Due to the time consuming aspect of CGI, the production team typically starts planning out and preparing once the storyboard is fleshed out. In the beginning stages of creating VFX for a film, artists may roughly block out and plan for complicated scenes, develop concept art for a clearer idea of what the set should look like and finalize the digital set and layout to be combined with the physical sets.
The artists then go on to actually create the models and effects needed for the film. This can be a particularly long process that includes modeling, texturing, weight-painting, rigging, animating, creating simulations and finally lighting, according to Ryan Fitzgerald, on CG Spectrum. In large productions, there is typically a separate team for each of these different jobs.
Once all the live-action footage is filmed and everything had been rendered, the team finally composites the film, combining live-action footage with the CGI by replacing the green screen. In addition to creating virtual environments and eye-catching explosions on-screen, VFX can also be used to completely transform someone’s appearance.
Take “The Matrix” for example. One of the most iconic scenes in that movie is “bullet-time,” a scene where Neo defies the laws of physics to dodge an array of bullets shot at him. In order to create such an effect in this scene, a green screen is utilized with a set of 120 cameras surrounding the subject, which are placed within close proximity.
Because there would be the problem of cameras capturing each other in the frame if it were to be shot on-site due to the fact that the cameras go around in a 360-degree circle, a green screen is used so that a virtual environment can be added post-production, eliminating the need for it to be shot outside of the studio.
These cameras are made to take just a single photo of the shot, either firing them at close intervals or spontaneously, depending on the intended effect. Then, these images are arranged similarly to animation strips. This allows the production to create effects such as slowed or frozen action while the camera is still orbiting by simply rearranging the images in a different order, according to Film School Rejects.
To finalize the scene, an AI is then used to further smooth the actor’s motions by increasing the frames per second using a process called “interpolation,” and other CGI elements such as the bullets are added.
The VFX Process
Motion capture is a large part of VFX, typically involving the attachment of numerous sensors on a motion actor to record their movements. The motion actor then performs the action sequences their respective character is intended to perform in the final cut, and the artists then take that movement information and transfer that onto a 3D model of said character.
Through this process, realistic animations of any creature can be achieved easily; it can be something as humanoid as Thanos from “Avengers: Infinity War” or as animalistic as Smaug from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” The use of VFX has allowed films and productions to produce some of the most iconic scenes and classics in the film industry.
When to use and disuse VFX
Although using VFX is an effective method to create realistic scenes efficiently, some directors may opt to disuse CGI in some parts of their films. Christopher Nolan is known for preferring practical effects over visual effects, and it is evident in his decision to blow up an actual airplane in “Tenet.”
There are several reasons why some directors will prefer physical sets rather than CGI. For one, it makes it easier for the actors to interact with their surroundings, which helps the scene flow naturally.
Even though it is entirely possible for CGI to be photorealistic and indiscernible from real life, it can be extremely expensive. In Christopher Nolan’s case, it was exactly that.
It turns out that buying a real Boeing airplane, which can cost as low as $100,000 stripped (retaining only the exterior and metal frame), is cheaper than using VFX. Choosing to use practical effects over visual effects has many advantages in terms of actors being able to interact more naturally with their environment, but the use of VFX may just save a failing film.
The Sonic movie, with its official trailer released in 2019, shook the world — in a bad way. After it was officially released, fans’ outrage about Sonic’s character design spread throughout social media platforms.
Paramount addressed their audience’s concerns by announcing a redesign of “Sonic the Hedgehog.” If this were to be done with a film that used minimal CGI, the crew would have had to reshoot every single scene all over again. Since the Sonic movie was made almost completely out of CGI, the production crew was able to keep all the scenes they had shot and only needed to replace the model of the old Sonic with the new model.
Although this saves a lot of time compared to reshooting every single scene, this is not necessarily an inexpensive process. To replace the old model with the new one, it had cost roughly $5 million, according to IndieWire. The remake required creating a completely new model, which included redoing the entire base mesh, weight-painting, rigging, texture mapping and hair particles.
However, this saved the film and ended with a box office record of $300 million over 6 weeks of domestic showings. Through CGI, Paramount was able to recreate their movie in a timely manner and save its box office record.
Over the years, the realm of computer graphics has become increasingly sophisticated. When producers incorporate that into their films, the result is often stunning and fascinating.
I, for one, am deeply interested in learning how to do VFX and creating CGI. By using VFX, I am able to bend reality to be whatever I want it to be, creating worlds only possible in my imagination. While it may seem overwhelming at first, there are many resources available online to help one get started learning CGI and VFX.
Within the CGI community, there are numerous content creators that offer educational tutorials on YouTube completely for free. For example, some popular channels are DefaultCube, who has a YouTube channel filled with tutorials on motion tracking, VFX, and proceduralism; CG Geek, who uses short tutorials to primarily teach his audience how to create 3D models in Blender; Stylized Station, who has a playlist full of tutorials on creating CGI and VFX for games in Unreal Engine; amongst many more in the vast community of computer graphics.
Even without proper education, the community of professional artists can do wonders to introduce the general public to these filmmaking technologies.
Visual effects is now an irreplaceable technology for the filmmaking industry due to its ability to achieve fantastical yet realistic scenes. Despite having a steep learning curve, the community of VFX artists is welcoming and supportive of beginner artists. As this technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, it becomes more integrated into our lives, appearing in games, VR/AR and is even used in treatments such as physical therapy.