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How to Make Special Effects

What is Visual or Special effects or CGI? How does one go about making special effects? This article covers it all.

This article explains what special effects is, and how to make special effects (or CGI or visual effects).

It is written for the absolute newcomer, who is confused by the thousands of choices and opinions out there. We all need a starting point. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll have enough information to start researching on your own.

Lone House
Image Courtesy: Mayqel

What is Visual or Special effects or CGI?

There are only three ways to create images for video or movies:

  • Through the camera
  • Scanning
  • With computer hardware and software

In their most generalized terms, here are the easy-going definitions of visual effects, special effects and CGI:

  • Visual Effects – effects created using any means possible, but confined to imagery (the visual medium).
  • Special Effects – effects created using any means possible, but can include audio as well.
  • CGI, or Computer Generated Imagery – effects created with the computer only, but can also include the other two ways.

In simple terms, visual effects does not exist in the real world.

Even though animation would technically fall under this definition, for the purposes of simplicity, we’ll only refer to imagery that must appear real. I’m also avoiding audio. What we get is the following simplified definition:

Special effects is imagery that is produced from non-real or artificial sources or raw material, in part or whole, but must appear real, consistent with the rest of the elements in the story.

Like all definitions, there’s a catch. If you show a real dinosaur, will the audience think it is real? Not likely, but it will appear real, consistent with the rest of the fictional story (which isn’t real too). On the other hand, if you show the audience a movie like Who framed Roger Rabbit, they know the animation isn’t real, but still accepts it as part of the fictional world created by the makers. Let’s not go any further.

The different kinds of special effects

There are no rules to special effects. You can use any tool at your disposal. The end result is the only thing that matters.

Don’t try something just because it’s cool or in the news. Even the most famous special effects techniques (like the bullet-time effect, for example) quickly vanishes into old news and the ‘overused bin’.

Special effects created in camera

Here are some techniques for you to search for:

  • Split screen
  • Lens (e.g., fisheye, tilt-shift, etc.)
  • Stereoscopy
  • HDR (High Dynamic Range)
  • Color or Tonal effects (Black and white, LUTs, Gammas, etc.)
  • False perspective (using the set and lens)
  • Flare
  • Filters and Lighting
  • Zooms, movements, etc.
  • Flicker
  • High-speed Imaging
  • Slow-motion
  • Still imagery
  • Prosthetics and Make-up
  • Animatronics, puppetry, robots, models, etc.
  • Miniature sets, models, etc.
  • Motion control rigs
  • Underwater techniques
  • Stop motion
  • Action, Stunts, Simulations
  • Guns and Weapons
  • Explosives
  • Set Design and Decoration
  • Props

As you can see, the possibilities are endless.

Special effects created by scanning

You can also scan the following:

  • Hand-drawn animation
  • Film
  • Other media or imagery

Special effects created in computer

The possibilities are infinite. But here’s a rough list:

  • Editing
  • Compositing
  • Keying
  • Motion Graphics, Text, Shapes
  • 2D and 3D Models, Texturing and Animation
  • Lighting, Ray tracing, Shading
  • Filters, plug-ins, etc.
  • Rotoscoping
  • Tracking
  • Warping, deforming, etc.
  • Slow-motion or high-speed Retiming and Interpolation
  • Color grading
  • Resizing, reframing, transcoding, etc.
  • Bullet-time, Time-lapse, Hyper-lapse, etc.
  • Motion Capture
  • Painting, Matte painting
  • Texture mapping
  • Fluid dynamics, Fractals and Particle dynamics
  • Crowd simulation
  • Animation


How to make special effects

With so many disciplines under special effects, how do you go about choosing what’s right? The answer is: Experience.

Without getting your feet wet in all of these disciplines, it is impossible to determine what’s best for you. It’s one thing to see the end result on screen and yet another to be able to recreate the same impact under the limitations or conditions of your project. It is in the failure to recognize and accept the differences that most poorly-executed special effects are born.

At the very least, you must recognize whether the intended effect can be achieved on camera or computer. Take a look at the disciplines again. There are as many disciplines under camera effects as there are in computer effects.

To make the distinction, you must know your budget and limitations. Sometimes, after having read online that so-and-so effect is easy to pull off with a simple plug-in, a misinformed filmmaker avoids considering other techniques of achieving the same effect. Later on, in post production, the poor but deserving filmmaker realizes his or her vision is kaput, and there’s no way to achieve what was not going to be achievable in the first place. It happens all the time.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in visual effects, it’s that the devices or tools don’t matter. What you need are artists who can create reality for you. To do this, they must first be able to visualize it in their heads. Then, they must have the experience and skills to deliver that visualization on screen.

Theirs is the kind of advice you want. A simple rule of thumb: If a visual effects artist hasn’t done it before, find someone who has. If this person charges more than you can afford, rethink your vision, but don’t go through with it.

Before you start any project, try to recreate the effect on a single frame. Pay a few artists to create one single frame. Analyze their vision and their skills. Share this with your crew and ask for their input. Share this with your target audience, friends or family, and see what they prefer and why. Finally, look at the samples yourself and see if that’s your vision or not.

Never underestimate special effects, especially if it plays a major role in the success or believability of your project.

Remember, plug-ins are temporary. Art is permanent. Focus on your art, not the tools. Learn to see reality and beauty. Define your own vision. That’s how you make special effects that nobody else can.

To learn more about how to make special effects, read the Special Effects Software Guide.


1 reply on “How to Make Special Effects”

Very good and helpful articles!! All in one place! All the questions I had are being answered! Thank you so much!!

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