Visual Effects:  “artistic electronic image manipulation” 

The world of visual effects is moving fast. Our recent workshop explored some of the VFX now possible at a lower budget: ‘traditional’ VFX, CGI, mocap, pre-vis, animation, games engines, matte painting, green screen, image processing, rendering and much much more. This post looks at how these tools could transform our understanding of the visual and narrative possibilities of low budget feature films.

Our discussions began with an exploration of how artistic transitions in history have engaged audiences in a fresh way – be that early sculptures or abstract paintings. And how limitations have often served as creative fuel for new and exciting styles – like Hanna Barbera’s distinctive cartoons, a style apparently born from a lack of resources. Rich hunting ground indeed for future innovations in visual effects, limited by budget…

(Before we go on, I should flag up that the ideas discussed below don’t define or restrict what we’re looking for within the Cross Channel Film Lab – they’re simply examples of the kind of things that are now possible within our budget range).

‘Traditional’ VFX with a low budget twist

We’ve talked before about the relatively sparse use of impactful visual effects in films such as Monsters and Grabbers – making the most of the moments VFX are used within your film. It’s an approach that has taken fresh stories direct to ‘creature feature’ audiences without spending a fortune.

Working with a minimal crew and a budget of less than £200K, Gareth Edwards’ was free to mix up the genres in Monsters, bringing an improvised love story, road movie and political subtext to the creature feature mix. Jon Wright’s Grabbers set a monster movie in an unexpected and humorous context (Irish townsfolk ‘forced’ to get completely drunk to protect themselves from incoming Grabbers). While Paul Campion’s The Devil’s Rock offers the visual effects audiences expect from the genre (in this case a fantasy action movie), but rendered at a far lower budget.

It’s an inspiring and effective approach – with great evidence of success. But what about films that use ‘affordable’ visual effects in a less familiar context? How else might lower budget visual effects serve the story?

Minimalism and brainpower

Rémi Brun of Mocap Lab got us thinking about minimalism, using audiences’ brains to fill in the gaps. Of course leaving elements of your film to the audience’s imagination can save you money, but it can also add to the audience’s experience.

As illustration of the ultimate minimalism, we looked at the most basic of motion capture evidence: a few dots marking out a dancer’s body. As the dots moved along to music, our brains were able to comprehend the age, gender, and feelings of the dancer. In effect, we ‘created’ the dancer ourselves. It was beautiful. (It wasn’t this one, but this gives you a flavour).

How might such visual simplicity translate to a feature film? Well, while a feature length drama based solely on dots would have a tough time sustaining the interest of your average cinema audience, a feature film with a strong story presented as its barest visual essentials is certainly an intriguing prospect. What’s the VFX equivalent of Dogville? What kind of stories would benefit from being visually pared back to their core?

Being Brave

Do you really need to create all the (expensive) details of a character, when the audience can invent their own? Let’s look at Brave as a quick example. Every bouncing strand of red hair in Brave is beautiful, a joy to watch, but is the hair really crucial to the story core?  How might we connect with that very same story if Brave was told to us in simple low budget fairy-tale sketches instead?

For me, the most exciting thing about Brave was the female protagonist(s). Presenting such a joyous anomaly as picture-book illustrations might have engaged my brain differently – questioning the typical portrayal of women in fairy-tales, exploring parallels with my own childhood, who knows what else… And delivered well, it could still have connected me to the emotional journeys at the story’s heart.

It’s not that I think Brave should have been made any differently – it’s a big budget animation that has reached its audience well, one that falls far beyond the scope of our scheme. It’s just a question, a reminder to think about the alternatives that are available to us as creatives. We don’t have to show everything.

Simplifying your visual approach and bringing your budget down might give you a better chance of getting your film made. Fantastic. But it can also add meaning and engage your audience in a new way.

Tools of distinctiveness

In Rohmer’s L’Anglais et Le Duc, the visual effect takes centre stage: green screen and matte painting. Constrained scenes are set against consciously artificial painted backdrops, the story theme and style echoed by the visual effect. The green screen literally offers another layer, illustrating how we collectively represent the past. And of course it reduces the budget – in this case, making a period film possible. As Jeremie Apperry reminded us, with a green screen, a studio, and simple props, you can take your low budget story anywhere – even into the past.

Jeremie shared his recent experience of working on Franck Chiche’s Je vous ai compris, a relatively low budget TV drama that experimented with an image processing technique, augmented by the treatment of props and actors on set. This gives the film a heightened cartoon-like quality reminiscent of Boys Own comics. Set in the Algerian war of 1961, the style is a conscious contrast with the films’ dark human story.

The distinctive treatment of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly or Christian Volckman’s Renaissance also illustrate how a visual effect can bring something fresh to audiences. Jean-Baptiste Lère and Francois Garnier explained how Renaissance’s ground-breaking mixture of mocap, animation and rendering techniques gave the film its distinctive black and white look. Seven years later, the tools now exist to create something equally original at a much lower cost.

Yes, a new style may jar at first, but if your story is strong, the audience (and their marvellous brains) soon acclimatise. The right visual effect can deepen the story experience.

Game engine, set and character match

Peter Comninos and Joshua Richards talked us through developments in the world of game engines and Machinima. A fast-moving world where game engines serve as content creators, offering yet another opportunity to innovate in image manipulation.

For now, building a game engine is still relatively expensive, but how long will it be until we can build your own simple engine as a basis for a film, work in partnership with providers of existing games to use their engines, or develop our very own parallel ‘game and a movie’ business model?

In this not so futuristic scenario, modified games engines provide the set and characters: a CGI world recorded in real time, individual avatars controlled by actors, performances overseen by a director free to choose from almost any camera angle in a virtual world. How might we dramatically exploit or subvert an existing game world? What kind of stories might emerge from such constraints?

When bad is good

It seems that even bad visual effects can serve the story, as long as they’re intentionally bad. Antoine Le Bos showed us a recent short film from Switzerland that parodied low budget retro Star Trek-style visual effects to become one of the most successful Swiss shorts ever, now spawning its very own feature version. Embrace your limitations…

Fix it in prep!

Paddy Eason’s clarion call of “Fix it in prep!” is never truer than for low budget VFX films. Early research and development can save you time and money. So can sticking to the plan, most of the time. (As well as these things…)

Mathieu Cassegrain and Marc Heymann reminded us that low budget works best when you respect and utilise the individual strengths of each member of the team. Early opportunities for collaborative creation between writers, directors, VFX technicians, artists, camera, sound, art department and others can help you avoid expensive problems, plan better, and together, devise new ways to achieve the ‘impossible’ on a budget.

How can we use VFX in low budget films?

I’ve outlined just a few of the available possibilities here. Let’s not forget that great visual effects are not cheap. You can’t recreate a Hollywood blockbuster in your bedroom… yet. Visual effects require specialist skills, time and effort, and people need to be paid. But our inspiring panel of experts all stressed that almost any story is possible within low budget constraints – as long as we create the time and space to find a new way to tell it. Who will be next to push the boundaries and create something we’ve never seen before?

It’s still very true that low budget films generally work best with simple but powerful stories, limited locations and limited characters. You can do clever things with sound and off-screen ellipses to tell your story without spending a fortune. But adding VFX to this mix doesn’t mean you suddenly enter a world of high budgets and limiting risks. We just need to understand what’s possible and what’s not.

Low budget visual effects offer exciting opportunities for experimentation. They can offer a fresh take on an old genre, excite a complacent audience with the unexpected, enrich and deepen the theme, or create a unique and distinctive visual style that serves the story and communicates a vision. Both visually and effectively…

3 Responses to “Visual Effects in Low Budget Features: How and Why?”

  1. I’ve been creating CGI for 17 years and have been fortunate to work for some of the biggest companies in VFX. By far the most exciting and rewarding projects I’ve been a part of have been in the low budget or indie category as for an artist these can offer the most creative involvement or opportunity for having your own artistic imprint on a small piece of cinematic or television history.

    I love and am inspired by film of all kinds but I don’t believe 3D animation offers any new insights into “character”. I do however believe it can offer storytellers a broader palette within which to explore ideas. The visual world in which a story can be set or the depths to which a genre can take an audience, even if it just hints at it or tricks the eye by simply adding subtle elements to existing shot footage.

    Two years ago I started a small VFX studio in north London (LUME) to offer VFX, especially creature animation to indie projects of all kinds. If you require help with your project or you’re even just looking for consultation on how to approach your script with vfx in mind, please don’t hesitate to get in touch as I’m keen to make a true indie VFX house really work.


  2. Thanks so much for your thoughts and offer of help, Adam – great to hear that the most exciting and rewarding projects have been low budget, in part because they allowed you to leave a stronger creative imprint.

    Your thoughts on how 3D animation can add to the visual palette are also interesting. Our question ‘Can 3D bring us closer to character?” is actually referring to Stereo 3D rather then 3D animation (I can see we’re going to get confused about language a lot!). In our lab discussions so far, we’ve been wondering whether Stereo 3D might allow us a different way of understanding character – through how the audience is able to instinctively interpret the additional stereo 3D element of body movement within space.

    Look forward to hearing more of your thoughts as we progress!


  3. […] For a more serious look at some of the ideas discussed here, visit our latest Cross Channel Film Lab research – including Visual Effects in Low Budget Features – How and Why […]


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