Visual effects, it’s such an all-encompassing term these days. You’ve got invisible effects, digital doubles, magic, and superpowers all making the impossible possible. The amount of time, manpower, and computer power needed to create these parts of TV, films, and advertising is huge, not to mention the amazing technical know-how and thought to even work out how to start to achieve them. There are many articles and a lot of plaudits who talk about this. However, there is one, undiscussed area that is no less important: the creativity and artistry needed.
Often, there are just a few words or a simple line in a script to work from: “Enid takes her potion, unstoppers it, and darts away – super, super fast” or “a skinless man emerges from the portal.” Those statements don’t give the artist much information, but it’s where everything starts. Now the VFX supervisor and the artist must think about the “reality” of the effect – what will convince the viewer? What does the director see in his or her mind? What is in keeping with the production design and what will not only fit the narrative, but also help it? Oh, and the biggest challenge – make it original.
From a very geeky, VFX perspective, seeing something on-screen that is unlike anything I’ve seen before makes me very happy and incredibly inspired. Whether anything is truly original anymore is a debate for another time, but the effects I’ll go into below are pretty close to original in my eyes. But feel free to suggest even earlier instances of inspiration that have occurred before my examples – I’d love to see them.
A personal favorite is the black hole grenades in Thor: The Dark World – the vastly underrated part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My colleagues will laugh at the inclusion of this because I go on about them all the time. I remember being open-mouthed, probably with an utterance of “cooooool.” They just felt like nothing I’d seen before. It was such an original and creative way to produce the visualization of a devastating weapon.
First and foremost, they look like black holes – they are perfect representations of time and space folding in on itself with an implosion sucking everything into who-knows-where. The artist needed to create something that a viewer would recognize instantly without an exposition to this newly introduced weapon; after all, Q isn’t handing them to Bond explaining why he has to be careful. Dark Elves just lob them, and you know that it’s a tiny black hole and you should stay very far away.
They clearly used many layers of intricate particle simulations in the build to create such complex movements followed by a full implosion sucking matter into the center. This is one of the most incredibly original effects in recent cinema. Video
I think everyone in visual effects remembers seeing the trailer to Inception and just having their mind blown – a city folding in on itself was just amazing. We reached a point in mainstream media where buildings collapsing felt commonplace. Be it a monster, a robot, or a superhero collapsing it, the audience has become slightly immune to the magnificence of the spectacle. The reality is that it takes a hell of a lot of work to create. However, an entire city folding over onto itself was definitely something new.
For a Christopher Nolan film, such a huge CGI effect was a big deal, and of course, it was executed flawlessly. The visual originality of this has to be congratulated – the execution is something else. This effect exemplifies how inspiration and creativity sparks an idea in another artist and makes it grow. Video
The mind-bending manipulation of New York in Doctor Strange feels very much like the evolution of the effect in Inception: a true evolution of how far they ran with the effect and then achieved. The folding of the elements of the buildings in Doctor Strange again was a jaw-dropping moment for me. Video
The Inception effect was so truly grounded within the world of the film, within the reality of a Nolan film, it’s a perfect example of how integrated visual effects can be.
Originality within an alien creature is definitely becoming harder. From our own experience, inspiration of a concept artist can be spotted from anything they can draw. However, the Mimics in Edge Of Tomorrow are by far one of the most original for a long time. Not only are they beautifully designed creatures, but their movement and addition of the effects on them are awesome.
The strange mixture of a metallic, organic, almost obsidian and crystalline skin is very cool without the inner glow visible at certain points in their body. They appear to have no defined arms and legs but have many of both making their movement so alien, it’s perfect. Somehow they came up with a movement that’s both fluid and staccato at the same time. It gives an uneasy feeling to the viewer and instantly shows the challenge the soldiers have fighting them. Video
They are intimidating through the animation alone. Seeing the breakdowns of the intricacies of these creatures is mind-blowing – each limb made of several interweaving tentacles, each moving independently within the constraints of the limb formed. The creativity of rigging on these creatures alone needs applauding.
Smoke and Mirrors
X-men 2 included an effect that has most definitely inspired many since. The Nightcrawler’s ability to appear and disappear is now nearly 20 years old and still one that looks amazing. I can imagine the brief that he appears and disappears in a puff of smoke. In this example, he literally becomes the smoke, though. This isn’t smoke to mask the Nightcrawler – the particles are colored the same as the Nightcrawler and have the residual motion of him. This allows the viewer to follow the quick action without wondering what’s going on.
It’s worth mentioning the attack of the Death Eaters in The Order of the Phoenix, too, as once again, they achieved something stunning that helped that battle as well as made the wizards appear and disappear in a stunning flourish. These smoke lead effects are ones that are increasingly hard to do in an original fashion, but artists keep on raising the bar and achieving it. Video
Cutting through Reality
It’s now definitely not just films that can be this original with their visual effects. TV is continually raising the bar and production value with their effects. As a fan of the His Dark Materials books, I always wondered how the cutting of the Subtle Knife would be achieved through VFX. The stunning and very optical effect they produced is so good and so original. Without question you know the knife is cutting through the fabric of reality – it splits the lines between worlds with clarity. Video
As with all the effects above, it feels grounded in a reality while remaining extremely fantastical. The fact they didn’t shy away from showing the two worlds lined up as the camera tracked around made it even better.
The largest resource for visual effects, to me, is the world around us – there is nothing more spectacular than nature. There's a good reason Iceland is used as alien planets, that wisps of smoke are the start point of many magical effects; nature is random and original. Thinking about how an effect would react to Earth physics, how a certain character may project their magic or superpower to coincide with their personality, how we as artists make the effect believable are all key considerations when we’re creating our effects.
The creativity and art in producing, developing, and bringing all these effects to screen is one of my favorite parts of the job. Taking a line of a script, discussions with directors, and breathing life into something that enhances the visual tapestry of a production is such a talent, I take my hat off to the artist who came up with all these examples and many more.