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How Animators Can Implement VFX in Animation

ben marvazi 2020

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"The most important thing is that you have to have the visual effects working for you, instead of you working for the visual effects."

David Heyman, Film Producer & Founder of “Heyday Films”

Animated videos and Hollywood blockbusters have one thing in common—they grapple audiences' attention with unique animations and video effects, or VFX, that transport us to different worlds and new universes to explore.

VFX in animation is the secret behind jaw-breaking studio productions audiences enjoy and should implement VFX more than ever as audiences and the film, animation, and VFX industries continue to shift from simple 2D animations and live-action films to 3D-animated and CGI videos.

VFX animators digitally implement visual effects that create or manipulate on-screen images to reflect what live-action shots cannot. There are many ways an animator can implement VFX; the task is demanding yet fulfilling in creativity and by elevating an animated video's standard.

This blog sheds light on what animators need to know about VFX in animation and how animators can implement VFX in animation so that animators and production studios can acknowledge the role of VFX in animation with a complete perspective.

What Animators Need To Know About VFX In Animation

vfx in animation is used in hollywood productions

GIF via Gifer

Animators implementing VFX in animation are invaluable for creating and managing visual images, animations, and special effects to optimize animated videos, ads, computer games, and websites, using various equipment and software.

In a studio, VFX in animation can also include creating CGI characters, simulations and mockups, and life-like digital assets to display natural characteristics and emotions and move believably. Hence, technical skills, creativity, and attention to detail are commendable skills an animator should have.

In the VFX industry, animators produce visual elements to integrate into live-action films or TV programs. VFX animators animate 3D objects and frames using rigs following background film plates to execute VFX in animation.

Some productions achieve VFX in animation using the process of motion capture for specific characters and scenes, wherein actors wear a special skin-tight suit with motion trackers to capture their movements digitally and create awe-inspiring animation models.

What Are Animators Responsible For In VFX In Animation

VFX animators are responsible for conceptualizing and creating cutting-edge CGI characters and visual effects following the direction of a compositor and VFX supervisor.

Involving VFX in animation allows animators to provide creative and technical assistance and troubleshoot problems with the video and storyboards, maintain an accurate progress summary, and manage edits with the editorial department.

The other way a studio can benefit from VFX in animation is by employing an animator who can

  • Understand the principles and mechanics of animation
  • Conceptualize and create special effects, or SFX
  • Follow the feedback of composite leads
  • Track and manage the workflow through the production pipeline
  • Computerize a character's attitude, emotions, and mood through movement and spatial awareness
  • Troubleshoot any issues with animations
  • Create storyboards and simulate specific effects
  • Manage files and work within and meet production schedule deadlines

A VFX animator's knowledge of seamless integration of miniature, live action, and CGI sources ables them to undertake green screen extractions, among other skills they possess, like

  • The ability to create and implement high-quality VFX
  • Strong knowledge of 3D animation software
  • Diverse creativity skills
  • Knowledge of VFX compositing software
  • Understanding Linux/Unix-based computer operating systems
  • Excellent time and team management and communication skills

Moreover, VFX in animation requires animators to have a fine eye for aesthetics, lighting effects, and composition and an adequate understanding of movement and textures.

The Benefit Of VFX In Animation Seen In Movies

vfx in animation movie examples

Image via CGLab

Studios are in the business of releasing captivating videos; VFX in animation helps studios differentiate their video productions and branding by creating unbelievable yet realistic movies that would be impossible, dangerous, expensive, or time-consuming to capture.

Generally, the planning for VFX in animation occurs during pre-production and is actioned during the production or the post-production period of the movie or the motion picture production pipeline to insert the desired effects according to the animation script and the director's visual angle choices.

VFX in animation includes several techniques, namely—

  • Matte painting is the process of representing a landscape or set as a painting to create an illusion.
  • Animation involves designing or creating objects and their movement in two-dimensional or three-dimensional worlds.
  • Motion capturing is a 3D animation tool to record the movement of objects or people.
  • Rigging, or skeletal animation, is a process of controlling the twisting of the mesh data.
  • Composting, through which real-life elements interact with computer-generated images to portray them as one visual layer.
  • CGI is an application that uses 3D modeling to create objects and surfaces and digitize those 3D models into a computer.
  • Rotoscoping is purposeful for mapping out motion picture frame by frame to produce unique visual effects for an animated project.

VFX in animation can produce videos representing imaginary worlds and live-action scenes without ever leaving the studio, and the benefits of video effects continually pave new ways of filmmaking altogether while reducing production costs.

Below are some ways how VFX in animation can benefit an animation studio:

Location: Travelling to different set locations is costly and takes time from production, but with VFX technology, e.g., green screens, eliminating traveling, studios are significantly more efficient and productive.

Set: Building a massive production set is dangerous and costly, especially if it will be in different locations, but with VFX in animation, there's no need.

Vehicle movement: Filming driving scenes in public is daunting and risky, but applying VFX techniques in a studio layout eliminates the risk.

Controlling climate: Studio production teams cannot control the weather when filming specific scenes or outdoors. VFX in animation can add any weather condition necessary for the video without leaving the studio.

Fire: Filming circumstances portraying fire is harmful and requires acquiring permits, and filming inside a studio and adding VFX in post-production is quicker and safer.

Which Movies Show The Best Of VFX In Animation

best vfx in animation movie examples

GIF via Gifer

Movies have not been the same since the widespread adoption of VFX in animation; indisputably, the phenomenon will only improve with time and new emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

The tools of the trade change all the time; however, the end goal is always the same, i.e., to make the unreal look, sound, and feel authentic. Studios require animators to implement VFX for this purpose.

Below are some of the movies reflecting the effective use of VFX in animation.

The Lion King

The life-like dust during the Wildebeest scene in the movie highlighted the use of VFX in animation for the animation industry. Animators had to invent new strategies and technology to animate the scene using hand-drawn animation and computer effects unseen at the time.

the lion king uses some early vfx in animation during the wildebeest scene

GIF by ThxtDisney via WeHeartIt

The dust looks and feels authentic because of Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) designed by Disney and Pixar, which revolutionized the coloring process and provided animators with new, invaluable tools like opacity and shading. 

Animators had to paint the dust cloud, integrate it into the scene and consider different levels of opacity and blur to give it different dimensions.

Toy Story

The groundbreaking animated movie was the first full-length CGI film in history, off-setting the popularity of 2D hand-drawn animation and opening a new era of VFX in animation, which laid the groundwork for many top animated movies today.

vfx in animation was seen in 3d in toy story

GIF via Gifer

Computers were changing everything, pushing Pixar to develop software to help animators with the new animation style and introduce animators to the concept of rendering.

To hide imperfections in the character's clothing, animators did not fully light the characters to avoid viewers noticing the missing details. Lighting can make or break a scene and continues to be one of the elements that make VFX in animation look realistic.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines

This modern animation movie is the pinnacle of using VFX in animation to bring something entirely fresh and unique into the animation world by using a hybrid of 2D and 3D animation styles and alternative influences, e.g., memes.

Animators built new tools to bring watercolor art to life, including imperfectly designing visual effects, outlines, and textures to mimic a hand-drawn style.

the mitchells vs the machines showed vfx in animation is present in hybrid animations

GIF by MitchellsvsMachines via Tenor

The distinction between the human and robot worlds owes to the different animation styles used to create in the film. Animators employed a hand-drawn style for the human characters, CGI for the robots, and a cartoon look for the drawings in Katie's diary.

The film boasts various animation styles, and after choosing the film's visual style, the images were broken down into several components, like brushstrokes, depth of field, and outlines, to bring it all to life.

While the industries have come a long way with VFX in animation, some of the best uses of VFX in live-action movies are:


The movie 2012 is iconic for creating a global-scale disaster never seen before its time using computer graphics. The miniatures in the movie were so few that filming them took two days. VFX animators did most of the heavy lifting since CGI models are cheaper than miniatures and don't have physical limitations.

2012 is an iconic example of vfx in animation done through live action movies

GIF by Gwirth via Tenor

Miniatures would have been too expensive and difficult to animate. For instance, animators worked with 600 computers to make the scene of the flooding of the Himalayas and render it frame by frame before compositing it into live-action.

Alice in Wonderland

Creating hybrid characters is how VFX in animation involves digitally generating characters by incorporating photographic elements from filming the actors and retaining their facial performances while animating them with imaginative and fantastic bodies.

vfx in animation was heavily implemented in cgi movies like alice in wonderland

GIF by Bill Desowitz via Animation World Network

Animators made the characters look realistic using the chroma keying technique, or green screen, for compositing. None of the worlds and elements in the movie were real, including the environment and people.


The animation team used many photographs and scans of the actors to incorporate their details into the digital characters. To render quicker, digital scanning, light-stage capture, and a lot of extra texture and shade work were helpful.

the animation team in avatar made use of vfx in animation through 3d cgi

GIF by Bill Desowitz via Animation World Network

Facial motion capture involving attaching high-definition video cameras and markers to the actor's faces allowed a higher level of realism to the facial animation.

Animators used stereoscopic 3D to enhance the environments, a Fusion 3D camera system to film the live-action for the movie, and a customized version of Shake to composite the stereo shots.

How Do Animators Implement VFX In Animation

A VFX animator animates almost everything, along with lighting and rendering. These stages closely interlink, and the quality of the VFX relies on the render engine used and the lighting that illuminates the effect.

lighting and compositing helps vfx in animation

Image by FXGuide via Pinterest

The 3D animation categories and workflow mentioned below show how VFX in animation works in a 3D world.

Particle Simulation Systems

Animators use particles, or points in space, to imitate effects like rain, snow, dust, swarming bees, flocking birds, and so on. Animating many particles by hand is practically impossible, and 3D software can handle them simultaneously to create effects without keyframing them one by one.

Fluid Simulation Systems

Animators employ a different form of particle simulation to recreate complex fluid movements relying on math equations that govern fluid physics in a 3D environment.

Hair and Fur Simulation Systems

To make hair and fur look natural in 3D, animators consider the character's movements, wind, and gravity. Most 3D software comes with pre-set hair and fur dynamic systems.

Rigid-body Simulation Systems

Animators use rigid-body simulations for VFX in animation to create basic collisions, shattering, and motion of inflexible objects. The VFX animator sets attributes like the center of mass and velocity to define how these rigid bodies react to physical phenomena.

Soft-body Simulation Systems

Soft-body simulation systems create visually accurate simulations of motion and collision of deformable objects. Animators use soft-body simulation to create realistic cloth, muscle, fat, and fluid-like surfaces that can deform as a part of the collision.

vfx in animation also helps simulation systems

Image by Moople Institute via Dailygram  

Animators creating 3D VFX, such as smoke or rain, follow a specific sequence, which may vary slightly in different animation studios. The typical workflow for a VFX animator in an animation studio involves:

Assignment: The VFX supervisor provides the terms for a shot or sequence, including the expectations and the scene file with camera details, environment, and animation. At this point, the VFX animator knows the entire sequence and what to resolve.

Scene breakdown: The VFX animator breaks down the video effects to identify how to manage them efficiently; the output of this process is a step-by-step plan to get to the final result after receiving the assignment.

Implementation: After breaking the scene into smaller pieces, the VFX animator resumes each step of the plan, simulates it, and caches the simulation.

Polishing: Finally, the VFX animator will fill in the rest of the effect and commit the final touches to achieve the desired results.

vfx in animation is a good polish for your animations

GIF by WorldofWarships via Giphy

VFX in animation involves animators using 2D VFX to create many different types of video effects, and the following are some ways how 2D effects apply to 3D animations in post-production:

  • Sparks are sudden bursts of sparks, e.g., when a bullet hits a metal surface.
  • Pixie Dust is the kind of magical dust associated with pixies, fairies, or any undefined creatures in a fantasy world.
  • Dust is among the elements that boost a scene's atmosphere and is a must-have 2D VFX.
  • Smoke, especially 2D smoke, is inexpensive and easy to apply to a 3D rendered scene instead of creating the effect in 3D, which is time-consuming and costly.
  • Lens flare is an optical phenomenon inside the lens of a camera to create VFX elements that make 3D or 2D animations more intriguing.
  • Background replacements—seamless compositing must be able to remove or add backgrounds.
  • Camera shake can make stable videos look handheld.
  • Rotoscoping is the practice of tracing an object in a video to add or remove it from the video.
  • Fire/water are hard to simulate in 3D. But they can be created in 2D with ease.

Why Animators Should Implement VFX In Animation

Every animator and studio owner knows that constantly implementing new techniques to animate is critical in the animation industry, emphasizing the need to understand how animators can implement VFX in animation.

The capabilities of modern animation and ever-improving animation technology allow animators to create, enhance, or manipulate video elements and integrate them to make entire animated video shots look realistic.

Many industries choose animated videos or films with VFX over live-action to have a distinct edge and engaging visuals, and animators implement VFX in animation to produce riveting videos.

More to producing excellent videos, animators looking at how to start an animation studio can check out the Business of Animation free masterclass and join the animation accelerator program to start and grow a successful freelance animation career.

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