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What is the Visual Effects Pipeline?

6 minute read


What is the Visual Effects Pipeline?

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 in mind, 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 generally divided into 3 stages:

  • Pre-production: The idea for a film is developed, scripts are written (and re-written!), budgets and timelines are determined, financing is secured, actors and locations are sourced.
  • Production: The filming takes place on set (can be on location, or in a studio with sets and/or green screens).
  • 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 (or, 'post' for short). Let's dive into 10 steps of the VFX pipeline:

1. Story

The story is the foundation of every great film. The story phase happens in pre-production and it involves planning out characters, the plot, and the world they exist in. Screenwriters and producers take ideas from brainstorming sessions, turning them into a complete script. If a book is being made into a film, a screenwriter may be hired to adapt the story so that it translates well on screen. Some examples of this include Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. If you want to get experience writing scripts, we recommend starting with Celtx, as it is free and has auto-formatting.

2. Storyboarding and Animatics

During the Storyboarding & 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

3. Pre-Vis

Growing more popular, 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. This planning saves time and money on set. Since the artists don’t have to worry about matching concept art, but just blocking out shapes and composition, this can be done rather quickly with good direction.


4. Concept Art and Design

Concept art & design is arguably one of the most important phases of pre-production. Here, an 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 meaning 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?

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. Research and Development (or, R&D)

As filmmaking gets more complex, R&D becomes 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 very specific type of source, like a missile, the VFX artists and technical directors study videos and photos to see how the fire and smoke behaves. They then create tools within a program to efficiently work on the final shots when the time comes.

7. 3D Modeling & Texturing

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 to fulfil the director's vision. 3D models may also be used to complement something shot on set. If an actor like Andy Serkis is shot in a motion capture suit, a 3D Modeler would create the character he is playing. This model is then rigged and animated. 3D Modelers generally use software like Autodesk Maya and Pixologic ZBrush. Texture artists use digital painting programs like The Foundry’s Mari.

vfx pipeline modeling texturingTo learn more about Modeling and Texturing see: What is 3D Modeling? and What is 3D Texturing?

8. Rigging and Animation

Before an object or character can be animated, a rigging team must build a system of controls, or a digital skeleton, for the Animator to use. This usually involves adding bones, calculating and implementing skin weights, and adding muscles to create natural movement. The Animator uses the custom controls of the rig to bring the character, prop, or vehicle to life. Nowadays, an Animator may also be working with motion capture data. Motion capture data often needs to be tweaked to achieve a final look, and an experienced Animator is essential. 3D animation for a feature film is often done in Autodesk Maya.

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

8. 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. At any given time, an FX artist could be working on things like destruction, fire, liquids, smoke, and particle simulations. They will often work alongside the animators to ensure natural movement of colliding FX elements. Effects artists often use SideFX Houdini to create mind-blowing visuals in blockbuster films.

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

9. Lighting and Rendering

Once the animation and effects teams are done working their magic, the 3D elements need to have proper lighting to exist within their respective scenes. A lighting artist, or multiple lighting artists, strategically place 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

10. 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?

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!

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