Live Action vs. Animated Feature Films: How Computer Graphics is Used to Make Movies


The workflows and software pipelines that define the production of animated feature films and (photorealistic) visual effects have traditionally been divergent, but as virtual production sweeps across the film industry, the distinctions between them are disappearing.


Whether working on an animated CG feature or working on visual effects (VFX) for a photorealistic feature, the design methodologies, development workflow, and software tools are nearly identical during pre-production. production. Artists create 2D artwork using tools such as Photoshop to flesh out characters, environments, and events from the film. Sometimes 3D illustrations are created using tools such as Zbrush, Dpaint, Modo, and 3D-Coat. 2D storyboards or beatboards are drawn to develop the action and are often edited into a boardomatic to help solve timing issues and adjust the preliminary length of the film.

About the Author

Lindy De Quattro is VFX Supervisor at MPC Film

Usually, a 2D or 3D animatic preview is used to conceptualize complex action sequences, choreography, unique environments, and other challenging post-production enhancements for specific scenes in the film. 3D preview work is often done in animation packages like Maya, Blender, Cinema 4D, or more likely nowadays… through a game engine like Unity or UE4. Research and development is initiated on any new technology that needs to be created to perform the work on the film. Hero shots or short proof-of-concept tests are offered by potential vendors to assure studio production that the planned work can be completed at the desired level of quality. All of this prep work is approached in essentially the same way for animated and VFX feature film production.

Plate Production/Photography

Historically, once pre-production is complete, this is where VFX feature production would deviate from the CG work done for an animated feature. A VFX feature begins with location and stage plate photography, while the workflow for an animated feature is much smoother. The animated feature would move into live production starting with asset creation, appearance development, and animation, but they wouldn’t be locked into their prior creative decisions by expensive plate shooting (a plate in our industry is the live action sequence that you apply your VFX to).

Once principal photography begins for a VFX feature, you can’t easily revisit pre-production decisions without a big impact on time and budget. The sets were built, the locations selected, the costumes sewn and the equipment secured. Many creative decisions for a feature film are already made at the end of plate photography, and those decisions are not made in the CG department.

Several department heads, all working under the film’s director, make creative decisions that determine the overall look of the film. The Director of Photography (DP) controls and determines the general lighting, lens and photography of the film. The Production Designer oversees the look and construction of sets and the dressing of sets. The actors are obviously authors of their own performances. The other department heads, including costumes, hair, makeup, special effects, and stunts, all have a major creative voice and contribute to the overall look of the film, and none of those decisions involve a lot of CG.

In fact, most of these department heads make creative decisions without knowing exactly where the CG components will be placed or what they will ultimately look like. Although the VFX supervisor, who is responsible for overseeing all of the digital work for a feature film, collaborates with all of these people during filming, they have no direct control over these people or departments. Instead, their task is to help guide the rest of the filmmakers to account for the CG elements that will come later, and to carefully document all decisions made during plate photography so they can then incorporate new photorealistically the CG in these. plates during post-production.

In film with extensive VFX work, filmmakers often work with characters, events, and environments that they cannot see. DP illuminates and frames things that don’t exist. Actors perform in front of green screens in situations and sometimes other characters that they cannot see. The director shoots events that are only in their imagination. To facilitate this process, there are many tools such as SimulCam, Ncam, and iPano, which can help filmmakers visualize CG components and locations in real time. While these tools help filmmakers visualize the final shot, they don’t allow for an iterative process where they can easily modify CG components while filming. Also, once the plate photography is done, it’s very difficult to make changes to the plates and the decisions that were made on set – decisions that were made without the benefit of the CG elements to be added in post-production. In contrast, the development of an animated feature film is more of an ongoing process as the same people handle the work throughout.

All of these other previously mentioned departments are part of the CG world. There is no “photograph on plate” concept and the production blends more easily from preparation to final delivery.

Image 1 of 2

MPC movie

(Image credit: MPC Film)
Picture 2 of 2

MPC movie

(Image credit: MPC Film)

Post production

For feature films and animated features, post-production means production of shots and final delivery. While many of the tools used in both cases are the same: 3D lighting and animation packages like Maya and Modo, compositing packages like Nuke, and effects software like Houdini, there are significant differences in the workflow. In the case of an animated feature film, the production of shots has already been going on for months and has been intertwined with many previous production phases.

In a VFX heavy function, post-production is when the appearance of all CG elements is finalized, CG performances are created, and shot production begins and ends. Incorporating CG elements into live-action plates is a significant challenge because the plates can only be modified to a limited extent before they no longer hold. Creative compromises often have to be made to make a plate work and avoid costly rework. This is where the skill set required of feature film VFX artists diverges from CG artists working on animated features. While there is still significant overlap, the particularities of understanding and reproducing plate photography are unique to the VFX side of the industry. And while VFX artists are constrained by the decisions already made by department heads on set, the team that oversees the CG work in an animated feature defines the look of the film. They have full control over lighting, performance, assets, and environments. They can modify any or all of these components as needed as work on the film progresses. Rather than a project split into three disparate phases (pre-production, plate photography, and post-production), the CG animated feature can be worked on organically and, more importantly, holistically, as adjustments can be applied to all or part of the components. throughout the film’s development.


As virtual production becomes more prevalent in the film industry, the lines between animated feature films and live-action feature films with extensive visual effects are becoming blurred both in terms of tools and approach. Movies like Disney’s The Jungle Book and The Lion King with VFX and Animation by MPC, and episodes like The Mandalorian, all of which made extensive use of virtual production, no longer fit neatly into one category or the other.

Virtual production is basically defined as any methodology that allows you to mix live action footage and real-time CG. CG assets are rendered with real-time camera tracking using game engines like Unity and UE4, then composited live with other assets: plates, actor performances, and more. This mix can be viewed in many different ways, sometimes via VR headsets or by displaying it on giant walls of high-resolution LED screens. Virtual production allows filmmakers to actually see what their final shots will look like without waiting for post-production. Since the render engines work in real time, filmmakers can receive immediate feedback and adjust lighting, performance, or any of the day’s CG components to achieve a more consistent end result.

With sophisticated pre-visualization elements and aggressive implementation, a production team can conclude months of location/scene photography of the main unit and second unit with film ready to go. be projected. While there is still more “finished” CG work to be done through a standard post-production workflow, previz digital assets bring significant visual value to the film in development. Before virtual production tools were developed, it could take months of post-viz and temp work to fill in enough VFX to get the movie screened. There’s a common misconception that virtual production reduces the overall amount of CG work needed for a movie, but in fact it just moves a lot of that work from post-production to pre-production so that By the time you get to shoot the movie, a lot of the CG prep work has already been completed. This allows live action filmmakers to approach CG work more like an animated feature. The DP can put on a VR headset and walk around the CG environment to place lights and aim shots. Multiple department heads can meet in the VR environment to brainstorm ideas and try out different setups. Actors can see the environment they are supposed to be in and the other characters they are supposed to play against. The cinematic experience becomes more fluid and less segmented into individual production phases.

As the tools improve and more films use virtual production techniques, the more we will see crossover between animated and photorealistic VFX features: crossover of artists, tools and methodologies of work. We are at the very beginning of this evolution in the industry and it will be exciting to see what filmmakers are able to achieve with this technology.


Comments are closed.