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Special Effects Software Guide (Part Two): Special Effects

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 Two covers special effects tools.

In Part One we looked at the different disciplines under CGI and what software each uses. In this part we’ll look at special effects and other special techniques.

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

First of all, understand this: You don’t need special tools to make something special:

Special Techniques

Special techniques actually mean ‘anything that works’. Being popular, these techniques have become industries on their own:


Rotoscoping (or roto-ing) is the art of cutting out an object or shape from an image. You do this by creating masks or mattes around the object, and then manipulating that. Many applications listed in Part One have rotoscoping tools, but some software stand on their own:

Mocha, by Imagineer Systems – also available as plug-ins for popular software.

The Adobe After Effects Roto Brush.

Motion Tracking or Match-moving

Tracking or match-moving is the art of pin-pointing a point, object, color or matte and then able to ‘track’ that as it moves through a video. Rotoscoping and tracking go hand-in-hand. Some important tools are:


3D Equalizer

Mocha, by Imagineer Systems

PFTrack, by the Pixel Farm

3D Tracker in Nuke

SynthEyes, by Andersson Technologies.

2D Tracker in Adobe After Effects

Here’s a video that will give you some idea on this works:


Retiming is either adding frames between frames (interpolation) or taking away frames. The former will lead to slow-motion, while the latter will lead to fast motion.

Retiming isn’t a replacement for high-speed filming. What it does do is cover up for certain ‘mistakes’. Like all things in special effects, the results are better if you plan ahead. Speeding up is slightly easier.

Even though many retiming tools exist in popular software, two important stand-outs are:

The Foundry Kronos, part of Nuke X

Twixtor, by Re-vision effects


HDR (High Dynamic Range imagery) is the ability of an image to display greater dynamic range than what was possible to record with a camera. It’s easy with still images, but with moving images, the workload is massive. Above that, you have the problem of trying to match all the frames so there’s no ‘flickering’.

Redcine-X Pro – only for Redcode RAW

Photomatix Pro, by HDRsoft – in batch processing mode

Time-lapse and Hyper-lapse

Time-lapse is the technique of combining images (frames) taken many seconds or minutes apart to cover a large time period. The resulting video will only be a few seconds long, but you can cover hours of activity, like sunrises, star trails, clouds passing, etc.

Hyper-lapse is a time-lapse technique that involves motion, so you’re moving close and further away from your subjects. Here’s a video that will make this clear:

Time-lapse is easy to achieve with any professional NLE. Some stand-alone applications include:

Quicktime Pro


Stop-motion and Clay animation

Move puppets or models frame by frame, and you have stop-motion.

Most of the artistry in stop-motion animation happens in camera and on location. The software only has to assemble and ‘correct’ for certain things. Most NLEs are more than sufficient for stop-motion animation, but there are some stand-alone applications:

Stop Motion Pro



Morphing or frame-blending is the art of mixing one object into another, as if the first object turned into or transformed into the second one. Examples include morphing a small man into a green monster, the overused face morphs, etc.

Some simple applications include:


MorphMan, by Stoik

That’s about it for ‘special’ special effects disciplines. If you’re looking for software that will do all of the above, then look no further than Adobe After Effects (for 2D work and finishing) and The Foundry Nuke X (for everything else).

Special Effects Plug-ins, Apps and Filters

The sheer range of plug-ins and filters available for software is mind-boggling. Many tools are already incorporated into software that you purchase. Some of them need to be purchased separately. I’m not going into the details here, but will only list a few famous ‘suites’:

Red Giant Magic Bullet and Trapcode

Genarts Sapphire

Boris FX

Cycore FX

The Foundry Plug-ins

Correction Tools

Correction usually means rectifying mistakes.What kind of mistakes can you correct?


The most important correction tool is the color correction tool, also called the color grading tool. Some important tools are:

Blackmagic Design Davinci Resolve

Adobe Speedgrade

Magic Bullet Colorista

For a more in-depth look at color correction or grading tools, check out Color Correction and Grading Tools.


Noise, either film grain or video noise, is sometimes inevitable. Small amounts of noise is not very hard to remove. Some applications dedicated to noise removal are:


Magic Bullet Denoiser


Flicker can be caused by incorrect lighting, high-speed imaging, wrong shutter speeds, etc. Not all flicker can be corrected, and sometimes you’ll need to do it frame by frame. Not fun.

Two plug-ins for flicker removal are The Foundry Furnacecore and Boris FX.

De-Warp or Warp Stabilization

Warping happens for many reasons, like lens distortion, lens perspective, fish-eye lenses, etc. Correcting this is not easy. Warping also refers to temporal distortion, like shaky footage, etc. The software that handles both efficiently is Adobe After Effects, which includes the Warp Stabilizer plug-in, among others.

The Video-look

If there was one supreme way to convert video into the film-look somebody would have found it by now. Camera manufacturers have done the next best thing, which is design cameras that shoot like film.

Some common corrections include interlacing and de-interlacing, changing the frame rates, resizing, gamma correction, rolling shutter, aliasing, etc. Most of these tools are already present in professional NLEs or Compositing applications.

For rolling shutter correction, check out The Foundry Rollingshutter plug-in.

Motion Capture

Motion Capture
Image Courtesy: T-tus

Motion capture, or Mocap, is the art of recording movement – usually those of human beings. In recent years, mocap has advanced to include recording facial expressions. The following video will give you a quick idea:

As you can imagine, motion capture isn’t just confined to a computer. You need an environment monitored by special cameras, and a ‘suit’ with or without markers or sensors.

The ‘technology’ is not just one technology – there are many ways to do the same thing, and each has its own quirks, advantages and disadvantages. Some important mocap solution providers are:

In Part Three we’ll look at the bread and butter special effects tools. These are the tools you’ll need the most.

If I’ve missed out on any important technique or tool, 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.