Special effects in films and TV

This website provides sets of paired images showing how things really look on film sets before the graphics designers work their magic on it. Here’s one example from the film Alice in Wonderland.

before-after cgi2

What surprises me is the extensive use of such effects even for normal scenes when they are not trying to obtain effects that are magical or too dangerous or too hard to come by naturally. Here is one from the film Wolf of Wall Street and a perfectly ordinary street scene from the TV series Ugly Betty.

before-after cgi

before-after cgi3

Maybe this is because it is easier or more cost effective to artificially create the backdrop or the crowd or street scenes than to go on location or design and construct a set or hire extras.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Maybe this is because it is easier or more cost effective to artificially create the backdrop or the crowd or street scenes than to go on location or design and construct a set or hire extras.

    If you want to shoot a city street scene in daylight, you have to either scout a location in some city, acquire a film license from that city’s film office (if they have one, otherwise you have to negotiate directly with the city council), then you have to contract for security (usually a large number of off-duty cops), then you have to hire dozens of extras to play ordinary citizens, then you have to shoot it early in the morning (almost nobody will let you block off a busy street in midday) with a very tight time window.
    Otherwise, you have to build or lease a back lot that looks like the city you are setting your scene in (and they always look fake, no matter how good your set designers and builder are), then you still have to hire dozens of extras to play ordinary citizens, then you probably have to use green screen effects anyway because your backlot is too small to look like the three or four blocks of city your characters walk through while they are talking.

  2. kyoseki says

    Cost savings aside, the biggest reason for the (over) use of CG these days is the simple fact that nobody in the film industry ever wants to make a fucking decision.

    If you want to build a real set or create miniatures or props, someone has to figure out well ahead of time what needs to get built. It has to be designed in advanced and the build time has to be factored into the schedule. This is how the latest Mad Max was put together, everything was storyboarded out years in advance so Miller knew exactly what needed to get built before the shoot and why the CGI used in it worked so well with the practical stuff. At the other end of the scale is Ex Machina, which had a VERY small budget, so the director & VFX supervisor sat down and figured out what they could do well with the money they had, so they were able to get astonishing results on a shoestring.

    However, most big budget movies these days start with a release date and work backwards from that -- doesn’t matter if they don’t have a script (they often don’t, I can’t tell you the number of movies I’ve worked on that didn’t have a third act less than 4 months until release), it’s coming out on date X, so they just slap some shit together and throw money at it in post production. People are terrified of making decisions in this industry, so they just put it off until there’s no time left, then the excuse is always “we ran out of time” rather than “whose fucking stupid idea was that?”

    That’s why movies with $150m budgets frequently look like shit, Green Lantern, for example, was 4 months from release before anyone figured out what the fucking costume was supposed to look like and I can practically guarantee you that the VFX for Gods of Egypt were done in 4 months when they should have taken 8 and half of THAT was going to be fucking around waiting for the goddamned client to approve changes that HAVE to be done before anyone can get their shit started.

    It’s why this shit is so goddamned expensive and why the movie studios are so keen to have taxpayers cover as much of the bill as possible. Vancouver is the destination of choice these days because taxpayers cover half the payroll for VFX artists. Canada’s going to be funding an awful lot of American movies over the next decade, because the industry’s entire business plan is non stop CGI craptaculars because it’s a lot easier than coming up with anything original.

  3. chigau (違う) says

    The job of being a ‘movie actor’ has become more difficult.
    Once was:
    pretend that guy over there killed your father and you want him to prepare to die
    pretend that blank, green over there is a dragon being ridden by the guy who killed your father and you must engage them both in witty dialog before slaying them

  4. sonofrojblake says

    Echoing kyoseki: there’s an excellent video on Youtube of two guys from Amalgamated Dynamics, a company that does practical effects (animatronics) for movies like Alien vs. Predator and the Thing prequel. They tell of situations where they’ve planned a shot meticulously, and built an ingenious device which, from the camera angle they have planned, gives the convincing illusion of (say) a man splitting in half and his face turning into a mass of tentacles or whatever. They build it, it works,and they show it… and some clueless Clem Fandango from the studio says “but if I stand here I can see the cables and the operator”. To which they obviously say “Well, yes, but we’re not going to put the camera there”. “But what if we want to?”, after which there is a sucking of teeth and speed-dialling of CGI FX house. And the thing, and indeed the Thing, ends up looking rubbish and too “clean” because it ends up all CGI, when it could perfectly well have been practical and present on set.

  5. kyoseki says

    FYI, “clean” CGI is also a symptom of a lack of time or money, just like it takes time to make a brand new prop look weathered, it takes time to add that kind of detail in CG.

    In order to really build up the surface texture & complexity, you have to spend time layering painted & procedural texture maps, to really give you a richness of detail that you don’t get with the out of the box solutions. That, however, takes a lot of time to dial it in properly, especially with organic surfaces that have highly complex reflection functions (the subsurface light transport of human skin is notoriously hard to dial in properly).

    This is where practical effects are often cheaper & easier than doing CGI properly, the down side is that they don’t always move as well as you’d like and, obviously, you have to plan ahead, so more often than not, we end up throwing CG in at the end, nobody has the time to do it properly so it looks crap and movie goers blame CG for being shit rather than blaming the studio for not giving anyone the time to do the job right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *