Special Effects Software Guide (Part One): CGI

The special effects software guide is a three-part guide that covers most visual effect disciplines. It tells you what each discipline is, and which software can be used for it.

The idea is to give you enough keywords and knowledge so you can start exploring on your own, without wasting valuable time reading about stuff you’re not going to need anyway.

If you’re absolutely new to special effects (or visual effects or CGI), then read How to make Special Effects first.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.
Fractal Landscape
Image Courtesy: The Ostrich

For the sake of simplicity, rather than break down disciplines based on what I wrote in How to make Special Effects, I’ll do it differently here:

  • Computer Generated Imagery
  • Special Effects and Techniques
  • Bread and Butter Special Effects and Processes

This part will cover Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI.

What do I mean by CGI? Any imagery that needs to be drawn, rendered or created using a computer tool (hardware or software based) is computer generated imagery. It is a broad term, and like other terms, different people give different meanings to it.

This also goes for many other tools or techniques used in the VFX industry. Some are common and unambiguous, while others have different meanings depending on whom you ask. Advice for newcomers going for interviews: The trick is to stick to the meaning as you understand it. You only get into trouble if you’re ambivalent!


2D, or two-dimensional imagery, is drawn and rendered on a plane (flat surface). Typical examples are cartoon figures, geometric shapes, text, etc. The creation of animation figures, cartoons and text effects is dealt with separately.

For the purposes of this article, this section will focus on 2D shapes.

Some important software are as follows:

Adobe Illustrator – For creating vector shapes and layouts precisely.

Adobe Photoshop – Drawing or creating shapes, manipulating images – this software is so good it can do what every other software in this list can, and more.

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) – free alternative to Photoshop.

Corel Paint Shop Pro and CorelDRAW – the alternatives to Photoshop and Illustrator.

AutoCAD – the de facto standard for creating architectural plans, layouts, etc.

Most 3D tools (discussed in the next section) can also create 2D shapes.

Two Important Hardware Tools – Tablet and Pen.

A tablet is a pressure sensitive surface over which you draw your shapes. A pen, which can come in different ‘points’, and can also be pressure sensitive, is used to replace actual pens, pencils and brushes, etc. To appreciate the importance of these tools, just try drawing with a computer mouse.

The first name that comes up for tablets and pens is Wacom.


3D CGI deals with creating shapes, textures, lighting and motion using three-dimensional geometry. Instead of rectangles you get cubes, and instead of circles you get spheres.

3D CGI is used to create objects, animals, humans, environments, architecture, atmosphere, textures, shapes, and many more things. In fact, today’s 3D tools are so advanced there’s really no limit to what you can create and light.

A typical 3D special effects workflow has the following steps:

  • Wireframing – Create a wire model as a frame. Think of it as the skeleton.
  • Modelling – Create the actual shapes.
  • Rigging – Make sure the different parts of the model can be moved harmoniously as required, especially if you’re creating models for animation.
  • Texturing – Wrap the models in life-like (or whatever) textures, some programs can create realistic textures.
  • Lighting – Add lights to give form, light, effects, mood, etc.
  • Animation – Move your model through an environment in a controlled manner.
  • Compositing – Mix all the different CGI sources, live action, etc. into one final image.

We’ll look at Animation next, and Compositing in Part Three. So, what software can do all of the above in Hollywood-quality?

Autodesk Maya – the undisputed champion of the 3D CGI world. If you can only learn one software, learn this one. It can do everything listed above, all by itself. In fact, you can make a whole movie with this one software, in one session, if you were up to the task.

Autodesk 3Ds Max – This tool used to be a ‘3D-AutoCAD’ version, but today, its features are so similar to Maya that many are confused which one to pick. If you are one of these people, pick Maya. If you’re more interested in creating 3D models and lighting them, 3Ds Max is perfect. If you’re a cinema, game or animation freak, pick Maya. Still not convinced? Look at the price difference!

Blender – the free software that has taken the world by storm. It even includes an editing application. The most beautiful part of Blender is, if you don’t like something, you can create it!

Cinema 4D Studio, by Maxon – an alternative to Maya.

Sketchup by Trimble (formerly Google Sketchup Pro) – The alternative to 3Ds Max, but with integration with Google tools. A free version is available for personal use.

Poser – a 3D tool that specializes in 3D human beings. Excellent tool for pre-viz; sometimes its models have better expressions than their human counterparts.

Lightwave 3D, by Newtek – an alternative to Maya, Blender and Cinema 4D.

ZBrush, by Pixologic – a tool that specializes in digital sculpting.



Designing and rigging a 3D model is one thing, while animating it is a whole different art.

Animation involves many techniques, the most famous of which is called ‘key-frame’ animation. You plot each frame by hand over a timeline. Here’s a cool video that explains the process:

There are many automated methods of animating objects if their trajectory is either geometric or totally random. Anything in between and the process is time-consuming and tedious, but fun! The only way to achieve a realistic effect is via key-framing. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There’s another way, which is called Motion Capture, discussed in Part Two.

Key-framing (sometimes ‘keyframing’) can be done at various stages. You can do it within the CGI software itself, or later, using other tools. Here are some tools capable of key-framing:

Autodesk MotionBuilder

Autodesk Softimage

Autodesk Maya, and all the 3D CGI programs listed in the previous section.

Adobe After Effects

Autodesk Flame

The Foundry Nuke

eyeon Fusion

Most professional NLEs like Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple FCP-X, Avid Media Composer, Autodesk Smoke, etc.

Motion Graphics

Motion Graphics is the art of typography and creating two-dimensional effects overlaid over video. E.g., adding the name of the interviewee during a documentary is motion graphics. Titles can be considered motion graphics, though some people like to keep it separate.

Adding shapes, logos and animation to presentations or screen grabs or video is motion graphics.

The undisputed king of the motion graphics world is Adobe After Effects. I’m not even going to name another software!

Matte Painting

Matte Painting is the technique of creating the background environment by literally painting it in a computer program. But it’s not that simple. Some matte painting will also have to display three-dimensionality, especially if the camera is expected to move around it. Think: the large aerial shots in Lord of the Rings.

Matte paintings are great time and money savers. The far-off horizons (mountains, clouds, etc.) can all be painted as static objects. It takes a great artist to create life-like matte paintings that you’ll never guess is a computer generated (okay, in this case, hand-generated) image.

A tablet and pen is an indispensable tool for matte painting artists. Software can be anything (these guys can draw anywhere!). Other than all the software that has gone before in this article, the following are known for matte painting:

The Foundry Mari

Autodesk Mudbox

MPTK – Matte Painting Toolkit for Maya

Particle Physics and Dynamics

Particle physics and dynamics is the discipline of using mathematics and computers to create large bodies, textures or shapes by following ‘nature’s rules’. It’s not easy to explain, because this is real science.

This includes creating

  • Water (including foam, motion, waves, ice, and other cool effects),
  • Air (clouds, thunder, lightning, etc.)
  • Land (mountains, plains, topography, maps, forests, etc.)
  • Space (planets, galaxies, stars, nebulas, etc.)
  • Fire (Explosions, fire elements, etc.)
  • Fractals (a broad term that creates patterns based on fractal theory – examples include leaves, snowflakes, crystals, etc.)

The software that deals with these issues are:

e-on Vue – which can also be used for creating ‘worlds’, environments and for matte painting.

Autodesk Maya has some great tools already built-in.

Incendia and Fractal Software – free and not-so-free tools.

Crowd Simulation

Crowd simulation is the creation, rigging, texturing and animation of humans, clothes and props in large numbers. The underlying technology is similar to that of 3D CGI, but there are specialized programs that heed to this specific discipline (What can I say, Hollywood loves its war scenes!):

Massive, by Weta Digital

Golaem – watch this in action:

In Part Two we’ll look at Special effects filters, plug-ins, and applications. We’ll also look at correction tools and motion capture.

It’s not easy staying on top of all the available software in the market. If you feel I’ve missed out on something important, please let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

3 replies on “Special Effects Software Guide (Part One): CGI”

  1. I can not get the softwares for computer generated imagery here in Nigeria, please can you help me with that?

  2. My name is NDIDIGWE UGOCHUKWU, I am a Nigerian. Please I want to learn computer generated imagery but I do not know how to start or who to teach me. Please will you be my teacher?

Comments are closed.