The Value of Visual Effects (VFX)

Importance of Visual Effects
Importance of Visual Effects

Table of contents

There are often discussions about the costs of visual effects. But for now, let’s take a look at something seldom discussed and that’s the value of visual effects.

What are the benefits of visual effects?

Storytelling freedom

Freedom for filmmakers, writers, and directors to tell any story they like.  Humans have been telling stories since communication made it possible. Verbal and written storytelling can and does cover everything imaginable. A writer has full freedom to do anything including having their main character turn into a giant cockroach. Myths from around the world describe actions and creatures that don’t exist in real life. Even the Bible has several stories that would be difficult to realize beyond the written word and paintings.

The various mediums of storytelling all have their place and good stories are tailor-made for each medium. Converting a novel to a film script takes specific writing skills to boil the essence down to 2 hours. It also means that writer descriptions that would form images in the reader’s mind now need to be generated in photographic reality for the movie viewer.

Visual effects

Visual effects have been used in films almost from the beginning of movies. Méliès used visual effects extensively in the early 1900s. (More info on Méliès) Since that time visual effects have been used frequently and not just for special purposes. Some movies used matte paintings to add ceilings that were non-existent on the sets. Visual effects continued to evolve and provide sights not viable to film. Their style tended to be in keeping with the film styles of the day (shooting outdoor scenes on sets, rear projection, etc). But visual effects were not without their limits. Camera moves and other restrictions were simply due to the limits of the technology at that time.

With the advent of digital and computer graphics as tools for visual effects, artists are now able to have full control over their images in a way not possible before. These are in addition to their toolbox of previous techniques including models and miniatures when desired.

Almost all films coming out of Hollywood use visual effects to some extent and even many independent films have visual effects. Keep in mind that visual effects are not just for science fiction and fantasy films. They can be used extensively in period films and even in present-day comedies. FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT used visual effects. WAR HORSE used visual effects extensively including some of the field shots, leaping horses, etc. FOREST GUMP showed an actor missing a leg.

Visual effects cover such things as:

  • Creating entirely virtual shots
  • Changing the background
  • Creating the background
  • Adding actors, characters or creatures
  • Changing actors
  • Adding objects or props
  • Removing objects
  • Obscuring objects
  • Specialized speed changes
  • Fixing problems on the set, adding eye effects, removing wig netting, etc.

The visual effects team works closely not only with the director but also with the cinematographer. Working with the production designer we can expand the sets that are built or build sets that would be impossible to build for real. Working with the stunt team we can remove their rigs (car ramps, wires), help to provide the visuals needed while trying to maintain reasonable safety, and can extend or create a stunt if it’s not possible. Working with the special effects* team we can hide their rigs if required and expand and enhance what they’re able to provide. Working with the wardrobe department we can expand the capabilities of their costumes when required (IRON MAN, BLACK SWAN, etc) Each of these departments is very helpful in providing visual effects with what we require to get the best material.

Visual effects are normally focused on the augmentation or modification of live-action but visual effects artists and tools are also used for:

  • Computer graphics animated films (Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony Animation, etc)
  • Video games
  • Previsualization
  • 2D to 3D conversion
  • Titles
  • Logos
  • Special venues and multimedia (in addition of course to films, television, and commercials)

Now to those of you who may hate visual effects or computer graphics keep in mind you’ve already seen an incredible number of visual effects shots and never even noticed. Much of the work done is not over-the-top theatrics. In many cases, it’s to allow productions the option of shooting something elsewhere or to fix problems on the set (boom mics, makeup, etc). Even television shows like Ugly Betty did a couple of years with green screens to place the characters in New York. Unlikely that most viewers even noticed.

Next time you watch a period film consider that many of the buildings you see may not exist or may be currently covered in tv satellite dishes. The bay you see in the background filled with ships was likely added.

Visual effects artists and craftspeople have been developing and refining their tools for decades. Digital Intermediates (DI) is used for color correcting films. These and many of the digital tools that film productions use daily were pioneered by visual effect artists.

So we are now at a point where just about anything that can be imagined can be created on the screen and look good. Realistic when required or fantastical when required depending on the production.

When visual effects don’t look good these days it’s likely:

  • Too little time (changes or additions to visual effects from the director or studio can happen up to the final week of work). This means there’s no final polish or in many cases not even a chance to do a good take. And these days many productions start with too little time, to begin with.
  • Selecting a visual effects company or people that may not be up to the task or lack experience with specific aspects.
  • Poor shot design
  • Poor creature design
  • Not being able to shoot the required elements as planned
  • Not enough time on set to gather necessary images and data

Freedom

In the end, studios no longer have to leave scripts on the shelf for years because they’re not doable (DRAGONHEART, WATCHMEN, BENJAMIN BUTTON, LORD OF THE RINGS, etc). Directors and writers have complete freedom to bring their imagination to the screen and to tell just about any story in the manner they wish to. At least as far as visual effects are concerned.

The amount of control and freedom for a director is almost unlimited. That along with the fact many movies are concerned with pushing the envelope creates some sequences where the believability is pushed too far. Where the onslaught of in-your-face imagery causes audience overload or eye-rolling. This happens with stunts and special effects when they are pushed too far as well and the audience says ’oh come on.

Box-office

In addition to allowing filmmakers freedom of story and flexibility to change or modify scenes, visual effects certainly help the studio’s bottom line. The film is a visual medium that can be shown and appreciated all over the world. Visual effects can provide unique worlds, views, and characters that ignite the imagination of those that see them. They can provide the spectacle that goes with specific types of stories.

If you look at the top box-office list of 25 or 50 films you’ll notice almost all of the required visual effects and in many cases, they are full of visual effects.

Hard to find non-visual effects films, especially in the world list.

Studios choose visual effects-heavy films as tent pole films because they’re profitable. With some of the top films earning over a billion dollars the total of successful films in which visual effects played a significant role is staggering.

[Note that I’m not saying all films need visual effects or that the film world revolves around visual effects. I’m a fan of well-told stories of all types. I’m simply documenting the current state of visual effects and what the potential is. Visual effects do not make a story better or worse, just that they allow bringing certain types of stories to the movies.]

A world without Visual Effects

Try to imagine many of the top films without visual effects. STAR WARS without space, spaceships, lasers. TRANSFORMERS without the Transformers. The MATRIX without bullet time and impossible physics. AVATAR without its world, without its plants, creatures, and Na ‘vi. TITANIC without the water and the entire ship. ALICE IN WONDERLAND without the world and characters. HARRY POTTER without the magic. JURASSIC PARK without the dinosaurs.

Look at most recent years – AVENGERS, SPIDERMAN, MEN IN BLACK 3, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, BRAVE, PROMETHEUS, and several other films.

It’s hard to begin to imagine these films without visual effects. Needless to say, these films would have not done nearly as well without visual effects. Likely, they wouldn’t have been attempted without visual effects. Showing an actor saying ‘You should see what I’m seeing right now, it’s fantastic’, seeing actors jumping around in front of a green screen or painted cyc or adding a Prologue at the start of a film to ignore certain aspects (such as tv dishes in a period film) would not tend to make for a great movie-going experience. A play, musical, or opera tends to be confined to a live stage, and as such, the audience accepts the limits as they’re presented. These days however most film audiences are looking for a sense of reality in the movies (even if the movie is a fantasy).

As we can see visual effects provide both monetary and creative advantages to the studios and filmmakers. They play a very important role, especially today, in not only the movie industry but in television, commercials, and other content.

Visual Effects and the shooting process

Many directors in Hollywood not only accept visual effects but embrace them for being able to provide the vision they need for their film projects. These directors usually get the most out of their visual effects budget. However, not everyone agrees. Some directors would prefer to consider effects a necessary evil and put them lower on the priority list, even when working on a superhero or talking goat movie. In this case, the superhero powers or the talking goat are likely the key things in the trailer and one of the main reasons the audience is interested to see the movie. But some choose not to acknowledge the value that visual effects can bring to their project.

In some cases, the directors don’t interview potential visual effects supervisors but simply let the studios or someone else make that selection for them. Do they approach the hiring of the cinematographer and other key creatives in the same way? Unlikely.

The attitude of the director, producer, and 1st assistant director has much to do with how successful the shooting process is to the visual effects crew. One of the aspects of creating great visual effects is to shoot the footage correctly for visual effects to begin with.

This means typically having the visual effects supervisor and a small group of people to take references. Because we have to create and very precisely combine multiple images we want to make sure we know exactly where we can place the objects and make sure to light them to match. Shooting references involves holding up a gray and silver sphere in front of the camera or shooting with a special camera setup.

When shooting, a large amount of time is spent setting up to get the shots. A 2-hour movie may have a shooting schedule from 40 to 100+ days.

Each day can cost $100,000-$300,000 or more depending on the size of the project. Each setup takes time. The grips may lay down dolly tracks or a ‘dance floor’ to shot. The cinematographer spends time lighting the set and the other departments prepare. The audio department records 30 seconds of silence at each location to make sure they have the raw materials they need in doing the final sound mix and edit later.

The entire crew is silent during these takes. When an airplane flies overhead it’s likely the crew holds until it passes so they can record good audio. Yet when the visual effects team needs to spend a minute shooting a reference it’s not unusual to get eye-rolling and gnashing of teeth. “You’re slowing us down. We’re trying to make a movie here.” are common phrases heard at that time. They easily forget that most of the movie is being completed later in visual effects and visual effects are critical to the success of the movie. As pointed out visual effects may have enabled the project even to be made but some crews look at visual effects as the lower department. On the better projects, it’s all part of the process from the beginning and not a problem.

There may be times during shooting that the visual effects crew is not scheduled or has been released for the day. But that doesn’t stop production from sometimes attempting to shoot visual effects on their own. They don’t try to shoot shots if the camera crew isn’t there. They don’t try to do a stunt or start a fire without their respective departments being there.

On shows with a lot of visual effects, there’s the notion that anything can be done and that it’s all in the budget. Rather than removing something from set or location (8 x 8 ft silk, compressor, truck, etc), the crew will sometimes ask if visual effects can simply remove it. They suggest they can cover it green as if that provides us the magic fix. If production is running behind schedule, something isn’t working (such as a prop), or hasn’t arrived (contact lenses, etc) then production tends to push that onto the ever-growing visual effects list. We barely have enough time and money to do the planned work let alone this ‘extra’ work but since the studios typically have visual effects and live-action as different budgets that are not of concern except to those who see the big picture.

And of course, the cost of visual effects is brought up frequently.

So why use visual effects (in addition to the reasons provided at the start):

  1. It’s cheaper than the alternative. Consider how much it would cost to destroy a city or a planet. Visual effects don’t look as expensive in that context.
  2. It offers more precise control. Since time is money on a set and the director may want exact control or the option to precisely change it later, visual effects may be the correct option.
  3. Not enough time. Maybe you have the money to build an entire castle but do you have enough time to do so before the shooting starts?
  4. It’s not possible any other way. Floating space ships, talking dragons, people flying, and shooting lasers are not exactly easy things to obtain. How long would it take and how much money would it require to build the Transformers? How long would it take to genetically produce a dragon?

Keep in mind visual effects models and environments have to be created from scratch. We can’t rent a house to shoot in or props to fill it. We can’t rent a field to shoot on. We have to build and paint everything from scratch. When we move our characters or creatures we have to make sure their feet touch the ground without going into the ground or floating above it. Many of the things taken for granted in live-action has to be worked out in great detail in visual effects.

Summary

Visual effects allow filmmakers incredible freedom to bring any story they wish to the screen from a creative and technical standpoint.

Visual effects are used in just about all films, above and beyond just science fiction and fantasy films.

Visual effects films do very well all over the world. The top box-office films of all time use visual effects and most use visual effects extensively. Visual effects artists are the only group involved in Hollywood film-making that doesn’t have a union. Most are freelance project to project just like other film jobs. Visual effects craftsmen work long hours like other film people and at times are likely to be putting in 80 or 90+ hours a week for weeks or months at a time due to compressed schedules and last-minute changes. Much of the visual effects are outsourced around the world due to film tax incentives just like some of the jobs in Hollywood. Some artists have to uproot their families and move to other countries in an attempt to remain employed. I believe to get the best out of people you should respect them.  Given all that visual effects brings to films, the people who make them, and the people who watch them, I think visual effects artists deserve the same respect as the other departments and workers in the film industry.

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