Visual Effects: Choosing from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Elizabeth Blessing

Adding visual effects from your video editing software can be a fun and simple way to enhance your videos. Knowing which effects to add and when is the key to making sure you're adding a professional flair to your video project.

There are a variety of software packages which include effects that are easy to use and well within the budget of most video novices.

Many techniques that were once only available to TV and movie studios are now routinely included in these packages. In fact, you might feel overwhelmed the first time you open up your video editing program and see the long list of effects at your disposal. 

Let's get started by first discussing how visual effects might help your video project and then listing some examples of effects and when you might use them in your videos.

How Effects Might Help Your Video Project

First, some quick definitions . . . 

Some professionals consider visual effects a sub-category under special effects while others consider visual effects to be their own unique specialty. Special effects generally refers to visual and audio illusions used in movies, commercials and videos. Among the methods used to create these illusions are camera techniques, mechanical effects, props or computer generated imagery (CGI).

The visual effects we're discussing here are the ones you add in digital post production using your video editing software. 

There are many reasons why you might want to add visual effects to your videos. Here are just a few: 

  • add background scenery
  • add imaginary characters
  • create a mood 
  • add an element of fantasy
  • show events that you couldn't create in real life 
  • add, remove or obscure objects or props

The Kinds of Effects Your Software Editing Package Might Include

Depending on your software package, you'll find a multitude of effects in a variety of categories. Most of the effect names give you a good idea of what the effect is all about.

For example, Cyberlink Power Director includes the following among its many effects: old camera, mirror, quake (yes, really does give an "earthquake" effect to your video!), oil painting, pop art wall, snow, smoke, fire, waterfall, etc.

TIP: Go ahead and experiment with adding visual effects to some practice footage you import into your video editing software. If possible, do this well before you have an actual project with a deadline.

Play around and have some fun. Get crazy and add a funhouse mirror effect to Aunt Martha's birthday video or toss in some rain and lightning effects to last summer's family picnic video.

However, at some point play time will be over and you'll want to produce a video you'll be proud to show the world. Using too many visual effects or the wrong ones might will make your video look amateurish.

Just because your editing package comes with a hundred effects doesn't mean they'll look good when added to your specific footage. In fact, you'll find that some of the effects might end up making your video look pretty cheesy (dare we say downright ugly?) when compared to the effects we're all used to in high-end movies.

Start out by using a few visual effects in your videos and asking some trusted friends for their honest reaction. Did the effects add anything to your video or were they simply distracting?

Good Uses of Visual Effects 

Before you start filming, a crucial question to ask is what is the goal of your video and will it be enhanced by using visual effects? 

For example, if you're creating a music video to put on your YouTube channel to promote your rock band, good post-production effects -- everything from smoke rising from the floor to flashing lights to distorted camera angles --might add to your video's entertainment value. 

However, these same effects probably won't work for your how-to cooking video or the interview video with the boss of your company. For these, you might want more subtle effects, such as adding in a pleasant backdrop.  

Here are some good examples of when to add effects to your videos:

  • Chroma key or green screen effect to add background images: This visual effect allows you to add a different background image to your video. You start off by using a special green screen as the backdrop for your video shoot. In your video editing software you then remove the green screen and add the background of your choice.

    One obvious reason this effect is so popular is that it allows you to add a location image to your video without incurring the expense of actually traveling to a location or building a set from scratch. 
  • Effects to fix problems in your video: It's not uncommon to watch your raw footage and realize there are problems you'd like to correct. Rather than having to re-shoot your video, you can often save time and money simply by seeing if there's a fix within your video editing software.

    For example, you can correct or enhance colorization within your software. You can also make changes to the white balance, video stabilization and lighting.

  • Adding humor: The right effect can add a sense of light heartedness to your video, something that your audience might appreciate especially if you're afraid your topic might be considered dull.

    For example, if you're doing a how-to video where there's a section that might take half an hour to actually accomplish on camera but could be summarized verbally in a minute, why not speed the video portion up in your editing software and do a voice over for the audio explanation? The fast video is a funny sight gag which will keep your audience interested and hopefully watching your entire video.

  • Adding action and surprising elements: With today's video editing software you can add ghosts, disappearing (and reappearing) characters, Star Wars-style light saber fights, talking animals and many other cool visual tricks.

    Audiences love these effects, but only if they make sense in the context of the video they're watching. These effects should not be used in lieu of good video content. Don't be tempted to layer on special effects to make up for your lack of good video or a good story. Instead, go back and shoot more footage if needed.

  • Titles, end credits and transitions: If you feel your video doesn't really lend itself to special effects, there is still an opportunity to incorporate some of these creative elements within the beginning titles, end credits and transitions.

    Here are a few ideas: You could add a 15 to 30 second title montage at the beginning with highlights or freeze frames from your video. You could do a split screen effect for your end credits and have one half with the credit roll and the other half with humorous outtakes.

    For scene transition ideas, see our article "Using Video Transitions to Enhance Your Videos." 

OK, What Else Can I Do To Improve My Video?

Knowing when to use visual effects is great, but there's still a lot more you can do to improve your video -- think about adding music, video editing and adding transitions, for example.

Check out these Groovy Videos' articles to get you headed in the right direction:

TIP: Now that you've read about visual effects, take a look at our great articles on video editing. Or, check out our Groovy Videos' Home Page or Blog for many more articles on how to improve your videos.

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