Before we can explore into the vast realm of visual effects, we need to understand what a visual effect actually is. Once this is known, we can explore how an effect is graded upon, and whether it is Hollywood quality or not. My end goal with this blog entry is to convince you that you don’t necessarily need to contact Hollywood in order to obtain high-end visuals. They are now being produced much closer to you than you think.
There is a certain amount of confusion when it comes to effects in film, for example the difference between a visual effect (also known as a CGI) and a practical effect (also known as a special effect). A special effect is the act of creating through camera illusions, like using a prosthetic to chop off a limb, or designing a car to handle jumping 20 feet into the air and landing while retaining its ability to be driven far enough to finish the scene. Imagine just how many “General Lee’s” they had to make. Yes, Dukes of Hazard, I’m looking at you!
Then there are visual effects, in which imagery is created and/or manipulated outside of the context of a live action shot, sometimes to the point of overuse. Let’s take the most obvious example, the “Star Wars” prequels. Come on, George! Why not use live extras for storm troopers?! Did you really need 3D storm troopers for the entire movie?
Why did I choose to use these movies as an example? Because while watching them, you can immediately tell that elements were created and then added to the film. The holy grail of visual effects is to be able to add them to a sequence but not notice them at all. This creates what is known as a “suspension of disbelief.” Visual effects artists strive to be the ninjas of film making. We hide in the shadows trying to not be noticed. Our job is to make you forget that many of the elements on screen do not exist at all, allowing you to be completely absorbed into the storytelling of the film. Freddie Wong from RocketJump said it best: “Visual effect artists combine incredible artistry and technical skill, toiling over shots for hours or even days! If they do their job well, nobody even notices, but they still do it. If that’s not the definition of love for your craft, I don’t know what is.”
So now that we have a firm understanding of what a visual effect is, we can begin to grasp how hard it was to implement a visual effect nearly 50 years ago, and how smaller studios and individuals began gaining access to the power Hollywood enjoys thanks to the progression of technology. What if I told you it was practically impossible to fake what was seen on TV in 1969… the year we landed on the moon? That’s right, it was easier to actually send three people to the moon than it was to fake the moon landing with visual effects! I’ll explain that perhaps in another blog entry.
It wasn’t until the release of “Star Wars” in 1977 that practical special effects began to be combined with visual effects. After the mass success of “Star Wars,” the very first visual effects studio, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), fought to have the larger studios acknowledge the powerful tools that could be used in film, but many studios didn’t see the benefit. So, ILM decided to make a movie that would be packed with visual effects. The purpose was to challenge prevailing thought by using subtle effects that would add to the story without calling attention to themselves. In “Forrest Gump,” ILM digitally extended sets and manipulated backdrops that were not quite photogenic enough. At one point, they even made Tom Hanks appear to shake hands in a scene with JFK. Point taken! After “Forrest Gump,” studios everywhere began taking advantage of the powerful tool set of visual effects. This, in turn, spawned other developers to help push the technology further.
From the creation of the first lightsaber, we have gone from work that would take an entire team of individuals to create to today’s software that can be used by a team of only a few, or even one, to create visual effects. Don’t get me wrong, you still need the technical expertise and know-how to best utilize this powerful technology. As a visual effects artist, I study my craft, and this is a discipline that constantly changes and evolves. You are never finished learning, and I don’t expect to ever know everything. Each year, there is a new breakthrough in technique and technology. Staying ahead means constant study and little downtime.
The next time you think that your crazy idea for a commercial or any video project cannot be done because major visual effects studios are too expensive, just send your idea to us! We love being challenged, and no idea is too big…unless you want a film full of animated storm troopers…Why George!?