Contrasting Special and Visual effects (Practical and CG)

Special effects and visual effects may seem very similar through an outsider’s perspective but there is a good amount of differences when it comes between the two. The two sorts of effects are done to make or do things that would be really hard or impossible to do in real life but the main different between them is that Special effect are usually something that is done when the scene itself is being recorded and a visual effect is added to the scene when it is edited in.

Special effects were first made around the 1890s (The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots 1895 being one of the first film using effects) while visual effects are more of a modern effect that is not nearly anywhere as old as special effects are. Both effects are made to simulate imagined events that would be impossible to be done in the real world but a big difference between the two is that a lot of the work for special effects have to be done while the event is being recorded but there can be some assists for these effects through the editing phase but visual effects are almost always done and put into the scene when the scene has already been recorded. The two categories that specials effects can be put into are optical effects and mechanical effects.

The first category for special effects are optical effects. Optical effects are certain alterations to the camera, lightings etc. to change the imagery of the film frames to make the scene look more similar to what they had imagined the scene would look like in something like a space battlefield or world of magic. Nowadays some of these lighting effects can be done without alterations to the camera and lighting and instead with a visual effect as an editing software can produce an effect to the lighting and camera in the recorded scene but the regular special effect tactics are still used as the camera can be changed a lot more there and changing lighting in filming can make the scene look better and help with the editing phase.

The second category for special effects are mechanical effects. A mechanical effect is almost always done while the scene is being recorded. These effects can be used to make alterations to the scene by using mechanical props, models, animatronics and pyrotechnics to create effects to things like the scenery or the atmosphere. A few examples of mechanical effects are changing the weather, making something move by itself and explosions. Many of the mechanical special effects cannot be done as a visual effect as a mechanical effect would require a machine to be used in the scene. The software that creates visual effects probably cannot put a real machine into the scene but some mechanical effects can be emulated as visual effect like changing the weather or creating an explosion.

Visual effects are effects that are added to the scene after the scene has been recorded usually through an editing software, exclusive visual effects that cannot be done as special effects are creating a CGI image or object, rendering and animating these into the scene and adding unreal backgrounds into the scenes. To summarise the main difference between special and visual effects is special effects are done while the scene is being recorded and visual effects are edited into the scene after it has been recorded.


FilmEscape. 2017. What’s the Difference Between Special Effects & Visual Effects?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017].

Wikipedia. 2017. Special effect – Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017].

Visual and Special Effects Film Milestones. 2017. Visual and Special Effects Film Milestones. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 February 2017].