Friday 18th May 2001

2018 UPDATE – This tutorial was written in 2001, and is very outdated now. I’ve left it online for historical interest!. I’m currently working on a vastly more detailed and comprehensive VFX Supervision Online learning course. I’d love to share it with you when I launch in a few months. Join my mailing list and I’ll drop you a line when it’s ready. Don’t worry there’ll be no Spam.


This is a beginner’s guide to shooting video that will be used in an effects shot, any feedback is warmly welcomed. This guide represents lots of research and the opinions of others who are far more experienced than myself but I hope it will help the beginner and prevent the many mistakes most of us make on our first experience with sfx shoots.

You may wish to skip this and go straight onto the compositing guide

1. Designing your sequence.

Whilst we may not all have the power to conceptualise and design the sequence ourselves, you should still be involved in this stage to make sure you’re not being passed an impossible project, or one that will take too long and go way over budget.

Let’s look at a couple of examples and discuss what problems if any could arrive if you were to produce such a sequence. :

(a) A Computer animated helicopter flies around someone’s head, the camera follows the movement until the person reaches up and grabs the helicopter.
This project holds a few major headaches for you, the first one being that of camera matching, you’re going to have to get your virtual camera to match the movements of the real one. If you’ll be dealing with shadows and reflections of the helicopter then your camera match will have to be perfect !. The second headache will be to matte out a close up of a human head, there will no doubt be hair involved and if the helicopter is to fly around the person’s head, you’ll have to successfully matte the hair which is very hard due to the many detailed variations in colour, shape and size. This will be even harder if the head moves, which as the camera is moving we can safely assume it will be. The final major problem you could expect would be to get the human to grab the helicopter, it could involve some heavy rotoscoping and match move techniques to match the helicopter to the person’s hand once it’s been grabbed.

(b) A spaceship lands in a car park during the day and a human figure climbs aboard.
Oh dear, another very tricky one. First of all this is a big shoot, lots of ambient light and measurements to be taken. Is the spaceship going to cast shadows on the cars ?, will it reflect in the windows ?. Sometimes these choices are made for you when you look at the footage and realise you can clearly see the surrounding area reflected in the windows, and you have no choice but to get your UFO to fit in. This is also a major shoot headache as you’ve got to get a real human to walk up a ramp or whatever to look as though they’re walking up into the UFO. Most of your headaches will be on set as this is a complex shot to set up.

So to conclude, you’re going to have to think ahead constantly. Try and imagine every problem you may encounter, DON’T ASSUME ANYTHING WILL WORK !.

Imagine yourself sat at your computer fitting this together, how would you accomplish it ?. You’ll very rarely manage to spot every future problem, but as your experience grows so will your solutions !

2. Working on set.

The first piece of advice I can give is that many if not most of your problems in post can be remedied during the shoot, there is no piece of hardware or software that can produce better results than a well planned and documented shoot. Don’t be afraid to step in and make comments or take notes at any time, as this will be your headache when the lights and cameras have been packed up.

You should take it as a given that when you’re sat alone in post at 4am that there will be something that you didn’t do during the shoot that you’ll be kicking yourself about, if you take this as your golden rule then you can at least plan to be prepared on the day of the shoot. Measure everything, take readings of all the lighting levels, ask about camera lenses, and make sure you get plenty of coverage. There’s nothing worse than getting to post and realising you needed a clean plate or twelve more seconds of background plate.

So now you’re ready to take all that footage back to your studio and try and squeeze it all into a computer and make something from it.

Ben Cowell 2001