Guidelines for credible VFX

How, you may ask (if you're an indie filmmaker) do I make my visual effects, well, effective?

It's a good question for any filmmaker.

Here are some tips to do that as well as possible:

1) Do for real what can be done for real. There are usually only two reasons to do VFX in a video project.
- to record things that cannot be recorded at all in reality.
-to record what is impractical in reality due to cost involved or other factors (scheduling, safety, etc)
If you can find a clever DIY way to get the shot done on set, in camera, do that.
If it's not doable in camera, then turn to post.

2) Don't hate VFX because they are VFX.
The cool thing about VFX is that it allows you to tell stories that would otherwise not be possible to tell, especially given a tiny budget and limited resources.
They allow you to dramatically expand your project's scope and entertain audiences in ways you otherwise couldn't.
So don't turn against VFX on principle, but do turn against really shoddy VFX. Do them but do them as well and as realistically as you are able. And use them effectively, as a way to support good storytelling.

3) Match the style and feel of the rest of your movie.
The camera motion in your VFX shots should feel a lot like the camera motion elsewhere in your video, same with color grading, filtering, etc. Don't make the VFX shots stand out as obviously different.

4) Integrate your VFX so they feel grounded.
I have had an ongoing issue with my composites where the tracking of 3D and real objects together doesn't always align convincingly. Do what you can to integrate the digital and real in such shots so they not only move accurately together but also match in terms of light, shadow, reflections, etc. If reflections are an issue in a CG object tracked into a real world scene, use one of those little reflective chrome ball bearings to capture reflections on set and then map that onto a sphere surrounding the digital object so it actually reflects the real scene's lighting. Also gags with the digital object knocking over real objects, splashing through puddles, kicking up dust... these are great because they further cement the idea that the digital character or obect is in the real place, the real shot.

5) Make the VFX shot look 'improvised' on the spot. As if you were recording a live event happening in real time in front of you. It shouldn't look staged, and that often means screwing the shot up a bit in terms of framing or delayed reactions.

6) Mix and match ingredients in sequences so the audience doesn't know how it was done exactly. Do some of the effects as physical effects set up for real, and some digitally animated, add in some stock footage elements and miniature effects. You may want to mix multiple types of elements even in a single shot.

7) Weathering, detailing, and reference. All objects have a 'history' to some degree and have taken a bit of damage. Wear and tear. Match that with your 3D and miniature models and refer to real life similar equivalents to get the various details right. And remember - it shouldn't look 'plasticy' or perfect, that happens a lot with CGI and the more realism and texture and grit you can get in there the better.

If you're curious how I use VFX, check out the videos I'm posting on HornbostelVideos.com.
     

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