How do I get better with special effects?

MorganStudios Website User Posts: 46 Just Starting Out

Yeah, I can always go on youtube and copy someone's tutorial, but that doesn't help me learn how to use the tools in other ways.  What can I do to get better at making special effects from scratch?


  • FilmSensei
    FilmSensei Moderator, Website User, Ambassador Posts: 2,726 Ambassador

    In the martial arts we have a saying... Nothing can replace time on the tatami (training surface). Pull out the software and spend time just playing with things. You will be amazed at how much you can learn just by pushing the buttons and moving the sliders.

  • triforcefx
    triforcefx United StatesModerator, Website User Posts: 1,157 Moderator

    Sensei is right... Jump into Hitfilm and mess around with things. Try all the different effects to see what you can do. 

    It can also help to think of an effect you want to achieve and aim to create or recreate it as best as possible.

    Once you know what various effects and options do, you can use that knowledge to build effects.

  • Triem23
    Triem23 Moderator Moderator, Website User, Ambassador, Imerge Beta Tester, HitFilm Beta Tester Posts: 18,984 Ambassador
    edited June 2019

     Hoo, boy this is a dense topic . 

    First, get familiar with the software. Hitfilm has a LOT of features and filters and nowhere near all of them have tutorials (I am going to do a series on every effects filter, but there are a couple hundred already. It will take over a year to complete and will probably be 40 hours long). You'll have to poke around and explore on your own. Tutorials can help, but they just can't cover everything. Yet I segue to... 

    Watch tutorials. This is where I plug my own channel  Hitfilm University. My prime series, Essential Hitfilm  needs to be redone for Hitfilm 12+, but is still of value. Essential Hitfilm isn't about the "effect of the week," but focuses on in-depth looks at the interface and tools. The goal of Essential Hitfilm is to teach Hitfilm artists how the software works so "effect of the week" tutorials make more sense. My channel also contains playlists compiled from about three dozen other tutorial channels. 

    Essential Hitfilm:

    Keep watching tutorials. Tutorials are your friend  but the way to work with a tutorial is to figure out what tools were used and for what. As you do that you'll start seeing that a technique used in tutorial X was used to do something different in tutorial Y. As a quick example there's an old FXHOME tutorial on "recreating the Videocopilot Star." There's also old FXHOME tutorials on creating "fireballs" and "energy orbs." My own channel has a tutorial on creating planets. All of these tutorials mostly the same - all of them start with Fractal Noise and a Sphere filter. So it's not about following one of those tutorials and thinking "ok, that's how to make a star" it's about "oh, Fractal Noise and Sphere give the starting point for neat things!" Maybe you're doing a Star Trek battle animation... Well, Fractal Noise and Sphere are also the starting points for a shield hit.... If you see one tutorial on eye replacement you've seen them all. Tracking and masking are the key concepts because that's what's going to lock the eye effect together. The look of the new eye? Dozens of methods. All black eye is a black plane, glowing white eyes is a white plane with glow. Swirly blue eyes? Fractal noise and drawing the pupil with a mask on a black plane. Doesn't matter as long as you understand tracking and masking. Cloning? Also masking. Need an explosion behind an object? Masking. Cutting off an arm? Masking. Taking a 2D photo and adding fake depth? Masking. @FilmSensei and I both have tutorials on the "Infinity War Dissolve." (Mine's on the FXHOME channel. Yeah, remove "Infinity War" from the title. The different techniques used to define how the dissolving object matches with the particles is the real lesson. Small particles affected by gravity that turn grey make the "Thanos Snap" look. Take a "Thanos Snap" effect and change the gravity to a rise force and change the particles to glowing green and its a ray gun disintegration. The "Infinity War" dissolve tutorials cover ALL particle disintegrations. Go with larger, blood red particles and a faster mask and it's a dude exploding. Match an image of a skeleton behind the actor and dissolve that 2-3 frames later and it's a staked vampire. Only real difference is the look of the particles. 

    Still keep watching tutorials. The next step is watching a tutorial and pausing after the effect is shown and before the host starts teaching. Try and figure out how the effect was built before you watch the steps. The first few times you figure it out will feel really good. My favorite tutorials are now the ones where I guess wrong (because those are the ones that teach me something new), but, even when I guess basically correct  there may be a step or two different from my basic approach.

    Finally, look up the old school techniques - models  matte paintings, lighting, makeup  traditional animation, etc. A lot of the techniques in VFX are digital versions of classic effects  and knowing how those worked can help the digital make sense. Let's say you are trying to make yourself a giant. The key to making that work has nothing to do with Hitfilm (or AE or software at all), but with matching the background plate and actor plate. Let's say I want to make myself 10 times taller. The first trick is to match the camera angle: so when I point my camera up at the buildings I need to know the angle of tilt so I can match that when I shoot the actor. The next trick is to know camera height. If the camera was 5 feet (60 inches) (152cm for metric ) high when shooting the buildings, then the camera needs to be 1/10th as high when shooting the actor. 6 inches or 15.2cm. With a Tripod I probably can't get my camera that low. Maybe I can only get the camera 1 foot off the ground... This means I have to elevate my actor 6 inches... And, obviously I need to match camera lens. If I shot the building with a 24mm lens, I need to shoot the actor at 24mm. If I shot the buildings at f/11 I shoot the actor at f/11. If focus on the building was at 50 feet, focus on the actor needs to be 5 feet. Maybe I shot my buildings at 24 fps. This would mean my shutter speed is (ideally) 1/48. Ok, but I shoot my actor at 60fps for slow mo. My shutter should be 1/120 so the motion blurs match. This will also mean the actor plate is darker.... I can't change f/stop - that changes DoF. I can't change shutter speed - that changes motion blur. I either have to put more light on the actor or adjust ISO... Or, maybe I shoot the buildings with a 6x ND filter and no filter on the actor. Of course lighting directions have to match... Point is, for this effect to work the relative camera heights, absolute camera angle, relative focus distance, relative shutter speeds, etc all have to match or it won't look correct, no matter what software you use. Most tutorials on this are wrong because the creator doesn't think about matching cameras, they just shoot the plates, greenscreen the actor, then scale and place in frame. It always looks terrible. 

    So, big topic  and this only scratches the surface. Hope this helps somewhat..

  • Triem23
    Triem23 Moderator Moderator, Website User, Ambassador, Imerge Beta Tester, HitFilm Beta Tester Posts: 18,984 Ambassador

    Minor terminology note. "Special effects" are on-set/in camera practicals. Lighting a room and using a smoke machine in a room that's supposed to be on fire is special effects. 

    "Visual effects" is the proper term for things done with compositing, animation and CGI.

    So an on-set explosion is a special effect, where a stock footage explosion comped in Hitfilm is a visual effect. 

  • DafterThings
    DafterThings Website User Posts: 927 Enthusiast


    I would listen to the advice of the others more than my comment below.
    Everybody that I leech from uses the method of loading up Hitfilm and messing around.... it *must* be the right way.

    I take the lazy person's approach which is not ideal for learning the full range of effects but,  if you have limited time,  helps get something done.
    1) List the VFX I'm likely to need in a film and that can't be done on set.
    2) Check for existing tutorials : There will be something close and, if not, I ask here.
    3) Practice the tutorial and check the other options of the effects for a customised look.
    My aim is to make sure the effect is feasible and will look 'good enough'.

    I have become familiar with the most common effects and a few niche ones. However, I suspect this has taken me longer than spending time with the software.
    There are just too many things to do and not enough time to do them all.

  • Triem23
    Triem23 Moderator Moderator, Website User, Ambassador, Imerge Beta Tester, HitFilm Beta Tester Posts: 18,984 Ambassador

    @DafterThings yeah, but you do stop motion  which already takes forever and a day. Who has time to try to fully master the software?

    Your method is a fantastic approach, suitable for what your output is. Your main communication in your films is via pose and movement, and the VFX are there to compliment the story. @MorganStudio's question reads (to me) more as one from an aspiring VFX artist looking to build a skillset. You're a filmmaker learning just enough about the VFX end to do the stories you're telling - and your advice is absolutely solid from that perspective. 

  • DafterThings
    DafterThings Website User Posts: 927 Enthusiast
    edited June 2019

    @Triem23  I think you're right about MorganStudios  intent but thought I'd give an alternate approach just in case.

  • spydurhank
    spydurhank Moderator, Website User, Ambassador, Imerge Beta Tester, HitFilm Beta Tester Posts: 2,948 Ambassador

    @MorganStudios ,

    The question in your post says it all. "What can I do to get better at making special effects from scratch?" The more you can see and understand the entirety of the cgi/vfx pipeline, the more you can easily optimize workflows which means integrating new techniques with the old and even possibly removing the techniques and or practices that just aren't working for you which from your question, it sounds exactly like what you're trying to do. 

    You feel that what you've been learning and who've you've been learning it from is no longer good enough and you want more. You're in the right place for that. Ton of awesome and talented vfx artists on this forum.

    First, don't feel bad about being a Copy Cat, your question alone says that dated practices are not good enough for you and you are ready to move on to something else so you are willing to learn new things. We all were a copy cat at one time or another. That is how humans learn. Copy this, memorize that, do it like this, repeat. Don't hate the copy cats because all they can do is copy cat. I admire the fact that you don't want to simply copy tutorials anymore. It means that you're ready to move on and are primed to learn some awesome stuff so that you are now the creator and not the copy cat. Don't know you but, damned if I'm not proud of you for wanting to be better at what you do so you should be feeling really good right now. I'm happy and exited for you. :)

    So yeah, we all copy, mimic, and quote other people as if we are the ones that invented what we are emulating. I emulated folks tutorials off and on as a hobby from 2008 using Visionlab before there was Hitfilm, till 2013. I only set aside 30 minutes to an hour at a time every other week for learning so it took me five years to be only sorta mediocre at creating anything. I did a bit better from 2013 to 2017 but still the learning curve was big so I only learned a few basic things. So definitely set aside as much time as you're able so you can learn as much as you can and for sure, remove any distractions and be as comfortable as possible. Eat and drink plenty so you're totally focused on your learning. Be exited for yourself and feel good when you understand a concept. Stay positive and know that you can do this.

    Practice, lots of practice. Repetition in small increments is very good here. It is like watching a movie 3 or 4 times... the next thing you know, you've memorized the movie. Easy Peasy. :) I used this once on a project where I had to learn how to retopologize a few dozen 3D models in around 3 days. I watched a few YouTube vids on the subject but I watched each vid a few times and then got to work overnight. Obviously just watching the videos didn't magically make or turn me into a 3D retopo expert but I got so much practice at it over night and up till early the next morning, that I learned how to optimize the retopo of my own 3D objects so fast that it was more of a few minutes job instead of it taking hours or days. Trust me. It is in the repetition of a task where you'll learn how to optimize and you will feel pretty damned good. Optimizing alone is a creative process because it will teach you to plan ahead and once you see that optimizing frees up your creative potential, you'll spend more time being naturally creative because you don't have to worry about the same stressful stuff that other vfx artists have to worry about. One is time and another is manual calculations just to name two.

    Be patient with yourself and with the folks whom you're trying to learn from, this is very important when you're trying to learn or you'll miss the lesson if you're not patient. There are many people so there are many views on how to do cgi/vfx and sadly sometimes views clash. There are a few who think that their way is the only way. You know internally that this isn't true simply because you asked your question in the first place and that is why you're here looking for a different way. It is these people that you need to be patient with because they may come across as rude, cocky, snarky or whatever alse but they do have some great knowledge under their belt and that is what you want and not their ego. Not one view is better than the other so be mindful of that. If you learn from only one source, you're placing a very major creative limit on yourself. So learn from many if you have the time. The more you know, the better you can optimize your workflows to solve and or simply avoid problems for speedy creation times. Knowing how to see all of the different views and how you can re-arrange them to suit your needs is where a little creativity comes in but you will not see it if you're not patient.

    You need to find your own inspiration on how to be creative because that part is all about you and how you want to express yourself. How you express yourself should be yours and yours alone. If you express like someone else then you've honestly just gone back to being a copy cat and trust me... you do not want to be the copy cat, you want to be the creator, I say this as a former copy cat. Besides, copy cats know when they see or hear a good idea because duh... they copy it. So aren't all copy cats actually cute and helpful when they copy cat? Of course they are. Copy Cats know what's up. But as I said, it is easier to be creative when you know more because you'll know what works and what doesn't work. 

    This may help you but I'm not really sure. It is just something I like to do to shorten my learning curve. Some YouTube videos are long and boring so I watch those at 2 x playback speed which definitely cut down learning curves. Especially when the video is on 3D cameras and or matchmoving because that is the very first thing that I taught myself in 2013. Just because I already know 3D cameras by heart doesn't mean I don't watch new tuts on the subject because I do watch them. There is always something new to learn such as a new tool or technique. Doing it this way helped me to quickly memorize anything that I put my mind on learning. Plus people sound like a chipmunk when you speed up their videos which is honestly... a pretty good time. I watched one of my videos at 2 x speed and it was freaking hilarious. You don't have to watch videos that fast but after a while you'll see that you can and you'll be able to understand and comprehend at those speeds.

    I was once were you are now so I can tell you that if you can find something early on, a hobby or anything that you are very passionate about and already good at, try to make a correlation between it and cgi/vfx, it will all come together for you naturally. In my case it is Fine art and illustration. Once I made a connection between the two and realized that it is all really the same thing, learning curves became next to nothing and that is why I can breeze through videos at 2 x playback speed. I didn't figure this out till 2017-2018-ish. I learned more from 2018-2019 than I did from 2008-2017 and that is a huge difference. That one little connection broke down every bias/roadblock/learning curve that I ever had about learning cgi/fvx so that the entire cgi/vfx pipeline just made sense to me. Without a doubt it amazes me how simple all of this stuff really is and how over complicated others make it sound. I wish that I'd made the connection years ago because I would have saved so much time. So try and make a connection because you're the only one that can do that part for you. 

    Some of the heavy hitters on this forum have been known to teach others in a one on one basis so that could be a pretty good option. Doesn't hurt to ask because I've seen some pretty damned good results from their students. I'm talking about really, really good results. 

    One question for you. What vfx are you wanting to create from scratch? 

  • JBaymore
    JBaymore Website User Posts: 337 Enthusiast

    Take to heart the Malcolm Gladwell's (book-Outliers) concept of "10,000 hours".

    I'm a professional visual artist in another field.  Have work in multiple museums as far away as the other side of the world....blah...blah...blah.....   Been at it as a pro for 50 years.  Looking back on a career,...... it took a long time to "hit my stride".

    To steal (and adapt) a well-known phrase from my field...... "Film is long.... life is short."

    You'll hit (and learn from) lots of failures.  But fall down six times, get up seven.



    (a "student" dabbler in film/vfx)

  • Triem23
    Triem23 Moderator Moderator, Website User, Ambassador, Imerge Beta Tester, HitFilm Beta Tester Posts: 18,984 Ambassador

     @spydurhank **** great post, and, woof, perfect last question!

    Which brings more advice. Prowl these forums. A lot of what eventually becomes a tutorial gets hashed out right here first. Forum has (maybe) a couple hundred (semi) regulars, tutorials get (generally) between 1k and 10k on average. "Effect of the week" tends to get the most views. 

    Point is, as @FilmSensei pointed out in his recent podcast with @FerraFilms, many tutorials start with someone asking how to do a thing, then we all chip in and you get 10 ideas. Get in on the brainstorming here, and you're ahead of the curve.

    Frank raises a good point with similarly to fine art (which relates  back to old-school film, when matte composites were done by literally shooting past a painting done on-set!

    Learning Hitfilm will teach you enough to fairly quickly learn any layer or track based NLE/Compositor. Tools are different, principles are pretty much identical. 

    IMHO here are a few things you need to learn to work any program

    • Masking/mattes - the fundamental skill for all composite/roto. 
    • Fractal Noise. You'll use this a lot, and its also the basis for pretty much any Displacement/Distortion effect.
    • Channel mapping - specifically a black and white image contains data that can read as none - to - full. The same black and white image can be used as a matte to create transparency, as a displacement source to warp pixels for all kinds of glass/water/distortion effects, or in Parallax, Caustics and Surface Studio, generate the fake 3D depth. The same image can control the timing and/or shape of the Shatter.
    • Curves. Color in RGB space is three color channels (each one can be shown as a black and white picture!). Curves is a very hands-on, direct and powerful way to change color. Curves can replicate the functions of a least another dozen tools. Every software has them, and they all work exactly the same. Learn Curves and you learn Grading. 
    • Points/Nulls, Anchor Points and Parenting. An anchor point controls where a layer scales and rotates around as well as the "true" position/rotation coordinates. Points/nulls are literally just position/rotation coordinates you can connect things to. The connecting - parenting - of points and layers (anchor points) is the foundation of all animation rigs.

    For the fellow power users, yeah, I have a top ten list of these. 

  • spydurhank
    spydurhank Moderator, Website User, Ambassador, Imerge Beta Tester, HitFilm Beta Tester Posts: 2,948 Ambassador

    @Triem23 ,

    Thanks, I appreciate all of your words. :)

    You know... if someone had the time, they could take all of your posts on the forum and turn it into a Hitfilm cookbook. :)

  • Triem23
    Triem23 Moderator Moderator, Website User, Ambassador, Imerge Beta Tester, HitFilm Beta Tester Posts: 18,984 Ambassador

    @spydurhank or a Hitfilm University? ;) 

Sign In or Register to comment.

Howdy, Stranger!

It looks like you're new here. If you want to get involved, click one of these buttons!