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April 12


Spring 2021

VES HANDBOOK: Designing Visual Effects Shots

Abstracted from The VES Handbook of Visual Effects – 3rd Edition, edited by Jeffrey A Okun, VES and Susan Zwerman, VES.

Written by SCOTT SQUIRES, VES. Edited for this publication by Jeffrey A. Okun, VES

 One of the key elements to a successful visual effects shot is the design. With today’s technology most of the technical issues can be resolved (even if problematic), but there is little point in doing an elaborate and costly visual effects shot if the design is unsuccessful. Some suggested guidelines follow, but, as with any art form, there are no absolute rules. Visual effects shots require the same eye for composition as standard live-action shots, but there are a number of issues that directly relate to visual effects shots.

The costs and planning required for visual effects may lead the director to avoid dealing with the visual effects and the VFX Supervisor. This approach tends to lead to a more painful process during production and post-production. It also increases the costs and, more importantly, decreases the quality of the final shots if the visual effects team is second-guessing the director. The VFX Supervisor should be looked at as a creative collaborator and be relied on along with the director of photography and production designer to help design the film. The VFX Supervisor is there to serve the director and the film to create the appropriate effects in the most efficient way possible.

 The main objective of any shot is to help communicate the story the filmmaker is trying to tell. It is easy to lose sight of this and have a visual effects shot become just eye candy with no intrinsic storytelling value. Visual effects are tools for the filmmaker that open up an almost unlimited range of stories that can be told on film. Locations, time periods, sets, props, and even the characters can all be changed or rendered from scratch. It is very easy to abuse such powerful tools and get caught up in the technique and pure visuals created. When anything becomes possible, including during post-production, there may not be as much care and design as there should be in pre-production. When an audience complains about too much computer-generated imagery (CGI), this usually means there are too many unnecessary shots or that the shots have been pushed beyond the level expected for the type of movie.


 Guidelines for Directors

1. Work with the VFX Supervisor and their team. Do not make the mistake of thinking that they just bring technical knowledge to your project. They bring a creative eye and experience that can help design the best visual effects for your project.

 “The best solution to creating compelling images is to design shots that enhance the story and then have the director work with the production designer, director of photography and VFX Supervisor to come up with the best possible visuals for the film.” 

2. Assume everything is real and exists on the set. How would this scene be shot if everything were really on the set or location? This mindset avoids treating visual effects shots differently.

3. Design for the finished shots. The VFX Supervisor will have to work out the techniques required and determine the different pieces to be shot.

4. Do the first pass of the storyboards without limitations. What visuals are needed? These may need to be pared back as the storyboards are reviewed, but sometimes shots are neutered to try to make a budget based on incorrect assumptions about the costs for the visual effects or what the technical requirements may be.

5. Design the shots necessary to tell the story well. If a particular story point can be made in two simple shots, then it may not be necessary to turn it into a 30-shot extravaganza. This is something to consider in the large scope of the film. Use the visual effects shot budget where it counts.


Objective of the Shot

If the primary design goal of the shot is to make it cool and awesome rather than to advance the story, then it will likely fail. The reality these days is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to wow the audience. There was a time at the start of digital visual effects when it was possible to show something totally new and different by technique alone. With the sheer volume of moving images these days, however, it is hard to amaze the audience even with something original. The best solution to creating compelling images is to design shots that enhance the story and then have the director work with the production designer, director of photography and VFX Supervisor to come up with the best possible visuals for the film.

Even with the best intentions, the original concept of a shot may veer off-course. The original storyboard is sketched up with the director and a storyboard artist. This is then reinterpreted by a previs artist, and then reinterpreted by a DP. Finally, in post, the animator, technical director, lighting artist, and compositor working on the shot may enhance it. In many cases this collaboration improves the shot, but there are times when the changes are at cross-purposes with the original intent of the shot.

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