There is a loud and vocal group of movie fans who celebrate everything practical, and claim that the art of making a good action or science fiction film is being ruined by digital effects. Films are improved by having something on set, they claim — it all just feels a bit more "real."
There are no good guidelines here, as both digital and practical effects are merely tools. Either can look amazing in the hands of a good artist, and we tend to unfairly consider some movies mostly one or the other.
Everyone talks about the computer-generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and there were amazing for the time, but so much of that movie was done with practical effects. Mad Max: Fury Road has been hailed as a modern, and perhaps instant, classic of practical effects, but that ignores the huge amount of digital work that went into that film.
The best movies, including Jurassic Park and Fury Road, blend the two with art and skill. They're made by directors who go for the absolute best way to show each scene, whether that's a practical or digital effect.
Which brings us to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The brilliance of the T-1000
Terminator 2 was released July 3, 1991. That's a lifetime when it comes to visual effects, and it's astounding how much of the film's effects work still stands up to modern eyes. It's a movie that was made great due to director James Cameron's uncompromising need to push technology forward in digital effects, while one of the best practical-effects crews in history worked to make sure a liquid metal character looked amazing when the computers weren't yet up to the task.
Here are a few of the digital shots from the film.
This is bonkers for 1991, but watching clips of the digital effects robs them of their power. There are hints of the fun details here, including the gun being caught on the bars of the door in the mental hospital at which Sarah Connor is being held, but it looks flat and lifeless.
The digital effects need to be buttressed by the amazing practical work done by Stan Winston's team. I can't embed the video, but please watch it in its entirety to see just how much of these effects existed on set.
Let's stop demonizing digital effects
Digital effects aren't "hurting" films, but directors sure as hell are. A computer didn't force Peter Jackson to ditch so many practical effects for digital creations in the Hobbit series. A computer didn't tell James Cameron to make Avatar look like a cartoon.
The technology isn't to blame. The problem is that effects that were impossible to create with computers and had to be done practically can now be done with computers, and directors are saying yes.
This is why so many films from the '90s are seen as classics; it was a golden time when digital effects allowed movies to convincingly show us things that simply couldn't be created any other way, and directors combined those shots with amazing practical work.
The digital effects of Terminator 2 are often discussed by fans of the film, and they are amazing. But we tend to assume it was all done with computers, when the real-world effects and tricks employed on set helped give the film a sense of weight and power that's missing in the modern sequels.
Terminator 2 went on to win the 1992 Academy Award for Visual Effects and Best Makeup.