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A VFX Glossary: In Their Own Words

Trends and Insight 4.0k Add to collection

We asked VFX experts the questions you felt too stupid to ask and put together this cheat sheet on post jargon

A VFX Glossary: In Their Own Words
There’s probably no part of the advertising or production industry more rammed with jargon than visual effects. And this can make the darkened rooms full of pallid, socially awkward ‘Nuke artists’ strangely intimidating to many outsiders, even if they in fact have less to do with atomic fission than their job description might suggest.

“Clients often won’t ask what something means for fear of looking a bit silly or thinking that somehow they should automatically or instinctively know,” says Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios. “Post production is an industry that’s full of technical acronyms and terms for absolutely every process. Likewise, different sectors of post (broadcast post vs commercial post) use different terms for similar things. No one expects everyone to know everything. It’s always better to ask or avoid technical jargon that could result in something going wrong down the line. Keep it simple.”

Hopefully that will put you at ease, but just in case you’d like to know your UV mapping from your DFA, here’s our VFX glossary.


2D artist


2D artists can be specialists in digital matte paintings, concept art, storyboarding or compositing. Most projects require a compositor to finalise the look of the shot before going to client for review, so a 2D team can often outweigh a 3D department.
- Danny Duke, director of business development, Outpost VFX

AKA compositors. They take filmed  ‘2-dimensional’ images and combine them to produce stuff. Software: Flame, Nuke, After Effects.
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy



3D artist


An artist in the Visual Effects department who creates objects, assets and characters using 3D computer software. Occasionally, they can be heard yelling random expletives when this software crashes and they repeatedly forget to turn on auto-save. These artists tend to have very strange online search histories as they dig through the internet looking for reference so they can make everything look 'more real' per clients' requests. 
- Nicole Melius, VFX producer, Chimney

 A person who builds up the 3D elements like the robots in Transformers or the robot Wall-E
- Sandra Clua, animation director and designer, Big Buoy

From our 3D department: “The navy seals of the game.”
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios

AKA CGI (computer generated imagery). Some artists will specialise in areas such as ‘modelling’, ‘texturing’,’lighting’. Others take a multiskilled approach, known as a ‘generalist’. Software: Maya, Houdini, Cinema 4D, 3D studio Max. 
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy

A highly trained virtual ninja of creativity. 3D artists make characters, cities, trees and vehicles that simply aren't there... yet actors can walk through a virtual landscape, sit in a CG vehicle or get hit in the face by a CG character. A 3D artist is a wizard of the highest order... you can tell I used to be a 3D artist can't you?
- Danny Duke, managing director, Outpost VFX



4k/8k/16k


Slow/slower/snail’s pace. 
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab



Alpha channel


The transparency on an image. It’s like the weather forecast: they have the green screen and then on top they put the map, we do the same but can put you on a beach right now.
- Sandra Clua, animation director and designer, Big Buoy



Balls


“The shot has balls”: the light reference was taken on set using a chrome ball and a grey ball.
- William Torres, head of CG, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam



Baselight


One of the two industry standard grading systems for high-end work. The other being Da Vinci Resolve.
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors



Computer generated imagery (CGI)


As the acronym suggests… Computer Generated Imagery. Describes any images which have been digitally constructed without having been shot live action (there may often be a background plate which has been shot but not always).
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors

Computer Generated Imagery is a generic term. CGI can be any number of things... a still frame or an animated sequence; man made by an artist or generated through AI; two dimensional or a 3D digital model. But more and more frequently it's simply a term for 3D modelled assets made in something like Autodesk Maya.
- Danny Duke, managing director, Outpost VFX



CG supervisor


The technical mastermind of a production,
- Johannes Sambs, senior technical director, Framestore

Another senior role for a VFX project, the CG supervisor will be responsible for implementing and managing 3D workflows and tools, or if the scale of the project requires it they may take over responsibility for one particular specialism such as animation, rigging, modelling or project management.
- Danny Duke, managing director, Outpost VFX



Colour grade (not colour correction, filter or telecine)


The best term is colour grade. Filter is a relatively new term which was born out of Instagram. In grading terms a filter is usually something used on the lens during shooting. In the olden days of film the telecine also had a tray in which to insert filters. These were usually for pro mist or soft filter effects.
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors

Some terms are considered ‘outdated’, for example TK. It stands for telecine but the acronym TC was already taken for “timecode”. People still come in for a “TK” session – which is in itself often now known as “grade” or “colour grading” or “colour correction” or simply “colour”. Likewise, we’ll often use the acronym DCP to mean a final grade (taken from Digital Colour Processing) – which we do – while DCP also stands for Digital Cinema Package – which we don’t.
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios

Telecine: an old term used to describe a specially built machine for playing movie film and ‘grading’ the colours while recording the output to video tape.
Grade: the process of manipulating colour to make it more pleasing.
Filter: can be a physical object or piece of software. Somewhere between the camera and the image you see on screen which changes the look of the image, usually in a ‘preset’ way.
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy

At Cinelab, we are in the unusual position of offering a grading suite with a telecine in it. I believe we can use filters on said telecine. Does that help?
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab

When clients aren’t sure if a shot should be brighter or darker, they will frequently ask you to do something with the contrast. The terms they use are often the opposite to the effect they’re after. In my time, I have been asked to flatten, harden, stretch, tickle, tweak or drop the contrast in a given image. What they want is a .2% shift in the midrange. 
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab



Colourist


Reputationally, a figure with supernatural abilities, able to transform the look of a piece into shimmering glory with a flick of the wrist. Realistically, a studio-tanned bag-eyed saddo that often leaves the house wearing odd socks and an inside-out T-shirt.  
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab

The person performing the colour grade. In this case me. We work collaboratively with the director, cinematographer and the creative team to find the correct look and feel of a piece.
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors

From our Motion Graphics department – “The elite, the aristocracy”
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios

An Instagram filters creator…
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy

Like most colourists that grew up using a ball-and-wheel grading interface rather than point-and-click, I tend to end up using my hands a lot when talking about basic grading theory. Therefore in full explanatory flow I look like a ‘90s raver doing big-fish-little fish-cardboard-box. Strangely enough, it seems to work most of the time. 
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab



Compositing


The practice of combining multiple elements both live action and CG to create a single image.
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors

Compositors are like chefs. They use ingredients from different sources and with time, taste and expertise, create a delicious meal. Sometimes they have to make delicious cakes out of salt, rocks and vinegar and that's when they transcend from a chef to an alchemist.
- JD Yepes, compositing supervisor, Framestore

There's a number of different compositing solutions on the market like Nuke, Flame, Smoke, Fusion and Natron. Compositing is the act of essentially layering all parts of a particular shot on top of one another seamlessly, be it 2D elements or matte paintings, or 3D models. This is the glue that holds a VFX shot together, and also adds an extra layer of finesse to a shot where required by adding or enhancing camera effects, atmosphere and more.
- Danny Duke, managing director, Outpost VFX

Compositors are like mad professors, because they’re pulling multiple disparate elements into one beautiful creature/concoction.
- Kenn MacRae, global creative director and MD, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam

A very intense Photoshopping with videos. And I really need to mention this video; it changed our lives when it first came out. I always show this to people who ask me what I do. It gives such a clear explanation about VFX terms - now even my grandparents finally understand what I do for a living!
- Yebin Ahn, compositor, Blacksmith 




Crush the blacks


Make the blacks darker with a view to creating higher contrast. This will sometimes lose detail in the darker areas.
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors



DFA


The ‘Does Fuck All’ button. You’ll never hear anyone actually saying “DFA” to a client – it’s a phrase that’s more representative of subjectivity. I’m pretty sure Christopher Nolan got DFA’d by the colourist working on Interstellar. Read this article. The colourist (probably fearing for his job) – pretending that he’s adjusted colour just to get him off his back. Anyway…
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios



Encoding


Changing an analog source to a digital file, e.g. converting a DVD into a QuickTime movie.
- Shaun Gardiner, editor, Big Buoy



Fix it in post


Something that should make VFX companies more money but actually ends up with them doing more work, to the same deadline and for less money.
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios



Flame


From our motion graphics department: “Compositing software worse than Nuke. The producer solution for everything.”
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios

Compositing/finishing software. Tends to be quicker than Nuke, to the point where you can sit in a room/suite with the artist and collaborate in real time. Flame handles entire films/edits and provides all services for final delivery.
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy

If I see flame or smoke anywhere in Cinelab, it’s usually the signal to hit the fire alarm and evacuate. The nuclear reactor at the heart of our operations is not, sadly, anything I am at liberty to discuss in an open forum. 
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab



Frame


Often used to refer to a whole take or shot. Just because it looks like one frame in a storyboard, doesn't mean it is only one frame long in total.
- Shaun Gardiner, editor, Big Buoy



Gamma


I try to define it as everything that isn’t high or lowlights, just to keep life simple. Some clients claim to have a deeper understanding of the term, having read the Wikipedia entry. These are the most dangerous clients of all. I could tell you what it means, but after a while you’d beg me to stop. 
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab



Locked picture


I often have to explain that ‘locked picture’, or ‘locked cut’ allows post-production to commence on agreed elements. One classic I heard from a particularly inexperienced client was “Can we unlock the edit?” – which of course derailed the post production schedule.
- Kenn MacRae, global creative director and MD, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam



Look development


Making it look pretty.
- William Torres, head of CG, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam



Michael Bay


“Michael bay the shot”: must include at least one 360-degree rotation of the camera or, better yet, a full barrel roll through and set piece.
- William Torres, head of CG, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam



Modelling


A CG term for building 3D objects.
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors

Something geeky.
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios

Pushing Polys.
- William Torres, head of CG, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam

Vertices by Chanel, UVs by Alexander McQueen.
- Philip Child, senior R&D technical director, Framestore

Creating a computer version of something using millions of triangles
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy

There's a number of approaches to modelling, and the approach often tends to hinge around what is being made. Organic models such as characters (as well as rapid concepts of hard surface models) are increasingly being done in zBrush, whilst another project might require scan data of physical real world assets to be the starting point.
- Danny Duke, managing director, Outpost VFX

Airfix over Hummel every time. 
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab



Nuke


Again, from our motion graphics department (anyone would think they had a chip on their shoulder): “Compositing software better than Flame. The Nuke kid on the block.”
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios

Compositing software, used heavily in feature films, tends to be single shots. Work is generally rendered out and fed to a Flame for review.
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy



Offline


Where editorial decisions are made/approved using low resolution/ungraded camera footage.
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy



Online


Where those same edits are reproduced in more powerful machines from the high resolution/graded camera footage. All CGI/VFX will happen here, titles will be put on, sound mixes will be added, legal titles etc. And final “quality control” before exporting the finished film in whatever delivery format is needed.
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy



Pretty straightforward (PSF)


When this phrase is used, the work is usually not at all straightforward.
- Laurence Whatley, audio assistant, Big Buoy



Rendering


Rendering is like baking a cake or making a pizza. Once it’s cooked you can’t rewind it and get all your ingredients back out.
- Richard Donaghue, senior audio producer, Gramercy Park Studios



Scan


Usually needs to be done twice. Not usually our fault.
- Rob Wickings, senior colourist, Cinelab



Smoke


No longer exists. Used to be a baby-Flame system which has now been superseded by Flame Assist, a stripped back Flame used for simpler tasks.
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy



Special effects


Special effects is often a 'catch-all' term that includes mechanical effects and optical effects and is usually what's captured 'in camera' using anything from makeup to animatronics with the occasional explosive thrown in for good measure! A lot of people incorrectly use this term when referring to VFX.
- Danny Duke, managing director, Outpost VFX



Split the difference


Most often used when showing a before and after of a specific grading request. This and “crush the blacks” are arguably the most used terms in my room.
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors



Stitching


Applies mainly to VR material where multiple images are seamlessly stitched to create a 360-degree image.
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors

What your phone does when you're awkwardly shooting a panorama.
- Nicolas Darques, senior pipeline TD, Framestore



Technical Director (TD)


The ‘do it’ button maker.
- William Torres, head of CG, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam



Texturing


Ceramics class… the kind where you paint a garden gnome.
- William Torres, head of CG, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam



Transcoding


Changing a digital file into another digital file, e.g. converting a QuickTIme movie to an mp4.
- Shaun Gardiner, editor, Big Buoy



UVing (or UV mapping)


There are two ways I try and explain this to people. You know when you're at school and you draw out a crucifix on a piece of card, add some tabs to some of the sides, cut it all out and then fold it together to make a cube? Do that in reverse from a CG cube and you have what's called a set of UVs that allow you to add texture your cube, turning it into a die, or maybe one of Zelda's Cubes from Terrahawks (showing my age there!). On more complex models like characters or creatures it's a bit like skinning something and laying out their skin to cure, but then painting it and putting it back on. 
- Danny Duke, managing director, Outpost VFX

Making a sewing pattern for any object.
- William Torres, head of CG, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam



Visual effects (VFX)


All the explosions and people flying in movies: that is VFX.
- Sandra Clua, animation director and designer, Big Buoy

Making stuff look cool.
- Ali Beisbier, junior designer, Framestore

Giving actors the justification to prance around in green leotards.
- Philip Child, senior R&D technical director, Framestore

Creating an image which is not “real”. For as many blockbuster eye-candy visual effects you see there will be double that amount of the ones you can’t see.
- Tim Davies, lead Flame artist, Big Buoy

I always say, “You shoot the sky, we can change the colour, the number and texture of the clouds, and have a dragon fly through them.”
- Kenn MacRae, global creative director and MD, Smoke & Mirrors Amsterdam

The response I get most often to those words from friends is: "Oh... so you're making 'that Marvel stuff'?" or "Is that like 'Avatar'?” VFX covers a wide range of stuff but people generally assume it's only applied to big Hollywood movies with aliens, spaceships, magic, etc. (ie. very visible VFX). 
- Yebin Ahn, compositor, Blacksmith 

VFX by comparison [to special effects] is added by people who like to keep their hands clean and their levels of vitamin D low through lack of daylight. Working at a computer we use a variety of software to add what couldn't be achieved during a shoot and can be anything from extending a set, adding computer generated creatures, making an actor look much younger or cleaning up a boom or crew member who strayed into shot.
- Danny Duke, managing director, Outpost VFX

From an editor’s point of view, this is just painting by numbers.
- Shaun Gardiner, editor, Big Buoy



VFX producer


Manages projects, schedules, budgets and assigns tasks to artists. Coordinates client feedback with the team and overestimates when renders will be finished to clients so when software crashes and everyone freaks out, they have an extra hour in their pocket. 
- Nicole Melius, VFX producer, Chimney



VFX supervisor


The lead creative in the VFX department who goes on set and gets yelled at for telling all the different departments that they can't do something because it'll create a post nightmare. After the shoot, they then lead the team in fixing all of the things that happened on set that they were trying to avoid. 
- Nicole Melius, VFX producer, Chimney

If you consider the VFX as a production within a production then the VFX supervisor is the director of said production. They are responsible for driving the overall post for the entire film and will oversee a team of artists, from CGI, grade, 2D effects and so on.  
- Mark Horrobin, senior colourist, Smoke & Mirrors

The visual mastermind of a production.
- Johannes Sambs, Senior Technical Director

The person giving directors what they want for the budget the producer wants while smiling at clients.
- Philip Child, senior R&D technical director, Framestore

Somebody who attends a film shoot and asks for tracking markers to be put on everything.
- Shaun Gardiner, editor, Big Buoy
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Genres: Visual VFX

LBB Editorial, Wed, 10 Apr 2019 12:59:07 GMT