Special Effects VS. Visual Effects: Which is Better? | ActionVFX

Special Effects VS. Visual Effects: Which is Better?

Special Effects VS. Visual Effects: Which is Better?

Effects. Movies have never existed without effects. In fact, you could sum up cinema as one big, giant effect. Audience members of the early 1900s would certainly agree with that as they watched the work of Georges Méliès and called him a magician for his sorcery in making moving pictures. You cannot and should not separate movies from effects. They go hand in hand.

How we should approach adding effects is a debated subject, and you will discover that people in the film and entertainment industry are oh-so opinionated about which direction to take. In order to tackle the question of which kind of effects are better, we need to define Special Effects and Visual Effects.

Special Effects 

Special Effects are often better known in the modern world as practical effects, which basically means exactly what it sounds like: anything you physically, tangibly add in camera to achieve a condition or shot that wouldn’t naturally occur on its own. This can be anything from a fog machine rolling hazy goodness into a shot or explosives strategically placed in a desert to go off during a war scene.

Practical effects are as old as cinema. Through the use of cutting and splicing film, cable harnesses, matte paintings, and miniatures, filmmakers in the early 1900s accomplished such effects as disappearing men, decapitations, flying, set extensions, and much more. With every passing decade the effects became more impressive in order to wow the audience. The stunts often got more dangerous, and yes, the explosions got bigger.

Visual Effects 

Visual Effects entered the scene during the rise of the digital age. With the release of Star Wars in 1977, the world experienced breathtaking effects that were completely unique to the time. George Lucas’s small team at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) perfected computerized motion controlled cameras and digital compositing for some of the effects in the movie. Using computers to add effects that did not exist in real life during the principal photography soon became known as visual effects or VFX.

What followed in the entertainment world was an explosion of digital effects and advancements in camera tracking, composting, and computer animation. Filmmakers have used and often over-used computer generated imagery (CGI) to add VFX to movies, and it is nearly impossible to watch a movie that has not been polished up with some effect that didn’t exist during the time of the shoot.

Some movies use VFX to simply change the color of the sky, while others use advanced motion capture and CGI to create digital environments. One example of this is the recent movie, Jungle Book, which is almost entirely computer generated with the exception of the humans and a few props.
Filmmakers have an enormous amount of control over the look of their movie if they use the computer instead of an on-set effect and, because of the resources available to them, large studios often save money in the process.

So is there a place for special effects in today’s world? I believe there is, and I hope there always will be, a place for practical effects in movies. The main reason being emotion. When an actor is facing a real life explosion or running through an actual forest with smoke and fog in their face, it looks awesome, and the performance feels real because it is real. Real life circumstances will almost always produce more realistic emotions.

Visual effects, on the other hand, have taken us to worlds that special effects never could. Flying through a star field at light speed, diving into the depths of a bottomless sea, and experiencing epic battles of Middle Earth are all made possible by VFX. They are a tool that exists to stylistically enhance movies, and this tool is here to stay. How much fun would the Avengers be if you took out all the computer generated visuals? Lame alert!

Rather than setting these two methods against each other, I believe modern filmmakers should utilize a blend of both special and visual effects in their artistry. If something is done practically on set and then further enhanced in the computer, you have just created the best of both worlds.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens did this beautifully well. Director JJ Abrams understood the history of illusion and on-set special effects, but he kept a grasp on the technology of today. By blending what each of these techniques did the best, he ended up with a movie that is a thrill to watch and is full of emotion. The key in this success was understanding what each of these tools did well and not asking more of them than what they could believably supply.
For the low-budget movie maker, think through what you can do practically during your shoot. You’d be surprised what you can accomplish on set with some spray paint, matches, fake blood, and our free Blood Mist clips. Go to the dollar store and get creative! Then enhance and polish off your shot with some sweet visual effects.

This is where ActionVFX quite literally blends the best of both worlds for you. ActionVFX provides explosions, sparks, and smoke assets that were all practical effects captured in high resolution. These assets provide you with complete control when compositing them into your shot. Checkout our tutorials page to gather some valuable tips.

So, which method is better? Neither. And both. When you blend special effects with visual effects, you will always end up with the most convincing result. Just like you can’t separate effects from movies, you shouldn’t separate visual effects from practical effects, but rather use each of them to their fullest potential.

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