Visual Effects – Art or Science?

Cinefex’s Graham Edwards posed the question “Is visual effects an art or science?” He garnered responses from various VFX experts including our own Sean Faden and Wil Manning.

Read excerpts below from the original article.

In this digital age, visual effects has stopped being an art and become a science. Now that computers rule the roost, movie magic has become an endless round of number-crunching, pixel-wrangling, and worshipping before the Great God of Physics-Based Simulation.

Or has it?

Isn’t the opposite true? Don’t the infinite possibilities of CG mean that visual effects professionals have the freedom to craft moving images that are more spectacular and dramatic than ever before? Physics be damned – surely the primary aim of visual effects is just what it’s always been: to tell an amazing story.

Truth or beauty? Which is it? Or is there room for both in the ever-evolving world of visual effects?

There’s only one way to find out: ask the experts. So that’s what I’ve done, by putting this simple question to a range of leading VFX professionals from around the world:

Which is more important – obeying the laws of physics, or producing a shot that’s artistically right?

Here’s what my panel of experts had to say:

Sean Faden

VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo

“Ideally, the simulation software allows the artist to experiment with the behaviour, while being able to rely on basic physical principles to give the effect its underlying realism.

“Five years ago, we would probably have used a combination of physical sim software and hand animation or procedural particles. However, today’s sim engines are faster and more reliable, to the point of letting the artist or TD create something pretty great in a few iterations and with minimal manual adjustment.

“This is especially true with water sims. Sure, we can art direct things like spray and secondary effects, but the overall behaviour when left to tools such as Realflow or Houdini fluids is pretty amazing. Sims for volumetric effects (including fire) leave a little more room for interpretation and fudging of parameters to get the desired final effect or feeling of scale.

“A recent project required us to create burning flags for a battle sequence. Since the shots were hyper-dramatic, we simulated the fire at a much larger scale to emphasise the slow-motion and high detail. We used Fume’s simulation toolset, but with cheated physical parameters to hit the desired look.”

Wil Manning

VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo

“I find the idea of obeying the laws of physics to be seriously flawed. Our own eyes and brains play tricks on us constantly and, in my opinion, visual effects is a bunch of magician’s tricks designed to make people feel amazement, emotion and excitement.

“The Prestige” poster“In defence of this argument, I’m going to borrow from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (perhaps with irony, as his films are known for invisible effects and an avoidance of CG).

“The first step in any magic trick is ‘The Pledge’, where we show something ordinary: “It’s film, it’s through the camera, what you see is real.” Next is ‘The Turn’, where we take the ordinary and we make it extra-ordinary. With VFX, that means doing something that’s impossible: travelling into space; making someone run faster than the speed of sound; venturing into a boys dreams.

“Then comes ‘The Prestige’. This is the art: once the audience suspends disbelief of the unreal, we can show them fantasy. From space, we take them into a black hole; our speed runner catches bullets; the boy dreams of turning into an automaton. What you end up with is immersion in fantasy, and that’s pretty cool.

“For me, to make physically accurate visual effects is very important – it’s the foundation on which the artistry rests. If someone believes what you’re doing could be real, then you have them in your pocket and you can start to truly amaze them. You can perform magic.

“In addition, cinema is a language of codes and signals that’s tacitly understood by the audience, and it shouldn’t surprise us when we move to another culture than the language of cinema is as different there as the day-to-day spoken language. I work a lot in China, and it amazes me what’s important to the Chinese market, culturally speaking, compared to the USA and Australian markets (where I hail from).

“In China at the moment, there is much less emphasis on physically accurate work and a much stronger focus on making something that amazes – even if the work at times seems implausible. This can be pretty hard to deal with, because it’s in the nature of Western VFX to put realism before artistry. Most of our tools are biased this way – look at the recent tidal shift to Physically Based Rendering.

“The language of Chinese cinema seems more forgiving of the unreal and informal. Film makers as diverse as Tsui Hark, Jiang Wen, Zhang Yimuo, Wong Kar-wai, John Woo and Jia Zhang Ke (to name just a few) all speak with voices etched in unreality. I feel that for them realism takes second place to story and raw impact, and for Westerners working in VFX in China that sometimes that means leaving our preconceptions at the door. It’s a great experience!”


Well, the vote seems unanimous. For animation directors, VFX supervisors and FX experts alike, the answer remains the same: real-world physics may be the perfect starting point for most visual effects challenges, but it takes a healthy dose of artistry to make a truly sensational shot.

Is this a surprise? Hardly. As has frequently been observed, a computer is just a tool. It’s the person behind it who pulls the rabbit out of the hat.

And visual effects remains what it has always been: magic.

Special thanks to Stephanie Bruning, Jenny Burbage, Ian Cope, Anouk Deveault, Dave Gougé, Joni Jacobson, Melissa Knight, Che Spencer, Liam Thompson, Jonny Vale and Karl Williams. Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past photographs copyright © 2014 by Marvel Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox. Gravity photographs copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Read the original article here.