VFX or (Invisible) QFX?

07 Dec

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In recent years, the classification of “visual effects” has become a catchall for many different types of post work.  While some entertainment projects utilize highly creative “special visual effects” sequences to communicate major scripted story points with CG animated characters and expansive action scenes, “production visual effects” that are mostly invisible to the viewer have become an even more common tool for most content creators in almost every type of production.  From film and television, to commercial, corporate or YouTube video, this is an industry wide trend that is becoming both more accessible and affordable for anyone making content.

The Rise of the Green/Blue Screen

The most widely used production VFX shots often involve “self matting” technologies such as green or blue screen Chroma keying.  These techniques are employed for many practical reasons.  The biggest of these is to save money during production due to logistics, but there are other reasons as well such as postponing creative decision making until the editorial or postproduction phase of a project.

For industry production, shooting on stage within a contained studio environment and support system is often considered more cost efficient than dragging actors and crews along with all of their required amenities and equipment to actual scripted locations.  Green or blue screen can be a real money saver in these situations.  Interior sets can be built on stage with green screen outside the windows and doors, with exteriors composited in after the fact by the visual effects team.  The flexibility allowed by placing an interior set virtually anywhere is enormous.

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Exterior shooting is equally enhanced through green/blue screen by the use of what are known as “set-extensions”.  In this way an exterior scene, even an entire building, can be set in a different place.  It’s not unusual for scripted shows to shoot exterior scenes on a movie back lot where large-scale green or blue screens are utilized.  So if for instance a scene is to take place at a marina location, the sequence can actually be photographed at a different location than what was scripted or in a back-lot where there are marina-type buildings. The backgrounds with the actual docks, boats and ocean can be shot separately as a series of “plates”, this can be accomplished by a small plate crew at desired marina location.

Urban cityscapes are commonly placed into the background of exterior wide shots to set a scene in an exotic or far away local like Washington DC, New York City or Paris where it may be too expensive to actually shoot.  In this way a tremendous amount of production value or scope can be added to a project at a minimal cost.  Its not uncommon for scripted episodics to use these kinds of shots as reoccurring elements of a show, with the cost of the original plate acquisition amortized over the run of the series.


By the same token, green/blue screen has revolutionized the production of interior car driving scenes.  Gone are the days of loading picture cars, talent and gear onto the back of a process trailer to be towed around town to capture a needed driving scene.  Nearly every production now opts to shoot driving sequences in front of green or blue screens.  Entire films have been shot using this approach.

The required background moving driving plates are often photographed using low-end multi-camera setups strapped to the roofs and hoods of ordinary cars, which are then driven through scripted locations at a minimal cost.  The resolution of these plate elements can be less than the final resolution of the project’s technical delivery specs as the elements are used to fill only a portion of the final shots, being framed by the window edges and are often softened in post or further degraded with necessary motion blur.  Multi-angle continuity is achieved by shooting with up to 5 or more cameras simultaneously. Inexpensive SLR cameras are widely utilized successfully in these applications.

Surrounded by Screens

Another area where “production VFX”, has taken over is in the use of post screen replacements.  Just as screens of all types are around us virtually everywhere, there are an abundance of screens visible in almost every production.  From TV’s and smart phones, to digital billboards and movie screens, it’s hard not to find screens in every current production.  By simply having a solid green or blue field fill these screens during filming, the actual content itself can be added in post.

And with every screen comes the question of what’s on it.  In some cases, screen content is known and available and can actually be fed live to on camera screens during filming.  But more often than not, having these elements ready and the technology in place to support on-set playback is not practical during shooting. The option to replace screens in post using visual effects tracking and compositing techniques is the path that makes the most sense to many filmmakers in ever expanding situations.

Often this decision is determined out of necessity. There is enough going on during shooting without worrying about what is the right screen content.  In many instances the decision is made for logistical reasons when the stock footage, graphic elements or pre-produced content footage is not available prior to principle photography.  Either way, in all these instances, delaying these decisions is the only real option and a huge stress reliever during physical production.


Then there are the instances when “we’ll fix it in post” is the only viable alternative.  This occurs with equal frequency, both when shooting in studio and on location.  Time is money and discovering after a take that a c-stand or even a crewmember was in the shot forces a tough decision.  Can the schedule afford the time to shoot it again, or would it be better to move on and take care of the issue in post using visual effects roto/paint/patch to clean up the shot?  The question is often thousands of dollars vs. hundreds, and is a no-brainer.

90% of the time, production visual effects involve solely composite solutions.  QFX is built to exclusively support this type of work.  With each of the VFX techniques discussed there are tricks and best practices when shooting that will help to ensure the best results.  QFX offers free expert advice from prep through shooting and all the way to post, all to help you produce the best possible results.  And when the time for post compositing comes, call on QFX for a competitive take on your postproduction solutions.  Our deep industry experience will guarantee that you achieve a successful final result for your project.

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