VFX 101: Making Your Actors Disappear

Hello! This is the first of a semi-regular series of columns I’ll be presenting on how to do some basic special effects, for people who have little to no experience. We use these effects quite frequently in our Harry Potter-based web series The Spell Tutor.

In this column I’ll be covering how we did apparates. (For the muggles, that’s when a person suddenly appears or disappears from a scene.) I chose this effect for the first column because it doesn’t require any special resources like a greenscreen, plus it’s easily adaptable for other purposes – for instance a Star Trek-style transporter.

This episode illustrates the apparate effect 4 times: twice near the beginning, once in the middle and once at the end. I’ll be describing specifically how we made our characters disappear in the first scene; making people appear is essentially the reverse of that process.
sample FX

The first step is to make sure you have a way to keep the camera steady. Ideally you’ll use a tripod but, as in our case where we needed some camera movement before the apparate, your camera operator will have to do their best to hold the camera steady during the crucial time period.

The second step is to plan the shot. In our takes, the actors walked in saying their lines, raised their wands, and then the camera operator held steady until the end of the take. The actors also remained motionless with their wands raised for about 2 seconds, and then quickly scooted out of frame entirely. The camera held with just the background for about 5 more seconds before we cut. This is how the raw take looks:
E3 VFX sample

The rest occurs in post during the editing process. I’ll avoid application-specific references in this column, since low-budget beginners tend to use a wide variety of programs, but most of this is easily done in any basic editing suite.

Laid out on your timeline, your clip looks like this:
Illus 1

Simply cut out the middle part where the actors are leaving the frame and stitch the ends together:
Illus 2

Now when you play this back, the actors simply pop out (as long as your camera operator did a good job of keeping steady). The next step is to add a bit of visual flair to the sequence, since this bare-bones pop out is kind of dull.

This is where you’ll need some more advanced features in your editing program. You won’t be able to do the next part unless your editor supports these.

  • Masking. This is the ability to do a cutout shape inside a clip instead of using the default rectangular border.
  • Special Effects Plug-ins. Most editors come packaged with some sort of special effects. Even if you don’t have the ones I’ll refer to in this column, you can substitute others for your own personal touch.
  • Keyframes. These are points you can define anywhere in your clips’ timelines for making a transition from one state to another. You’ll see how this works a bit later.

We added a layer on top of the background-only portion, masking only the actors’ bodies. This is why we had them remain motionless for 2 seconds – so one mask would do the job. Make sure this clip is relatively short, so that any weird artifacts won’t be noticeable.
Illus 3

Next, we added various distorting effects to the freeze mask clip, specifically a “swirl” and a “ripple” effect. Then we added two keyframes to this clip, one at the beginning and one at the end. For the beginning keyframe we set the “swirl” and “ripple” levels to 0%, and left the end keyframe at 100%. What this means is that the masked clip will start out looking normal, then transition to becoming fully “swirled” and “rippled” by the end, as you can see in the episode above.
Illus 4

For a final touch we faded the masked clip out at the end for a visually smooth disappearance.

That’s it! Some careful planning of the shot, a few minutes of editing, and we got apparates that are pretty effective, even for a low-budget show like ours. I hope you enjoyed this topic and look forward to the next one. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments below!


This is so cool. I love the GIF!! And will definitely be trying this out sometime soon!

The GIF looks a little silly with the actors running out :slight_smile:

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That’s what I like, though! I love seeing the way really serious/impressive scenes are shot. In my mind it doesn’t take the magic away, it adds to it!

You can see in the GIF that the camera op, while mostly holding the camera steady, did waver a little bit. If you watch the finished episode carefully, you can see the background jump a tiny bit during this apparate.

We once shot a series with a twin effect (where the twins were played by the same single actor) and there were the occasional half-pillow moves where the mask line was, but hey, we’re indie, and it’s still damn impressive! Even big shows have continuity issues.

Yeah, when mask compositing, you have to examine everything in the frame before you roll to decide where your mask lines will go.

Here’s an example of a style variation using the same underlying technique.

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