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The Intersection of Practical and Digital

Embellishing critical frames helps films pop.

In creating a movie, there are practical effects and digital effects. Practical effects generally get shot on set, like when a bottle that is made of candy glass is smashed over somebody's head. We don't do that.

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We do sometimes use practical elements, like fire or smoke. In the case of smoke elements, they are shot on a black screen, as opposed to a green screen. Mechanism  

Digital is currently working on a project with the aim of adding noxious smoke to the inside of a car by using elements of cigarette smoke, which has its own unique characteristics. We didn't specifically want cigarette smoke — we’re depicting exhaust — but cigarette smoke demonstrated accurate motion for this particular scene.

Our shop is finishing a thriller called Eileen, starring Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie, which is set in 1962. Half the shots are exteriors of a small town. We try to choose towns that still look true to the period, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid a few modern details such as street signs or store logos which can be erased in post by the VFX team. One of the shots called for our heroine to enter a liquor store. The locations department found a flower shop for rent and instead of fabricating and installing the obligatory neon sign, we were able to dress it up digitally in post with movie magic. The film is set during winter so we also added falling snow and accumulation on the many roofs she would see while driving through town.

Guns and gunshots are another great example of using practical elements in a VFX setting. More and more movies are not putting caps or blanks into real guns, instead opting for non-operable “rubber” guns on set. A non-operable gun is as it sounds; you can't put a bullet in, it's impossible. As a result, we’ve been working on projects where we digitally manipulate guns to look like they have a kick back by warping the frame a little bit if the actor doesn’t mimic the action realistically.

Although a muzzle flash only lasts for a frame, they can be some of the most dramatic frames of a film. We further embellish the muzzle flash by adding shadows on the wall, often including a coup de gross of flying blood, also casting its own shadow.  

Even before the many bans on operable guns, Mechanism Digital did this kind of work because muzzle flashes frequently happen in between the frames of the film — not showing up in the footage. I’m grateful that we perfected our process to meet the increased demand for these kinds of effects. We absolutely love this industry!

Originally published: 08/30/2022

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