VFX Tips & Tricks: Practical Effects

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      Animation Pagoda StaffAnimation Pagoda Staff
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      Studios always make multiple props. That way, shooting doesn’t have to stop if an important part gets damaged or lost, since the prop department can just bring out a backup. There are different classes of props. Regular props are just average items that can be used in action scenes. They tend to be made from cheaper materials. The Hero is a unique prop model with extra detail work. It is used in close up shots. Hero props are also used frequently with green screens when an actor needs to interact with a physical prop instead of a digital model.

      It is common to distress props makes them look dirty or aged. Worn props look like they have a history, which adds more character than something shiny and brand new.

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      Maquettes (Sculpture)

      Clay maquettes provide a 3D reference for animators and the VFX team to work with. Most maquettes are produced after initial concept drawings have been made and before the 3D modeling stage. This allows the director to see if the 2D drawing translates well into 3D, and if not changes can be made to the design.

      Maquettes are generally only made for a few key characters or very complicated models, although some higher budget productions will treat maquettes as concept art. High detail maquettes can be scanned into a computer for digital artists to use. 3D printing maquettes for artist reference is not uncommon. Some maquettes are created as scale models to test before building a larger model.

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      Kitbashing is a trick used by model makers to create lots of detail without actually having to sculpt it all by hand. Kitbashing involves going to a toy store, buying a bunch of different plastic model kits, and then gluing all those parts together. Kitbashing tends to work best with mechanical vehicles, spaceships, vehicles, environments, or buildings. 3D printed parts can be combined with kitbashed components. Today, digital artists can use similar modular 3D assets to help add fine details wthout tons of extra work.

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      Maquettes and Miniatures

      Maquettes/miniatures are scale models used for long distance shots. Miniatures trick the audience into thinking they are seeing the full sized version from far away. A bigature is a large scale model that has far greater detail than a miniature model. Bigatures are typically only used for structures that will get a lot of screen time and be seen from multiple camera angles. Scale model making is getting phased out as many studios and directors choose to hire digital VFX studios to create CGI models instead. Hobby builders and 3D printing are keeping the art alive and offer some hope that miniatures will return to cinema.

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      Matte Painting

      Matte Painting was a method used to paint very convincing backdrops on glass. Clear sections were left open so that when the matte was converted into filmstrip, live action footage could be seamlessly projected onto the clear sections. Digital painting is now the preferred medium.

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      Airbrushing and Drybrushing

      Airbrushing and drybrushing can be used for a lot of applications. Tattoos, photo touchups, SFX makeup, cosplay, murals, detail work on miniatures, background art, adding a flaming Balrog to your motorcycle, etc. Unlike digital painting, airbrushing isn’t very forgiving of mistakes. Pigments have to be mixed into a watery paint that will spray evenly on surfaces. Airbrush artists will build up a lot of layers to achieve the best look.

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      Makeup and Costume

      Makeup crews and costume departments spend a lot of hours perfecting what they do and making sure actors look good in front of a camera. An important thing to keep in mind when designing a costume is the actor’s comfort. Heavy costumes can get very hot and uncomfortable, especially full body suits and masks. Ventilation and coolant systems are things that should be integrated into the costume and water bottles are usually kept on set for breaks between shooting. Actors don’t tend to like full body makeup or silicone/latex prosthetics that can impede facial expressions. Applying makeup can be a grueling process for both the actor and make-up artist. Any makeup that takes over 8 hours to apply will be absolutely miserable for the actor involved.

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      Moulds and Casts

      Certain materials have different degrees of durability, flexibility, or elasticity that will work better for some things and less well for others. Casting materials also have varying amounts of how much detail they will transfer. Prop builders have to be familiar with what modern materials will be the cheapest, safest, and most feasible for the job.

      There are a ton of different ways to make a mold. The simplest method involves creating a sculpture and then pouring or brushing on a mold material. Clay is still the most common sculpting material, but most SFX houses order specialty brands that don’t dry out and can hold fine detail. Quick-setting alginate, rubber, resin, and silicone molds are generally preferred by professionals over cheaper plaster, but these materials are expensive. Skin sensitive silicone is used for head and body casts. Vacuum forming can be used to produce hard plastic components. Silicones are flexibile and preserve a lot of fine details.

      3D printing hasn’t had a huge impact on the special effects manufacturing process due to the long printing time. Most printers have a low tolerance for transferring intricate details, and can’t print out large scale objects. When 3D printing is used, it’s generally only for a few pieces that still need finishing detail work from the props crew.

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      Monster Suits

      Sometimes creatures in movies have to be CGI, since human proportions will not fit into a costume. When this is not the case, creature effects departments bring out the monster suit. A typical suit consists of an elastic skintight underlayer, a foam musculature layer, and an outer skin covered in silicone rubber. Actors are usually selected based on body build. Conditions within the suit are notoriously miserable. Suits are very heavy, uncomfortable, and hot. The crew has to make sure the actors get enough water so they don’t get dehydrated. Masks make it difficult to breathe.

      Unfortunately, foam and silicone materials deteriorate and crumble apart over time, so many original classic monster costumes were not preserved and no longer exist.

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      Stop-motion was once considered one of the most advanced forms of special effects in its day, but the technique is no longer used in live-action films today. Each puppet armature is constructed out of a custom-milled steel ball and socket skeleton. To make the armatures appear to scale with human actors, rear projection of the footage would be combined with the live-action footage.

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      Jim Henson movies and kitschy monster B-movies enjoyed popularity because they were weird, imaginative, and quirky. People were willing to suspend disbelief because they didn’t really care if the special effects looked handmade or a little cheesy. These types of movies are sadly becoming less common today as studios aim to appeal to a wide audience. Some people may prefer seeing old school practical effects, but audience demands and expectations have changed over time. Studio executives believe that people only want the best visual effects on screen, and CGI advances makes it hard to justify going back to simpler times when an expensive hand puppet was all that was needed to enthrall moviegoers.

      In fairness, even the most complicated puppets have a more limited range of expression, movement, and scale than a rigged CG model. However, many special effects of the 1980’s hold up 30 years later better than bad CGI of the last decade. Puppeteers managed to breath life and a certain charm into inanimate objects with their performances. In the hands of a skilled animator, CGI should be able to invoke the same emotional qualities, but it frequently fails to leave any impression. The complexity of CGI rigging controls may be a curse as much as it is a boon to digital artists. Hopefully in the future more directors will recognize that using puppetry doesn’t necessarily compromise immersive storytelling. CGI and practical effects don’t have to be incompatible.

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      Robots are a step up from puppets and an actor crammed into a rubber monster suit, but they are also a lot more expensive. Animatronics are usually constructed for non-humanoid creatures that are too large, small, or oddly shaped for a human actor. The are operated using remote controls, wires, or cranes and power rigs depending on size. Typically the metal skeleton is covered with a cast latex or silicone skin to allow flexible movement.

      Large animatronics are heavy and limited in their range of movement, especially walking. They are used for close up hero shots. A digital double is typically used for action scenes ad distant shots, but if the CGI and lighting are not well done the difference between models can be very distracting. Animatronics are used sparingly in modern blockbusters due to the cost.

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