The last decade of filmmaking has seen a digital revolution greater than what many had forseen. Advances in digital filmmaking technology have managed to override the past century of film history by turning entire processes of filmmaking digital. One of the biggest areas that digital filmmaking has influenced are visual effects (VFX). The past decade of digital technology has illustrated what we might expect for the future of VFX.
1 – Pre-visualisation
Over the last ten years, the VFX industry and its technicians have developed and launched a whole range of digital tools which increasingly play a central role in all stages of filmmaking. It’s become commonplace for directors and their crews to ‘pre-visualise’ scenes before they’re actually shot. To do this, crews use post-production before a shoot’s been completed to see how the film will look once it’s gone through its final process. The growing use of digital cameras on sets, almost 90% in 2015, allow ‘pre-visualisation’ to take place on a set itself. During production of Avatar, director James Cameron mixed live-action footage with computer-generated effects directly on set in order to give the crew a sense of how the final scene would appear.
2 – Motion capture
Actor and motion-capture savant Andy Serkis, who has graced screens in several motion capture roles, describes motion capture simply as digital makeup and a way to elevate an actor’s performance. Motion capture technicians track the facial and body expressions and movements of skilled actors in order to then generate characters in post-production. The result is more organic movement which helps breathe authenticity into a film’s character. Films like 2016’s The Junglebook and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes show how motion capture not only lends itself beautifully to human characters but also to animals.
3 – Photorealism
When The Curious Case of Benjamin Button won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 2009, it proved that VFX were not only for sci-fi, fantasy and action films but could create realistic depictions of people. The VFX technology used to subtly age Brad Pitt throughout the film has been further developed as VFX artists can now help entirely recreate actors’ faces with technology. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s audiences saw a realistic and almost uncanny recreation of late actor Peter Cushing in such a subtle way, many had no clue the actor was digitally recreated.
4 – Small-screen VFX
As critics continue to claim that the past decade has seen a television renaissance, budgets for both network and cable shows have continued to increase. Shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones have a reported $10 million budget per episode, totalling $100 million for a full season. With budgets that rival many commercial film productions, television shows can truly invest in incredible VFX that rival their big-screen counterparts.
The film industry is a global one and digital technology has helped fuel its globalisation. VFX continue to push boundaries and the companies behind the technologies are sure to create impressive ways which will empower filmmakers to thrill audiences with breath-taking visuals over the next decade.
When most people think about visual effects in films, their minds jump to the big blockbusters produced by companies like Marvel, Lionsgate and Lucas Films. The films and often franchises that are known for their stellar effects are generally huge commercial successes and sit in cinemas for weeks after their initial release. However, visual effects are not just for action flicks and many believe that the best use of Visual Effects (VFX) technology is when it’s barely noticeable. Visual effects can add value and setting to scenes as well as help increase production quality on low-budget or independent films.
By incorporating visual effects into a film, many makers are able to add elements to the shot itself. For many filmmakers, budget and scheduling becomes an issue when shooting on location. It’s often impossible to control the conditions we shoot in. Any on-location director has suffered weather that’s completely indifferent to what the shoot is trying to capture, and this will affect not only the narrative but also continuity. With elements like snow and rain, visual effects often save the day when hiring equipment is too expensive or a change in the forecast affects the desired outcome of your shoot.
VFX can help add elements and features to locations which better represent a director’s vision, for example with the use of a green screen. A long loved secret of the film industry, green screens are not only used in both commercial and independent cinema but also for television commercials and the ever growing creative community of YouTube. Whether you’re using a green screen to create an otherworldly landscape or to give a stationary car the illusion of movement, a visual effect supervisor can help add value to what is otherwise a far poorer shot.
Besides being able to add elements to a shot, visual effects can also help eliminate mistakes made during filming. Whether it’s a boom mic that shouldn’t be in frame or a lamp that throws off a period narrative, visual effects can help remove any imperfections and film mistakes in post-production.
Visual effects can therefore be flashy and grandiose or subtle and barely noticeable both in large and low budget films. 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story shocked viewers by digitally manipulating the appearances of two actors to resemble the late Peter Cushing as well as Carrie Fisher as a young Princess Leia. It was a subtle and almost unnoticeable use of visual effects in a franchise that has been Oscar-nominated repeatedly for Best Visual Effects. Similarly, lower budget films like 2012’s Chronicle, a found footage sci-fi superhero film, work with seamless visual effects that mirror those of large-scale action films without being too flashy.
While indie films like District 9 manage to snag Oscars from blockbuster films for their detailed and in-your-face VFX, many big commercial films use visual effects in an additional, subtle way. You can bet that almost every film you’ve seen in the last decade has used visual effects, whether you may have picked up on them or not. Often VFX supervisors are brought on simply to adjust the temperature of a shot or eliminate the elbow of a crew member that was inadvertently captured. Visual effects are no longer just for Hollywood heavy hitters and digital technology is now available to filmmaking productions of every size. So, ANY production that needs them can take advantage of the benefits VFX bring.