Last Updated on January 19, 2023 by Neil Chase
VFX Meaning in Film: Visual Effects Guide for Beginners
Visual effects have become a significant part of films, TV series, commercials, and online videos. From blockbuster movies like Star Wars to online music videos, visual effects or VFX bring fantasy or realism to the audience.
Moreover, it’s a continuously thriving field, with the market predicting that the visual effects industry will continue to grow by around USD 18.02 million by 2028.
If you’re an aspiring filmmaker or VFX artist who wants to learn more about this growing creative industry, this guide provides the history, process, and other basics you need to explore VFX.
VFX, short for Visual Effects, refers to computer-generated effects and digital manipulation that help establish fantastical worlds and creatures, create impossible scenarios, and enhance imagery in film, television, and other visual mediums.
Visual effects artists use sophisticated VFX software to create 3D models, computer animation, matte painting, and composite videos.
Since it uses software to generate special effects, it takes place in post-production after production films the sequences. However, preparation can start as early as the pre-production process.
Aside from bringing stories to life, filmmakers also use VFX to film in safer and more controlled environments, as some stunts and locations are too dangerous to shoot for the crew and actors.
Moreover, VFX helps clean up production mistakes, such as hiding wires or cables from the production equipment, blurring certain people’s faces, or even erasing production staff members caught in the shot.
Whether it’s an obvious or subtle effect, VFX offers filmmakers a way to enhance and polish every shot in their movies.
In the 20th century, filmmakers started producing films with heavy VFX, such as King Kong and the Harry Potter series. However, VFX has been a part of the film industry starting from the 1900s.
After Louis Le Prince invented motion pictures in the 1900s, Georges Méliès began using stop-motion animation in 1902. Méliès also introduced the double exposure film technique.
Film historians consider Georges Méliès the “father of special effects” due to his many contributions to filmmaking.
After the first practical optical printer appeared in 1927, optical compositing enabled filmmakers to produce the illusion of depth in a 2D image, while pioneers such as Harold Lloyd and Cecile B. DeMille had already established forced perspective and superimposed imagery as viable techniques.
However, it was not until the ‘60s, a decade after the introduction of computer technology, that VFX started playing a more significant role in the industry. And when the ‘70s introduced digital technology, it paved the way for more realistic special effects.
Computer graphics, or CGI, became a staple in the VFX industry during this era. However, the industry further developed thanks to the invention of the digital camera.
This new technology resulted in a new type of visual effects called digital compositing, which combines digital image manipulation with traditional special effects.
Today, a filmmaker uses advanced VFX techniques, software, and equipment to generate a realistic and captivating motion picture for film, TV, ads, and videos.
Artists use sophisticated VFX software to produce the following different effects for various motion picture films.
Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is 3D graphics combined with live-action footage. VFX artists create and animate 3D models to produce realistic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and animated movies like Toy Story.
Artists generate CGI VFX using computer software. However, you can also combine it with other visual FX types to create a more realistic, fantastical, or aesthetic experience for your audience.
The film industry often uses CGI to create nonexistent characters, creatures, and locations or emphasize details or scenes that the crew can’t do with practical effects.
Compositing, also known as chroma keying, combines multiple images, videos, and visual elements from separate sources to create one coherent shot.
To achieve this effect, filmmakers must use a green or blue screen during production to help isolate the actors or objects in the shot. Artists will then replace the background using compositing and green screen software. This technique is called matte painting.
Matte paintings combine landscapes or backgrounds with live footage to show the illusion that the actors are in a specific setting. The Emerald City landscape in The Wizard of Oz is an iconic example of matte painting.
Among the other types of VFX, compositing costs most of a post-production’s budget due to the amount of time, effort, and talent to produce seamless and realistic shots.
Green screen VFX compositing is crucial for films to show that the characters are in specific locations with different camera angles, lighting conditions, etc.
Motion capture technology records a person moving in real time to produce realistic CGI. It works similarly to the rotoscoping technique.
It tracks the actor’s movement by using a camera and making the actor wear a motion-capture suit with special markers or sensors. The crew or artist then transfers these captured data to a 3D model.
Meanwhile, tracking the actor’s facial expressions is called performance capture.
Motion capture has been available since the 1980s but gained more popularity in the 2000s, thanks to movies like Beowulf, The Hulk, and James Cameron’s Avatar.
Today, its technology further developed as it uses advanced sensors, cameras, and software to capture more realistic and natural movements for film and 3D animations.
Let’s learn how VFX contributes to feature films.
Since a film is a visual medium, VFX enables filmmakers to enhance their story and allow audiences to immerse in the movie entirely.
For example, Inception by Christopher Nolan uses VFX to portray the story effectively while leaving the audience at the edge of their seats.
Overall, VFX can add more depth and engagement to your movie’s content.
VFX allows filmmakers to create environments, scenes, characters, or locations that can’t be found or done in the real world.
A perfect example is James Cameron’s Avatar. The movie uses various visual effects techniques, like motion capture and compositing, to present the incredible world of the Na’vi people.
With VFX, impossible settings, environments, and conditions can be possible.
VFX allows filmmakers to use practical special effects to create scenes and stunts that would otherwise be impossible, difficult, or risky.
For example, if an actor needs to jump off a building, post-production may use VFX to show the actor jumping off or falling.
However, many filmmakers also use subtle VFX to fix production errors, such as hiding a production staff member’s reflection, cleaning a dirty floor, changing the color of an item, blurring or changing brand names, and more.
Although you apply VFX during post-production, it’s still a crucial aspect in every stage of the filmmaking process. From concept to editing, here’s the standard VFX process.
The pre-production stage involves conceptualizing a film’s story and planning how to shoot it. It also includes drafting the scripts, planning the budgets, creating timelines, selecting the cast, and scouting for locations, among many others.
During the early stage of the process, a concept artist designs the overall look of the characters, settings, costumes, props, lighting, etc.
Then, a VFX artist sketches a storyboard or presents animatics to provide visual representations of certain scenes. The production crew may also need 3D artists to create a pre-vi or a 3D version of the scenes to help the crew plan camera angles and how to film the scene.
Aside from this, the crew also plans the production design during pre-production. The VFX team can collaborate with set designers to determine how to integrate the digital effects into the set and vice versa.
Also, the VFX supervisors collaborate with the director and cinematographer to plan which scenes require a green screen, tracking marker, and unique setup during film production.
After finalizing storyboards, concepts, and other pre-production plans, the next step is to shoot the scenes at a location or studio, if any.
During this stage, the production crew and actors may use motion capture, a green screen VFX, or other equipment while filming to prepare the shots for post-production.
While filming, the crew must consider the position, motion, scale, and orientation of the actors or objects in the shot to match the live footage with the VFX or animation during post-production. It’s especially crucial when using motion capture.
The post-production stage combines the shots, audio, VFX, other movie elements, and final touches before rendering the film.
At this stage, the VFX team uses match move and camera tracking to integrate 3D characters into live footage. This process is called ‘rotomation’, and it’s similar to motion tracking.
Before moving to animation, VFX artists and animators must have finalized their 3D models and rigging. After finishing these, artists can animate the characters, piece the different elements via compositing, and fix the scene’s lighting and color grading.
After approving all VFX shots, the team renders the final VFX output to prepare it for the film’s final editing and rendering.
Using VFX in a film presents advantages and limitations. Here are a few benefits and challenges if you want to use VFX for your movie.
Digital visual effects present convenient advantages over physical special effects. Consider these perks to maximize VFX in your movie or video.
Movies, TV series and videos must communicate their story or message clearly.
VFX can help add depth to a scene and enhance the story by visually communicating a character’s feelings or the film’s message.
Instead of narrating a scene, it’s best to convey the story visually for a more substantial impact.
VFX movies allow the audience to experience new worlds, see creatures like dinosaurs and stimulate their imagination. It enables filmmakers to create characters or scenarios that are difficult to produce in a live shoot.
Moreover, it’s more cost-effective for productions to use VFX for world-building, as it’ll take plenty of time and money to build elaborate sets that could break down during filming.
Overall, using VFX helps filmmakers expand their creativity and produce more fantastical scenarios.
Using VFX eliminates the risks of danger and harm when doing stunts, crashes, and explosions.
For example, the production team can use green screens in a studio to film dangerous shots like climbing a steep mountain or burning a forest.
Moreover, since weather conditions are unpredictable, the crew can use VFX to make a scene look like it’s raining, snowing, or daytime. They can film this in a controlled environment to make reshoots possible and prevent the crew and actors from getting injured or sick.
VFX doesn’t only include explosions, 3D models, and matte-painted landscapes. Many grounded Hollywood movies use VFX to clean up mistakes and polish shots.
Did a lapel mic accidentally become visible while an actor was speaking? Do you want to change a room’s wallpaper to make the room brighter? You can fix these issues with compositing.
Polishing shots with VFX is also a quick and convenient way to resolve errors instead of reshooting scenes. However, remember that you can’t fix everything with VFX, so ensure you get good shots during production to minimize mistakes.
Unfortunately, using visual effects also includes limitations.
While VFX can be a cost-effective way to enhance scenes, feature films with heavy effects like 3D models, animation, and complex compositing can cost millions.
Moreover, it takes time to develop the concepts, create the models or environments, animate characters, blend the effects with live-action footage, and render the effects.
Sometimes, practical effects are easier, cost less money and time, and offer a more realistic result.
If you have limited time and budget, adding heavy VFX to your film may be more of a downside than a perk.
The VFX can make or break your film. If a movie doesn’t have the budget for modern software and skilled VFX artists, the effects could look unrealistic and affect your film’s aesthetics and overall impact.
For example, imagine if Jurassic Park didn’t have the time, budget, software, and talent to create realistic-looking dinosaurs. The creatures may look less scary and could even distract viewers, preventing them from immersing in the movie.
Although anything is possible with VFX, it’s still limited to the production’s budget, equipment, time, and talent.
Since artists generate the effects using technology, VFX movies must rely on advanced equipment and software.
Unfortunately, these devices and software can be prone to glitches, bugs, and updates. Regardless if the crew knows how to use these technologies, unexpected technical issues can happen, resulting in delays and increased production costs.
Visual effects, shortened to VFX, is the art of creating illusions for better visual storytelling in film, television, commercial, and video.
Visual effects artists use advanced software, such as Adobe After Effects, Blender, and Autodesk Maya, to create 3D models and realistic environments, among other effects.
Special effects or SFX are physical or realistic effects that are shot in real time while filming a movie, television series, or video. These include practical effects like prosthetic makeup, controlled explosions, fake rain, fake wounds or gunshots, and more.
Meanwhile, visual effects or VFX use computer software to create realistic creatures, environments, and objects that may not exist in the real world. Examples include the spaceships in Star Wars and the dragons flying in Game of Thrones.
While both add effects to a film, the main difference between special effects and visual effects is when and how the effects are applied. SFX is done physically in real-time during production, while VFX mainly happens via computer software during post-production.
VFX examples include Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), green screen or blue screen, matte painting, compositing, 3D modeling, and 3D animation. Meanwhile, examples of visual effects techniques are bullet time (slow motion effect) and doubling (producing twins or clones).
CGI is an example of VFX. CGI, which stands for Computer-Generated Imagery, creates 3D computer graphics to produce characters, settings, and other special effects in film, television, animation, commercials, videos, and virtual reality. It’s also called 3D imaging or 3D rendering.
VFX enables filmmakers and creatives to create scenarios, characters, and environments that are difficult or impossible to achieve in the real world.
However, it’s not exclusive to action, fantasy, or blockbuster films, as many filmmakers use VFX in grounded films for subtle effects and to enhance the story.
As a result, VFX contributes to better visual storytelling and improves how the audience perceives your story.
Hopefully, this guide helped you better understand VFX, its pipeline, advantages, and limitations.
If you’re an aspiring filmmaker or VFX artist, learn and understand basic VFX software and the movie-making process to create visually appealing stories and succeed in the industry.
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Last Updated on January 19, 2023 by Neil Chase
I’m Neil Chase, and I’m a story and writing coach, award-winning screenwriter, and author of the horror-western novel, Iron Dogs.
I believe that all writers have the potential to create great work. My passion is helping writers find their voice and develop their skills so that they can create stories that are entertaining and meaningful. If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, I’m here to help!