Tag Archives: film

What is CGI? Why can’t filmmakers grasp how films are made?

My recent CGI Cola

CGI – Computer Generated Imagery, as a term has always been an enigma. Personally I see it as being 3D graphics, but Wikipedia confusingly refers to it as including some 2D also.

VFX – Visual Effects, to many is synonymous with green screen. I’ve long suspected this belief comes from Behind The Scenes documentaries, vacuous DVD fillers that are so popular I do wonder if many people prefer so-called BTS content to actual movies and TV shows. 

The VFX industry is so vast in scope that keying green screen (or any colour really) is one of dozens of things you could be asked to do within a week as a compositor. In itself, compositing is one of dozens of jobs in the business. However, very little compositing work is what many regard as CGI.

There! Right… there! You see it? That’s the grey area.  If a viewer of a cinematic spectacle sees a hint of VFX they may well jump to thinking of it as CGI. Not all VFX contains CGI. Am I splitting hairs because I do 3D CGI and see CGI as 3D only? Yes. Yes I am. 

When people say that show X has no CGI in, they might be right, or at least think they are. Lots of shows I work on have literally hundreds of VFX shots but only a dozen or so contain 3D graphic elements. The amount of VFX work in TV is astonishing. If you don’t notice it, it’s succeeded in being excellent.

To me, traditional 20th Century Hollywood was about in-camera practical effects and hand-painted backdrops. These days those are often, but not always, referred to as SFX – Special Effects. That historically has been used for so many things that now even VFX is lumped in with SFX in the media, to the extent awards are given out in the category of Special Visual Effects. Add in AI imagery and now nobody outside, or indeed inside, the VFX business has a clue what to do with all the acronyms.

The recent Barbenheimer furore made me think. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer contain a lot of VFX work – tonnes of it – but the directors’ favour of traditional methods was set upon by the media as a good thing, getting us all away from that pesky CGI. The CGI was never the issue. It was scriptwriting, acting, the terrible art direction, but most of all, a complete and utter misunderstanding of the whole VFX business and those who work within it.

To me, films and TV would improve a lot if the focus returned to making gripping stories with well-developed characters. Get that right, then speak to a VFX studio about what might work best as practical or VFX work. Read around the subject, talk to us VFX folk directly about what we’re doing, (and credit us if you would be so kind) but leave those misleading BTS docs alone. They aren’t made by those who made the effects.

To see the things I’ve worked on over the years and judge my qualifications for judginess, see Recent Work.

So what is VFX? I do it for a living, yes, but what is it?

When I am asked what I do for a living, there is a follow-up question that is so common I begin to answer it right away now. That question is, “Ok, that sounds interesting. So what do you actually do? What is Visual Effects really?”

It’s a fair question actually and one whose answer changes as time goes on. If I’m stumped for an answer to the question, I try some of the following.

My staple answer now is,

“I add stuff to video footage that wasn’t there in the first place, or take it away if it wasn’t meant to be there.”

More often than not, the actual answer is,

“I create something with the appearance of having been shot as real life, but which is actually impossible to shoot, be that for practical, artistic or financial reasons.”

Ah, so that will answer it, right? Nope. I find these answers are enough for most people to understand at least vaguely what the end result of my job is. However, some are mad about film, TV dramas and whatnot and really want to show their interest. Again, fair enough. A question you might get is,

“So when you say you add things into video footage or film or whatever, how do you do that?”

That’s the really tricky one to answer, especially as everyone’s preconceptions of media, especially digital, are different. There’s the Make Awesome button right? It’s all done by the computer right?
However, wonderfully, a lot of people use Photoshop now and kind of get the concept of layering things over each other. Lately, I’ve been explaining with,

“VFX has similar principles to editing photographs, only these photos are on the move. Imagine using Photoshop for moving images, with all the layers and masks moving, the colour corrections animating and so on. I make elements, series of 2D images, that are composited on top of others, like layers are in Photoshop.”

I do almost exclusively 3D VFX, by which I mean those elements are created in a 3D package, such as Maya, rendered out as 2D images, just like photographs have no physical depth to them. I no longer get bogged down into details when explaining VFX. To begin with, I don’t even mention the many jobs available; compositor, modeller, 3D generalist, render wrangler etc. I used to say I did 3D animation, but that would lead people down the path of thinking I did Toy Story or was about to reinvent Wallace and Gromit. Another danger with the 3D moniker is the recent resurgence in 3D cinema which is another kettle of fish altogether.

So there we are. A fairly basic answer which most people understand! Incidentally, I am a 3D generalist, available to hire in London, UK. Check out my work on the home page at https://www.ajcgi.co.uk.

3d Generalist available for hire in London from May onwards. 8 years of experience.

From the start of May onwards I will be available for generalist 3d VFX work in London, UK.
My show reel and examples of work are on the home page at https://www.ajcgi.co.uk

I’ve been beavering away this year at a huge rate of knots, working on such things as adverts including one for BBC World Service, and documentaries for BBC and Channel 4. Videos and suchlike to come.

I have now have 8 years of producing shots across many media and platforms, mainly for dramas and documentaries.
More details on my PDF CV at https://www.ajcgi.co.uk/blog/?page_id=45


How long is a piece of string? – Budgeting for your VFX

This post aims to be a bit of a follow up to the Stick vs Carrot post I wrote a long while ago about why I don’t work for free. It presumes you are not wanting something for nothing, so if you are, or have little budget, I strongly encourage you to read Stick vs Carrot first. This post is aimed at exactly the same people, ie small industries, students/graduates wanting help with their videos, musicians wanting music video help. It is also for those who have never hired someone before to do VFX or consider all VFX to involve a green screen.

Regularly I’ll get emails saying something like, “I’ve just completed my first album and am looking to hire a VFX guy for help with my first music video. How much will it cost to add VFX to my dancers?”
Your question opens up a veritable Pandora’s Box of new questions. Much more information is needed.

In an ideal world, before you start a thing, even putting pen to paper to create a storyboard (you are creating a storyboard right?), plan out shooting, chat to VFX companies about what can and can’t be done. There are many quick, cheap solutions, but you may find some of your plans are way too adventurous. When filming with VFX in mind, rather than applying a fix-it-in-post attitude, a few pitfalls can be avoided, but also planned for. For example, many VFX are so-called invisible VFX. They don’t go bang, they don’t melt buildings into a raging torrent of water, they just sit in the background and hide things that may draw attention to themselves. Sometimes they’re even in the foreground. Period dramas are an excellent example of this. In Britain, we are lucky enough to still have many beautiful regency houses in fantastic condition, but they are often bordered by various modern paraphernalia such as electrical cables, gift shops, a nearby oilseed rape farm, a satellite dish, a Starbucks. All of this needs removing so it doesn’t feel incongruous with the regency feel of the drama. These invisible effects appear in many types of show or promo. On a small budget video they may also be invisible costs you haven’t considered. Look out for them.

When contacting VFX companies, (or especially in an effort to save cash, individual artists), check your budget. Really now, check it. If it’s really low, only a few thousand, consider how essential your chosen VFX really are. Junk things you’ve added because you saw it in The Hobbit and think it might be cool in your shaver advert. Don’t be offended if individuals like myself tell you to go away and save some cash. Add an extra contingency of about 40% on top if you can. Why? Things change. All the time. We’re all human and you may find that you don’t like the results, even if they do look thoroughly convincing. All VFX houses can provide quotes for you to assist roughly with your budgeting.

Make a storyboard. Even if it’s really rough sketches. There are guides to it online, but quick pointers are the following; an image for each shot, large arrows showing camera movement, VFX motion and direction. The more detail the better. It may seem time-consuming, but overall it will save you time and money. When chatting about VFX, refer to the boards, to scripts, to reference images, heck even full-on style guides and treatments are great. Knowing the camera you will shoot on is advantageous.

Even after all of this, there will be to-ing and fro-ing. This is natural as oddly enough it’s a creative process, but with some forward planning you’ll become a respected creative rather than one who inspires groaning upon entering a room. Take your time, plan ahead, ideally chat to VFX types before production, shoot only what you planned to, don’t move the goal posts and you’ll hit the end with minimal compromises.

Sequel to The Human Centipede: First Sequence

Seems Mr Tom Six has begun work on the sequel to his mad scientist centipede creation extravaganza. I knew this was coming, but was wondering quite how well the first film would be received. If you could see the stats on my blog you’d be amazed how much my traffic spikes when The Human Centipede is released in a new area of the world or every time it receives news! So plenty of interest and success which is great to see.

Total Film Feature on Full Sequence


Human Centipede shown at Frightfest!


Update: SEQUEL

Film 4’s Frightfest was on again this year at the Empire in London’s Leicester Square.

I was one of a few freelancers lucky enough to work on Tom Six’s ‘Human Centipede’, a thoroughly odd concept for a film. I briefly mentioned this in a previous post, incorrectly referring to it as the Human Caterpillar. I guess a caterpillar does seem slightly cuter than a centipede! The rough premise for this is that a surgeon, previously separating siamese twins for a living, is now collecting people to build a centipede where each person’s mouth is stitched to the anus of the person in front. Yup. You read that correctly.

My part in this was to fix a few things in After Effects that couldn’t be sorted on set. The lady above is having her teeth removed in order to facilitate the passage of waste from the person in front. In that instance is was up to me to remove teeth from the 3 shots involved. The rest was mostly tracking stuff, and a few blood spatters, but there were a couple of time consuming shots involving animating a load of rain drops on a car window. The shots were filmed out of sequence on a night when it genuinely was raining, but some were missing the obvious rain drops one expects from having just driven through rain. The best bit about this was Tom Six saying something like “Rain from a rain machine always looks shit. Nothing like rain,” a statement I highly agree with. Lovely guy. The kind of person you wouldn’t expect to come up with a film about stitching people together in a chain.