Let’s be honest, for once, shall we? Can your T.V. show have big-budget Hollywood VFX? Is there a difference between VFX and CGI? Is planning out your VFX before starting production necessary? Does tossing a penny in a fountain grant wishes? The answer to all these questions is: yes!

First, before we get jumbled, let’s be clear about definitions. VFX (visual effects) are visual elements created in post-production to enhance or, at times, completely replace the live-action footage that was captured during production. For example, in principal photography, an actor gives a stirring speech to a green screen. Problem: the dispassionate screen appears unmoved by the actor’s gusto – this is where VFX comes in, removing the green screen and replacing it with a crowd of enthusiastic acrobats (because this imaginary movie is about a small-town hero who saves a struggling circus, or something). Suddenly, the whole scene has been brought to life, and our hero’s moving speech has context. The VFX utilized to achieve this include rotoscoping (to place our hero in the scene), motion capture (to match the camera move), and CGI (to build the circus tent surrounding them). All of these tools are under the umbrella of VFX – and learning how to use them is the best way to take your show to the next level.

So, if you want your show’s VFX to shine like a million-dollar blockbuster, it’s good practice to learn the ‘ins and outs’ of the most used, fastest-evolving storytelling tool out there. Buckle up, here we go…

For VFX to look their best, it’s always prudent to bring a VFX supervisor on set. They will ensure that the necessary details (lighting, textures, reference photos, camera lenses, etc.) are recorded so that when it comes time to create the new visual elements in CGI, all of the models will match the live-action footage perfectly. However, we know that due to the tight budgets we all face these days, this luxury isn’t always possible.

One of our favourite VFX projects we were brought in to work on was a multi-part documentary series produced by VICE Media.  Mister Tachyon, created and directed by Director X, was an innovative series that explored ideas that exist on the fringe of science. And, to align its visual aesthetic with the show content, it was hosted by an invisible lead character, Mister Tachyon. Yes, an invisible host!

By the time RPM started our work on this project, production had already wrapped. Turning Mister Tachyon invisible, normally, would have been straightforward if we received some back plates (empty shots that show the background of the scene so that anything in the foreground can be easily removed, or, ‘made’ invisible). Alas, we were plateless. Despite this, RPM was still able to match the lighting and materials needed to erase the actor’s head and hands from the footage. But how? Well, we used a few tricks, including pulling background plates from unused footage and recreating CGI sleeves and shirt collars, which were then mapped back onto the actor’s movements. It’s an incredible amount of intricate work that goes unseen in the end – but that’s the point when turning someone invisible.

On the topic of Mister Tachyon, our work didn’t just end with turning him invisible. We also tackled the intro sequence, which involved Tachyon performing experiments on himself in his laboratory – we had to visualize the moment he turned invisible. So, how do you visualize something that doesn’t exist visually? We started by mapping the actor’s circulatory system onto his body so that his veins would glow and pulse as the invisibility serum took effect. This required matching not only the camera move but the actor’s movements as well. Next, to sell the moment he turned invisible, we recreated a pair of prop glasses from set in CGI, so that when we erased Tachyon’s head, the glasses would still be there, floating on his invisible face. Now, why a person isn’t blinded by light once their retinas are invisible is a wonderful question – but not ours to answer. Moving right along…

RPM faced a similar dilemma when we created the opening shot for a JV Productions project, Silk Roads. We were provided with a wide overhead drone shot of a road winding through a complex mountain range in the Middle East. It was a beautiful shot, however, the director needed the shot to swoop down to ground level, track along the road, and reveal an ancient village (which didn’t exist until we built that in CGI. But that’s another story). To achieve this shot, we mapped the original drone footage onto a 3D model of a mountain range that we created using said footage. Once that new model was built, perfectly matching the original shot, we were able to recreate the camera movement so that instead of simply passing by overhead, it dipped down into the valley and revealed the village. The transition from real footage into the fully CGI shot was seamless. The cherry on top was when we utilized greenscreen to put the real host of the show into the middle of the CGI village so that they could walk around amongst the mountains and shacks – as opposed to simply cutting back to the host in studio. See, wishes do come true – as long as the penny goes into the right fountain.

It’s no secret that VFX technology is moving at lightspeed. Techniques that used to take thousands of hours and cost thousands of dollars can now be done on your phone for free in seconds. However, those VFX are like mass-produced greeting cards – they’re all the same and they lack the personality of your unique project. For your show, to tell your specific story, you need tailored VFX designed to work perfectly with your footage and match the aesthetic of your series.

For another example, RPM worked on a history series called Secret Nazi Bases. Naturally, the CGI models we built had to be historically accurate (translation: custom-made). Not only that, but we had to ‘track’ real footage from production so we could seamlessly place our 3D models into the war action, again, accurately matching lighting and camera movement to ensure that our CGI integration into the scene looked real. To blend the VFX in more, we also treated some of the footage to make it appear as archival film as if it were recorded in the 1940s.

With a dash of RPM ingenuity and creative thinking, polished VFX are not only affordable but can be used to elevate your story and pull your audience into the world you envisioned. It can break down budgetary boundaries and expand the scope of your project, whether that’s seeing a fire-breathing dragonfly through the sky, turning someone invisible, or changing a drone shot to go down this neighbourhood instead of that one, VFX is the tool you need to have in your back pocket. Luckily, it doesn’t take up a lot of room – it’s only three letters.