Visual Effects in Contemporary Motion Pictures

To pull the viewer into a story, motion pictures rely on different types of cinematic effects, ranging from “impossible to film” elements like a futuristic spaceship, to subtle visual enhancements like reflections on an ocean surface. These effects are referred to as either special effects (SFX) or visual effects (VFX).

Special effects are those generated in front of the camera and include practical effects, which are elements that can be built and filmed, like miniatures, prosthetics, puppets, even physical fire and pyrotechnics. For the casual filmgoer, these effects may be difficult or easy to spot depending on how dramatic the effect is.

Visual effects are any elements integrated after shooting, including the digital compositing of practical effects which were shot on film. Computer-generated imagery (CGI or CG for short), which frequently provides the “wow” factor in a movie, is considered a visual effect. CG elements that would be impossible to actually film, like 1000-foot tall robots or strange creatures from another world, are easy to spot but CG can also be used to produce less obvious elements. When photo-real, VFX can be impossible to distinguish from filmed footage for most viewers. Visual effects can enhance or blend elements into a shot, allowing the director to make creative choices that are invisible to viewers. But if the visual effects aren’t perfect, viewers will perceive that something is unnatural, which can destroy the magic of the cinematic experience.

Seamless visual effects are in countless films and episodic series these days. Among the Academy Award nominees from 2017, you’d be hard-pressed to name a film that didn’t incorporate visual effects. Even Hidden Figures, the story of three black women who were unsung heroes in the early days of NASA, was rich with visual effects. The project required paint, rotoscoping, match move and layout, as well as compositing to dress locations and recreate the 1960s world of the film. The period look and feel of the project required that every element appear authentic, though visual artists added assets like set extensions, photo-real CG elements, and likely cleaned up footage to remove practical stage elements, or needed to paint out contrails in the sky. To bridge the uncanny valley, CG landscapes had to be perfectly composited with set elements in the foreground (while the uncanny valley is typically used to describe CG humans who don’t look or behave realistically, it can also describe poorly executed set extensions). Perfect visual effects require a highly trained artist’s eye for color, shadow, detail, as well as mastery of the process and tools.

In the movie Titanic, director James Cameron needed the star field in the North Atlantic night sky to look perfect. My colleagues and I spent an enormous amount of time working on those stars to execute his artistic vision. We also invested significant time on the ocean’s surface reflections, getting their dramatic quality, color, shape and placement just as he envisioned in each shot. While the night sky and ocean reflections didn’t drive those scenes, in combination with the other elements in the shots, they were critically important to the aesthetic that James Cameron wanted to deliver to movie viewers.

As Visual Effects Supervisor at Lytro, my years of visual effects experience come into play every day. Color analysis and image quality are critical to the success of our Lytro Cinema camera, and with two decades of VFX experience, I know what to look for in color correction and have trained my eye to detect even slight color shifts. The quality of our camera footage is equal to that of even the most advanced cameras used by cinematographers today.

Combining that superior level of image quality with the benefits of 4D Light Field data, Lytro Cinema is transforming the world of visual effects and providing creative choices that were simply not practical or possible before. For example, Lytro Cinema’s depth of field is an amazing advancement in visual effects.. VFX artists are often asked to key elements that are out of focus, removing light wrap, intermixed colors, or green spill between background and foreground elements in a shot. When filming traditionally, the cinematographer might shoot at the camera’s hyperfocal distance for as clean an edge as possible, and then require VFX to apply an artificial blur after keying. With our Lytro Cinema camera, every element at depth has a perfect sharp edge that makes keying extremely efficient. We then refocus the shot, and apply the perfect depth of field blur.

This is just one of the many possible creative and practical improvements that Lytro Cinema can enable. Creators are considering the possibilities of being able to shoot with one lens and capture stereo, or to synthesize slight vibrations to simulate hand held shots, or to reproduce shutter angles for aesthetically perfect motion blur. Refocusing and animated depth of field are also open to a wider range of creative choices. Lytro Cinema is a freedom creation tool, enabling new kinds of visual effects and new scales of efficiency when working with VFX footage.

About Cristin Pescosolido 1 Article
Cristin Pescosolido has been in the visual effects industry for over 20 years. Cristin is currently the Visual Effects Supervisor for cinema at Lytro. Prior to joining Lytro, she was a visual effects artist and stereo supervisor at ILM, and has worked on many films including Star Wars Rogue One, Titanic, Rango, The Patriot, 300, and The Avengers.

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