Special effects and visual effects: what is the difference?

History, types and differences of the techniques that brought imagination into the cinema


“Wow, how did they manage to do this?”: How many times have you happened to ask yourself this question while sitting in a movie theater?

Here, if you have experienced this feeling of wonder in front of a movie, you have to say thanks to the industry of special effects and visual effects.

Today they are one of the main reasons why the production of a feature film is so long and expensive, but already since the birth of the big screen the films have never existed without the effects: on the contrary, one can rightly assert that theirs are a inseparable union.

Yet, with regard to the best approach to be taken regarding the addition of effects to a film, the debate still remains open, and even among the film industry and entertainment industry insiders it is possible to gather very different opinions.

Between visual effects and special effects, which ones produce the most effective and most impactful results on the public?

We try to understand it together, starting naturally from the difference between these two processes.

Why are special effects and visual effects different?

The special effects (commonly abbreviated as SFX) are all realized “on set”, that is they happen in reality, in a physical and tangible way, to create a condition that would not occur naturally or spontaneously.

When you throw a match into a can of gasoline and record the resulting explosion, or when you build a fake arm and attach it to the actor and then be able to detach it with the corresponding burst of blood, it is producing a special effect.

The same goes for false gunshot wounds, blank projectiles, stage knives and so on.

Visual effects (or VFX), on the other hand, are added at a later time, thanks to the power of a computer.

When you create a digital model of a spaceship and fly it against the backdrop of a scene painted with matte paintingor thanks to chromakey you create the illusion that the actor is crashing from an airplane, those are visual effects. Recently, thanks to the introduction and dissemination of very powerful animation and compositing software and also relatively affordable prices, the VFXs are simpler and cheaper than SFX: this is the reason why more and more explosions, splashes of blood or the glare of the shots are today made through visual effects.

In other words, the special effects are applied on the set during production, while the visual effects take place in post-production.

This does not mean that the visual effects supervisor is not involved in the production (or vice versa the special effects supervisor in the post), but rather that the creative decisions taken by the respective teams usually belong to their specific phases of film making, obviously in collaboration and based on the director’s directions.

Types of special and visual effects

Special effects can be divided into two categories: optical and mechanical.

The former are obtained by manipulating the camera and the lights to make the appearance of the scene different from what would appear to the naked eye.

To do this you can work on camera lenses, lighting types or camera movements that give a particular look to the shot.

The mechanical effects are used instead when you want to create an object or a situation from nothing: for example by creating special weather conditions such as wind, fog or snow from scratch, or using explosives or scale models.

The visual effects, as we said, have instead become a fundamental element of modern cinema, to such an extent that today rarely comes a film that is completely devoid of it. We talk about green screens, computer-generated images (or CGI), 3D rendering or animations of various kinds.

In addition to the visual effects supervisor, who deals with the creative part, the team is usually formed by a coordinator who works for him in post-production, and by a producer who manages the costs, sometimes very high: they can reach even beyond half the budget of a film.

History and evolution of special and visual effects

The effects are used to create the illusion, to deceive the viewer’s eye.

In a sense, we could say that cinema in its entirety is a single, great effect: in fact it is thanks to the phenomenon of the persistence of vision (first described in 1824 by the English physicist Peter Mark Roget) that the human eye succeeds to transform the individual photograms of a projection into a movement perceived as fluid.

And the visual magic, as we said, was used since this industry took its first steps: at the beginning of the 20th century, French director and illusionist George Melies was called by his public “the sorcerer”, for the fantastic techniques that he could apply on the screen.

He was the father of special effects: first simple as cuts and overlays, then more complex as the use of rear-projections, miniatures, painted screens or pulling cables, through which the pioneers of the director were able to make disappear, fly and even decapitate the their characters.

As the decades passed, the effects became more and more impressive, to continue to amaze the public. Then, with the arrival of the digital age, visual effects entered the scene.

With the release of Star Wars in 1977, the world discovered breathtaking effects that until then were completely unknown: George Lucas’ small team at Industrial Light and Magic perfected the computer-controlled camera movement, thus giving life to one of the first Motion Control systems.

The advent of digital editing, the addition of computerized effects that do not exist in real life and the evolution of technology for VFX has literally exploded the use of visual effects in the cinema, up to the most recent examples, such as the Jungle Book, shot entirely in a blue screen studio with only the child as an actor in the flesh, while everything else has been added digitally.

Special effects vs visual effects: which ones are the best?

So, is there still a place for special effects in today’s world?

According to many, the answer is yes, and for one simple reason: emotion.

When an actor lives a real explosion or runs through a real forest in flames, while the smoke reaches his face, his acting is more real, because it is real.

These methods will always succeed in transmitting more realistic emotions.

On the other hand, visual effects have succeeded in transporting audiences into worlds that could never have been achieved with SFX alone: ​​flying through the stars at the speed of light, diving into the depths of an ocean, or experiencing the epic battles in Middle Earth.

Without the use of computers, modern films would lose not only in style but also in entertainment. So which of the two methods is the best?

Neither, or rather, both. Instead of contrasting them, today’s directors have to combine them, to make the most of both worlds: creating a real effect on the set and then improving it further with the computer.

Only in this way can special and visual effects be exploited to their full potential and thus achieve the most convincing result.