Effects / Opticals

I have categorised effects in its own individual section, you may be wondering why I would segregate this section. The main reason is because effects in terms of the Digital Intermediate are not the same as VFX work. You may think I am confusing the issue, so let us simplify what I term as effects.

Traditionally anything other than a cut within the narrative was termed an effect because it was a difficult procedure, even to perform something as basic as a fade to black. Traditionally we used to refer to anything other than a cut as opticals or an optical effect.

This was because no matter what needed to be changed, a ‘simple’ effect had to be accomplished through optical print stages; therefore it was known as an ‘Optical’. Simple things we now take for granted digitally were cumbersome and labour intensive – for example achieving a freeze frame was achieved by simply stopping the projector while the camera continues to run. Action may be sped up by skip printing, in which only every second or third frame is printed. Something as common as a dissolve, in an optical printer it is technically a sort of double exposure since you would be making double passes on the "master" negative, i.e. exposing the film twice. Once with the outgoing shot and then a second pass with the incoming shot, if you look at older films you may see a contrast/colour shift/bias where they have done this independently and then cut it back in. A single dissolve will have been through several duplication processes and can cause quite a noticeable jar.

Hopefully in these terms you can see effects in terms of DI are not as simplistic a term as you first thought. Not that I would ever consider VFX simplistic, far from it. However a general distinction between the two is indeed advantageous. At least when you talk about opticals or effects with clients you’ll start to distinguish what exactly is meant by them and also their expectation. I assume many effects within today’s equipment would be easy to achieve. However effects truly need to be given some thought especially when off lining on an Avid or FCP (Final Cut Pro). A simple slow down (speed change) on an Avid will almost certainly not give the same desired look and feel on frame based projected 2K material – you may need to employ external software to make this effect work satisfactorily, which could possibly become a VFX in its own right. Plus be prepared to lose a large amount of time as the client tries to match the look of the Avid that they so eagerly signed off on! This expectation has to be managed and the client made aware that ‘filters’ or ‘plug-ins’ which are used, will not necessarily produce the same results between DI equipment manufacturers, it will be trial and error.


DI Effects

As you can imagine there are a number of effects that will be asked of the Digital Lab. Many are basic executions that have simply become standard from day to day editing and famous from certain films or shows. You would probably never even notice them; the viewer is accustomed to them and many are simply part of the conform and will be automatically taken care of automatically during the conform.


The most common and simple transition — an instant change from one shot to the next.

Mix / Dissolve / Crossfade

These are all terms to describe the same transition — a gradual fade from one shot to the next. Crossfades have a more relaxed feel than cuts and are useful if you want a meandering pace or contemplative mood. Scenery sequences work well with crossfades, as do photo montages. Something to note is a crossfade will sometimes work across several video layers. Therefore it is not simply dissolving from one shot to another it can be more of a 'layered' effect or 'composition'.


Fades the shot to a single colour, usually black or white. The "fade to black" and "fade from black" are ubiquitous in film and television. They usually signal the beginning and end of scenes. Fades can be used between shots to create a sort of crossfade which, for example, fades briefly to white before fading to the next shot.

Wipe (W command)

One shot is progressively replaced by another shot in a geometric pattern. There are many types of wipe, from straight lines to complex shapes. They are a good way to show changing location – I believe Star Wars made these infamous. Wipes can have a softened or coloured border to help distinguish the shots during the transition.

Stretches (M2 command)

Stretches are generally a speed increase or slow down in time giving different looks to the action. Or simply an editor’s trick to fill an edit where the take is a few frames short. There are many ways of approaching these kind of effects, its not simply dropping frames or double printing like an optical, they can be quite complicated, averaging across multiple frames or using a profile to start off slow and then speed up at the end.

Repositioning & Reframing

These can usually go hand in hand, a simple move that is just enough to remove something from frame, such as a wayward sound boom or a piece of action that is distracting to the viewer. You must also recognise that zooming in on an image technically reduces its canvas, thus softening the image, if you zoom too far you will start to get pixelisation or sometimes referred to as jaggies.

The grey box is how the image was repositioned and zoomed, the rest of the image was in effect removed.


There are also custom tools to sharpen or the reverse, blur images this is a technique that is used on rushes when transferred by the telecine. However when the true scan is viewed, it is slightly out of focus, which is sometimes a shock to the DoP. Sharpening tools have to be used with caution, if they are used too much they can cause ringing, which will look like extra edges.

Within the small grey box on the right image is how the Big Ben could start to 'ring' if the sharpening is over stressed, note the softness on the image to the left.

Multiple Views

Multiple cameras or different viewpoints of a scene are a common part of storytelling now, a conversation held on a phone with both on screen. These are quite simple to produce now and extremely simple in the editing phase. Think of the scene in When Harry Met Sally, they are in separate beds but look as though they are either side on screen, conversing about what is on TV. This would have been an optical film composite in traditional terms but can be achieved with two video layers today with a simple repositioning and soft edged cropping.


Digital Effects, Plug-Ins & Filters

Most editing applications offer a large selection of digital transitions with various effects. Commonly known as filters, there are too many to list here, but these effects include colour replacement, animated effects, pixelization, focus drops, painting and lighting effects, etc. However a word of caution, they are not compulsory on all systems and you may find that they are an expensive addition that your DI facility simply does not have access too.

They are produced by external companies, such as Tiffen, Sapphire (Genarts) or Tinderbox (The Foundry) to name a few and ultimately the facilities choice of equipment may not support the same filters that your editor has or may have at their disposal. Also a final note is that anything done in the Offline suite is at a much lower resolution and to recreate that at 2k may be much more difficult and time consuming than during the offline, often they are what I term as mere brushstrokes to indicate an effect. These should be treated as VFX in my opinion and within reason not expected as part and parcel to the DI project.

Camera Effects

A final note on effects - many cameras also include digital effects that can be recorded at source, but if possible it is better to add these in post-production. If you record these images with a particular look, a glow or graduated filter then later decide the look does not work, it can be impossible to remove the effect after the event, or at least not in a cost effective or convincing way.