3 minute read

Special Effects, Visual Effects, Virtual Effects, Digital Effects, Computer Effects, and even just Effects. You have definitely heard these terms used interchangeably at some point in your career. But they do not all mean the same thing.

While the average cinema-goer could be forgiven for mixing up these industry-specific terms, many video professionals still occasionally conflate them. You really should understand the specifics of this terminology for your project, so as to avoid any miscommunication or confusion among your post-production team.

Special Effects (SFX)

Special Effects are illusions, simulations, or mechanisms within a shot that are based in the “real” world. They are often called practical effects, and include things like pyrotechnics, animatronic puppets, car crashes, prosthetics, and miniature models. These effects are recorded by the camera with the rest of the shot on set, rather than being added in post.

SFX have been around since almost the very beginning of cinema. Nearly a century of technological and artistic achievement have made it possible to portray incredible things on screen, such as breathtaking space travel sequences (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968), realistic dinosaurs (Jurassic Park, 1993), and time-warping sets (Inception, 2010), all created practically.

Visual effects (VFX)

Visual Effects, on the other hand, are added after the footage has been recorded, usually with a computer. Most often, VFX are elements integrated into a live action shot. These elements can add something that was not there before (such as a new background over a green screen) or remove something that was (like an unwanted logo). Some VFX shots are entirely made up of post-production elements, with only small live-action elements added in (like CGI scenes with faces composited onto models). To clarify the terminology, VFX encompass the terms digital effects, computer effects, and virtual effects, which sometimes refer to specialities in the field.

VFX developed as the capabilities of computers and digital systems began to grow. A notable early example was Star Wars (1977), which used practical effects like miniature models spaceships and explosions, but composited these live-action elements together with extra virtual details and effects. As computer systems have matured, it’s now possible for incredibly complex scenes to be created, from scratch, entirely in the digital world.


SFX and VFX work to do the same thing–to make things look real that aren’t. Both are just tools, and each can be used to produce stunning results. Now more than ever, filmmakers have incredible options for creating masterful effects on screen.

When deciding how to achieve the effects you want for your project, the chief considerations between SFX and VFX are the tradeoffs.

SFX require tremendous precision and on-set planning to pull off successfully. However, this can deliver unparalleled visual realism, because they are being captured in frame by real camera.

VFX still require precision and planning, but they allow you to do more after the fact. Also, some things just aren’t possible with practical effects, and computer graphics have opened up a whole new world of effects for even low-budget projects. That said, VFX can introduce new problems for a production. Actors might have a difficult time reacting to imaginary monsters/explosions/etc, so even if a visual effect looks good, the rest of the scene might be poor because of it.

The final considerations for choosing SFX and VFX for your project are logistical. Depending on the exact effect you want to achieve, it could be appropriate to use either a practical or digital approach. It all comes down to what you want, when you want it, and how much you’re willing to pay. Different circumstances will call for different approaches.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to what serves your project’s needs better.

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