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CGI can be just as good as practical effects.

CGI can be just as good as practical effects. (photo)

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In the middle of a hymn of praise to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the New York Times, director James Mangold (“Walk The Line,” “3:10 To Yuma”) feels it necessary to remind us of “the breathtaking visual effects made by hand, not on a hard drive.” This is certainly true to an extent: the panoply of inventive-by-necessity effects included gelatin heads, shooting the ending spirits underwater and filming a miniature canyon on fire upside-down.

Still, it’d take a lot of chutzpah to claim that all that inventiveness made the final product more accomplished. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is as slick as pre-CGI filmmaking gets, and that aura of professionalism doesn’t compromise it one bit. It also had the resources of the George Lucas factory behind it and, you know, actual money. A triumph of artisanal effects in the grand tradition of Ray Harryhausen it isn’t. And that’s a tradition whose de facto elevation over modern CGI needs to be re-examined.

A typical take on the evolution of special effects includes at least some of the following information: that for decades, the only “personal” form of effects were manifested in the stop-motion creations of animators like Willis O’Brien (who gave us the original King Kong) and Harryhausen, with more anonymous, yeomen work done by the men who refined tricks like matte painting.

Production design, too, could be a division of the special effects department. When every resource we now take for granted (like, say, color) was in its infancy, a man like William Cameron Menzies — technical genius, really bad director — could practically have the keys to the kingdom handed to him.

What CGI accomplished, for better or worse, was removing effects from the realm of the all-knowing wizards and slowly professionalizing the field into one requiring increasing amounts of manpower and raw resources. It’s no coincidence that there are no grand names of CGI that have percolated down into the fanboy consciousness as auteurs of their realm.

But this doesn’t mean you need to sneer at CGI in and of itself. If you wish to see those imperfections so lovingly cited by stop-motion fans as a sign of “personality,” just wait ten years and revisit a movie whose CG effects were once cutting-edge, like “Jumanji,” below.

More to the point, CGI’s a tool like any other, and it can be as quirky as need be (take “Mars Attacks!” or “Speed Racer”), and its professionalization gives a determined director the keys rather than placing him at the whims of one master of the practical effects realm who knows all the answers. Just like everything else, it’s inherently neither good nor evil.

[Photos: “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Paramount, 1981; “King Kong,” Turner Home Entertainment, 1933]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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