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What is VFX? | Creating Visual Effects to Elevate Your Video

Are you scouring the internet wondering, “What is VFX?” If you’re pondering whether you should use SFX or VFX in your next film, then this article will give you the perfect baseline understanding of VFX. This way, you can use it in your films and have a starting place to learn yourself. To start, VFX is shorthand for visual effects, not to be mistaken for SFX which means special effects.

With special effects, everything is practical on set. An actor breaks a bottle or does a stunt; certain barrels are safely rigged to explode. Visual effects, on the other hand, are created digitally in the post-production stage, relying heavily on CG and motion graphics artists. Visual effects can also be used to augment a scene, so if you’re using Peerspace to uncover one of thousands of unique spaces in hundreds of cities to shoot your film, then VFX can help make the space match the vision in your head.

What is VFX used for in film?

Almost all of your favorite films use some kind of VFX. In any Star Wars film since The Phantom Menace, every space battle is entirely VFX. Those films use 3D models and animation to depict epic conflicts in space that are entirely computer generated. In the original Star Wars trilogy, many of the space clashes and the iconic battle at Hoth were actually shot practically using small models of the ships and the battlefield. The original trilogy’s effects would qualify under special effects, and that’s why the films were so revolutionary at the time.

Visual effects are also used in much more subtle ways in film meant to go completely unnoticed. In The Irishman, Martin Scorsese used visual effects to digitally make Robert De Niro look like his younger self in a scene that called for it. These days, it’s a better option to digitally replace him for that scene, rather than to cast another actor to look like him but younger. This illustrates both the power — and the flexibility — of modern visual effects in film.

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Basic uses for VFX

What is VFX used for at the most basic level? Let’s look at two examples of very simple motion tracking and an easy effect to augment a scene.

Wire removal

Anytime you see an explosion that knocks a character back or sends them flying through the air, there are other forces at play. Explosive shockwaves even from the largest explosives used on set are not strong enough to throw a person around like that. As a general rule, if the shockwave is strong enough to knock you over, you’d probably be killed in the blast. However, we’ve been trained to see people getting knocked around by shockwaves as normal.

Action film explosions are much more exciting when it knocks the hero off his feet. If the blast itself isn’t moving the character, then what is? The actor is attached to a wire. That wire is attached to a pulley system manned by someone else on set. When the explosion happens, they pull the actor or stunt double through the air. This presents one problem: there’s a wire in the shot. This is why wire removal is an incredibly common need for VFX.

Even if every stunt and action in a scene is done practically, wire removal by a VFX artist may still be needed. It’s simple to do and involves selecting points for the beginning and the end of the wire, tracking those points over time, then applying the “wire removal” effect within your compositor of choice. This is a great example of how special effects and visual effects teams work together to produce a final image on screen that serves the script and feels as real as possible.

Lightsabers

If you’re a fan of Star Wars, you probably love every minute of lightsaber dueling throughout the films. Something about the lightsaber is foreign, futuristic, but still feels classic. That combination makes it a joy to watch on screen. You may be surprised to find out that a lightsaber effect is actually very easy to create in a program like Adobe After Effects.

Much like wire removal, you start by tracking points throughout a scene that will make up the beginning and end points of the blade. Then between those two points, you create a white beam with a colored glow around it. It’s simple and you can track a lightsaber in a shot in a matter of minutes.

Advanced uses for VFX

What is VFX used for at a more advanced level? To answer that, we’ll need to discuss the most complicated piece of visual effects, which is CGI, or computer-generated imagery.

CGI uses 3D models created by CG artists of digital objects with hyper-realistic detail. Those models are then rigged by a rigging artist. The rigging stage is essentially giving the model a skeleton that can move around; it creates multiple points in the body that pivot and behave just like the joints in a real body. The rigged model then goes to an animator, who moves the model in realistic ways throughout a scene.

Once the animation itself is rendered, one of two things will happen. If the scene is entirely CGI, the shot is done. If there is any real footage element, whether that’s a background or a character placed inside a spaceship, that animation goes to a compositor. The compositor’s job is to marry CGI elements with filmed elements to create a seamless image that feels real. Compositors are masters of techniques like masking, motion tracking, and projection mapping. They also boast a host of other skills that marry footage and 3D together for our favorite films.

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Start learning VFX

If you want to start learning VFX, you have two choices. The first choice is to start with footage, then add visual effects like lightsabers or wire removal. The second is to learn CGI from the ground up, then learn compositing later on. We’ll compare the two approaches below.

Start with footage

If you’re going to start by adding effects to footage, you should immediately download After Effects, come up with a concept, and get to work. A great place to start learning VFX with After Effects is by using something like a lightsaber or wire removal. There are plenty of awesome tutorials on YouTube, so start there and get to work.

Learn CGI

If you’re going to dive straight into CGI, you should follow a very simple step-by-step process. First, download Blender for free. It is open source, incredibly powerful, and has been used by big studios to make magical films. When you have Blender, use YouTube tutorials to start learning how to model in 3D.

From there, rig your models. When you’ve rigged your models, you can start learning to animate. Once your shots are animated, you can render them out and edit them in a software like Adobe Premiere, or start to learn compositing in After Effects.

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