Know your visual effects lingo

From compositing to previz, understand the latest filmmaking terms with this handy glossary of visual effects jargon.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films | TV | Movies | Television | Technology
Richard Trenholm
2 min read

Visual effects are everywhere in modern movies, from the wall-to-wall spectacle of fantasy blockbusters to the real-world dramas with FX you don't even notice.

Modern computer-generated (CG) movie magic is produced by visual effects companies around the globe, employing armies of animators and artists using specialised software to conjure ever more realistic shots. Like any industry, the processes of creating visual effects come with their own jargon and technical terms. Here's a quick guide to some of the common terms you need to know.

Blocking pass

Animating CG characters or environments in rough, low-resolution form so they can be tweaked quickly and easily.


The final process of combining real footage with digital elements to create the finished shot.

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Actors and vehicles shot against a green screen that will be replaced by a digital backdrop for Prometheus.


Green screen

Also known as chromakey, color key or blue screen, this is the process of shooting actors in front of a colored backdrop so a digital environment can be added later. 


Digitally-created hair and fur on CG characters.

Look Dev

Developing and detailing how a CG asset will look.


A crude puppet designed to be photographed as a reference for visual effects artists. 

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A maquette of the panther Bagheera on set with actor Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book, giving the actor something to react to and the visual effects artists a reference.



Matching digital elements with the camera movements of the original footage.


Industry-standard animation software developed by Autodesk.


Node-based compositing software for combining elements into the final shot.

Performance capture

Also known as motion capture, or mo-cap, this involves recording actors' movements and facial expressions so a CG character can be mapped over them.

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Actor Andy Serkis wearing a performance capture suit that tracks his movements, which are then mapped to a digital character.

Twentieth Century Fox


The original, unaltered footage shot in the traditional manner on set or against a green screen.


Previsualization -- usually shortened to previz -- is simple animation roughing out the film's shots, like a moving storyboard.


The computer-intensive process of generating a photo-realistic, high-resolution image from a 3D model.


In the visual effects industry, roto artists "cut out" individual elements such as actors from the background so they can be composited with other elements.


Software that algorithmically replicates natural phenomena like water, flames, smoke or large-scale elements like falling debris or crowds of people.

This story appears in the Fall 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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