the qualifiers will shield you from bad faith volleys aiming to undermine your point with a barrage of  what about ___s?”

I’ll show my cards right off the top: I’m in thorough agreement with the author of today’s video essay. Though, if you’re familiar with my other column here at Film School Rejects where I specifically talk about the magic of special effects (often the practical kind), this should come as no surprise. They may be more expensive and time-consuming (or wasteful or dangerous), but practical visual effects will always feel better than their digital surrogates. I mean a number of things by “feel better.” Practical effects have a visceral quality that makes them more endearing, memorable, and iconic than any CGI counterpart. They exist in the world, and that makes them feel that much more alive. And their physical limitations force their creators to find creative solutions that endow them with that much more lividity.

As the video essay below lays out, fantasy is one of the most enduring genres in cinematic history. But fantasy films, the kind that break box office records, have adopted a stance towards special effects that flies in the face of the genre’s ostensible purpose: to transcend reality, not replicate it. There is a prevailing popular attitude towards special effects that the “more real” they look the better. That old fantasy films are fake-looking and rife with obvious, seam-filled trickery. Personally, I’ll take a legible matte painting over a glut of computer-generated detail any day of the week.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with applying documentary realism to fantasy films. But there’s something fundamentally rotten about documentary realism becoming the genre’s standard, as far as popular filmmaking is concerned.

Watch “Realism and Fantastic Cinema”:


Who made this?

This video essay on how the pursuit of realism in special effects is hurting the fantasy genre is by APLattanzi, a freelance filmmaker and illustrator who hails from the Philadelphia area. You can subscribe to them on YouTube here. Their essays cover a large swath of topics, from film scores to short films. You can also find them on Letterboxd here.

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    Meg Shields: Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).