4 Real-World Observations that will Improve Your VFX Work

4 Real-World Observations that will Improve Your VFX Work

October 20, 2022
Eli'Jah Del Villar

If you’re struggling with getting your compositions to look realistic, here are 4 places to look for inspiration in the real world.

Picture this scene: It’s midnight on a Wednesday, you’ve been rendering out a highly complex underwater composition for the past 5 hours and your expectations are high! You put your heart and soul into this and every skill and technique you can imagine. You’re going to put Avatar: The Way Of The Water to shame! 

The “finished render” jingle goes off as After Effects finishes its task and your computer fan takes a break from sounding like an airplane. You open the file with hope and watch it through. 

It looks amazing! Wait… Something’s off. Something’s wrong with the light refractions, it’s not extremely noticeable but still feels off. 

Has something like this happened to you? It’s happened to the best of us where everything is perfect but one little thing feels off in our composition. 

This is where references come into play. Look outside, watch some YouTube videos, and get inspired. And it’s not always about inspiration either, if you want something to look realistic, wouldn’t you copy the real thing as closely as possible? 

Think of it as if someone asked you to draw a sloth from memory versus using a reference image. Most likely, unless you’re a ridiculously talented artist and have an unusual obsession with sloths, you would have greater success and reach greater realism with the reference image. 

So let's discuss a few areas where real-world observations can highly improve your VFX compositions: caustics, particles, parallax, and atmospheric perspective.


So what are caustics? A caustic is the concentrated pattern of light that you get when it passes through glass or liquids. If you look at the two images below, you’ll immediately know what they are. 
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Caustics are known to be one of the most complex simulations to render. But there are ways to do it more simpler and without having to run intricate and multi-hour-long simulation renders. Corridor Crew made a very enlightening video that goes in-depth on how to do that.

But what I would like to focus on here is observation. How can observation help improve this effect? 

If you were to take a stroll down to a local river or lake, or even in your backyard and glance into your swimming pool, what would you see? The light shimmers and changes as the water refracts it. 

The dance of the light rays on the bottom is, ever-changing, ever-shifting. Each ray is similar and yet so completely different. So now think of how you can transfer this observation into your render. 

Well, think of the ways that light interacts with objects in the pool, how the caustics flicker over the ground, how imperfections in the water break up those refractions, and how the light falls off through the water. All of these are key observations in making your render look as realistic as possible.


We see particles every day - when you blow the dust off an old relic while driving on a dirt road, when baking with flour - so on and so forth. Say you’re compositing a scene where a man walks down an old dusty hallway in the tombs of a Pharaoh, imagine what the particles would be like and how they would interact with the environment around them. 

The ones that swirl behind the man walking, the ones that float silently throughout the entire tomb, the ones that get disturbed and fall when the man removes a rock, the ones that shine brightly in the light rays coming from the sun outside. 

All these are vital observations to think about and apply to your composition. Go outside, grab a handful of dry dirt and toss it into the wind, or let it fall from your hand. Then, if you’re using VFX assets like our ActionVFX dust and debris library, you can search through and choose the most realistic and accurate asset for your scene. 


I have to admit, the word “parallax” sounds straight out of a science fiction movie. “We need to make it to the parallax dimension before it’s too late!” But this is no futuristic term. 

Parallax is the apparent displacement of the difference in the apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points, not in a straight line with the object. A lot of words, yes I know. 

Here’s the simple way to understand that: if you were to look at a tree and move side to side, the tree in front wouldn’t change perspective but the trees behind it would move in a different perspective.

But how does this affect your VFX? Well take for example a shot with both foreground and background elements and you need to do a sky replacement. 

For motion tracking, would you track the foreground trees or the skyline trees? Well if you tracked the trees in the foreground, yes, technically you would track the camera motion, but you would get the wrong parallax motion, making the sky replacement look off and as if it was a bad track. 

So you would want to track the skyline trees or even the clouds because it has the same perspective path as the sky you’re replacing. 

Atmospheric Perspective

This may seem like a very simple thing to remember but you’d be surprised how often it’s overlooked. Atmospheric perspective refers to the effect the atmosphere has on the appearance of an object as viewed from a distance. 

So, due to particles in the air -  humidity, smog, clouds, whatever it may be - objects in the distance will have a different color or visibility than objects closer to you. That’s why distant hills and mountains always have a hazy, washed look to them.

So when making compositions with lots of foreground and background elements, especially for any worldbuilding type shots, make sure you put the correct amount of atmospheric perspective based on however close or far the objects are. This improves realism and production quality.

Never be ashamed to observe the real world for inspiration and compositing help. An artist would never be ashamed of using a reference, and you don’t have to either for your visual art. 

Observing the physics of the real world is the best way to make your composition as realistic as possible. This is why our projects are called compositions. 

You are composing a scene and to do that you need to take into consideration real-world physics and relationships between different objects, their perspectives, the atmosphere, their location, and so much more. Get out there, observe the beautiful world we live in and make some amazing compositions.

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