What is VFX? A Beginner’s Guide

Video Tutorials
May 17, 2022

What is VFX? A Beginner’s Guide

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Thanks to the magic of Hollywood movies, video games, and even commercials, we have all traveled to far-flung imaginary worlds and seen creatures that have never existed. This is all made possible through visual effects or VFX. Beyond creating fantasy worlds, VFX can help make the impossible possible. So, what is VFX?

Put simply, VFX is a way to add visual elements to moving media that does not happen during live-action filming. Filmmakers use VFX software to add computer-generated imagery (CGI) and other effects.

Introduction to Visual Effects: What Is VFX?

Visual effects (VFX) are any special effects added to a film using a computer. VFX typically combines live-action footage and manipulated or enhanced imagery to create realistic environments and characters. The main goal of VFX is to take something fake and make it look real, or at least believable. Visual effects can be practical as well. Such as explosions captured on-set during a car chase.

Filmmakers have been using computers to improve movie effects since the 1982 movie Tron. This technology improved dramatically in the 1990s with movies like Jurassic Park and Toy Story.

VFX is used to create environments or characters that do not exist on set or to create scenes that are too dangerous to shoot with real people. Film directors and cinematographers work with VFX directors to decide which scenes require visual effects.

Main types of VFX:

·   CGI: Computer generated imagery is the most ubiquitous form of VFX. CGI is made completely with VFX software and does not include any real-world footage or manipulation. Pixar has made a name for itself by producing animated films that are completely computer generated, like the Toy Story franchise and Finding Nemo. CGI is created using software, but it isn’t only for animated films. Marvel has CGI elements which are then composited into the video. 

·   Compositing: Compositing is the process of combining multiple images into one. One of the most common compositing techniques is filming with green screens. This is used in all Marvel movies. The actors film their sequences in costume with a green screen behind them. In editing, the green screen is keyed out, and the background, effects, and additional characters are added in with computers.

·   Motion capture: Motion capture, or mocap, tries to take the authenticity of a live performance and turn it into a more realistic digital sequence. Actors typically perform their scenes on a mocap stage while wearing mocap suits that are covered in tiny dots. The advanced camera systems record those moving dots and turn it into data. VFX artists then use that data to generate believable digital characters. A good example of this is the actor Andy Serkis as Caesar in Planet of the Apes or Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Download this Tree Character Awakens in Majestic Canyon visual effect

How Do VFX Differ from Special Effects?

Special effects have been used in images for over 150 years. Oscar Rejlander created the world’s first special effect in 1857. He combined different parts of 32 negatives to create one single image titled “Two Ways of Life (Hope in Repentance).”

The first motion picture special effect was produced by Alfred Clark in 1895 for “The Execution of Mary Stuart.” The actors were reenacting the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. An actor dressed as Mary laid her head down on the chopping block. Then, the camera stopped, all the actors froze, and Mary was replaced with a dummy. The camera started again, and the executioner brought down his axe to chop off the dummy’s head. Practical special effects like this would dominate the film industry for the next 100 years.

While many people consider VFX as a form of special effects, there is a big difference between traditional special effects (SFX) and VFX. Here are a few key differences between VFX and special effects.

Visual Effects Special Effects
VFX uses a computer to create effects. SFX uses accessible elements like prosthetic makeup and pyrotechnics.
Visual effects are realized in post-production. Special effects are recorded live on set.
VFX are digital effects that improve the quality of the visual storytelling. SFX are practical effects that work with the story as the plot progresses.
Visual effects enhance, create, or manipulate images for film and other types of media. Special effects are used on-location and rely on models, animatronics, and makeup.
Produce elements, like fire and rain, digitally. Use practical elements, such as fire, fake rain, and snow machines.
Because visual effects are made using computers and skilled designers, they are usually more expensive and take extensive amounts of time and effort to produce. Special effects tend to be less expensive, faster, and easier to produce.
Can be more affordable for large-scale sets, such as adding snow to a mountain landscape. Special effects have limitations in regard to expenses, when it comes to
large-scale scenes like grand landscapes.
VFX can look “fake” if not done well. Special effects typically look realistic because they are usually “real” and recorded as they happen.
Gives filmmakers more control over on-set conditions, like wind and smoke. Some practical effects, like smoke, may not “behave” the way a director wants.
VFX explosions and fires are safer for actors and crews. Practical effects, like explosions and fire, can potentially be dangerous for actors and film crews.
VFX can add extra body elements to actors, without restricting their movements or acting. Practical effects like prosthetics can be cumbersome and difficult to act in.
Visual effects can be beneficial when scenes require a large number of actors, like the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings. It can be more cost effective and easier to control digital background characters. In large-scale scenes, practical effects, like costumes and prosthetics are reserved for main characters to help keep down costs.
VFX can use rotoscoping which is cutting out on-screen elements frame by frame and hiding them or moving them somewhere else. This is a much more effective and less time-intensive method than manually drawing the images. Rotoscoping was originally developed as an animation technique where animators would trace images frame by frame from a motion picture to create a new effect.


Download this clip of a Dragon Flying Towards Camera

On today’s movie sets, cinematographers rely on both VFX and SFX. There might be instances where you use SFX rain in the foreground with the actors, but the wide shots are filled with VFX rain in the background. Another example would be if a character is using a flamethrower. They could hold the flamethrower and the actual flames are added in using VFX.

Many directors prefer to use special effects as much as possible to give scenes a more authentic feel – viewers can see actors reacting to the heat of an explosion and the intensity of a stunt. While other directors prefer the control that VFX gives them and getting the exact shot that they imagine.

Most movies typically use visual effects and special effects simultaneously. In Disney’s 2019 adaptation of Dumbo, the visual effects crew first created photorealistic 3D clay models of Dumbo the elephant. These physical models were then digitally scanned into a computer and rendered for animation. They even used life-size physical models of Dumbo for the actors to sit on and interact with to make sure they got the visual effects scaling correct.

Examples of visual effects: Examples of special effects:
Slow motion bullets in The Matrix. Zombie makeup in The Walking Dead.
Flying dragons in Game of Thrones. Explosions in most action movies.
The Hulk in any Marvel movie. Gunshot wounds and blood.
The tiger in Life of Pi. Yoda in the first Star Wars movies.
The liquid metal terminator in Terminator 2. Miniature sets and props.
The car chase scene in Nightcrawler uses rotoscoping and color correction. Matte painting backgrounds in The Wizard of Oz.
Neighborhood crime scene in Zodiac. Stop motion in The Nightmare Before Christmas.


How Do I Create VFX?

While watching movies offers a lot of VFX inspiration, you can’t learn how to do it from the movies. There are numerous courses and online tools you can use to learn how to create VFX. Some universities even offer degree programs that specialize in VFX.

You can either create VFX from scratch or get a head start by using existing stock video.

From Scratch 

You will need some visual effects software to create VFX. While the best software is something you should pay for, there is free VFX software available. Having a good background in drawing, light composition, modeling, and photography can help you produce better VFX.

To create VFX from scratch, you will need to record your own footage. You can do this using a smartphone or other digital device. You will need to:

·   Make a VFX shot list: If you are creating a composite shot, think of each shot as another layer. Start with the background and work your way forward.

·   Choose your locations: Where is your video or film taking place? What considerations do you need to make specific to your location? Will you need film footage from multiple locations?

·   Match the lighting: If the lighting in your background footage does not match the lighting of your VFX, it will be instantly noticeable. Make sure the lighting matches across all your elements.

From Existing Stock Video

Starting with stock video is going to be a lot easier to work with. Some stock footage is created with VFX in mind. This should make it easier to create your composite footage and the end results will likely look cleaner.

With stock video footage, you can jump straight to the VFX stage. You will need to download the stock video to your editing software to get started.

Another alternative to using stock footage is filming your own videos and then adding stock visual effects, like snow or explosions.

Download this clip of group of diverse men developing modern visual effects for videogame

What Software Can I Use to Create VFX?

There are lots of video editing software programs available. If your goal is to create convincing VFX, you want a software that:

·   Can read alpha channel files

·   Has blending mode capabilities

·   Offers masking options

1. Adobe After Effects

Adobe After Effects is one of the most popular VFX software options available. It has hundreds of available effects that can be used to manipulate images and videos.

After Effects has a steep learning curve, which can lead to mistakes. However, learning and practice quickly make it easier.

To learn more about how to use After Effects to create stunning VFX, explore our AE tutorials and read through our beginner’s guide. Once you know the basics, test out your new skills on our After Effects Templates.

2. DaVinci Resolve

DaVinci Resolve is a powerful video editing program used by professionals and amateurs. It offers cutting, color grading, keyframing, and audio tools. The interface is well designed and includes a motion editing tool.

3. HitFilm Pro

This software offers a unique blend of visual effects, video editing, and 3D compositing in one product. It has a generally user-friendly design that makes it easier for beginners to start with.

4. Nuke

Nuke is a powerful video editing and VFX tool used by both professionals and beginners. It features over 200 nodes along with advanced compositing tools. Nuke also support leading industry technology like Open EXR.

5. Houdini

Houdini is one of the most advanced visual effects and video editing programs available. It features an advanced fluid dynamics system, expert tools for character animation, fast rendering times, and impressive fur and hair tools.

How Storyblocks Helps People Tell Better Stories

In today’s online world, video is king. YouTube is one of the most popular websites in the world, and social media platforms like Instagram are now prioritizing videos or reels over still images. Whether you consider yourself a social media star or a freelance video editor, being able to work with stock media can help you create more of what you love.

Storyblocks is the world’s first stock media subscription service offering video, audio, and images. We offer subscriptions with unlimited downloads instead of a pay-per-clip model. This gives you the freedom to create more content.

With a Storyblocks account, you can download watermarked previews to try in your projects before committing. You can even share content folders with your clients or team.Create your free account today and let Storyblocks unleash your potential.

Alyson Majikes

Senior SEO Specialist

Alyson is a Sr. SEO Specialist at Storyblocks with a focus on content. Outside of work you can catch her with her Pomeranian, Theo, or visiting local wineries and breweries.