It’s quite common for the general public to use the words special fx and visual effects (VFX) interchangeably, but there is, in fact, a big difference between the two terms. As their names imply, they are both related to the addition of effects into a film or video, but the methods used and the overall goals can be very different.
Let’s take a closer look at these two important aspects of filmmaking and what separates them, and when to use one vs. the other.
What are Special Effects?
Special effects are usually physical in nature and are achieved on set during filming. Also commonly referred to as practical effects or special fx, they can include things like explosions, pyrotechnics, mechanical rigs or makeup, and prosthetics.
What are Visual Effects?
Visual effects are digital in nature and are added in post-production after filming has wrapped. This might include things like green screen work, computer-generated imagery (CGI), set extensions, motion capture, and many other kinds of effects.
What is the Difference Between Visual Effects and Special Effects?
Visual effects and special effects are often used interchangeably, yet they are actually two different disciplines. Visual effects (VFX) is a digital process that uses post-production software to create and manipulate images seen on screen, while special effects (SFX) utilizes practical and mechanical effects performed on set and captured in camera.
Special effects can include explosions, pyrotechnics, rain, snow, and miniatures, just to name a few. By contrast, visual effects rely heavily on computer graphics and animation software to create the intended illusion or effect. Ultimately, visual effects can be combined with and used to enhance special effects in order to achieve a more realistic look for an entire production.
The aim of both special effects and VFX is to create something that looks real and believable within the context of the story being told.
Types of Visual Effects
So now that we know the difference between special effects and visual effects, let’s take a look at some of the different types of visual effects that you might come across.
Before we do that, we should note that all finished VFX work involves some amount of compositing.
Compositing is the combining of two or more images to create a single image. In most cases, this will involve live-action footage, referred to as a background plate, and a foreground element that will be incorporated into the background.
Compositing is not a type of visual effect, rather it is the foundation of the VFX process, where all of the different elements are brought together and combined to create the final shot.
Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is one of the most common types of visual effects used in movies and TV shows today. It encompasses everything from creating entirely digital worlds and characters to adding a simple CG element into a live-action scene. This can be accomplished with traditional 3D software such as Maya or newer real-time game engines such as Unreal Engine.
These can be live-action VFX elements, such as rain, fire, smoke, explosions, etc., that were captured separately from the background plate. Or they could be computer-generated effects created with software such as Houdini.
Chroma key is a type of digital effect that involves blue or green screen work. It’s commonly used to place an actor in a completely different environment or time period that would be too expensive or dangerous to film in. The color of the screen is not limited to blue or green either; it simply needs to be a solid color that is not found in the subject.
In special situations, such as working with a model spaceship, effects teams have utilized red, magenta, or yellow backdrops.
For the production of Dune (2021), the filmmakers opted to use sand-colored backdrops that gave them the benefit of a solid color that was similar to the color of the background that would be added in post-production. That meant the edges on the actors (especially fine edges like hair) would already have the proper hue and luminance which would make the compositing process easier.
Matte painting & Set Extensions
A matte painting is a digital or traditional painting that is used to create an environment or background that would be impossible or too expensive to film in real life. Matte paintings are often used to create backgrounds for scenes.
Similar to a matte painting, set extensions are used to extend or enhance existing sets or locations that were shot on location or on a sound stage. This is often used to add digital elements like buildings or crowds of people to a scene.
Motion graphics are computer-generated animations that are often used to add titles or other text elements to a film. They can also be used to create abstract animations or visual effects.
When to choose Special Effects vs. VFX
Now that we know a little bit more about the different types of visual effects let’s have a look at three reasons why you would choose to use special effects over visual effects or vice versa.
1 – Safety
Your primary concern should always be the safety of your cast and crew. If there is any chance that someone could be injured or killed by a special effect, you should opt for a visual effect instead.
Any effects utilizing fire or explosions should only be performed by trained and authorized professionals. Even when working with miniatures or other scaled effects, always put safety first.
For example, if you want to have a scene where a car explodes, it’s much safer to shoot the car in multiple takes. First, with your actors but without any effects rigging (thus no risk), then a clean plate with no one in the car, and then finally another take with professionally controlled pyrotechnics, and you can combine the takes in post-production.
And even when working with professionals, always use your common sense and trust your gut; if you or a cast/crew member doesn’t feel comfortable with an effect, there’s no reason to continue.
2 – Cost
The cost of using special effects vs. VFX will need to be evaluated on a shot-by-shot basis. Because both options offer a wide variety of possibilities, it’s virtually impossible to make a blanket judgment such as “VFX is cheaper” or “Special Effects are cheaper”.
With this in mind, having a VFX library on hand, can be of great benefit. With a vast library of VFX stock footage, the cost advantage begins to tilt in the direction of VFX.
For example, imagine that you have a scene that involves a barn that has caught fire. If you were to use practical effects, it would be a fairly expensive setup, and you’d risk burning a real barn to the ground. Alternatively, you could build a miniature barn, and that would definitely be a safer option but would be time-consuming and costly. Not to mention that you’d only have one chance to film the miniature before it would be destroyed.
However, with a library of VFX stock footage such as FX Elements, you have a wide variety of individual elements at your disposal, including effects such as fire, smoke, sparks, and embers. By layering these individual elements in your compositing software, you can quickly construct a realistic fire of any scale.
Not only is this option safer than the practical approach, but you also have full control over the look and intensity of the fire. Don’t like a particular flame? No problem, swap it out with any number of alternative takes. Prefer to have more fire on one side than the other? Not an issue; simply place the elements where you like, and you can art direct the fire to your heart’s content.
What’s more, if you plan well, you can take things one step further by using modern LED lights on set to simulate the interactive lighting of a fire without actually having any flames on set. It’s truly the best of both worlds.
3 – Limitations
Sometimes you’ll find that doing an effect practically simply isn’t a possibility. For example, if you want to have a character teleporting to an alien planet, you’ll need to turn to VFX.
The same is true for effects that involve digital creatures or objects such as aliens, monsters, robots, etc. If the effect can’t be created practically, VFX is your only option.
Trial and Error
The best way to learn more about special effects and visual effects is to simply get out there and do some tests. Gather up some friends, buy or build some props, and see what you can come up with.
You may find that you prefer the challenge of trying to achieve a certain effect practically. Or you might discover that you’re better at compositing digital effects in post-production. The only way to find out is to get started and experiment, but always remember to put safety first!
In the next section, we’ll take a more detailed look at the role of special effects on set.
Are VFX and CGI the same thing?
No, not exactly, CGI is a component of visual effect. CGI stands for computer-generated imagery and it represents one particular technique of visual effects. CGI can also be incorporated into photography, animation, and other disciplines.
How are visual effects different from CGI?
Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is just one type of visual effect. Other common visual effects include matte paintings, set extensions, and green screen composites.
What’s the difference between practical effects and digital effects?
Practical effects are physical techniques that are used to create an effect on set and in-camera. An example of a practical effect would be pyrotechnics or rain or snow to add weather to a scene.
Digital effects, on the other hand, are created using computer software in post-production.
What’s an example of a special effect?
A good example of a special effect would be something like rain, snow, fire, or smoke that is generated in a controlled manner on set.
Do I need to be a computer expert to do visual effects?
No, you don’t need to be a computer expert to do visual effects. However, you will need to have some basic knowledge of computers and be able to use specialized software such as compositing software. If you’re not sure where to start, there are plenty of online tutorials and courses that can help you get up to speed.