What is the Visual Effects Pipeline?

9 minute read


The VFX pipeline refers to the various stages of production required to add visual effects to a film. The pipeline helps to organize each department so that every artist knows their role, and a production can move along within the allocated timeline.

If you want to work as a VFX artist, you need to understand every step of the visual effects pipeline. Wherever your role sits within the pipeline you must be familiar with every department's purpose in order to create the best and most efficient work. If your work is not completed with each step of the pipeline it can cause problems down the line and be sent back to you for redoing. This is costly and can hold up the process.

Before we start, it's helpful to know that a film project is divided into 3 stages:

  • Pre-production: The idea for the film is developed, scripts are written (and re-written!), budgets and timelines are determined, financing is secured, actors are cast and locations are sourced.

  • Production: Filming takes place on set - on location, in a studio, usually both are used.

  • Post-production: Visual effects are applied to the footage, sound, editing and color grading take place, and the film is ready for distribution.

While the VFX pipeline touches each stage of the filmmaking process, the majority of VFX work happens in post-production. Let's dive into 12 steps of the VFX pipeline:

1. Storyboarding and Animatics

During the storyboarding and animatics phase an artist or team of artists create visual representations of the actions within the script. They analyze the character motion and settings within the story and use basic drawings to define framing from shot to shot. The results are subject to change down the line, but these visuals give the production team a chance to start preparing.

vfx pipeline storyboarding alt

2. Pre-Vis

Pre-vis takes storyboarding a step further. 3D artists create low poly models and representations of the locations where scenes play out. They work with the production team to set up camera angles and block out complex scenes ahead of time, saving time and money on set.


3. Concept Art and Design

Concept art and design are arguably one of the most important phases of pre-production. A concept artist or team of artists create the look and feel of a film by drawing fully fleshed out images that further define settings, characters, props, costumes, lighting, color and more. The mood and style of a film is often defined by what is created during the concept art phase.

vfx pipeline concept art altDelve deeper into this step of the visual effects pipeline here: What is Concept Art?

4. Matchmove and Camera Tracking

A 3D camera is generated so that the VFX team generates the 3D characters and objects that need to be integrated into the footage. The process of matching the motion of a character or object with the footage called rotomation.

5. Layout and Production Design

Layout, also referred to as production design, has a different meaning for different teams. The end goal is to have a visual representation of what the final sets will look like. This helps physical set builders figure out and communicate to directors and producers what is physically possible and what may need a digital set build. For the VFX team, it defines how digital set builds might have to be incorporated. The layout team and production designers may use drawings, photos, and 3D renderings to finalize the sets.


vfx pipeline layout

6. Modeling and Asset Creation

The 3D modeling and texturing teams are essential to creating things that aren’t practical or cost-effective to have on set. Being one of the first groups involved in the post-production process, they may have to model assets such as props, buildings, vehicles, and weapons. 3D models may also be used to complement something shot on set. Some of these can just be simple and used to correct lighting and shadows. Other assets may need to be fully realized and textured, especially if they are going to be destroyed or modified.

vfx pipeline modeling texturing

7. Research and Development (R&D)

As filmmaking gets more complex, R&D is becoming increasingly more important. During this stage VFX supervisors work with directors to figure out how certain shots can be accomplished. In the meantime the VFX artists, technical directors, modelers, animators, and compositors do their own research. For example, if a film needs explosions that come from a specific source, like a missile, the VFX artists and technical directors study videos and photos to see how the fire and smoke behave. They then create tools within a program to efficiently work on the final shots.

8. Rigging

Before an object or character can be animated, a rigging team must build a system of controls, or a digital skeleton, for animators to use. This usually involves adding bones, calculating and implementing skin weights, and adding muscles to replicate the natural movement of a character.

9. Animation

Animators then add a texture as an outer layer and use the custom controls of the rig to bring the character, prop, or vehicle to life. Its movement is mathematically mapped out and sequenced by software that outputs the final animation. They also work with motion capture data that needs to be tweaked to achieve a final look.

vfx pipeline animation riggingRead more about 3D Animation here: What is 3D Animation?

10. FX and Simulation

The job of an FX artist revolves around adding simulated elements to a film that seamlessly exist in the director’s world. This includes simulations as well as the more abstract tasks that don’t really fit in anywhere else in the pipeline. At any given time, an FX artist could be working on things like destruction, fire, liquids, smoke, and particle simulations. They also could be adding hair to a character or creating footsteps in the snow. They will often work alongside the animators and modelers to ensure the natural movement and interaction with colliding FX elements.

vfx pipeline fx simulationRead more about FX & Simulation: What Does an FX Artist Do?

11. Lighting and Rendering

Once the animation and effects teams are done working their magic, the 3D elements need to be lit to blend into the scenes. A lighting artist, or team of lighting artists, strategically places lights throughout the 3D scene to ensure light color, intensity, and shadows match up with the originally shot piece. Each sequence of frames is then rendered out from the needed camera angles and handed off to the compositor.

livfx pipeline lighting rendering

12. Compositing

This is the final step of the visual effects pipeline. A compositor takes all the elements of the film and layers them on top of each other. They use elements like color correction, masking and other tricks to create the illusion that all elements naturally belong together. They may be putting an animated character into a live-action scene, overlaying destruction onto a building, or even layering a simulated tsunami over a shot of a city street. The possibilities of what a compositor may be working on are endless, and they are often using the complex tools within The Foundry’s Nuke to complete their work.

vfx pipeline vfx compositingDive deeper into the compositing process: What Is Compositing?

The advent of Virtual Production is shaking up the traditional VFX pipeline by moving tasks such as rendering, lighting, matchmove, camera tracking, etc upfront into the production process. Using a sound stage made up of LED screens that deliver effects in final pixels and gaming software that allows for real time landscape navigation, VFX artist are working their magic on set. It is an exciting time to enter the industry and a great opportunity to be a pioneer of new filmmaking methods. Regardless of how things change, a solid knowledge of all the VFX steps is still required.

Now that you understand the Visual Effects Pipeline, sign up for VFX school 

As you can see, there are numerous career paths within the visual effects pipeline. Whichever path speaks to you, we can help you get the required job skills! Check out our beginner and advanced visual effects courses and be personally taught by amazing industry mentors who have worked for top film and games studios around the world. Apply now!


Tags:   Industry Briefing ,   Visual Effects ,   Tips & Tutorials
Learn visual effects from industry experts

Explore beginner and advanced courses in visual effects and get your career off to a great start!


New to online courses? Here's how our courses work, and why students love them!

How it works