Ask the Expert: VFX techniques

Suzanne Rebello answers your queries on editing, post & animation.
Suzanne Rebello
Suzanne Rebello


What graphics cards should I consider if I am investing in a small post-production setup?

If you’re looking for a top-of-the-range card with high specifications and one that includes the built-in memory needed to keep everything running smoothly, ensure you have enough graphic memory.

A dedicated video RAM makes it possible for your computer to perform faster, because the graphics card uses video RAM instead of your computer’s RAM to render graphics. 

This process frees up RAM for other operations and allows your computer to run more efficiently. A graphics card with 1GB or 512MB of RAM delivers a noticeable performance increase when you’re rendering animations, composting or editing video.

You must also analyse the software apps that you plan to use. Most GUI-based software apps on Windows use either DirectX or OpenGL. These are a collection of programmes that provide a library of tools that are used to enhance the appearance and processing of graphics.

Graphics card installation can require additional resources, such as power and memory components that your current computer system might not support and different types of interfaces to connect the graphics card to your system.

The two most popular graphics card chipsets are nVidia’s GeForce or Quadro and ATI’s Radeon. The ATI FirePro line of graphics cards are especially recommended for production studios. Some graphics cards work better with certain computer processors, while others perform better in certain video modes. 

Tip: For superior graphics card performance, go with cards used by gamers. Video gamers believe that ATI video cards work better with AMD processors as AMD owns ATI.

I’ve heard a lot about rotoscoping? What is it?

Rotoscoping is an animation technique invented by Max Fleischer in which live-action figures are cut out and re-drawn.

The rotoscope (the actual instrument used) has historically been a valuable invention and is known to bring a sense of realism to larger budget animated films.

Often abbreviated as “roto”, it has been used as a tool for visual effects in live-action movies. By tracing an object, a silhouette (better known as matte) is created that can be used to extract that object from a scene for use on a different background.

While blue and green screen techniques have made the process of layering subjects in scenes easier, rotoscoping still plays a large role in the production of visual effects imagery.

Rotoscoping in the digital domain is often aided by motion tracking and onion-skinning software. It is often considered the simplest visual effects element in a movie yet doing so requires extensive work and understanding it, is tedious work.

Because it still remains to be very important in the industry we move in, software companies launch new products that aim to lessen the pain in rotoscoping.

Adobe After Effects CS, Autodesk’s Toxic, Eyeon Digital Fusion, Silhouette FX, Imagineer’s Mocha are a few of the softwares that deliver accurate and fast mattes. 

Some are designed only for the matte creation process using “rotospline” tool, while others use a planar tracker to help manipulate the created masks or roto-splines.

The tracking data is then used to create the tween frames, which helps in minimising the too many keyframes in the animation. Some softwares offer point tracking and shape control capability and others like adobe AFX allow import from Photoshop and illustrator paths as masks.

In addition channels, including alpha channels could be quickly turned to vector-based animatable masks.

Most of these softwares allow your finished roto to be exported as masks, shapes, bitmap mattes or splines to other compositing programs such as Apple Final Cut Pro, Inferno, Flame, Flint, Smoke, Combustion, Avid DS, Quantel generationQ and Apple Shake.

I am aware of 3D but what is 4D?

4D space differs from the more familiar 3d space, in that it has an additional dimension, indistinguishable from the other three.

Digitally, 4D combines 3D film with physical or multisensory effects such as touch and smell.

4D film is essentially an entertainment presentation system combining a 3D film with physical effects in the theatre, which occur in synchronisation with the film.

Some of the effects simulated include rain, wind, and vibration. The use of water sprays and air jets is also common. A 4D film is not shown in a motion simulator, although some seats in 4D venues vibrate or may move a few inches during the presentation.

Because the physical effects are expensive to set up, 4D films are presented only at special venues such as theme and amusement parks or special theatres.

For instance, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has an Immersion Theatre equipped with 4D capabilities, which combine the HD drama of a 3D film with special sensory effects such as mist and wind. It brings you closer to the sights, sounds, and smells of the action.

Merlin Entertainments London Eye is working with 3D specialists Principal Large Format to create a short 4D movie. The four-minute film is about a little girl’s day trip to London, and how she is whisked away to the London Eye by a friendly seagull for what is literally a ‘bird’s eye’ view - for viewers.

They have also designed and built the world’s first gyrostabilised 3D helicopter camera mount.

They have studied and considered the theatre geometry, exact dimensions of both the screen and the theatre before starting with the production and crafted the film to perfectly fit the space, the distance of the audience from the screen and the size of the screen itself to create enormous impact on the entire 4Dexperience.

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