CGI Workflows

Special Effects Software Guide (Part Three): Bread and Butter Stuff

If you’re a newcomer to special effects this comprehensive guide will tell you what each VFX discipline means, and which software to use for it. Part Three covers the ‘bread and butter’ tools.

In Part One we looked at CGI disciplines and software. InĀ Part Two we looked at Special effects tools.

In this part we’ll cover the most important stuff – the bread and butter tools of most special effects professionals.

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

Chroma Keying


Keying is the art of removing color information or luminance information from an image. You can also remove information (or objects) via Rotoscoping, which we’ve seen in Part Two.

Most compositing applications include keying tools, and the good applications have excellent keying tools. In fact, if your key doesn’t work, it’s probably because you have ruined a shot with poor lighting, workflow or camera technique.

Some applications have more than one keying tool, like Nuke, for example. The point is to give you as many options as possible, since each tool is slightly different. Think of them as different kinds of paint brushes – each has its own reason to be. It’s also a matter of intuition. It’s only after you’ve played with them a lot that you realize which ones work for you. Try all of them, a lot.

Some of my favorite keyers are the Luma keyer, Primatte, Keylight, Ultimatte and the IBK Keyer.


I’ve already explained what compositing (or ‘Comping’) means in What is Compositing? I also recommend you read the difference between Node-based compositing and Layer-based Compositing.

The big guns are:

Adobe After Effects – a layer-based compositing application

The Foundry Nuke

Eyeon Fusion

Autodesk Flame

Apple Motion – not in the big leagues but quite capable when combined with Apple FCP-X.

Still Imagery Manipulation

Still imagery manipulation is the manipulation of still images that were taken with a digital camera. The two types of manipulations are:

  • RAW processing
  • Image processing

RAW processing usually includes a software that can read the RAW data from a camera and allow the user to select how the image should be ‘made’. To know more about RAW processing, check out Deconstructing RAW. The important applications are:

Redcine-X Pro – for Redcode RAW

Adobe Lightroom

RAW Therapee – a free but extremely powerful RAW processing tool

Davinci Resolve, by Blackmagic Design

Sony RAW Viewer – for Sony RAW files

As far as image processing is concerned, many of the tools we looked at in Part One, under 2D CGI, are relevant. However, the industry standard is Adobe Photoshop.


Good stereoscopy begins on set, with the right camera technique and rig. To understand stereoscopy, check out the chapters on stereoscopy in Driving Miss Digital.

A stereoscopy software or tool basically aligns the left and right images, and allows for corrections or adjustments. A good tool will provide a near-seamless experience, so you almost feel as if you’re working on a normal movie. The big difference is, you’ll need almost double the computer power for anything.

Some well-known stereoscopy tools are:

The Foundry Ocula – a Hollywood standard.

Tim Dashwood’s Stereo3D Toolbox – plug-ins for major NLEs and Adobe After Effects.


Right. We’ve looked at all kinds of special effects tools and software. When I decided to name this chapter ‘bread and butter’, it was so I could include tools that almost every project will need at some point, no matter what its scope.

Compositing is generally present in some form on very VFX project, but it’s not mandatory. In fact, there are only two disciplines that are absolutely mandatory on any digital project, one of which is rendering.

Rendering is the process of having a computer recalculate and redraw an image based on the changes you have made using various tools. Each pixel is just a bunch of color channels that need to be redrawn, no matter how small the change. If you master to another codec, you’ll also need to redraw. You can’t escape it!

Rendering special effects is an art form unto itself. Sometimes, special computers are created just to handle rendering. These are called Render Farms.

If you own an expensive workstation, and you are paying top dollar to have an artist work on it, you don’t want him or her waiting while the computer is rendering, so you’ll need to find a balance between working and rendering. Sometimes these farms take up a lot of space.


There are some tools that specialize in rendering, even though almost every software must have a rendering mechanism in-built (something goes in, something must come out!). Here are a few:

Pixar’s Renderman – the gold standard

DrQueue – a powerful and popular open source render farm manager

Octane, by Otoy – a powerful GPU-based rendering tool

Rush, by Seriss Corporation

Keyshot – a standalone CPU-based rendering tool

Many of these tools are available in both standalone versions and also as plug-ins to 3D software.


Finally we come to special effects or VFX data management. This is the second mandatory discipline. Everyone needs it.

In a VFX facility, there are many stations (computers with artists) – each doing their own thing. One person cannot master all disciplines, which is why these facilities have many individuals.

This also means a lot of data flies around. These could be frames, or pieces of frames, or channels, codes, or a million kinds of things. Major VFX houses have in-house software programmers who design applications for their proprietary use. Many of the tools we have today were first born in these major houses, like ILM (Industrial Lights and Magic), for example. These houses not only have to pass data to hundreds of people within one facility, but sometimes to and from many sub-contractors spread across the globe!

Obviously, these houses will also have data management tools. They can afford to, since nobody else is earning more than them anyway. Everyone else has to resort to custom solutions, like project management, shot management, DAM, tracking, scheduling backup solutions, archival solutions, firewalls, queuing, rendering, licenses, and a million other things.

Some software that tries to cater to small special effects facilities are:


The Foundry Hiero

Temerity Pipeline


Adobe Anywhere – a truly cloud-based solution

Dropbox – sometimes the simple ones work the best!

That’s it, folks. We have looked at the whole gamut (I’m sure I’ve missed a few but not much) of the special effects or VFX industry, its tools and software. I hope by now you have a general understanding of each discipline.

I also hope I have given you the right keywords that you can use to search further, and begin your fruitful journey in the VFX industry.

One final word:

I know the VFX industry is in some turmoil. When you undercut your competitors and outsource projects to nations where labor is cheap, you earn a decent profit and keep your company afloat – but for how long? Eventually you are devaluing your own work and art, as is the case with every other discipline in filmmaking.

My advice to newcomers is, don’t worry about it – worry about your art and technique. Don’t get into it for a job or for the money. If you don’t have the talent and the perseverance to use that talent to create stunning work, then don’t bother. There are many disciplines within special effects that are routine – this is where you’ll land up if you can’t make the ‘art’ work.

Commit, and don’t step back. Work hard. Arrive, and make a statement.

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 Three): Bread and Butter Stuff”

Thanks for the article! It helped me a lot and was fun to read!
How do you call making visual effects on live footage from the cam of a smartphone in an app like “msqrd” (live filters and face swap)? Is there some software available to do similar things in my own app? Thanks again!

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