We’ve all seen those big visual effects block busters from the studios: Avengers Assemble, Independence Day etc. Personally, I love them: they’re great fun, and impressive to watch but it’s easy to get the idea that visual effects are just for the blockbusters.

It has often been said that, actually, the best visual effects are those that you don’t notice. They add setting and depth to a shot, or they remove something that wasn’t supposed to be there.

So what about adding value to a scene?

VFX can add elements to your scene that would be hideously expensive, or even impossible. One of my clients needed to shoot a story involving a heavy snow storm on the Norfolk Broads. They were fortunate enough to be able to film most of the exterior shots with real snow on the ground because of the time of year, but the day of the shoot was clear and sunny. They also had to shoot other scenes which were supposed to be in the same place, but their sets and locations were elsewhere, and there was no snow at all. Enter the visual effects team (i.e. me).

I generated 3D snow with enough depth to appear to be filling the landscape – the Norfolk Broads are very flat, so you can see a long way. Doing the work in 3D gave a much more convincing result than, for instance, adding a layer of After Effects snow, because I could make some of the more distant snow fall behind foreground objects. The picture above, as you can see, shows a split before-and-after image of a chapel in the snow storm. Here snow was added to the ground as well. Later on, falling snow could be seen through the windows in some interior shots.

All this was done without hiring snow and wind machines – and without having to clear up a load of soggy pretend snow after the shoot!

Other less ambitious uses of VFX might be to make a set look much bigger than it actually is, saving you set-building costs, but allowing your film to feel grander in scale.   Such set extensions are frequently used these days, of course, for that very reason.

Adding appropriate period elements to a scene can be essential for historical subjects or costume drama. I remember an early episode of the David Suchet Poirot series where they had a beautiful shot down a narrow, empty London street. They put a single vintage car at the far end, and the period effect was perfect. Budgetary constraints would have necessitated the street be otherwise empty. These days, you can put up a green screen part way down the street, and fill the scene with cars, buildings and even people to give the impression that the street is bustling with life.

Similarly, views out of windows on your set can be added in post if you set things up properly. So your New York penthouse scene, with a dramatic view over the city suddenly becomes practical – and so much more convincing than a painting or blown-up photo in the background, because, as your camera moves, the perspective of the view changes, fooling your audience that it is really there.

What if you want a shot looking in through a window, a car windscreen or a transparent visor on a helmet, but you don’t want the reflections of the studio and crew to show in it? Again, if you prepare your shot correctly, you can film the scene without the offending piece of glass or perspex and put it in digitally in post, reflecting anything you need (the surface of Mars, anyone?). Once more, this can add an extra dimension to an otherwise ordinary studio shot.

Once you start to think in these terms, the possibilities become almost endless; and the cost needn’t be that great, provided you prepare your shots carefully, and in consultation with your VFX artist.

We’ve just looked at adding; how about taking away?

Suppose, for instance, that you just got the perfect take from your performers, and you know you can’t possibly get it that good again. You look at the playback and you find to your dismay that the mic was in shot. You could scream at your boom operator and try for another take, hoping for the best, or you could call in a VFX person and get him or her to paint the mic out so that you would never know it had been there.

Then again, you’ve just shot the location footage for your 19th Century costume drama. Everything looks great until you get to the edit, when you notice a jet vapour trail in the sky, or a 21st Century pylon in the background that you didn’t realise was there. Don’t go trying for a re-shoot. Get some VFX and remove it digitally. No-one need ever know it was there, and you’ve saved your footage.

The same production for which I added the snow also had a little hitch where they had shot a scene on location in a house, only to notice in the edit that a modern strip light could just be seen through a partly open door in their 18th Century drama. It was a simple job just to cover it up.

Sadly, however, there are some situations where disaster recovery is just not possible. I tried very hard to help someone out with a ten-minute thriller, shot in a single take, which needed a significant part of the frame replaced throughout. The camera was moving the entire time. I tried three different camera tracking packages, and all sorts of wrinkles, to get a usable track from the footage, but unfortunately, there was not sufficient consistent information in the footage for the tracking software to lock onto, and precious little accurate information about the set which meant that tracking by hand was also out of the question. Sadly, as a re-shoot was not practical, the film maker had to make do with what he had.

It’s worth mentioning that Raindance run some excellent courses on camera work and direction which can help minimise the risk of needing a re-shoot in the first place.  Have a look at Directing Essentials for a quick two-hour run down, or, for more in-depth teaching, see the Filmmaker’s Foundation Certificate and the Director’s Foundation Certificate.   Raindance runs equivalent courses in Toronto, LA, New York, Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Beijing.

I hope I’ve demonstrated how VFX can add scale and depth to your production, can often help you avoid unexpected re-shoots, and, if you’re properly prepared, needn’t cost the earth.

In the next part of this article, I’ll share some tips and tricks to make sure you’re properly prepared, and keep your budget down.