A guide to visual effects in movies.

Discover how filmmakers use computer-generated imagery to create breathtaking visual effects shots.

Capturing the visual effects of an astronaut walking on a barren planet and the final result

Visual effects make the impossible possible.

Filmmaking is a much larger process than just shooting a movie. Many Hollywood blockbusters spend months or even years in pre-production and post-production while an array of animators, motion capture artists, and computer graphics specialists design vibrant alien worlds and unbelievable imagery to add to the live-action footage.

       

Visual effects (or VFX) can feel like magic. But as director and visual effects artist Darion D’Anjou explains, with the right tools and training, any filmmaker can create impressive digitally enhanced imagery.

 

VFX is part of Hollywood history.

“Visual effects is one of those pieces of technology that keeps evolving,” D’Anjou says. “In the 1930s and ’40s, they would scratch or draw on the actual film. Technically, that’s visual effects because you’re adding something to the image that wasn’t in front of the camera. Now, because of visual effects, we can have things that fly, we can have things that melt or dissolve, we can have things that do anything we can imagine.”

Post-production editors discuss the visual effects they want to add to the film

While special effects such as pyrotechnics are executed live on set, visual effects are added in post-production. In fact, modern feature films often have so many complex digitally created environments and effects that VFX artists begin creating them long before the start of principal photography in a process called pre-visualization.

       

Star Wars movies kind of invented pre-visualization, because they have so many complex things going on,” D’Anjou explains. “And what’s happening now with big movies is they are essentially making the whole story ahead of time. They’re making all the animations and graphics, and they even know where the actors need to stand when they film. So sometimes we’re just plugging the actors into the visual effects now.”

       

LED walls are a visual effects revolution.

For decades, filmmakers have filmed actors in front of green screens or blue screens to add visual effects in post-production. But with the rise of pre-visualization and advancements in video technology, some productions have begun using LED walls to bring visual effects onto the set.

       

“Let’s say we’ve got Matt Damon and we want to shoot him on an alien planet,” D’Anjou says. “Typically, we would have shot Matt Damon in front of a green screen, and then in post, we would add the alien planet. Now we’re creating the alien planet, putting it on the LED wall, and filming him in front of it. And once it goes into the camera, we’re done. We don’t have to do anything on the back end because the planet is already on the LED screen.” 

 

Visual effects take many forms.

While there’s no limit to what visual effects work can do, most effects can be broken down into three categories: 

Example of adding different background color and texture visual effects to a shot

Computer-generated imagery (CGI)

Any digitally created visual effect is considered CGI, whether it’s a two-dimensional background image of a futuristic city or a full 3D model of a spaceship flying through the frame. CGI can be used for subtler purposes as well, such as making a crowd of background actors look larger, or de-aging an actor, like Will Smith in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man.

 

Compositing

Compositing is the act of combining visual elements from two different sources so it looks like they’re in the same place. To use this process it’s best to film actors in front of a green screen, which can be easily replaced with whatever background you want to add to the scene.

Using a motion capture visual effects editor to animate a 3D model

Motion capture

Motion capture, or mocap, is the process of digitally recording an actor wearing a special suit outfitted with markers that track their movements, then using that data to construct an animated 3D model. On Disney’s The Mandalorian, stunt performers wear mocap suits to act out the fight scenes, which are then digitally rendered so stunt coordinators can make changes if necessary. 

 

Visual effects are a team effort.

It takes a village to create compelling visual effects. A typical VFX team brings together specialists with a wide variety of artistic backgrounds, including: 

 

  • Modelers, who use software like Adobe Substance 3D to create 3D models, known as assets
     
  • Texture artists, who digitally paint assets to make them look realistic and lifelike 
     
  • Lighters, who ensure assets are properly lit by positioning computer-generated lights around them
     
  • Animators, who make assets move
     
  • FX artists, who create complex and dynamic simulations of the real world, like water or an explosion
     
  • Compositors, who bring all the digital effects together and place them in the scene with the actors
A person applying visual effects using Adobe After Effects

How to become a VFX artist.

“There are a million different paths if you want to get into visual effects,” D’Anjou says. “One is art school. If there was one thing I could redo, I would go to a formal art school and just get all the formal training. Because in the end, visual effects is art.”

       

“Another path is computer programming. If you think about crowd simulations in a movie like World War Z, where there are thousands of zombies, no artist is going to sit there and tell every zombie what to do. That’s all programming.”

       

Whether you’re looking for a job at industry leaders like Industrial Light & Magic, Weta, or Digital Domain, or just want to add a little digital pizzazz to your next movie, the best first step is to start experimenting.

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