VFX Tips & Tricks: CGI

Forums Resources VFX VFX Tips & Tricks: CGI

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    Computer graphics revolutionized special effects. It has enabled artists to create scenes that never would have been possible with real-world props, sets, or even the most advanced robotics. CGI offers the major advantage of being able to make quick adjustments over factors like scale and placement. CGI characters can be used to replace human actors in dangerous scenarios or to create fantastical worlds.

    The biggest disadvantage of CGI is that it has a tendency to look glossy and fake when combined with live action scenes. The only way to correct this is through time-consuming texturing, compositing, and lighting. Animating physics correctly is also a challenge. CG artists work under tight deadlines, so oftentimes there isn’t enough time to polish the results, and the animators just have to fake things as best as they can. Rapid action sequences, camera angles, and editing cuts are commonly used to disguise rushed animation.

    TechRadar: How Special Effects Transformed the Movies

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    The Uncanny Valley

    The uncanny valley refers to attempts to animate or model a human face that looks realistic, but due to slight discrepancies ends up looking just plain creepy. The eyes and mouth are generally where things go wrong. Waxy slack skin also stands out as not quite right. Unnatural robotic movements, delayed reactions, or stiffness in facial muscles are traits to avoid.

    The best way to avoid making an animated character look like an evil mannequin that would try to murder you in your sleep is to exaggerate features so they are not exactly proportional to human anatomy. Pixar artists have avoided adding details to skin textures on their human characters for years, since they know adding pores and realistic hair follicles would make the 3D cartoon style far less appealing. Ironically, video game studios have taken the exact opposite approach. Graphics and motion capture have come a long ways, but human game characters still encounter a barrier when it comes to total believability. There are definitely moments where you can suspend disbelief and forget the character isn’t real, but then they do the awkward dead stare thing directly at the camera and the moment’s gone.

    Stranger Dimensions: 10 Creepy Examples of the Uncanny Valley

    Goodbye Uncanny Valley


    Photogrammetry is a technique used to measure the distance between two points on a photograph. The measurements can be used to convert landscapes and architecture into hyper-realistic digital environments

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    Crowd Simulation

    Most productions prefer to use digital crowds rather than cast thousands of extras. Creating large crowds typically involves copying and pasting live footage of multiple takes of small groups to be composited together in one scene. The disadvantage of using digital crowds is that they take forever to render, are limited to very basic animation cycles, and can’t perform complex actions responding to external stimuli. WETA Digital’s Massive engine was one of the first software programs to successfully program huge numbers of A.I. agents to respond to group movements or react individually. Improvements in A.I. algorithms and software will likely continue to increase the capability to automate large crowds.

    WETA: Massive Crowd Software

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    CG Animals

    Animals actors have a reputation for being notoriously hard to work with. They can delay the production by escaping or refusing to to perform as intended. There are also handler fees and certain procedures to go through to ensure no animals are harmed while making the film. For this reason, many filmmakers have turned to CGI as a cost-saving alternative.

    Even though it seems way more complicated to animate a CG animal instead of just bringing in a live animal, digital tools allow the director to have complete control. If Mr. Whiskers the stunt cat decides that she doesn’t want to follow the script and jump to where her handler is waiting with a box of treats, there’s not much that can be done. A CG animal does what it’s told. It can also be given more humanlike expressions and doesn’t require 70 takes to get the desired shot. CG animals can also be used in scenes that would be too dangerous for real animals.

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    CGI Face Replacement

    CGI face replacement is most often used to make stunt doubles look more like the actor they are standing in for. Recently however, CGI face replacement has gotten more attention as a means to resurrect famous actors who have passed away before finishing filming all of their scenes. CGI has also been successfully used to de-age actors for flashback sequences. Usually the scenes are brief and avoid close up shots in order to minimize the risk of drawing viewers out of the moment by the realization something isn’t quite right.

    Realistic CGI faces take a lot of time and money to create for just a brief moment on screen, and there are sometimes ethical controversies surrounding the production that require a lot of deliberation to pull off in good taste. So while current technology makes it feasible to potentially recreate any person in CGI, this method is not likely to become a common practice. Even the best VFX artists still rely heavily on the need for high resolution visual reference and 3D life casts of a subject’s face.

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    ILM Rogue One

    CGI Vehicle Replacement

    The Mill’s BLACKBIRD is a specialized motion-capture vehicle chasis rig that can be customized with different wheels, height adjustments, and panels to imitate the size and shape of almost any four-wheeled vehicle. CGI car frames are composited over the chasis. This is used very frequently in car commercials.

    The vehicle rig is not suitable for crashes and wreckage, which usually require practical stunts or CGI.

    The Mill BLACKBIRD Promo Video

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