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Article: Visual Effects: The Next Big Thing in Independent Films


Visual Effects: The Next Big Thing in Independent Films

Bill Kelly/

August 4, 2012


The rise of affordable video cameras since the DV revolution in the mid-1990’s through today’s DSLRs has resulted in an unprecedented boom in the rise of independent filmmaking. No longer is making movies restricted to big Hollywood studios or isolated film programs at a small amount of universities. No longer must an aspiring filmmaker dedicate a large part of their budget to buying and developing the film on which to show their wonderfully crafted masterpiece. As the cost of cameras has come down, so has the cost of storage. Starting with digital tapes and more recently media cards, it’s easier than ever for the cost-conscious moviemaker to shoot and store all the footage needed to make a full length independent feature. Affordable editing programs such as Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, and Adobe Premier Pro have provided the last link in the pipeline to finish off the production in a professional manner.

The next gap that could be closed between Hollywood studios and independent filmmakers is in the area of visual effects. Programs such as Maxon Cinema 4D ($995-$3,695 US), Autodesk 3D Studio Max & Autodesk Maya ($3,495 US each), Adobe After Effects ($999 US), and Blender (free) bring truly powerful tools at relatively inexpensive prices to the independent filmmaking world. While it would still require a hefty budget to create an effects-heavy film such as “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” or “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, the integration of visual effects into independent films will most likely take place on a smaller scale.

Websites such as Andrew Kramer’s and YouTube channels like Freddie Wong’s (freddiew) are helping bring affordable special effects to the attention of the masses. Kramer’s tutorials for After Effects regularly bring in more than 1 million views, and Wong’s weekly effects videos garner views over 5 million in just a few weeks. Tutorials for visual effects and compositing are widely available on the internet. Many of the viewers of this type of content are children of the digital age. Film schools across the world are beginning to include working with the above-mentioned software as part of their curriculum. As the students graduate and begin making their own films, they understand the power of how post-production enhancement can help better deliver their message.

Making Use of Visual Effects

So how exactly would the independent filmmaker make use of visual effects? Let’s say, for example, the filmmaker is doing a low budget feature set in medieval times. They’ve used connections they still have at the university to borrow some clothing from the theater department. The actors and crew, also beginning their foray into the film business, are working for free or very small wages. Most of the filming is being done in a rural area on some land that that belongs to one of the crew member’s family. Other than the clothing and the actor’s medieval accents, how can they make the audience believe they are being transported back to the 1300’s? This is where using a little visual effects can greatly enhance the production value of the film.

On part of the land sits a large hill. The crew won’t be filming there, but it will be in the background in a lot of shots. A quick internet visit to and search reveals a number of 3D modeled castles available for absolutely free. With a little motion tracking, texturing and camera depth of field in post, a big, imposing castle can be inserted on to the hill in the scene background to sell the medieval effect a little more. More extravagant, detailed castles are available for sale if the filmmaker wants to make the castle a more integral part of the story. All that’s needed is someone who knows how to composite the castle into the scene so it seamlessly fits and looks like it’s really there. This harkens back to the plethora of tutorials available and the software being taught in film programs. Someone the filmmaker went to school with probably has an interest in the visual effects portion of the industry, and with the knowledge they’ve acquired can composite the castle into the scene.

Another example would be making a World War II era film. Some B-17 bombers and their fighter escorts flying through the background, coupled with the sound effects of the drone of their engines, provide a subliminal message as to the time period. Maybe the filmmaker would like a shot of a few tanks rolling up the road kicking up dust in front of his marching soldiers. No problem. There are plenty of very good 3D models available. Get the models. Motion track the footage (if the camera is moving). Composite the tanks into the scene using global illumination in the 3D program. Go over to After Effects, create some dust, and then do a little color correction to seamlessly integrate the tanks and dust into the scene.

Planning Starts in Pre-Production

In all parts of making a film, planning is essential. Nowhere is that more true than with visual effects. For visual effects to be most effective, it should start in the pre-production process. With the writers knowing that visual effects will be available, they can write more descriptive scenes. The director and director of photography can plan out the shots accordingly. Actors need to be made aware of what elements will be added to the scene in post.

It’s a good idea to bring the person who will be doing the visual effects in post-production to set. The input they can give to the director and director of photography as far as what needs to be done to pull off the effect convincingly can save valuable time and possibly a reshoot, if the scene is really important. Something that takes a few minutes to fix on set can take hours and hours to “fix in post”.

In the coming years, especially with the growth of the film festival market, more and more independent films are going to be using visual effects to add a little bit “extra”. Having the tools to add a lot of production value for relatively little cost should be celebrated, and the independent film industry will greatly benefit.

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DISCLAIMER: No mammals, birds, reptiles, or fish were harmed in the making of this blog. I don't feel comfortable using the more inclusive "No animals", because I probably stepped on a bug or shooed away a fly at some point while doing this. Do not attempt any stunts you see on this blog! I don't think there are any stunts, but if there are, don't try them! Leave that to the professional stunt people. If you are a professional stunt person, then feel free to do some stunts using proper planning and technique. If you're not a professional stunt person and you're going to attempt a stunt, take a good long look in the mirror before you do it. You'll want to see your body fully intact one last time. Never trust a skinny chef. Finally, if you've read the Game of Thrones books, don't go around spoiling it for the people who haven't. Don't be that kind of person. You're better than that. © 2015 The Kellzone Frontier Theme