CGI and visual effects on a budget

CGI and visual effects on a budget

How to add visual effects and CGI post production to your film without blowing the budget

about the author: Christian Darkin is an illustrator and animator and has written five books and countless magazine articles on animation and visual effects.

Effects and Animation in Film

Want to add blockbuster visual effects (VFX) to your short or low budget movie, but don`t have the blockbuster budget? Recent advances in quality and reduction in cost of 3d animation and post production have brought high quality CGI within reach of filmmakers and video producers on a modest budget, but how do you commission animation, how does the process work and how much is it going to cost you? This article is designed to give you a few answers.

CGI and Video Effects tips

Don`t be afraid to approach a post production/ 3d animation studio with your idea even if you`ve not fully developed the script. Animators can often give you advice on the most effective way to make your video production work, and will instantly be able to answer a lot of your questions on how to develop the visual effects to your timescales and budget. I`ve made enough short films in my time to know that good information is the most valuable thing you can have.

FX, Time and money: The more time you can give your visual effects team, the more detail and quality they can add. The better your budget, the more time can be devoted to your project. Special effects quality really is all about time.

The team: CGI/ special effects artists don`t work in a vacuum. Post production skills are interlinked and effects teams are formed with the right specialties for a given video production job – even if the animator or VFX artist you approach doesn`t have all the skills needed, they`ll know who to bring in and should be able to do it seamlessly to get the job done.

Formats: FX artists create their animations as sequences of still images – usually TIFF files – From there, they will be able to provide you with your visual effects in any format you want, but a very lightly compressed quicktime file provides a good compromise between convenience and quality.

A few common visual effects techniques

Background or matte painting – take an establishing shot (a locked off tripod shot is cheapest) and your visual effects artists can use 3d animation to add to and change the landscape to replace parts of the image, or place your shot somewhere else or somewhere entirely fictional. Movement and animation can then be added. So if you shoot your spaceship interior, you can zoom out of a portal to show the ship in space. If you film a city skyline, buildings can be added or replaced. Shoot in a park and your FX artist can make it “Jurassic”. This kind of work is fairly cheap because after a couple of establishing shots, you start cutting to close-ups and no special effects are needed.

3d Character animation: probably the toughest thing you can do in CGI – but the most rewarding – is character animation – adding live creatures and characters to your film. It`s quite possible, even on a modest budget to include 3d animated characters, but you have to count your shots – and your on-screen seconds carefully. Bear in mind that the most costly things your animated characters can do are: Interact with other characters, perform complex movements, and talk. A creature that sits in shot growling is going to be a lot cheaper than one that has to have a fist fight with your hero.

Blue screen or chromakey effects: It`s quite possible to turn a crowd of five people into an army, place your hero into a cgi landscape or make them fly using bluescreen filming. A small chromakey studio costs around £500 per day, and your visual effects artists will be able to advise you exactly what shots you need to get – or even shoot it for you if you need them to.

Pyrotechnics, and explosion effects: Adding muzzle flash, smoke, sparks or fairy dust to a shot can be done relatively inexpensively. Realistic explosions, fire and rain VFX are tougher and need to be well set up in the live action portion of the shot. They`re still possible, but the more realism you want, the more time consuming and expensive they`ll be.

Out of this world effects: in space, everything is CGI – few of your audience will have actually been there, so visual effects artists get away with a lot of artistic licence (for example, in space there`s no sound and very little light – so in reality most space battles would be silent and invisible). On the up side the fact that it`s all CGI means you`ve got a lot of opportunity to create exciting and convincing moving shots for your film.

Battles between orc warriors: There`s a trend nowadays towards having lots of stuff going on – swarms, crowds and huge epic CGI battles – primarily because it`s difficult to achieve. These kind of special effects are one of the few ways you can still show off a really big budget because while there are ways to economise, you`re still looking at a considerable job.

Visual Effects Costs

CGI and Visual effects span everything from South Park to Jurassic Park, so giving out a price is pretty meaningless. A good yardstick for visual effects and CGI costs is to work out your production`s per minute budget and guess that your visual effects budget should be between 2 and 5 times that per minute.

In other words, you want to CGI to be at the same level of production as the rest of your film, so if your film budget is 1,000 per minute, you should make your visual effects budget between 2,000 and 5,000 per on-screen minute depending on its content.

How to increase your video FX costs

The single best way to misjudge your special effects costs is through mission creep. “I just want a shot of a guy walking down a street with a bit of smoke – that`s all”.

“..oh, and there are bullets bouncing off him”

“… actually he`s on fire”

“…did I mention he was an alien? – well, just your average reptilian alien”

“… about 50 feet high”

“and the street is on fire too”

“and it`s a futuristic street on an alien planet – did I mention the alien planet? Can we zoom in to him from orbit?”

That`s mission creep.

How to reduce your video FX costs

The best way to reduce your visual effects and 3d animation budget is to avoid assuming that you can fix everything in post production. Get the shots your FX artist needs at the quality they need them and you`ll spend less time trying to get a good composite.


Most animation companies will ask for 25% of the cost up front, 25% on delivery of the first finished version and the remaining 50% at the end of the project (often – if no changes are needed – the last two invoices are at the same time).

What if I really can`t afford special effects

If you really want a visual effect, but can`t afford to hire the skills in, your best tools are probably After Effects for compositing and 3DS Max or Maya for CGI. These aren`t cheap in themselves, and they`re not easy to learn, but as a first step, take a look at some of the tutorials at .

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