(Source: vfxhack.com) Here’s a dirty little secret of CGI. VFX artists and supes depend on a limited bag of tricks to pull off even the most complex of shots. In fact these techniques are used so much you don’t have to look very to find them in nearly every TV show, feature film, commercial, youTube video or school fund-raiser slides show with eye-shot. If it makes you feel any better, you can call these war-horses an homage but thing about clichés is, that that they work. Heck even I am far from beyond the judicious use of these VFX canards. So at the risk of getting my membership at the Magic Castle of Visual Effects revoked for revealing secrets to all you muggles out there, I present to you some of most overused techniques in the biz.

Camera Shake

What is it?

If a civilization from a distant galaxy was analyzing our technology based solely on visual effects based media, they would have to conclude the computers that made CGI were built from parts formerly used to make tripods. It seems that these days a computer generated bunny bouncing on a field of clover will cause a shake comparable to 10.5 tremor. Shaking the camera makes sense when bomb blows up or 18 wheeler scrapes by the lens, but lately any vibration above a pin drop opens the door to a rumble-fest.

Why do we use it?

Camera shake is essentially a psychological tool to try and trick the viewer into thinking that a real camera photographed a CG element. Why else would the camera react unless something was physically affecting it? The other tid-bit of insider info about shake is that it increases as objects get closer to lens. Without camera shake streaking and obscuring the it, an object close to the camera lens would be very hard to render in enough detail to hold up without the help of our old buddy camera shake.

Lens Flare

What is it?

A lens flare occurs when a light source is pointed directly at the camera lens and light reflects on the glass elements inside of it. Optics engineers, DPs and Grips spend there entire careers trying to eliminate lens flares in order to get the cleanest image possible. VFX guys dole out lens flares like candy on Halloween. Every compositing package has the ability to generate lens flares and they all pretty much look the same. Some artists keep a reel of actual photography of lens flares to give their shots a more organic look. This can work fine, but a flare over a poorly rendered CG element isn’t going to fool anyone.

Why do we use it?

Well the obvious answer is, to cover up crappy CG. But there is a more artful application as well. A lot of recent VFX work revolves around the idea of creating one continuous, impossible-to-get-in-camera shot. This type of shot requires tons of preparation and a great degree of technical skill on set to pull off, and we all know what short supply those things are in. Lens flare to the rescue! A well placed camera pan into a flaring light source is a sure fire way to transition between two shots seamlessly.

C.F.I.L (Crap Flying Into Lens)


What is it?

It seems that CG cameras are imbued with a magical magnet-like property that causes materials of all types to be hopeless attracted to them. Everything from a school bus to used tissue seems get sucked into a vortex that inevitably obscures the frame. In the early days of “traditional” animation, action could only occur on a flat plane to camera. Making objects appear to travel closer during a shot meant scaling them up each frame, a laborious process to say the least. Now with 3d all bets are off we can show an object of any depth at any angle without any extra work. But just cuz’ ya can do it, doesn’t mean ya’ should do it. The impact intended by this shot with tons of crap comming into the lens has been greatly diminished by it’s over-use and with stereoscopic 3d flicks about to make a comeback, I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Why do we use it?

This one is really a case of artists and production folks alike collectively saying. “Hey we took the time and money to build this thing. Let’s see it for God’s sake!” On a VFX project people spend countless hours building junk in 3d, looking at turn-table after turn-table and obsessing over every detail. Then they see it in a shot and vanishes so quickly you hardly notice. Inevitably some genius cries out “Why don’t we have it fly into the lens!”. Cheers erupt, all that hard work has just earned a few more frames of precious screen time. It’s kinda the opposite of the Camera Shake scenario (see above).

God Rays

What is it?

God Rays are volumetric beams of light, like the kind that you get when you turn on a flashlight in a smoky room. There are a coupla’ ways to create them, the fastest being to shoot an element over black. But times being what they are, the more common method is to create them by either rendering a volumetric light pass in CG, which can look great but takes some time, or to use a filter in a compositing program which is wicked fast but can look, well… crappy. Over-use of the God Ray can result in not-so-glorious blast that seem to come out of nowhere. Case in point, this heavenly effect has a bad habit of appearing over screaming faces, especially at the end of a dream sequence or just before time travel.

Why do we use it?

When used properly, God Rays can create a nice sense of depth and atmosphere to a CG scene or matte painting. Unfortunately, they are more often employed in poorly designed, cheesy magic effects. Designing magic is tricky, a spell should always look connected to it’s caster in a unique way. All to often a supe will see the words “magic spell” written on a script page and they’ll automatically set to work lighting the shot up like a Frankie Goes To Hollywood video.

Bad Camera Work

What is it?

As the name implies, this is the technique of simulating a novice behind the lens in order to lend more credibility to a shot make it seem more “real”. This technique has it’s roots in documentary photography and cinema vérité, styles that burned the aesthetic of reality into our subconscious. The dark side of all this a plethora of CG DPs who aim a camera like a Storm Trooper aims a blaster. Lately, every camera pan misses it’s intended target and has to whip back to find it and nearly every other shot also has a snap zoom or focus pull that intentionally misses the mark. Maybe a side benefit of this will be a generation of filmgoers immune from motion sickness.

Why do we use it?

In an attempt to convince the viewer that the scene they are watching is real, VFX pros have created detectable presence behind the camera. The logic goes like this. If there is a real person shooting the CG stuff it too will appear real, right? The problem with line of reasoning is that the virtual cameraman that we’ve created to film our scenes is a chowderhead. In a lot of cases the effect of an overall shot is lost by an artificial life form screaming “Look, I suck at working a camera!” from behind the frame. Well, here’s hoping in the future good shot design and dazzling technical artistry will win out over gimmicky grandstanding. Until then, hang onto your barf bags folks!



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