What is VFX? Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

Alexey Lizhnyk
Alexey Lizhnyk
co-founder & CEO, MakeStoryboard
18 min reading·

what is vfx?

Have you ever wondered how they make it possible to show scenes in outer space? Or how do they show the animals in Jurassic Park and they actually feel real?

Well, movies are all about visuals. Today, we have hundreds of movies where we get to experience stories and worlds that do not exist in reality and all of this has been made possible because of the VFX- Visual Effects that are used in these movies. 

So, What is VFX?

Visual Effects are used in videos and movies to create imagery or scenes that do not actually take place during the actual shooting. It involves merging the actual footage with the manipulated footage to enhance the scene and make it look as real as possible. It allows the filmmakers to create places, environments, objects, creatures, and even people that do not exist in real life. 

Generally, it is used to create effects where shooting the actual scene is not possible or is too dangerous. For example, in every Superhero movie, we won’t be able to experience the actual powers of the superheroes without VFX. 

One way to understand how VFX works can be like this;  Have you seen the ‘Behind the Scene’ videos on YouTube?

If so, then you must have seen those green and blue screens that are used in the background, but when you see the scene later, it is replaced by something else. Similarly, when scenes are being shot which involve some objects which do not exist in real, similar shaped objects or props are used while shooting the scenes. These are then edited and enhanced to make them look real.

Most movies have scenes with Visual Effects, however, some movies are especially popular because of their VFX. The Marvel Franchise, for example, runs on the premise of visual effects. 

Imagine Dr. Strange but without the colorful magic, just waving his hand, waiving his spell!
Would that have looked interesting at all? Or Spiderman, but without the real-life villains, would it have been interesting to watch? Of course, not.

Creating visuals is a tedious process. Envisioning something and making it as imagined in real life is easier said than done. However, storyboarding software such as MakeStoryboard which is present today has bridged this gap to a great extent. 

There are various steps involved in the actual process and there are even stages for the preparation of the setup for Visual Effects. It is important to understand that adding VFX is a post-production step. It is started after the shooting is concluded, and every character/scene is a collective effort of many artists who come down together to make that scene happen.

Although each project is unique in itself, broadly they follow the same set of processes. Let’s understand the stages involved in detail 

A film project is usually divided into three stages:

  • Pre-Production: As the name suggests, all the initial planning takes place at this stage. All the factors, ideas, scripts, finances, budgeting, timelines, casting, locations, etc., are put together to prepare for the next stage. This also includes researching and planning and consulting the experts for making the video as appealing as possible. If you want to learn more details about it, here is a brief guide.
  • Production: This is the step where all the work actually takes place. The shooting takes place with special effects being shot at this stage and preparation is done for adding VFX at the later stages, using green & blue screens and other props.
  • Post-Production: This stage starts once the shooting concludes. All the video & sound editing and enhancements take place at this stage. Visual Effects are added at this stage and that is a complete process in itself. 

Preparation Before VFX- Storyboarding

Story Boarding and Animatics

Have you read comic books? 

Then, you must have seen how the story is depicted through a series of drawings – if not, here’s everything you need to know. Well, storyboarding in VFX is something similar. It is a process where the effects are broken down into individual scenes so that VFX artists get an idea about how the different elements in different scenes look and move.  

It helps the VFX artists visualize the story before they head into the actual implementation and give a glimpse of what the final movie would look like. 

VFX is indeed a complex process, and VFX artists cannot rely solely on the script or their imagination to work on creating the effects in a film. Storyboarding enables them to understand the complexity of each scene, the backgrounds and locations needed, as well as different camera angles to help capture the scene better. 

Earlier, storyboarding was done through rudimentary handmade drawings. But today, with all the technological advancements, we have MakeStoryboard, one of the best storyboarding software, that has not only made the process simpler but also less time-consuming for the already busy VFX artists. 

Moreover, storyboarding is a process in itself that requires planning and proper allocation of resources. And, if you are wondering how to implement that, then the following are the steps that you need to follow to create a storyboard for your VFX project:

  • Select your Storyboard software. Choosing a good storyboard software is the most important part of this step. The more advanced your chosen storyboard software is, the simpler it becomes for you to create your own storyboard.
  • Customize your storyboard and add different panels for different moments. You can add the fields which are more relevant according to your VFX project. 
  • Add illustrations and notes. Start adding illustrations including the backgrounds, angles, movements, lighting, etc., and start taking notes for each of the panels. 
  • Rearrange the frames and create an animatic. Once the illustrations are ready, it becomes easier to navigate the series of events and arrange the frames accordingly. Once, you have re-arranged the frames in a series, you can then create an animatic and actually see how the scenes would like in motion. This will also help you point out any gap in the continuation of the effects.
  • Ask for feedback. The most important step is to get feedback and keep getting it done until you are satisfied with the result. Most modern storyboarding software, MakeStoryboard being one of them, enables artists to do so swiftly. This has made the processes much simpler than ever. 

Moreover, as we understand more about the VFX and its process, first let’s understand the concept of the Visual Effects Pipeline.

Visual Effects Pipeline

A film is all about how real it looks to the audience.  Every step in a movie-making process needs extensive planning and elaborate execution. VFX and CGI play a huge part in bringing the scenes to life. Therefore, filmmakers work with a visual effects pipeline. 

The pipeline is a term used for describing the order and flow of VFX production. Adding VFX is not just about enhancing the scenes. It is imperative to take into account that VFX artists actually take the vision of the filmmakers and bring that vision to reality. A pipeline is a guide for the artists to understand their roles in the production, determining what element moves where and how. 

Let us now understand why a pipeline is important. It is important as it helps to streamline and organize each department which makes the whole process less chaotic and enables the artists to work in their respective domains without being affected by other people’s work. 

Nonetheless, a visual effects pipeline starts with planning, research, and development of tools that would be required to carry out the process. It is a carefully calculated plan laid out by technicians, mathematicians, and even scientists. 

And, this is followed by testing. Testing is done to check the compatibility of the selected program according to the client’s needs. It is used to demonstrate the studio’s vision to the client. 

Excited to learn the steps? Let’s dive in. 

Pre-Visualization: As discussed earlier too, this is the stage where all the thumbnails are put together and animated roughly to give a glimpse of what the actual movie would look like. It provides a shape to the director’s vision. Want to explore more? - Here is a detailed guide to it.

These days, filmmakers often use certain props and effects to reference them later in the editing stage. 

3D Modelling

This step takes place during the entire time of a movie being made. This requires more detailing than pre-visualization as the elements are modeled into their 3D form. The modeling takes place in post-production and continues until the client is satisfied with the final result.  

However, in the case of video games and animated movies, this stage is crucial as the animated characters and background are the foundation of these animated movies and games. Also, the models are tweaked with every feedback until the clients are satisfied with the final version of the models. 

Matte Painting

Conventionally matte paintings were made to bring the backgrounds to reality. Today, technology has enabled artists to create these backdrops digitally. 

Reference Photography

Although the VFX editing takes place post-production, some of the groundwork is laid beforehand when the shooting takes place. The VFX artists are present during the shooting to take photographs of the elements involved in shooting the scene. These reference photographs are later used to create and enhance other elements present in the scene using visual effects and CGI.

Now, you must be wondering how visual effects are different from special effects. So here’s how! 

Visual Effects vs Special Effects

Both the visual effects and the special effects are tools for filmmakers to bring their vision to life. They are complimentary to each other for bringing life to a story to make it seem real. However, it is a common misconception that special effects and visual effects are the same. They are indeed very different processes and take place even at different stages in a filmmaking process. 

Special effects are created artificially on the sets while the shooting takes place whereas visual effects are added as a part of post-production, once the shooting is concluded. Also, special effects are created using special props, and equipment, by trained personnel under the guidance of certified professionals. They are carefully shot and are often manipulated by external factors such as lighting, camera angles, etc.

However, visual effects are added solely with the help of computer software. The preparation for adding VFX is done at the shooting stage with the green and blue screens and these scenes are enhanced later to add the desired scenario in the background. 

But, the scope of special effects is limited. There are not many landscapes, scenarios, and scenes that can be created with physical resources. Even if that is possible, the cost of it is very high. 

Visual effects, on the other hand, are less costly and are limited only by the technical skills of the artists or the imagination of the filmmakers. In other words, there is no limitation to where VFX can take us through the enhancements and editing. 

One of the other reasons why VFX is also very popular is because it can be used to edit the mistakes made during the shooting stage. 

VFX Examples In Movies

Let’s talk about everybody’s favorite “Avatar”. Launched in 2009, it was a revolutionary movie in the field of 3D technology. The director James Cameron used the latest techniques to bring the imaginary world of Na’vi people to life. 

A dedicated team of 900 people was entrusted with the task. The visuals were put everywhere, from their backgrounds to their faces and their expressions. Not only that, the design team was able to bring 800 people to life just by using visual effects. It was a big feat in itself. 

Another great example of a movie that really pushed the boundaries of visual effects could be “Interstellar”. Although it was a mix of special and visual effects, it did a pretty good job of giving life to something so mysterious. Also, the things that were produced by the VFX artist do not exist in our dimensions in reality. 

The scenes that depicted the black hole were envisioned by scientists and made to come to life by the VFX team. Just imagine, making something with no idea of how it would look in reality with such detailing is actually a great deal! People wait for the next sequences and expect them to be better than the earlier ones, both in terms of story and visual effects, and it would not be wrong to say that they never disappoint. 

Technical innovations in the field of VFX have made the newer films look even more real. At the pace with which our movies are advancing, it would not be wrong to say that there would soon come an era where the audience would actually be able to enjoy the content as if they were a participant, so real and appealing. 

Moreover, visual effects have become so relevant today that they are used in TV series as well. Some of the big-budget series have unprecedented VFX scenes involved. A lot of work is put behind these scenes by the VFX team and that is what keeps the audience coming back for more content. The producers produce season after season, each being a better version of the previous season with better effects and enhancements. 

One such example is the world-renowned “Game of Thrones”. Set in a different era, with scenes involving difficult terrains and lots of fighting scenes, the series has set new standards for VFX animation in TV series. It was the first to implement crowd animation in season 7 of the show. 

The show has gained so much popularity that the producers have released its prequel “House of Dragons”, which is being loved by the audience so much and even being called better than the parent show. 

And what can we say about “Stranger Things”?

The show got so much popular worldwide for its interesting storyline and the parallel world that it created and showcased using VFX techniques. From the creatures in the first show to the main villain Vecna in the latest season were all looking so real. 

The show got so much popular and one of the reasons was definitely the special and visual effects used to make it come alive. On public demand, the producers are working on the next season and have anticipated their interest in getting a show with a similar plotline sometime later in the future. 

Of all the examples we have discussed, it is clear that VFX does impact the success of a film to a much greater extent. With the advancement of technology in all respects, while filmmakers are getting better tools and equipment, audiences are also getting better sound and video devices. This has resulted in their inclination toward content that is not only entertaining but that which feels real. 

I am sure, by now, you must be wondering how exactly can one become a VFX artist, aren’t you?

Well, here you go.

How To Become a VFX Artist?

The roles and responsibilities of a VFX artists depend upon their specialization and the scope of the project they are handling. For a smaller project, you may expect a single artist to handle multiple departments but for bigger projects, tasks are divided into departments and handled by the teams individually. 

Broadly classifying, the following are the roles that one can expect after becoming a VFX artist

  • Generate visual effects and animations: VFX artists can be responsible for creating and animating each object/element in videos, movies, or video games. 
  • Prepare visual materials for the filmmakers: VFX artists give shape to the vision of the people involved in the project, i.e., the writers, producers, directors, etc. By creating storyboards (here are some examples of how they look) they enable their clients to get an idea of what the actual project would look like after completion.
  • Edit or enhance the elements: VFX artists also work to edit or enhance the scenes shot while shooting.
  • Act as a consultant: There is no limit to a human mind’s imagination. However, creating that vision in the form of a movie or video needs careful planning. Filmmakers often consult VFX experts about the feasibility of their projects and the setup required for getting the desired results.
  • Collaborate with other team members: VFX artists often need to coordinate with other team members including designers, developers, directors, engineers, etc., to make the graphics and visuals more real and appealing to the final audience. If you are looking for free and reliable software to do so, MakeStoryboard is the one for you.

A VFX artist is a skill-oriented job role. As we are seeing a rise in the scope of skill-oriented roles, job opportunities are also expected to grow in this field. You could prefer to join a specialized program to learn about VFX or choose to self-taught yourself. 

Both programs have their pros and cons. However, the chances of you getting a job will be highly dependent on the individual organization’s requirements. 

Here are some of the requirements for becoming a visual effects artist:

  • A creative approach: Being a VFX artist is a very creative job! You are expected to present 3D or 2D models for various elements, even design the characters in animated videos or video games. 
  • Proficiency in the technical field: A knowledge of all the right software is a must for this job. It does not matter if you acquire this knowledge by yourself or get a certified program as long as the employers don’t care. 
  • Team spirit: This profile involves coordinating with big teams consisting of people from different backgrounds. Therefore, it becomes extremely important to collaborate with different people. 
  • Organization skills: Making a video or a film is a time-bound task and strict timelines are set. One delay can result in a delay in the entire project as the teams are really interdependent. Therefore, VFX artists must have great skills for managing their time and sticking to their deadlines.
  • Ability to pay attention to detail: Enhancing and editing is all about small details. It is such an intricate task that one needs to pay attention to fine details to be able to produce a work that is loved by the clients as well as the audiences. 
  • A stunning portfolio: Being a VFX artist is all about technical expertise and creativity. Having a great portfolio is a great way to showcase your skills. After some practice and knowledge of the software, one should try to focus on creating a portfolio, probably that has something to stand out. 
  • Excellent drawing skills: The work is around drawing and capturing elements, including backgrounds and characters, so it is a very important skill for working in this role. And, if you really want to take it to a professional level, you can start with the drawing storyboard software offered by MakeStoryboard. 


But, How Much Does a VFX Artist Earn?

On average a beginner in the field of VFX can expect around $74,000 annual income in the US. This may vary depending upon the experience of the artists between $48k - $120k. 

Although VFX and CGI are applicable everywhere a video, animation, or some kind of motion is involved, but, some of the prominent industries hiring visual effects and CGI experts are:

  • Film-making and Entertainment
  • Video Games
  • Advertising and Marketing
  • Media and Communication

So, now that you know the earning potential in this niche, let’s walk you through some of the amazing software that you can use to become a pro VFX artist. 

Visual Effects Software

Adding visual effects is all about using the right software. Usually, VFX artists use multiple software with different specializations to reach their desired result. Therefore, choosing the right software according to your needs and requirements is really important.

Although all the listed below software is good for beginners, some have an interface that makes it easier to be used by newbies. If you are somebody who has just started learning VFX, it is recommended to go for free software and once you have practiced enough, you can purchase professional software. 

Some of the great VFX software and storyboard software that are available in the market for free are:

  • MakeStoryboard: It is a great software that comes with a free and paid version, and is constantly refined according to the needs of the VFX artists and filmmakers, making it really easy to use and manage. For many of the top VFX artists, this software is at top of their minds, when it comes to storyboarding. Here is a glimpse of some of its features.
  • Adobe After Effects and Adobe Photoshop: Adobe After Effects software is best known for motion graphics and visual effects. Some of the great VFX movies in Hollywood have been made using this platform. 

Also, Adobe is equally known for its user-friendly interface. Adobe Photoshop is a good storyboard software offering ease of use and great flexibility. 

  • Plot: This software offers a seamless experience and one of the best features is its team collaboration tool. The team can leave comments without disturbing the visuals, thus making it perfect for taking feedback. 
  • Canva: A great software, especially for collaborating and sharing your designs with fellow editors/creators.
  • FrameForge Storyboard Studio: The software is considered beginner friendly and is considered a good platform for storyboarding, especially for live-action scenes. 
  • Blender VFX: This software is used majorly for post-finalizing effects. 
  • Hitfilm Express: This software is considered best for YouTubers and vloggers.
  • Krita: This software is used majorly for textures and by matte painters to create real-life-looking backgrounds and effects.
  • ZBrush: This software is best for 3D modeling, texturing, and painting.

Summing Up

Nobody would have imagined the scope VFX has provided for bringing life to movies, videos, and video games. Technology is constantly getting upgraded and with the digitization of storyboarding, we are sure to see a different era of movies solely made by CGI and VFX in the near future!

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