The Return of “In-Camera” Effects in Krampus & The Force Awakens

With the technological leaps and bounds that CGI made after the turn of the 21st century, the mid to late aughts brought with it a deluge of films relying heavily on newly discovered and increasingly honed special effects, particularly in genres like sci-fi and horror. But after years of reboots and remakes that sought to improve upon the original like Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and the 2011 retelling of John Carpenter’s The Thing, it looks as though studios are returning to a more low-tech indie standby.  

Unlike digital, practical effects are special effects done in-camera, without the help of computer-generated images. Fake blood, high-flying stunts and puppetry are all popular methods of practical, a strategy that indie horror films have been choosing for a long time. And though independent horror films are certainly not a voice for the mainstream, the return to and reverence for practical has begun to spread from this small sector of filmmakers to inform much larger scale genre works.

Corin Hardy, filmmaker of this year’s curious monster flick The Hallow, is one of the effects-driven pioneers bringing older traditions of in-camera trickery to the audiences of today. “These days it might be easier to say, ‘do it in post,’” he recently told Indiewire, “But I grew up on watching practical effects movies…with real makeup, real skill, real brilliant imaginative minds…So when I got the chance to do the film I didn’t want to do CG.” Similarly, the voice behind the brilliantly understated but nonetheless terrifying Babadook, Jennifer Kent felt it was important to do her effects in camera. “I wanted to go back to the [spirit of Georges Melies] and do something raw,” she told Studio Daily. “When you have something in camera, the brain recognizes it differently. It’s scary to me.”

For both filmmakers, the traditions of the effects have become the most important — voices like Ray Harryhausen and George Melies are mentioned in both accounts — and the custom of practical effects has its roots as far back as the invention of cinema. Beginning in the ‘70s and ‘80s, publications like Gorezone and Fangoria cemented masses of horror fans and elevated “gore hounds” everywhere with their devotion to the technical secrets behind horror’s oozing facade. And in recent years, that devotion has created an interesting hierarchy for cinematic effects, prioritizing the practical as a superior trick of the camera.  

For some filmmakers, using practical even became a defense against outspoken critics. In 2013, when Fede Alvarez dared to submit his remake of the ‘80s cult classic Evil Dead, he maintained his credibility largely on his insistence that the film’s effects were 100% practical. And when Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was met with quibbling reviews from the critics, many of whom cited questionable effects, the director slapped back with proof of the amazing practical effects on the otherwise ephemeral looking ghosts that roamed the halls of his bleeding red manor.

Michael Dougherty’s upcoming Krampus, a horror comedy from the Trick ‘r Treat director is the rare studio backed monster movie, telling the ancient tale of Krampus, a fearsome hooved anti-santa. But despite the film’s large budget and star-studded cast, Dougherty was careful to work with WETA effects specialists to make sure the effects in the film were as “real” as possible. Using composite work to erase the wires and poles used to animate teddy bears and other possessed toys, Dougherty maintained his “hybrid approach” to give the actors “something real to react to,” enjoying the perks of real monsters (and real slime) involved in his harrowing production. More surprising than that is the revelation that about 80% of the film’s effects were achieved with puppets, a figure unheard of from this kind of horror film.

While the hope for practical effects purism was borne from the horror genre, it’s slipped into other places; particularly into other effects genres. Nearly every frame of George Miller’s instantly beloved Mad Max: Fury Road looks incredibly digital, finding itself right at home in a 3D IMAX theater to make use of its massive digital scale. But even the road runner’s world was anchored in the real by Miller. Though the film is held up by sequences of massive car chases easily mocked up in digital post production, visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson insisted that entire sequences (including the awe-inspiring wrecks) be shot. “You shoot the layout and vehicles and gradually everything might get replaced except the camera and the positions of where things were,” he told FX Guide. “But the shot still inherits something from the real place you shot originally. I believe it’s still worth doing for that reason.” Or take the work that Jacinta Leong and her team did, making Miller's fever dream automobiles into reality.

Even the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens carries with it plenty of practical promises. JJ Abrams took up the franchise after its relatively dismal slew of prequels, and rather add to their digital legacy, he’s promised to take a more “real” approach. Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy also followed suit. “It’s using model makers; it’s using real droids; it’s taking advantage of artwork that you can actually touch and feel. And we want to do that in combination with CG effects. We figure that’s what will make it real.”

The question of “real” might seem silly, especially when placed in relief with cinematic worlds that require viewers to accept conceits like autonomous droids, human blood bags and possessed teddy bears, but the strange conceits of the genre film are exactly why the “real” becomes important. In order to ground a film which must spin upon a presumption of the existence of zombies or monsters in the woods, the world in which the characters live and the spaces in which the monsters exist must be one in the same. For Ron Howard’s true-life story In the Heart of the Sea, it’s a no-brainer for the filmmaker to use (truly masterful) CGI. But for Eli Roth, king of millennial gorehounds everywhere, that same use threatened to cause fans’ rejection of his newest project.

From Harryhausen to Georges Melies, Star Wars: A New Hope to Gremlins, genre films grounded in the “real” remain watchable long past their premiere often because, not in spite of, their special effects. And while CGI has taken up an unwavering place in effects history, the return of the practical in larger scale projects is heartening, if only in that it promises a return to tradition with a payoff that is largely forthcoming.