So how do you paint smoke?

It’s that situation again. I’m sat chatting to someone completely new, who doesn’t “get” video games and I have to explain to them what my job involves. It’s a bit better I think for environment or character artists, and perhaps even animators; but explaining how visual FX work, and what they are, is often a bit tricky.

Below is a slightly more in-depth description, as I’m assuming if you’re reading this post, you “get” video games. Hopefully by the end of it you won’t have that glassy-distant stare of someone who’s stopped listening about two words after I started speaking…

Visual FX make up a large part of what you see in today’s video games, and the field is rapidly expanding.


FX used to just account for things like fire, smoke, and magical sparkly stuff. These days an effects artist’s role stretches a lot further. Along with the above effects we’re often responsible for screen effects, altering the entire image you see, as well as special effects that change the appearance of characters, or whole environments. Instead of just making a small camp fire glow, the scope has stretched to “hey, let’s make this entire forest burn down while you’re driving through it”. This is a good thing as it means there’s always something to do, and always a job to be found.

So what sort of things are involved in making effects? How does one “paint smoke”?effects2

Well, one of the basic and most used types of effects are particle effects. If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering what they are. Ok, let’s try something a bit abstract. Imagine you’re standing in a parking lot, on a windy day, clutching a handful of papers. Imagine now, that you throw those papers into the air; the wind taking them and moving them. Some soar high, some spin, some merely fall to the floor, you’re surrounded in a cloud of bits of paper. Particles are like those bits of paper, except you have control over them. So for smoke for example, you would want them to flow in a column upwards, like smoke rising from a fire. As an effects artist you control how those bits of paper, or particles appear, and how they move. If you paint a smoke puff on each of those bits of paper, you’ll get something more resembling smoke, and so on. This is, in a very abstract way, what is involved with making particle effects. You determine how many particles you want, how you want them to move, grow, spin etc. and how you want them to look. Perhaps they should be bright at the bottom, as if lit by the fire, and then fade out at the top of the column as the smoke dissipates. By controlling these things, an effects artist creates smoke, fire, magical sparkly stuff and more for video games.


Screen effects, that’s another thing we do. With modern game engines, we can alter the image you see. This sounds a bit whacked-out, but what I mean is that after everything’s drawn, and the picture on your monitor is about to be shown, we can change it. So, you’re looking down the barrel of your gun in an FPS, you can see the stereotypical Arabian market scene in front of you, all lit beautifully, dust blowing, chickens prancing around. Lovely. As an effects artist, we could then take this image, and make it feel like you were drunk, twisting the image, making it distort. We could change it so everything that was red in colour, was now blue. All these little things affecting the image before you see it. Say you get shot in said FPS, and you get a nasty blood splatter on your screen. That’s an effect’s artist’s job, right there.

There’s a lot more involved than what I’ve gone through, but suffice to say we’re responsible for a lot of things. Making the horizon shimmer in the heat or putting an aurora up in the sky; making it rain, lightning striking and clouds rolling; blood spurts, vomit chunks, shadow monsters and fire-beasts; muzzle flashes, electric sparks, bloody-great-big explosions and often at times the apocalypse.

I highly recommend anyone with a technical and artistic background to take a look at the world of visual effects. It’s extremely rewarding, as you’re that step (like with lighting) that makes everyone else’s work shine. You cover up the dirty bits, and give entire scenes life. Grab UDK, start poking Cascade and the Material Editor and see what you can do. Aside from being so important to games, it’s also a lot of fun.

I look around, notice the pub has shut and my glassy-eyed friend has gone. I get my coat.

Well, at least I think my job’s interesting. They just work in a shoe shop…

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