ByShadan Syed, writer at
Movie addict and aspiring director.
Shadan Syed

In today's modern cinema, storytelling has no limits. Films based on ideas that could once only be dreamt about are being made. Filmmakers and storytellers are successfully translating their imaginative thoughts onto screens both big and small, and its possible because of a couple of cinematic techniques called Visual Effects and Special Effects.

There are major differences between Visual Effects () and Special Effects (), even though they are often used interchangeably. So before we go any further, first let's try to understand that what these different methods actually are.

The Difference

The difference between both techniques is simple and very easy to understand. SFX is used while a film is being shot. Say there is a shot that requires a car to explode — a real car is brought in and set aflame.

VFX, on the other hand, is used after the camera shoots a scene. Considering the same example, if a car is to explode, then only a shot of the the car would suffice. The subsequent explosion can be digitally added afterwards.

The Debate

Hollywood is split between the uses of and . The originality that spawns from special effects can't be substituted. It gives the realest possible feel to movie, and if done right, is a treat to the eyes. This technique is popular with Hollywood bigwigs like and . On the other hand, VFX gives filmmakers limitless possibilities and is less costly than SFX. This technique finds its support among indie filmmakers and some Hollywood big-budget productions.

The debate here is mostly about the idea that "VFX and CGI are ruining Hollywood" since every other movie these days has poorly done VFX and that's where the SFX supporters base their debate.

SFX: Pros And Cons

source : No Film School
source : No Film School


The fundamental argument put forth by the pro-SFX side is that it looks and feels REAL. Films like , had actual models and animatronics that were used to give the audience a real apprehension of threat and danger and it worked. The alien in was also a model, and it worked perfectly for the film, making the audience believe that what they were watching was the real deal.

Filmmakers also say that SFX helps them squeeze out real and natural performances from the actors, which gives an added touch of originality. This also is clear from the famous chest-buster scene from Alien, in which the cast was not told about what they were about to face and their reaction was real to the core.

Some of 's best sequences have used SFX. You can check out some of my favorite SFX shots here and in the video below.


COST. Practical effects are very costly and have their own limitations. With a tight budget, SFX, many times becomes financially unviable. Christopher Nolan, one of the finest directors of today's times, has reportedly crashed a $5 million World War II vintage plane cause (and I quote) "that's how he rolls." This is one of the many costly decisions from a director who is famous for his minimal use of VFX (since no director can survive with no VFX) and costly uses of SFX.

SFX, when not done right, can lead to some horrendous on-screen depictions. Examples of this can be found in The Terminator and Mac and Me, where some of the worst use of practical effects is used.

VFX: Pros And Cons

source :
source :


To be very honest, some of the finest films of our times wouldn't have seen the light of the day without VFX. VFX gives filmmakers an empty canvas on which they can paint anything they can possibly think of. Films like and , which are widely loved, are VFX heavy and some of the best shots in cinematic history exist today because of this technique.

VFX is not cheap, but its much easy to incorporate in a film than SFX. Many indie films (like Ex Machina) exist today because of the aforementioned technique.

VFX is known for creating the unimaginable on screen. An example of this can be seen in when was digitally brought back to life for a special sequence dedicated to him after his sudden death during the principal photography.


The anti-VFX party says that VFX gives a superficial feel to a film and takes away originality, and there is merit to be found in this argument. Poor VFX may lead to a disaster of a movie, which (sadly) is the case with a lot of films these days.

VFX also makes it difficult for actors to bring out an original performance. If bad performance and poorly executed VFX are coupled together, cinematic disasters like and The Mummy Returns are born.


VFX and SFX are meant to coexist. Isolating any of the two techniques in a film would lead to either excessive costs or bad end results. I personally love the way directors like and use the perfect combination of SFX and VFX. These directors use both these techniques seamlessly and that leads to a beautiful end result.

A shot from TGWTDT : The right half of the shot is the original shot with green leaves and the left half shows the virtually added snowy area.
A shot from TGWTDT : The right half of the shot is the original shot with green leaves and the left half shows the virtually added snowy area.

George Miller also seamlessly used the technique in his action classic . Though the film mostly used practical effects, things like background replacement and element addition were done digitally via VFX.

source: Flickering Myth
source: Flickering Myth

This technique can also be easily found in the hit TV show too.

In the end, all I would like to say is that there is a pretty big difference between VFX and SFX and the next time you go about complaining/praising the VFX/SFX of a film/TV show, make sure you are using the correct terminologies.


Which side of the debate are you on?

Just when you thought VFX weren't all the great, you should see just how many times they've blown our minds in movies:


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