Discover how to use special effects and visual effects.

Explore four different ways SFX and VFX can enhance a movie — and work together for even better results.  

Example of a film capture without effects applied and with effects in place

Add magic to movies with special effects and visual effects.

There’s more to filmmaking than dazzling visuals and digital effects, but it’s hard to imagine watching a Star Wars movie without them. From old-school practical effects like matte paintings and prosthetic makeup to the latest special effects (SFX) and visual effects (VFX), filmmakers have more tools at their disposal than ever to make blockbuster visions become reality. 

 

What is a special effect? 

“Special effects are the effects we do on set, or ‘in-camera,’” director and cinematographer Steven Bernstein explains. Whenever you change the live-action conditions on set so that the camera records something that wouldn’t have happened naturally, that’s a special effect. 

 

Four examples of special effects shots: 

 

  1. Spraying hoses into the air to make it look like it’s raining in a scene.
     
  2. Overcranking your camera by increasing its frame rate so what you’re filming appears to be in slow motion. 
     
  3. Having actors fire guns loaded with blank cartridges, which simulate the effect of a gunshot.
     
  4. Using pyrotechnics to simulate an explosion in a battle scene. 

 

Safety should always be a director’s first priority. “If you don’t have specialists on set who are trained to assure the safety of your crew — armorers who handle the guns, people who do pyrotechnics to handle the flames, specialists for explosions — it’s best not to do on-set effects,” Bernstein says. “We have had deaths on film shoots because people thought they could figure it out as they went along. You don’t want to endanger your cast.”

 

What is a visual effect?

“Visual effects, generally, are things we do in post-production,” Bernstein explains. Advancements in computer-generated imagery (CGI) make it possible to put your characters in danger on screen while keeping your actors out of harm’s way on set. And many of these visual effects can be created using popular video effects and motion graphics programs like Adobe After Effects.

Video by Steven Bernstein

Some ways you can use visual effects to recreate the four special effects shots listed above: 

 

  1. Applying a rain effect to make it look like it’s raining in a scene.
     
  2. Adjusting the frame rate of your footage to make it slower or faster.
     
  3. Adding muzzle flashes in front of actors’ guns to make it look like they’re firing. 
     
  4. Editing a computer-generated explosion into the background of a battle scene.

 

Rotoscope it out.

Visual effects don’t always have to be flashy. Often they’re used to hide things the director doesn’t want the audience to see, like pieces of film equipment or anachronistic details like an airplane flying over a scene set in the 1800s. 

 

“Very often you hear the term ‘We can fix it in post.’ And this is what we’re referring to: rotoscoping. Going back in and painting things out, frame by frame,” Bernstein says. “All the things you can do with Photoshop, you can do with visual effects. Although it’s time consuming, it’s very effective.” 

 

If you’re about to film in a location where you know you’ll have to rotoscope some things out later, position your camera to shoot footage of the empty background immediately before filming the scene. “If you’ve got that background shot and the camera hasn’t moved, it’s the easiest thing in the world to remove anything from that scene, because it’s like superimposition,” says Bernstein. “You just take the background and drop it over the thing that you don’t want.”

 

How special effects and visual effects work together. 

Special effects and visual effects aren’t mutually exclusive. “There’s some overlap, because we have to prepare for visual effects on set, and very often special effects tie into visual effects. They work together to create the illusion, each serving the other,” explains Bernstein.

Example of special and visual effects working together to produce the ideal visual result

How special and visual effects can combine to create even more convincing versions of these four effects shots:

 

  1. Spraying water on the ground before shooting a scene, then applying a rain effect in post-production.
     
  2. Overcranking your camera to shoot slow-motion footage, and then adding slow-moving particles drifting in the background. 
     
  3. Using smaller, safer blanks on set and digitally enhancing the muzzle flashes to look larger on-screen. 
     
  4. Filming a battle scene against a green screen, and then compositing a computer animation of an exploding spaceship into the background on the green screen. 

 

Use a green screen to enhance your effects.

If you know you’re going to add visual effects to a scene you’re filming, shooting against a green screen is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to ensure that your VFX look as convincing as possible. Green is an easy color for an effects program to detect and replace with whatever CGI backdrop you want to add, using a process called chroma key

 

“White light isn’t a color unto itself— it’s a combination of the colors red, blue, and green in equal component parts. So when you have a pure, chroma green, you can electronically separate that completely,” Bernstein explains. “But you want to make sure that green screen is the only green on your set. If you put a green screen up in a forest which has lots of green, when you go to chroma key it, it’ll key all over those trees as well. So in a wooded area with lots of green, you’d just use a blue screen instead.” 

 

You don’t need to be an Oscar-winning effects artist to create breathtaking images for your next short or feature film. Explore the ways Adobe After Effects can enhance your movie with 3D animation, motion capture, and a host of other tools that blur the line between fantasy and real life. 

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