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What is VFX? Definition & Guide

by | Last updated Dec 21, 2023

What is VFX? You’ll find the answer here. 

In this guide, we’ll look at the different types of VFX and what it takes to work as a VFX artist. 

Ready to get started? Let’s go!

 

What is VFX?

VFX (Visual Effects) are images, videos, or other media that are altered to create a desired look outside of live-action shooting. 

VFX artists use things like green screens, motion capture, and CGI to add elements to content. This is done using a wide range of specialized software. 

But you may also have heard of SFX (Special Effects), and are wondering, “What’s the difference between VFX and SFX?” 

Good question! That’s what we’ll answer next. 

SFX are effects that are achieved on set without the use of digital manipulation. 

These could include miniatures, prosthetics, and makeup. Filmmakers use techniques like these because they’re usually less expensive than creating the same effects digitally.

VFX, on the other hand, is added later in post-production. VFX could include collapsing buildings, crashes, monsters, and other things that would be difficult or impossible to create on set. 

Both VFX and SFX let filmmakers add elements to their productions that don’t exist in the real world. 

Depending on the budget, the time constraints, and the scene, artists working on a production might use VFX, SFX, or a combination of the two.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into the different kinds of VFX.  

Different types of VFX

There are many different types of VFX, which allows for a variety of career paths in the industry. 

Here are a few examples:

Computer generated VFX

Computer-generated VFX are visual effects made with computer software. 

These effects are used in movies, TV shows, and video games to add elements to an image or video. 

For example, filmmakers use VFX to fill in parts of a scene that would be impractical or impossible to film. Background scenery as well as living characters like dragons, trolls, and aliens are often made with computer-generated VFX. 

Explosions, crashes, and storms are usually made with VFX since these things can be dangerous. 

Computer-generated VFX has completely changed filmmaking. Movies like Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Avatar, have shown worlds that would never have been possible without VFX technology.

Compositing VFX

Compositing visual effects are all about merging separate elements so that they look like one shot.

Compositing often involves filling in a background or adding buildings to a scene. Green screens behind the subject during filming help artists add desired background elements later. 

A compositing VFX artist gives a production much more flexibility, creating scenes that would otherwise have been impossible. 

Compositing VFX merges imagination and reality. With this technology, virtually any scene can be created. The options are endless. 

Motion capture VFX

Motion capture VFX (“mocap” for short) is a way of recording an actor’s movements and expressions. The recorded data is then used in a different character. 

This technique is often used when an animal or fantasy creature has a main role in a movie. In those cases, filmmakers want to make sure that they can convey complex emotions and movements, and motion capture VFX is the best way to do it. 

Here are a few famous examples of mocap in films:

But how does motion capture work?

Mocap uses many cameras to record the movements and expressions of an actor. 

The actor wears a suit covered in dots called markers that the cameras track. On the set of Avatar, 120 cameras were used to track each movement of the actors. 

Later, the movements of the dots were applied to a computer-generated character, creating realistic movements and expressions.       

Matte painting

Matte painting is a technique that allows artists and filmmakers to create realistic sets and scenery from a digital painting. 

The technique is often used in films, shows, advertisements, and video games. 

Up until the 1980’s matte paintings were made using physical paint. Nowadays, digital software is used which allows more flexibility.

Once the painting is made, it’s the turn of a compositing artist to blend the painting with live-action footage to create the scene. This includes matching the colors of the two images and adjusting the depth of field using software like After Effects and Nuke. 

The 1907 documentary Missions of California by Norman Dawn was the first film to use matte painting. Since then the techniques have evolved significantly, but the basic idea is still used in modern filmmaking. 

The Harry Potter movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Game of Thrones all used matte painting to extend live-action footage.    

Speaking of movies, let’s take a look at some examples of VFX in popular films.

VFX in movies 

How is VFX used in movies? Here are three examples of movies that used visual effects. 

The Return of the King (2003)

The last film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, The Return of the King won all 11 Oscars it was nominated for. Among those was the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. 

And it’s no surprise. The film used a mix of different VFX techniques to create various scenes and sets. 

Several of the most important sets in the film were miniatures. Minas Tirith, an important city in the story, was built to 1/72 scale. First made only for wide shots, the miniature ended up being used much more than planned, including for close-ups. 

Motion capture made the character of Gollum possible, allowing him to express believable feelings and emotions even though he was created in post-production.

CGI was also used in the movie to create huge armies during the battles as well as caverns, landscapes, and monsters.

 Overall, the film used an extensive array of different VFX technologies to create scenes that were unprecedented for 2003. 

Detailed miniatures, CGI, and motion capture delivered a very impressive result.

Rampage (2018)

In Rampage, three animals are accidentally exposed to experimental chemicals that make them grow to gigantic proportions. 

The most difficult aspect of the film from a VFX standpoint was making the main character (a gorilla). 

To achieve this, the VFX team used elements of two real-life gorillas to get the correct look for their character.

On set, the gorilla was played by a human, whose movements and expressions were recorded with motion capture technology. Having a human representing the gorilla character allowed the actors to interact more naturally with each other. 

A large part of the film takes place in Chicago, which was created with CGI. 

Though the technologies used in Rampage were not new, the film was still a challenge for the VFX team because of the complexity of merging digitally created characters with live-action on such a huge scale.

The results are impressive.  

Cinderella (2015)

The retelling of this classic story included some interesting challenges for the VFX team. 

There is the pumpkin-into-a-carriage scene, which was achieved using a mix of CGI and effects simulation. Several of the minor characters, like the mice, were made using CGI. 

A few of the interior shots of the palace and the ballroom were extended with visual effects to create a sense of space, and green screens were used to fill in the backgrounds. 

Overall, the film uses VFX to make the magic come to life in a thoughtful, believable way.  

Next, let’s look at the tools VFX artists use on the job. 

The best VFX software 

Software is what allows VFX artists to create art. 

Because of this, learning to use the most important VFX software is an important step when becoming a VFX artist. 

But what is the best VFX software? That’s what we’ll cover next. 

  • Adobe After Effects: Adobe After Effects is a digital application used in post-processing media. After Effects is often used for compositing and animation.
  • Nuke: Nuke is a powerful visual effects tool used in post-processing. It’s used to create 3D models of characters and objects. If you’re interested in learning how to use Nuke, this Nuke Technical Workshop might be just the thing! It’s taught by a Senior Visual Effects Artist with over 20 years of experience.
  • Houdini: Houdini is used to create 3D animations and models.
  • HitFilm Pro: HitFilm Pro is a VFX video editing software that allows for complex editing.
  • Maya: Autodesk Maya is a 3D animation software that’s widely used to create characters and environments. If you’d like to learn how to use Maya, take a look at this course: Intro to Maya. 
  • ZBrush: Used for digital sculpting, ZBrush allows artists to create high-resolution models.
  • Substance Painter: Substance Painter is used to add texture to models using a brush system.
  • Unreal Engine: Unreal Engine is 3D graphics software used for real-time rendering. If you’d like to learn how to use this powerful software, check out this Introduction to the Unreal Engine course.

So far we’ve looked at the different types of VFX, and the software behind them. 

But what does it take to become a VFX artist? That’s what we’ll explore in this section. 

How to become a VFX artist

So, you want to become a VFX artist. But what are the required skills, and what industries could you work in? Take a look at the answers below.

Career paths: 

  • Gaming industry. VFX artists are the beating heart behind video games. As a VFX artist creating games, you could work on designing characters, backdrops, and elements. 
  • Movie industry. VFX artists in the movie industry can work on a wide range of projects, from fully animated films to motion capture and CGI. 
  • VFX studios. Working in a studio as a VFX artist would give you a great environment to collaborate and share ideas with other professionals in your industry.
  • Freelancer. As a freelance VFX artist, you’d be able to work online from anywhere, giving you a huge amount of flexibility.
  • Commercials. Working on commercials as a VFX artist can be very exciting. Commercials often have a short turnaround, meaning that you’ll regularly work on new projects.

If you’re considering becoming a VFX artist, you’re probably wondering what the educational requirements are. Let’s take a look.

Educational requirements:

Luckily, you don’t need a degree to become a VFX artist, though it is an option. 

But if you’d rather learn more flexibly than with a traditional degree, taking online courses can give you the perfect combination of flexibility and in-depth learning. 

Some organizations offer high-quality training courses taught by professionals in the industry which can be perfect to get started in your career. 

The Academy of Animated Art (AAA) has a course on Photorealistic Lighting that’s exactly what you need to get started with VFX as a lighting artist.

And as a bonus, AAA courses are online, giving you location independence and ultimate flexibility while you learn.

Even though a degree is not necessary to become a VFX artist, there are still lots of important skills to have. Here they are:

Required skills: 

  • Being a creative thinker with an eye for detail
  • Having a solid understanding of physics, shaders, 3D graphics, and post-process effects 
  • Being a skilled user of various 3D animation software (including Adobe After Effects, Houdini, Maya, and more)
  • Having a solid understanding of the compositing process
  • Being skilled in the use of VFX software, like Nuke and Fusion
  • Having proficiency in texturing, lighting, prep, roto, basic comp, and matchmoving
  • Being skilled at using lighting, color, and composition
  • Having a thorough knowledge of photography, such as depth of field, exposure, composition, framing, aperture, and lighting 
  • Being a great communicator and collaborating well in teams 
  • Having the skills to manage complex and long-term projects
  • Having creative problem-solving skills and the ability to come up with new approaches quickly 

So those are the skills you need to be a VFX artist. But how well does it pay?

Salary: 

VFX artists generally make between $61,000 and $111,000 per year. 

The exact salary you earn as a VFX artist can vary depending on your experience, your area of expertise, and the company you work for.

Now that you know what you’d earn as a VFX artist, let’s look at some of the roles you could have in a production.

Roles: 

The types of roles you can have as a VFX artist include: 

  • Lighting artist
  • Motion graphic artist
  • Concept artist
  • Compositor
  • Texture artist
  • Modeling artist
  • Layout artist

Next steps

So there you go! Now you have a good idea of the different roles you could have as a VFX artist and the many different elements that are part of the job. 

Being a VFX artist is a creative career path with lots of options and good pay. 

And, with high-quality online courses available to you, getting started in VFX is simpler than ever before.

Learn more:

VFX and Animation: What Are the Key Differences? 

How to Learn VFX

The Best VFX Courses

 

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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