“Run. Run!” shouts Anna Torv’s Tess in episode 2 of The Last of Us. Ellie (Bella Ramsey) scrambles away, army—crawling out of the path of a rampaging, fungus—mottled zombie. She hides, waits for Joel (Pedro Pascal), and breathes shakily. And the second the two of them make a noise, the zombie comes at them again. Its face was clearly once human, but is now overrun by a fan–like pattern of mushrooms. Its colors, albeit muted in the dim light, are a fantastic mix of blues, oranges, and beiges, all toeing the line between believable naturalness and the disturbing unnaturalness of the undead. Its fungal gills, though made of liquid silicone or rubber, look like they grew deep in a haunted forest. If it wasn’t so terrifying, it would almost be beautiful.

The Last of Us is just one show that is utilizing practical effects to the best of their abilities nowadays; many movies in recent years have been praised for employing practical effects, from stage makeup to stunt work to puppetry. The Last of Us’s popularity, though, has ignited a conversation about the benefits and downsides of practical versus computer–generated effects, a battle that has been ongoing since the advent, practically, of film itself.

Firstly: What even are practical and computer–generated effects? Practical effects are visual effects done practically—that is, with models, makeup, and anything else that you can hold in your hand. Computer—generated effects, on the contrary, encompass visual effects (VFX), the creation of an effect through the combination of digital technology and something practical, and computer–generated imagery (CGI), digital characters, landscapes, and more made whole cloth from an algorithm.

Ever since the invention of film, people have been pushing the boundaries of what can be depicted when recorded. Anyone who’s taken CIMS 1010 has heard the story of audiences being terrified when the Lumière Brothers debuted a film of a train moving at them, as they suspected the train might ride off the screen and into the space where they were peacefully sitting and watching the film. And they’ve had to watch A Trip to the Moon, a 1902 French flick that utilized overlays and other (old now, but revolutionary at the time) editing and staging technologies to create the effect of, for example, women’s faces in the sky.

Continuing down the syllabus, a fantastic example of early practical effects comes with Nosferatu, where the eponymous vampire’s inhuman appearance was created through classic theatrical makeup techniques (as film grew out of a tradition of live theater). From there, practical effects grew in complexity as the tradition of cinema cemented itself and as materials became more diverse, more easily accessible, and better. Eventually, we ended in the realm of movies such as The Shape of Water, a movie that, even if you haven’t seen it, you likely know for being about a woman getting it on with a fish. And that fish is gorgeously, practically constructed.

But, of course, makeup wasn’t the only thing that changed over time due to technological innovations and a cementation of industry standards. With computers comes digital manipulation (and, again, editing has been a common practice since the advent of film as entertainment itself), and thus, CGI and VFX.

Even if you, like myself, are not a particularly tech–savvy person, it’s incredibly easy to spot when a greenscreen is being poorly utilized, or when a CGI’d character looks a little too computer–generated. That being said, it’s also incredibly effective when CGI pays off—there’s a reason Avatar is the highest–grossing film of all time. 

And CGI is inarguably an industry staple at this point. Think of pretty much any blockbuster movie that’s come out in the past ten years, and you can imagine at least one scene in it that relies heavily on CGI. Nowadays, the fact that The Last of Us, one of the most talked—about shows in the current zeitgeist, is so practical–heavy, is much bigger news than yet another movie or show having scenes made entirely from mo–cap and computer imaging.

Oversaturation aside, there are countless stories that resurface constantly about the mistreatment of VFX artists. VFX artists and CGI creators are not unionized (though there have been pushes within the industry to get a union going), and workers voice their complaints consistently online about being expected to work insane hours under short, strict deadlines. These workers oftentimes cite Marvel movies as their main sources of stress, due to the franchise’s arguable overuse of CGI in creating their films and the sheer amount of content put out by the MCU every year, particularly in their current stage of franchising. 

The benefits of practical effects aren’t just applicable to heart, realism, and better treatment of workers in feature–length films or serialized television. Practical effects and well–used VFX are instrumental in adding flavor to shorter–form and/or lower–budget productions. Even YouTube sketch comedy could utilize practical effects in conjunction with VFX to enhance their content. Functioning as a lower–barrier access point, the usage of both allows space for more creativity without requiring anyone to purchase a subscription to Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro, which is especially important in an age where people are incentivized to post their work online. Without creating space for practical effects, are we really creating space for up–and–coming creators, or for short–form content?

Also, at the risk of sounding like quite a traditionalist, it’s simply important to hold onto crafts. Practical effects take time, effort, and human handiwork. They are an artform, and they deserve not only to be respected as such, but to be upheld as their own tradition. An overreliance on CGI leads to miming in front of an emotionally flat, blatantly obvious greenscreen. Real engagement with CGI for the technology it is, rather than treating it like a magical panacea–esque crutch, can instead lead to some stunning results. Yet in an industry dominated by profit and quantity, it’s rare that CGI is used as anything other than a flimsy cheat code.

This is not an argument for doing away with helping out in post. On the contrary—VFX can be wonderful, and is incredibly useful in a plethora of applications. But help from computers shines best when it’s not noticeable; when, instead of being the star of the show, it’s that final touch that makes everything sparkle. 

A fantastic example of this is Oscar–winner Everything Everywhere All at Once. In this movie, VFX and practical effects go hand in hand—VFX is largely used to erase traces of practical work. For instance, it enables the editor to digitally remove the stunt wires holding up Jamie Lee Curtis as she leaps down to attack Michelle Yeoh, or create a background in post from a compilation of externally–captured street footage imposed behind Yeoh as she flies backward through the multiverse.

So, where does that leave us? We’re traversing a media landscape oversaturated by CGI, one where a person can earnestly tweet that they think that the only alternative to CGI is to “build spaceships and go NOT ONLY to space but to other planets?”. In this post–practical world, is there room for non–computer–generated effects? I believe there is, and the popularity of media such as The Last of Us, which has received praise for its heavy use of practical effects, makes a strong case for that. It really doesn’t need to take advanced technology to transport us to the stars.