Visual Effects 101: Using Forced Perspective & A Toy To Create The Real Deal – Pt. 1

Great low budget visual effects tip avoids CGI

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

If you’re working on an idea that’s going to require some visual effects, you may not have the expertise or the software to manipulate and insert 3D models into your film. For example, to stand-in for futuristic science fiction pieces, or even something as simple as a helicopter or a jeep. This can be pretty challenging, spending time and money to find a CGI artist when you should be making a movie.

But I think we all forget that for nearly a century, filmmakers made movies with real-world models, toys, and a little forced perspective. Steven Spielberg used this technique for a lot of the shots in the Indiana Jones films. Peter Jackson used forced perspective in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. With some planning, you too can do it, and make it look pretty darn real.

“In filmmaking, sometimes the simplest solution will be the cheapest, most realistic, and easiest. This doesn’t happen often… but when it does, embrace it and enjoy it.” – Vashi Nedomansk

Here is an example for you on how to get a professional visual effects look, in camera via forced perspective, without having to use costly or difficult CGI (we’ll have a second example will be in part 2). The first one comes from filmmaker Vashi Nedomansky, who’s military drama “The Grind,” needed a U.S. Army Humvee for a desert shot of the main characters deployed in Iraq.

They had the location, thanks to sand dunes outside of Los Angeles, but to buy a surplus military Humvee is around $10,000 to $140,000 at government auction, while renting could cost hundreds a day. But Nedomansky picked up a Humvee toy at Walmart for $23.00, put it in the foreground, and moved his actors way back behind the toy, until their visual reference size matched.

This does take time to set up, because you have to dress the area around the model just right, and close your camera’s aperture to get everything in focus (f/8 to f/16, but experiment with it), with a depth of field so deep, the focus is very sharp. If you’re shooting on a DSLR or a camera with an interchangeable lens, you’ll need a wider lens that offers deep focus. The lighting needs to match, and the result is a very realistic depiction.

Check out the video:

“The wonderful aspect of using models is that once you position them and get your camera angle…they are part of the scene,” Nodmansky says (via his blog). “The sun and your lights strike them naturally and if your perspectives are correct, everything blends together in a seamless fashion. If the model is the slightest bit off, the illusion is ruined and falls apart.

“In this example, we were shooting on a Panasonic HVX-170 with a 1/3-inch sensor at the widest lens setting, so depth of field was not an issue,” he continues. “I was at f/11 and everything from one foot to infinity was in focus. The Humvee was about 2 feet from the camera and the actors were 40 feet away.”

You should read Nodmansky’s blog for more info, it’s very cool!

In part 2 (click here), we’ll show you how filmmaker Ryan Connolly of Film Riot was able to do something similar, creating a visual effect of a Blackhawk helicopter.

Hat tip: Filmmaker IQ via Imaging Resource

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.


  1. Trevor Hewitt says:

    ‘… set your camera lens to a small aperture (stopped down), to give you a deep depth of field sufficient that both the toy (in the foreground) and talent (in the distance) are both in focus.
    ‘Wide open’ means using a large apature, which gives you a ‘narrow’ depth of field which is no good for this, for example if you had set the lens to f2
    ‘Stopped down’ means using a small apature, which gives you a ‘deep’ depth of field… which is what you did when you selected f11 rather than say, f2

    You mean a ‘wide angle’ lens helps with this, not a ‘wide open’ one.
    You just need to amend this, because what you’ve written is not what you did.

    A DOF calculator can be is a useful aid for this, they are available as phone apps.
    Measure the distance to the nearest object you want in focus, then the distance to the furthest (you can use your lens to do this, if it has a distance scale). Then the DOF calculator will give you the necessary focus point and aperture to set, if you dial in the focal length and camera you are using.
    Or you can just look and see – if your eyes are good :)