The wind grows cold. The days grow short, and all the leaves that brought such peace and life throughout the summer now wither, change, and fall. We’ve celebrated the last great harvest of the year, pulled the shutters tight and prepare for the long, cold sleep that will soon be coming as our land angles ever so slightly away from that which gives all things life.
It’s that time of the year again. The celebration of those who have passed. The scaring away of evil spirits, the high witching hour, the leading of those lost to their eternal rest. All Hallows Eve, the Day of the Dead, celebrate what you will. It’s a great time for stories of enchantment, the supernatural, and the unexplained. I love this time of year.
So the question becomes, “how can we effectively create the supernatural realm with our own limited resources?”
We’ve all seen the movies and shows. The undead walk the mortal plane helping, avenging, or just plain scaring the people of the world. Thousands of tales explore the afterlife; some of them even do it well. It’s an area that, if done correctly, can draw a viewer in like no other, but if done wrong, can ruin an otherwise good idea. People get picky about effects, especially in these modern times of computer-generated artistry. Unfortunately most of us don’t have the budget for massive render farms and compositing teams. We must do the best with the funds at hand. So the question becomes, “how can we effectively create the supernatural realm with our own limited resources?”
A Hauntingly Tricky Concept
How do you make a ghost for movies? To make a ghost effect seem real it takes more than techniques, there’s also the psychology of the rules of ghosts movies.
Let’s tell a ghost story. We have an idea that involves a group of characters receiving information that only someone who has passed beyond knows. There are three major elements to pulling this off successfully.
- The first, and most important thing one must remember is that spirits, when you boil it down, are still characters. They must be thought of, and portrayed as such. Make them well-rounded, give them a back-story. Give them quirks; needs and faults, just like any other character in your story. You don’t need to show all these things, but having them even in your mind will help with the realization of your vision.
- The second element is how your ghost will appear (or not) to the others in the story. Make the spirit a spirit. If your character isn’t fantastical in some way, you might as well make them a regular person. Are they human looking, like Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) in the Sixth Sense? Are they a floating mass of energy and light like the classic Poltergeist movies? Are they somewhere in between like those in Ghostbusters? Can the audience see them? Can the characters? Your entity is a character, but they are a special kind of character. You must present them as such both in motive and appearance.
- The third element is often the aspect that gets ignored or forgotten. Enhance the performance with the illusion. Don’t let the illusion ruin the show. You can have the best effect ever, but if it doesn’t work for the story, it’s just an effect. There’s an old editors adage, “If the audience says ‘wow, that was good editing,’ then you’ve failed to edit the scene properly.” When an effect is done right, people should not be saying “wow.” The best effect should simply be accepted as status quo in the world that is presented. The successful portrayal of the supernatural lies in integrating the character into the effect, and the effect into the story. So you don’t need the greatest, most exotic effect to pull off a successful tale, you only need the right ghost effect for your story and your character.
We hold in our collective minds beliefs like ghosts are pale and pass through things, and zombies are decaying and move slowly. These are rationalizations whose logic extends back to the origins of the creatures themselves. Many accepted standards are rather convenient for video as well, whose limitations necessitate compromises. If we see a translucent person in flowing white, we immediately accept them as a ghost. It all works rather nicely.
These concepts should be seen as starting points though, not an absolute. Some of the most notable afterlife characters have been the ones that have broken the standards. Adding a touch of blue to a spirit might make them stand out from the rest. What if they were gold, or bronze? What if the zombie was suddenly faster than when he was alive, and never got winded? Take a look at the resources you have at hand, and the effects you have in your palette and consider ways you can bring a fresh approach to your character. Do this not just to be cool, but for the proper enhancement of character.
If you want your ghost to be more humanized, take the Sixth Sense approach and make them essentially “corporeal”. If, on the other hand your poltergeist is more “infesting”, then give them a touch of distortion. If they are more ethereal, add some particles. Make the particles move in different directions based on how the spirit feels. This, more than anything else, will sell your concept and make a look meaningful rather than trendy. But before you add the accents, you need to shoot the scene. Let’s explore how this can be done.
The Keys to the Ethereal Plane
There are many methods for creating undead and fantastical creatures. Which one is best for your production should be based on your resource ability, experience and production style. While there’s not enough room to cover them all, we’ll lay out a rather complex shot, explore one approach that won’t break the budget, and give thought as to how we can improve quality while maintaining proper characterization.
Having accepted that a ghost is present, our characters now wait with bated breath to find out what it wants to tell them. The best approach to any otherworldly effect is to use a combination of production and post-production techniques. Many of the on-set tricks you can use have their origins in the theater and magic, and rely on slight of hand foreshortening of angles, and persistence of vision to achieve the illusion. During production, you might want your ghost to be able to move items around the set without being seen. Let’s say a book is to come out of a bookcase, float across a room, land on a table, and open to a specific page.
Preparation of the prop and precise staging are essential. We’re going to surround the book with a green colored card that we’ll key out in post. Note that like all key effects, the green should be as evenly lit as possible. Placing a light behind the camera that follows the card will help, but it’s not going to be perfect. Be prepared to – yes, I’m gonna say it – ‘fix it in post’. You’re also going to attach several threads of black fishing line to the cover of the book, as well as some pages you want to turn.
When you’re ready to shoot, lock down the camera and have the actors go through the shot as if the book were moving. When possible, provide something off-set for eye-line and timing (preferably operated by the prop handler that will actually move the book later). When the shot is done, have everyone leave the set, being careful not to move anything, especially the camera. Place the book in its slot on the bookcase (you may have to fold up the green under the book and have it flop down as the book clears the ledge). As close to the timing of the last take, pull the book out and carry it across to the table, always keeping an amount of green around all sides of the book from the camera perspective. Lay it down, and then use the strings to pull the cover open and start the pages flipping. For a more fluid page turn, add some air from a fan to help turn the pages.
In post, you simply need the take with the actor in your timeline, then key the book take on top of it. You’ll have to crop the book layer, cutting out everything but the book and the green, and then make the crop color the same as your green card. Finally, key out the green so that only the book remains in the scene.
In shooting, overlap your shots as much as possible so you’ll be able to cut at any time if necessary. Also, have a few reaction shots (where there is no book) to cut away to. It will be easier if you don’t have to force one effect shot right next to another if they don’t work. Note that the black fishing line will be harder to hide if you’re shooting in high definition. Be sure to keep it in shadow as much as possible, and be ready to manually crop it out.
Enhancing an effect like this involves more interactivity with the actors, but will also increase the difficulty. Perhaps the book passes behind other objects, or under them. Wind may accompany the book. It might travel through shadow and highlighted parts of the room. Think about how you can make the book more interactive.
One other consideration is speed. Slower is more mystical, but it’s harder to hide mistakes. Faster may not always fit the mood, but if you use it, you can probably cut out the green screen altogether. Use the line to yank the book from the shelves, then cut to another shot of the book landing on the table and opening (the latter you’ll have to shoot in reverse of course). Remember that you only need to pull off a shot at a time. The compilation of shots as a whole, along with sound and believable action will make the scene believable for the audience.
So that’s the action, what about the entity itself? Let’s first approach this character as if they are an ordinary person who just happens to be a ghost. You might want this character to pass through objects or be translucent at times, yet still interact as needed. Use the keying method we just used for the book. Simply have your stage-hands carry a green screen behind the ghost actor wherever he goes. Everything the ghost interacts with must be placed in the 2nd take, and everything they pass through must be removed. If at any time you want the ghost to disappear, simply adjust the transparency of his layer to 0. (Alternatively increase the key tolerance and watch him “break up”).
The only downside to this approach is that you’ll have a harder time if you need the ghost to physically interact with the living. Note that you can have the ghost actor in the same scene as the other actors as long as they don’t cross each other, the crew or the matte. This will promote better timing and allow for the ghost to hand something directly to the living. If you can’t do this, you might discover some subtle positioning and timing issues in post. Adding blurs and effects to your ghost’s movements can help compensate and cover them.
Incidentally adding effects to your ghost will be really easy since they are already isolated on their own video track. You can change the hue or saturation of a ghost. Try taking out the color completely and then using the “invert” effect to turn white into black and black into white. Experimenting takes little time comparatively and can yield great returns. Also, an effect in and of itself can be made to look like a supernatural entity. If your edit system supports multiple effects on a single clip (most do) try simply a distortion or warp effect combined with a blur. Then increase its lightness. Make it roughly the size of a person and use key frames to move it around the scene.
Channeling the Spirit World
Some of the biggest challenges come when an effect goes wrong. The idea here is to be as inventive and creative with your fixes as with the rest of your production. I once worked on an independent short where a spirit returns to haunt the main character. We wanted more of a physical presence than a ghost so we darkened the character’s eyes and lips and powdered the skin until the character appeared severely pale. Since the ‘ghost’ really just stood there we didn’t need any key effects. However in viewing the footage we realized that the actor’s neck was visible above his coat and there was no makeup on it. We solved the problem by duplicating the image on top of itself, taking out all the color, and cropping it to just the neck. The actor didn’t move a lot, but the camera did, so we allowed for some error by softening the edges and changing the crop every few frames. To this day no one has ever noticed it.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless if you think creatively and learn how to use the tools available to you. We’ve only just scratched the surface. The keys to realizing your vision are planning, attention to detail, and a willingness to think outside the box. Make your vision come alive for your audience by wrapping it in character and story. Immerse your viewers, make them believe, and let the fantastical become reality.
Sidebar 1: Cheap and Effective
1982s Poltergeist shot a light through a fish tank with agitated water to get the eerie flickering effect. Or try lighting a room that has light-colored walls through a tank of water, then dropping ink or food coloring into the tank. Need an eerie glow in an impossible area? Try glow sticks. For that flowing, floating effect, try placing a fan behind your actor and slowing them down in post. Did your character just confront Darth Vader? Dip a glove in fluorescent green paint, then key it out. Remember that if you can’t afford chroma key-green paint, or a chroma key backdrop, you can always get something close from a fabric store. Try to find a fluorescent fabric that is matte rather than shiny.
Sidebar 2: Getting Ahead of Yourself
There’s no reason you can’t divide up your key effects into smaller pieces. Shoot a set background. Next shoot your actor in front of a green screen. At some point have him reach up and pull the hair on the top of his head, lifting his arm straight up. In the edit room, make two layers of the green, cropping the top of the first at the neck, and the second around the head. When the time comes, use key frames to have the head follow the motion of the hand, as if they removed it. Finally, mix these two layers together and key into the background. You can then wrap green around the actor’s shoulders, and essentially have a floating head to place anywhere you want.
Sidebar 3: Getting Practical
Lighting is a great way to enhance spirits. Light them from a sharp overhead or up angle. You can also follow the ghost with a spotlight to make them brighter than everything around them. Black-lights are also a good way to make ghosts glow. However it doesn’t transmit well in bright light, so dim the ambiance. It’s also hard to get a bright glow and you’ll have to put the black-light rather close to your ghost. You can increase the effect by washing the costume with laundry detergent and using a very light rinse (make sure the actor isn’t allergic to the detergent of course, and that the costume can be washed in such a manner.) Alternatively, you can easily make the glow in post, but there will be almost no interplay with the light from the ghost and the set.
If working with a black-light isn’t your thing, look for phosphorous and fluorescent makeup and paint at theatrical supplies, Halloween, party and/or craft stores. Check out sites online like www.alconeco.com and www.blacklight.com. And since you have them, use these tools to enhance your trick-or-treating festivities come All Hallow’s Eve.
Peter Zunitch is a post-production manager and editor working on every system from 16mm film to Avid Symphony, utilizing many of today’s advanced manipulation and compositing tools.