We all know that a camera (and a little bit of creativity) can go a long way when it comes to producing a standout project. But try as you may, those two assets alone can’t help you change the laws of physics or turn a gray sky blue. That’s where visual effects (VFX) come into play.
VFX has become very popular in film and television throughout recent years because it gives filmmakers even more creativity. Today, almost any type of production—whether it be an action-packed drama or a romantic comedy—features some kind of visual effect. It’s an essential component of producing a film project, which is why filmmakers should be familiar with the term. Here’s everything you need to know about the ins and outs of VFX.
“House of the Dragon” Credit: Ollie Upton/HBO
Visual effects (or VFX) are computer-generated or manipulated imagery blended with live-action footage for the purpose of enhancing reality onscreen. The sky’s the limit when you add effects to your project, and if you have a vision that can’t come to fruition without them, investing in the tools to produce digital effects can help you make it big in the industry. Think of the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” or the Na’vi species in “Avatar.”
Projects use VFX to bring the unimaginable to life—or at least to the big screen. While costumes, prosthetics, and set designs are important for creating a film’s environment, VFX lets filmmakers take their scenes to another level. Limits can be broken with VFX, creating a filmic ending that leaves viewers wanting more.
While studios such as Pixar and DreamWorks employ hundreds of skilled digital effects specialists to make magic in the movies, even the most amateur of filmmakers can add effects to their projects—so long as they have access to software such as Adobe After Effects or Corel MotionStudio 3D.
“Black Adam” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Visual effects and special effects are both used to heighten and enhance reality onscreen, but the key difference is when they come into place. Special effects happen on set—this can mean anything from the SFX makeup on an actor to blood-filled squibs to an actual explosion. Visual effects, on the other hand, are applied in postproduction using digital means.
“She-Hulk” Courtesy Disney+
If you’re thinking about adding effects to your work and don’t know where to begin, here are a few types of basic effects to consider.
Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is any visual effect created using computer software. In its earliest stages, the term mostly referred to the creation of two-dimensional images onscreen, such as text, backdrops, and static objects. Now, CGI is mostly used to create or enhance entirely three-dimensional environments, characters, and elements that aren't physically on set. On large-scale projects, CGI can serve several purposes. During preproduction, CGI artists can create an animated 3D model of a scene—also known as a “previsualization,” or “pre-viz”—to give the filmmakers an idea of how to set up and alter shots. That same process can also be applied to creating the scenes themselves; modern-day CGI has advanced to the point where entire scenes, set pieces, and sequences are put together by VFX artists working with algorithms and computers.
Compositing refers to any time two or more images are combined to give the appearance of one shot. The most widely used form of compositing in filmmaking is chroma key compositing, more commonly known as a “green screen.” This VFX process starts with placing actors and props in front of a green (or occasionally blue) surface. Then, in postproduction, VFX artists tweak that solid color until it becomes transparent, at which point the background can be filled in with whatever secondary footage the filmmaker wants. A green screen can be used for something as small as placing a phone conversation in a different setting to the big bombastic action scenes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In its original form, matte painting was a special effect that involved shooting against actual painted backdrops on glass panels to give the appearance of a much more expansive set. In modern filmmaking, matte paintings are closer to a form of compositing: An artist will digitally paint a background, in which actors and objects are inserted later. “Game of Thrones” often used digital matte paintings to create its large-scale fantasy settings.
An advancement of CGI, motion capture technology—often referred to simply as “mo-cap”—tracks an actor’s facial expressions and movements so that VFX artists can transpose animated elements over them. Motion capture requires the actor to wear several key pieces of technology: a suit covered in sensors that captures the weight, movement, and physicality of their body, and a head-mounted camera that captures their facial expressions. All of this data is compiled into usable software for the VFX team to then craft into a digitally created character. Actor Andy Serkis pioneered mo-cap through the digitally rendered Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which opened the door for the technology to evolve and actors to bring fully realized performances to CGI characters.