You’ll find no cohesive narrative arc here.
This is the land of VFX artists starved for knowledge on rotoscoping, roaming the desert with raiders and stealing fuel where they can find it. This is the scene where the hero falls to his knees in the rain, crying out to the heavens:
“We need more realistic blood spatter!”
This is…okay, so maybe the world of VFX deserves a little narrative recognition. After all, there’s no lightsaber without its glow, there’s no Tony Stark without his suit. Ironically, the knowledge that helps a VFX artist support the world of a story is found within the stories of the VFX artists that came before.
Some of these artists articulated their knowledge for future generations, and that’s what this is: a collection of the best VFX books, assembled for the filmmaker forever aspiring to improve their craft.
Well, nobody ever said VFX artists were good at concise book titles, but Ron Brinkmann did put together one of the best VFX reference books that sits on many veteran artists’ bookshelves. The Second Edition of “The Art and Science of Digital Compositing” was published in 2008, and it’s still relevant.
Brinkmann details hundreds of techniques to seamlessly achieve any specific shot (Brinkmann was the Computer Graphics Supervisor on 90s classics like Speed and Die Hard With a Vengeance). The book has been used as an in-house training tool for lighters and compositors at VFX studios and blends a perspective that spotlights both the technical and artistic elements of a VFX creator. The case studies may feel dated from a “cinematic choice” perspective – Brinkmann studies 17 films that include King Kong, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Sin City – but the way it reads is like you are studying a foundation of sound filmmaking from a perspective that is both insightful and accessible.
Ian Failes’s “Masters of FX” earns a “best VFX books” nod by presenting a collection that feels like you’re in a room with living legends – 16 VFX professionals behind some of the greatest effects sequences relive their most memorable scenes with shot breakdowns, high-resolution imagery, and in-depth analysis.
An apparent benefit of “Masters of FX” is that Failes assembles an eclectic depth of niches. Each interview dives into a different realm of VFX, from the art of creature effects to re-aging and de-aging, to the effective use of miniature models. This is not “we’re gonna interview a random VFX artist and hear their thoughts” – every innovator in this book is someone who helped shape and define the industry: Joe Letteri (Avatar, King Kong), John Knoll (Pirates of the Caribbean, co-creator of Photoshop), Dennis Muren (Star Wars, Jurassic Park).
Ian Failes is one of the most established and driven VFX and animation journalists in the industry. He is the editor of beforesandafters.com, which produces VFX and animation analysis daily, and the editor of the befores & afters magazine. The only mixed reception of “Masters of FX” is that some found the small print hard to read against the colored print pages, but others thought that the imagery was vibrant and the pages exhaled knowledge that feels alive and actionable.
This is a book that you drag into the library stacks with both hands, and the librarian who gave it to you refers to it as a “volume” or “tome”. It is 922 pages of meat. It is another one like Brinkmann’s “The Art and Science of Digital Compositing” that is openly referred to as a “bible of VFX” (Brinkmann actually wrote the glossary for this one).
88 of the best VFX industry professionals collaborated to provide a comprehensive book on every aspect of visual effects. It includes chapters on color management, model-making, motion capture, and methods for pre-production right through production to post. The chapters are split up so that each chapter is presented by one or two VFX artists presenting their experience and perspective in a detailed, fine-tuned presentation of workflow technique.
The goo, the folds of skin, the blood – the aforementioned books dabble in special effects – “Special Effects: The History and Technique” sinks you into the machinations and origins of today’s special effects.
For context, this is closer to “Masters of FX” than one of the reference-style industry guides. It is a VFX history book, it’s colorful, and includes profiles of many of the best to ever do it. This is the book one would pick up if they were 13 years old and had just seen E.T. for the first time, thinking “I want to do that, too”.
That’s not to say this is a book designed for adolescents – not at all. “Special Effects” is at its heart a history book that wants to go out for a night on the town and carries a purse with some techniques in it. While many of the best VFX books will dunk you into the details of procedure, “Special Effects” takes the reader on a ride to eras of molds and creature suits, and how effects have evolved to what they are today. One Amazon reviewer called it, “a coffee table book for the geeks in all of us”.
Again, VFX artists and book titles – brevity is not a strength. The strength of “The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects” is its perspective:
This is the book you want if you’re a filmmaker, have no idea how to build or execute VFX, and you need to design, plan, budget, and shoot visual effects for your production. Indie filmmakers especially – the tools described within are presented in language accessible to those who know story but not the visual tools to support their story.
Eran Dinur (Iron Man, Terminator Salvation) walks the reader through intangibles that are as important as visual technique, such as how to effectively interact with a visual effects team in pre-production and lessen production costs by using a certain effects strategy. The book doesn’t treat the non-VFX reader with any sense of condescension – it concisely dives right into the grittiest of fine needlework topics like rotoscoping, compositing, and types of workflows.
“The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects” is a 192-page exercise in practicality. An aspiring filmmaker can build their authority in production knowledge, use it to decrease costs, and apply Dinur’s education to expand the scope of their storytelling tools.
The best VFX books serve two purposes: Build on history. Inspire growth.
When King Kong came out in 1933, someone on-set may have scribbled in a little notebook:
“Figure out how to make Kong suit less sweaty.”
Somebody picked up that notebook, looked at the scribbles, and improved on it. Ray Harryhausen – whether real or in his head – had a notebook. George Lucas. Every great filmmaker has documented their techniques and added another layer to history.
The history and standard practices serve as a foundation. Everything on top of the foundation – that’s for the architect to decide. But when they’re asked what informed such a brilliant piece of work, one might imagine they could turn and say:
“I read it in a book.”