The Basics of VFX

The other day I stood in front of a screen at the cinema while waiting for a friend, on which a bunch of trailers were playing. New York is getting blown up again, some ghost sailors hope to catch a quirky pirate dead or alive and humans are trying to save the world against robot juggernauts.

As people were coming out of different screenings, I couldn’t help but overhear some typical comments: “Man, those special effects were so sick!”. It seems like films are over-saturated with visual effects nowadays (there’s actually a difference between the terms “visual effects” and “special effects”, more on that later).

But hang on a second. There are old films with visual effects, so these aren’t anything new. Surely the technology back in the day wasn’t as advanced as it is today, so how did they do it? And how do they do it nowadays anyway? And where? By whom? Could I maybe do it too? What, for a living? For real?

Let’s start by explaining that difference between the terms “visual effects” (VFX) and “special effects”, commonly referred to as “practical effects”. Generally, practical effects are those which can be done while the scene is being captured. VFX are normally done in post-production and are those effects that would be impossible to achieve in the real world. Besides creating astonishing viewing experiences, this is one of the main three reasons why VFX are needed. The second sprouts when there could be a practical way of filming the scene required, but doing so might put someone at risk and the third has to do with cost effectiveness. Sometimes it is more practical to use VFX than to film a scene due to issues of scale, location or both, for example, when recreating period settings such as World War II or Victorian London.

While we are used to seeing all of those flashy, fancy VFX in action and fiction films, they are actually utilised in almost every film precisely for the reasons just mentioned above. Some argue that these are the type of VFX that are most impressive when they are integrated seamlessly and are unnoticeable by the audience. A glass breaking, a gunshot or even a car or a crowd are examples of this.

So, how are they done?

The software primarily used for VFX is called Nuke. As an outsider not knowing anything about VFX, I was one to believe that these were done in Adobe After Effects, however Nuke is the industry-standard software for films. While After Effects is also industry-standard, it is predominantly used to create motion graphics, another term not to be confused with VFX. The main difference is that After Effects is layer-based, while Nuke is node-based, which makes it quicker to work. Nuke is also a bit more complicated to use and learn, but counts with more functionality than AE.

Another big part of VFX is CGI (computer-generated imagery), rendering and 3D animation, for which software such as Maya, Renderman or Houdini is used. Fun fact: they don’t use Windows nor MacOS in the industry, computers mostly run on Linux.

Who creates the VFX then?

On a global scale, most top VFX houses have their headquarters or branches in the US, the UK (mainly London), Canada (mainly Vancouver and Montréal) and India. In London specifically, most companies are based in Soho. There are also different ramifications within VFX, with companies that specialise in film and others in TV, commercials or animation. Some of the best known companies are MPC, Double Negative, Framestore, Milk and The Mill, to name a few.

Going into further detail, there are different steps in terms of a VFX workflow: move matching, rotoscoping, compositing, matte painting, lighting and rendering or texturing are just a few of these, which are normally tied-in to a role of the same name. There are additional roles, such as VFX Producer, VFX Supervisor or Technical Director. And of course, runner. It is worth noting that in bigger companies, some of these roles normally specialise in a very particular task, for example hair and fur in beasts, animals or people or fire and smoke, to mention a couple, whereas in smaller companies artists are faced with doing more versatile work.

Now, what do I need to get my foot in the door and how?

Learning to use the software is obviously a major requirement, however it is not so obvious that the ideal core skills to possess include a good understanding of mathematics, design, computer science and physics. This is because as long as you have this core knowledge, it can be easily applied later to any piece of software, no matter how software and technology evolves or changes. For anyone passionate about VFX looking to strengthen their skills, I would recommend reading (and owning) the book “The Art and Science of Digital Compositing” by Ron Brinkmann, often referred to as “the Bible of VFX”.

Another ability to have which is as important as any technical skill is teamwork. A single VFX project can last for a year, 18 months or even two years. Therefore, it is very important to be a good teamplayer who is friendly and easy-going. Since projects can get very stressful, it is essential to be pleasant to deal with and able to produce quality work under pressure.

As for how to get your foot in the door, there are several alternatives. If you don’t have a lot of experience (you should still have a presentable showreel), you can try applying for a runner position at a company. This is one the lowest positions in film and you have to be prepared to make lots of tea and coffee for a long time. However, the bright side is that you will likely find yourself amongst talented artists and sooner or later, if you work hard and demonstrate interest and initiative, you’ll end up being given tasks actually related to your field of work.

Another alternative to consider are the training schemes that different companies run, such as MPC Academy or Envy Academy. Double Negative have their own Graduate Trainee Scheme or Framestore have several courses and training programmes, to name a few.

If you have a bit more experience and feel confident about your skills, you can try applying to junior positions which are opening up regularly, as companies are always on the lookout for new talent.

Last but not least, freelancing is another alternative, as companies often hire people for specific tasks on a project-to-project basis.

The VFX industry is a very exciting one, with lots of new potential coming its way thanks to the ever-developing advancements in VR, 360 cameras, virtual cameras and tools such as Lytro. It is also diversifying into areas outside of film, adapting previsualisations or simulations normally run in pre-production stages to apply them for design purposes, in industries as diverse as automotive, jewellery, construction or medical.

However, the industry might not be suitable for everyone. Working under stressful circumstances, long hours or mobility can be a constant, which can translate into a poor social or family life. But if you have the drive and passion to pursue a career in this industry, finding yourself working in a top-tier budget film or the next Hollywood blockbuster is a very real and stimulating possibility.