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What Makes an Award-Winning Visual Effect?

This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 2/2/2016 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

The Oscars are just around the corner. The 14th Annual VES Awards will be presented later today. Among the memorable movies nominated for extraordinary achievements in visual effects this year are Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

But just how do you choose between a sexy robot, monumental vehicular carnage, extra-terrestrial super-science, trials and trauma in the North American wilderness, and an entire galaxy filled with beeping droids and exploding spaceships? In an age where seamlessly-integrated, photoreal effects are taken completely for granted, what constitutes a "good" visual effect?

Actor John Krasinski (left) and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced the nominees for the 88th Annual Academy Awards in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

In search of some answers, we asked an international panel of visual effects professionals this simple question:

"How do you go about judging award-winning visual effects?"

It's a question that could take us into some rocky territory. Luckily for us, Randall Smith, visual effects supervisor at Pixomondo, has sketched out a road map to help us on our way:

"I judge visual effects based on three criteria. First I'm looking for accuracy and photorealism — visuals so realistic that the viewer accepts what they are seeing, and their disbelief is momentarily suspended. Secondly, I'm looking for pure, artistic expression. The best effects stand out when the artists aren't held back by the limitations of a cost-effective solution, and instead aim towards new discoveries within their art. Last — and most importantly — the measure of a great effect will always be its success in storytelling. It's amazing that a Muppet, with a team of artist's hands shoved up its backside, can create a compelling story with a huge range of emotion. In comparison, some of most expensive effects shots often fall flat, losing the narrative and thereby losing the viewer."

Parallel to Smith's three basic criteria, Marque Pierre Sondergaard, texture artist at Atomic Fiction, suggests studying visual effects through two different lenses, which he describes as the "yin and yang of visual effects":

Behind-the-Scenes of Tested's Studio Production

Over the years, we've given you some glimpses into our productions process--from camera and audio recording gear to podcast setup. But so much of how we produce videos and content on Tested isn't about the equipment and technology, but about the process. Specifically, the process that Joey has set up to shoot both in-studio and on-location videos as a one-person production team. (We've had additional help from time to time, and a new associate producer, Adam Isaak, whose work you've seen lately.) NewTek, the makers of the Tricaster video mixer, recently interviewed Joey for an extensive blog post about that process. From camera lens to streaming output, they walk you through Joey's current setup and thought process for recording reviews, builds, and podcasts.

It's recognition and credit of a process that's difficult to get across just from watching the finished videos, and I hope you'll share our appreciate of it. Testing happens both in front of and behind the cameras, and we'll continue to give you insights into how we make our content in future videos.

For more on Joey's ever-evolving production process, you can read his piece on cameras, his post on editing One Day Builds, and this video about color grading.

In Brief: Bryan Fuller To Helm New Star Trek Series!

This is great news for Star Trek fans. CBS had previously announced that it's in pre-production for a new Star Trek television series for its All Access digital subscription service, and that Star Trek (2009) writer Alex Kurtzman was producing it. Today, Bryan Fuller announced that he would also be producing and showrunning the series, which is to be set in the rebooted Star Trek universe from the J.J. Abrams films. Fuller, who is also currently producing the television adaption of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, is best known for his shows Hannibal, Pushing Daisies, and Wonderfalls--all of which share great writing and vibrant visual style. But Star Trek fans should know that he began his TV writing career on Deep Space Nine and Voyager. The new show is scheduled to have its pilot premiere on CBS next January.

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Designing a 3D-Printed Model Airplane Kit

We're joined by Jacky Wan this week as he shares his latest design: model airplane kit that's completely 3D-printed! Jacky chats with Sean about how he designed the kit pieces to snap together with strong joints, and how orienting the print pieces at specific angles streamline the look of the model.

Ask Adam Anything!

Now that Adam has a little more time on his hands, we're going to be visiting the Cave every week to have him answer questions from YOU. Whether you have a question about a build, prop, technology, or process, Adam will give his honest opinion and share his insights. Tested Premium Members, submit your questions in the comments below!

Destroying a Soda Can with a Ping Pong Ball!

We're introducing a new series this week demonstrating Simple Feats of Science! Kishore and Norm are joined by Zeke Kossover from San Francisco's Exploratorium science museum to show how you can destroy a soda can with a ping pong ball moving at almost the speed of sound! (Thanks to the Exploratorium for sharing with us these experiments.)

Google Play App Roundup: Promo Codes, Merged, and Space Grunts

It's time again to dive into the Google Play Store and see what apps we can find. Every week we find the best new and newly updated apps for the Roundup, and this week is no exception. Just click on the app name to head to the Play Store.

Promo Codes

In case you haven't heard, Google has finally started offering promo codes for apps and games in the Play Store. That means developers can produce promo codes that grant the user (that's you) a free copy of an app/game or in-app content. This is handy for reviewer (that's me) of course, but it's also going to lead to more giveaways. There's already an app from a noted developer that seeks to take advantage of this feature called Promo Codes. Can you guess what it does? Yep, distributes promo codes… if you're lucky.

This app was created by Jack Underwood, the developer of the popular Today Calendar app. It's an incredibly simple app, but an interesting idea. When you open Promo Codes, you have a chance of winning a free copy of an app or game, provided via a Play store promo code. that means you own the content completely and will continue getting updates normally.

To play, just tap the I'm Feeling Lucky button and wait. More than likely, you'll be taken to the Play Store listing for the promoted app, and see a popup message stating that you didn't win. If, however, you are the lucky winner of a code, it will be automatically copied into your clipboard. Simply open the Redeem menu in the Play Store and paste it in to get your free app or game.

Promo Codes only gives you one chance to win per day, and there's an option in the settings to have it notify you when you can try again. Actually, that's the only setting right now. I did say this is a simple app, right?

Underwood is basically looking for developers to sponsor Promo Codes and have their apps featured as the prize you can win. Whether or not they respond positively will determine the fate of Promo Codes, but it's already given away some licenses to good stuff. You might as well install it and give it a look.

Designing a 3D-Printed Prosthetic Arm

3D printing isn't just for prototyping or making toys--it can also be used to manufacture working prosthetic limbs. We're joined by designer Jacky Wan this week to learn about his work with the Enabling The Future, an organization developing a 3D-printable arm prosthetic. Jacky's design goes above and beyond the requirements of the project, and looks beautiful too!

"Frank on Frankenstein" - Episode 28 - 2/5/16
On this episode of CreatureGeek, it's a solecist with just Frank and Len. Frank wants to go on a rant. And rant he does! We chat about the classic monster Frankenstein in all his iterations including the book by Mary Shelley, the James Whale movie and the newer versions including Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version and the new I, Frankenstein and Victor Frankenstein. Support us on Patreon! Head on over to and throw us a few bucks!
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