Visual Effects: Knowing When NOT to Use Them in Indie Filmmaking

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Visual Effects: The Sword and The Shield

In the hands of an artist, cg and visual effects can be a beautiful display of elegance, subtlety and realism. The exact opposite effect, while equally as beautiful, can also be achieved. It can be rough and rugged, dirty, in your face, and completely devoid of any sense of reality; yet it serves its purpose.

Wielding such a powerful and all-encompassing tool is not just for anybody.

I say ‘all-encompassing’ because the tool can be used to create something as simple as a phone screen or a billboard, to something as complex as an entirely animated movie.

Even though the visual effects industry is comprised of thousands of talented artisans (and probably an equal number of tools), I refer to the final output of these artists as the singular ‘tool’.

Much like a DP’s camera, a grip’s lighting rig or, a model maker’s miniature, CG/visual effects is one of the tools that helps build the illusion of reality in a film. Many moving pieces, both physical and digital, are married together to create a singular image.

Each of these tools possesses their own powers, strengths and weaknesses. Visual effects, arguably, has the widest range out of all of these tools because of its ability to replicate each of the former digitally.

As with many things in this world…

…just because you ‘can’ doesn’t mean you ‘should’.

The technique used in achieving the end goal is just as important as the end goal itself.

Many people glance over this aspect; understandably so, considering the sheer amount of effort and manpower needed to create something that fits on a few reels of film and consumes a couple hours of your life; most of it being forgotten shortly thereafter.

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I’ve Seen Those Visual Effects Before

The most memorable parts of a film are usually the most dramatic, visually spectacular or, emotionally driven scenes. When visual effects was something new, people would flock to the theaters to be amazed at what they were seeing.

Fast forward to today, the most visually spectacular scenes now flash by in a few frames as you are being bombarded by visual stimuli faster than your brain can comprehend. The ‘new’ most visually spectacular scenes are not things that we haven’t seen before. That’s old hat.

transformers-age-of-extinction

Photo: Paramount Pictures

We’ve all seen things that we’ve never seen before each and every day. The brilliance in imaging today comes from things that look completely convincing and toy with our concept of reality. It’s not the 40-story robot pile-driving a sky scraper; it’s watching a person floating in the nothingness of an empty space craft, in total silence, and thinking what it would be like if you were there.

It’s something that we know should be real, because it’s possible, but isn’t.

Case Study: Man of Steel Visual Effects

A great example of this would be in the most recent Man of Steel film. There was a beautifully crafted scene at the end where the World Builder is driving energy into earth and completely destroying Metropolis in the process.

While this is a testament to the skill of the visual effects artists involved, the most memorable scene (to me at least) was the moment when Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) refused to let Jenny (Rebecca Buller) die alone as the shockwave slowly approached.

man of steel comic con

Photo: Warner Brothers

The visual effects in this sequence were fantastic; as was the emotional toll the people were experiencing. The fear of death in her eyes, and the commitment to shield her from it in his, were very real in that scene.

It was the intensity of what was happening around them, paired with their fear of almost certain death that drove that scene.

The visual effects, while playing a huge role, took a backseat and let the actors do what they do best: act. It made you think about what it would be like to be in that situation and the decision you would make.

The decimated city, the beautiful wave of slowly approaching death, and the otherworldly sound it was producing, were all pieces of the puzzle that made that scene what it was.

There was no singular thing that made that shot. It was the marriage of all elements working together to create an emotional and memorable moment.

Tron_Legacy_G_15

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

A balance exists in this world, and the same needs to exist in cinema. You cannot save shoddy writing with lots of space ships blowing up everything in sight. No amount of visual orgasm is going to change anyone’s opinion of your film.

At best you’ll get the

” Well the movie sucked, but the part where the space ship hit the car was kind of cool.”

If that is the case, then your film was dead before it was even born. Visual effects needs to be your sword. Not your shield. It needs to be used wisely to compliment the art of others. The old saying,

” With great power comes great responsibility.”

could not ring any more true.

Ask any trained martial artist and they will tell you that the end goal is not to fight, but to defuse the situation before it has a chance to get that far.

Just because you have that tool, does not mean you are to use it every chance you get; especially at the detriment of others. It can encourage laziness, greed and indecisiveness. If you have a great story and solid actors, then your visual effects will be the perfect compliment to your already stellar arsenal. Focus on visual effects over story never works.

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Photo: Universal Pictures

All of the best animated and live action films are successful because people can connect and relate to the story and characters, regardless of whether they are real or not. Yes, in the beginning it was amazing to see such things on the screen, but like everything, there needs to be a balance.

Visual effects is your sword, not your shield.

Shields are used to protect oneself until ready to strike; it is not a weapon. Your sword is your weapon and should be wielded wisely. Its use should be taught by those who have mastered it, not those who want it. Use it to push forward, conquer, and create. Do not cower behind your shield, because as solid and as heavy as it may seem, we can see right through it, and right through you.

Here a great homage to visual effects over the last 100 years:


If you like this take a listen to this visual effects podcast:
Indie Film VFX Master Class with Visual FX Artist Dan Cregan

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Sean Falcon is an accomplished visual effect artist and digital compositor working on studio projects like: TED 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, A Million Ways to Die in the West and of course Lipstick and Bullets: Guerrilla Indie Film School Edition.

Website: www.seanfalcon.com
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