Visual Effects Explained: The Magic Behind Modern Movie Making

By Chris Wells
May 27, 2024
4 minute read
A filmmaker filming smoke on a greenscreen

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From breathtaking alien landscapes to epic battle sequences, Visual Effects (VFX) have become integral to modern cinema, transforming how stories are told and experienced.

Visual Effects, commonly known as VFX, encompass a wide range of processes used to create or manipulate imagery outside the context of a live-action shot. These effects are typically added in post-production, including anything from simple scene enhancements to fully computer-generated imagery. VFX is used to create environments, objects, creatures, and even characters that would be impossible or impractical to capture on film.

What is Visual Effects?

Visual Effects is a singular term because it represents a unified field of study and application despite involving numerous techniques and tools. 

Within the realm of VFX, two primary methods are used: Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) and practical effects, sometimes called 'special effects'. Understanding the distinction between these two is crucial for appreciating the breadth of visual effects in cinema.

Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI)

CGI refers to creating still or animated visual content with computer software. CGI is often used to create scenes or elements that do not exist in real life or are too expensive or dangerous to film. This technology has advanced significantly over the years, allowing for the creation of incredibly realistic and detailed images.

Here are a couple of practical ways that computer-generated imagery can be used:

Virtual sets and locations: Green screen background replacements are a staple of filmmaking, but now CGI 'volumes' can take it a step further. By creating virtual sets and locations, filmmakers can place actors in fantastical or impossible environments without needing expensive location shoots.  This allows for more creative freedom and reduces logistical challenges.


Destruction and Weather effects: Imagine a giant tornado ripping through a city or a colossal tidal wave crashing onto a coastline. These awe-inspiring and often terrifying sights are now usually created with CGI, allowing filmmakers to depict these destructive forces in a safe and controlled environment. With exact control of what to show.


De-aging Actors: CGI can make actors appear younger, enabling them to portray characters in different periods or allowing veteran actors to reprise their iconic roles.


CGI Characters: While combining practical and CGI effects often creates stunning results, some films rely entirely on CGI to bring characters to life. This allows for creating fantastical creatures, aliens, and even hyper-realistic versions of humans or animals.


Practical/Special Effects

On the other hand, practical effects involve using physical techniques and props during the filming process. These effects are created in real-time, including makeup, animatronics, miniatures, and pyrotechnics. Practical effects are often used to achieve a tangible realism that CGI can sometimes lack.

Here are just a few examples of how practical effects could be effectively used:

Explosions and stunts: Practical effects remain the go-to choice for creating realistic explosions, gunfire, and other action sequences.  Stunt performers and pyrotechnicians work together to create these thrilling moments, adding a layer of authenticity that CGI explosions can sometimes struggle to replicate.


Makeup and prosthetics: The ability to transform actors with elaborate makeup and prosthetics is a hallmark of practical effects. These effects can create a sense of real-world dread and awe that CGI may not always achieve.


Miniatures and model sets: Creating miniature versions of sets or vehicles allows for spectacular destruction scenes or vast landscapes that would be impractical or expensive to film at a real scale.  These physical models offer a unique textural quality that CGI sometimes lacks.


In-camera effects: While technically any practical effect is 'in-camera,' this term refers to using clever tricks like forced perspective, clever varying-sized set design, and sometimes even pyrotechnics to create seemingly impossible visuals without manipulation in post-production. 


Combining CGI and Practical Effects

Many modern films combine CGI and practical effects to achieve the best possible result. This blend allows filmmakers to leverage the strengths of both techniques, creating more believable and immersive experiences.

Examples of combined techniques:

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): This high-octane action film features outrageous car stunts and explosions achieved with a mix of practical effects and CGI.  Real vehicles were modified and used for many chase sequences, while CGI enhanced the action and added impossible manoeuvres.  The film's gritty, lived-in aesthetic is partly due to the reliance on practical effects, with CGI seamlessly integrated for a more dynamic visual experience.


Blade Runner 2049 (2017): This neo-noir sci-fi film features a stunningly detailed future world created with a blend of CGI and practical effects. Elaborate sets were built to create the grimy, lived-in atmosphere, while CGI enhanced the cityscapes and added futuristic elements. This combination creates a visually rich and believable world that immerses the audience in the film's atmosphere.


The transformative power of Visual Effects (VFX) in modern cinema cannot be overstated. VFX has revolutionised storytelling, enabling filmmakers to create breathtaking landscapes, epic battle sequences, and fantastical creatures that captivate audiences.

As VFX technology continues to evolve, the possibilities for cinematic storytelling are boundless. Future advancements will push the limits further, allowing filmmakers to explore new realms of creativity and innovation. For aspiring filmmakers and video editors, mastering VFX is essential for bringing creative visions to life.

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Additional Resources

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Author's Note — AI and Content Generation

In our commitment to transparency and ethical practice, we wish to disclose that artificial intelligence (AI) played a role in crafting this piece. However, it remains primarily a human endeavour, with the core content written, edited, and meticulously proofread by our team. 

AI was primarily used for workshop drafts and research topics to ensure a consistent writing style. Importantly, our use of AI is designed to complement, not replace, our team's efforts. It allows us to use our resources efficiently, enhancing our work without compromising or diminishing the value of human skill and creativity.