Features and Columns · Movies

Why a Giant Shiny Ball is the Unsung Hero of Visual Effects

Also: it would look cute on a Christmas tree.
Shiny Ball Visual Effects
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By  · Published on May 10th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about why a shiny metal ball is the secret weapon of modern visual effects.


There’s something of a truism when it comes to visual effects: they are often at their best when you don’t notice them.

For instance, when a green screen effect is bad, you become acutely aware of its presence. And all that janky chroma key can break your immersion and take you out of the story. But, if you’ve watched a behind-the-scenes featurette of late, you’re well aware that green screen effects are literally everywhere these days, often in the background where big panoramas of city skylines should be. This use of green screens allows filmmakers to keep costs down and remain flexible with shooting locations. And, for the most part, the audience is none the wiser.

There are many sophisticated tools that make CGI elements feel like an unnoticeable, natural part of a real-life environment. Which is why a giant, shiny metal ball is one of VFX’s unsung heroes. An essential part of a VFX artists’ toolkit (sporting several more convenient digital counterparts), these shiny balls allow artists to capture the way that light looks on the live set so that they can make it look as though that light is convincingly illuminating a digital object. It is basically a way to quickly capture a panorama of a real-world environment. This data can then be turned into an “environmental lighting model” which can make CGI effects look like they are part of the world. The more you know!

Watch “Why visual effects artists love this shiny ball“:

Who made this?

This video is by Vox, an American news website owned by Vox Media, founded in 2014. They produce videos on news, culture, and everything in between. This video is produced by Phil Edwards, with art direction by Estelle Caswell and story editing by Bridgett Henwood. You can subscribe to Vox on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).