Practical Special Effects

A Baker’s Ten to Improve Your Special Effects

Most videomakers fall into one of two groups. First, the snapshotters, people who record scenes until their tapes are hill, then view the disconnected events using the search button. Second, videomakers

and pros, who edit their tapes and employ all the techniques and processes necessary to obtain professional results.

It’s not that people in the first group are unimaginative. They may not want to assemble their pictures or lay down soundtracks, but ofttimes they do wish to add variety to their videomaking.
Thus this article can serve snapshotters as well as the more advanced.

This list of special effects may remind the expens that simple solutions can be the best.

Deep Water

Children mucking about in the pooi occupy many tapes. However, all the acdon commonly occurs above water.

More exciting footage is possible with an underwater periscope, enabling video- making beneath the surface. Camcorders become underwater cameras without the need for expensive blimps or aqualung


The periscope is simply a rectangular box with a sheet of glass cemented into the bottom of one side. It contains two mirrors, one at the bottom, one at the top. Surface-coated mirrors provide better

pictures, but even ordinary mirrors will produce good results.

Set up the periscope poolside and record events above or below water while holding the camera and peering through the viewfinder in the usual manner.

Weight the device to overcome its natural buoyancy. Clamp it to something solid, like the pool steps. Those going to sea can mount the periscope on a boat or sink it into the water for shots of marine


Another trick to improve waterside close-ups involves the simple trick of placing a shallow tray filled with water and broken pieces of mirror below the picture. Ensure that the sun’s reflections fall on

or around your subjects. Then tickle the surface of the water with your fingers. Voila. The ripple effect says your subjects are waterside though they may really be nowhere near water at all.

Sound Skills

Sound is perhaps the greatest special effect of all.

The videomaker seeking to create the atmosphere of a shopping mall need only shoot characters looking into a store window. Sound effects added later will provide the essential ingredients- children

calling, skateboards whirring, the voices of people walldng by, a distant police siren.

For the best location atmosphere, shoot scenes where you can capture the best and most interesting off-camera sounds. When on vacation, don’t always aim for peace and quiet. If you want footage of your

family on a foreign railway station platform, walt for the moment the train pulls out.

When creating a drama, always think sound. Sound can often say more than pictures. Imagine a scene with two people watching TV. Suddenly they react to the sound of squealing tires on the road outside. The

sound of the crash that follows has them leaping towards the window. The skillful use of sound effects has fooled viewers into believing something horrific really did occur.

Betyou didn’t knowyou can create a simulated echo using a length of garden hose and a funnel. Just stick the frinnel in one end of the hose. Place both ends close to the microphone of a cassette recorder.

Then speak. The effect is certainly weird.

Different lengths of hose produce different delay times. This contraption is useful for adding echo or creating monstrous outer space voices.

An even better echo results from linking funnel, hose and mike to one input channel of a stereo recorder while using the other channel and a second mike straight.

Mirror Dimension

Video pictures are two-dimensional, with height and width but no depth. This fact is used repeatedly to fool viewers.

The scene outside a window may be only a painted backcloth, but who can tell? A photograph of an object can look the same as the real object. Use photos when you can’t acquire the real thing- a priceless

museum exhibit, for example. Photographs, or even photocopies, can simulate multiple items such as meter dials or control panels.

The fifty-fifty semi-coated mirror, or beam-splitter, is a most useful piece of videomaking equipment. Used to superimpose one picture over another, it works because half the light passes through the

glass while the other half reflects back from the surface.

Often employed to produce ghostly apparitions, it also has other, less spectral, uses. For instance, superimposing captions over pictures. With the mirror placed at a forty-five degree angle to the lens,

illuminate the words as they appear. This technique can create opening titles, or overlay words or arrows on a demonstration video.

Superimpose graphics with a box housing the mirror and shielding it from stray light. Stand the rig in front of the camera. Light the caption from front or back. if lit from the front, place the lamps to

either side. To remain in focus, the superimposed material must lle approximately the same distance from the camera as the main subject.

Used with a spotlight, plain mirrors stuck to a revolving drum provide a strobe effect. Two stuck back to back simulate the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.

Gun Fun

It’s not unusual to see a TV actor, chest riddled with bullets, stagger and fall to the ground. If he seems to move awkwardly it is probably due less to his supposed wounds than to the fact he’s trying

not trip over the operating wires running up his trouser leg.

This effect, using small explosive squibs secreted under clothing, is too complex and dangerous to discuss here. But there do exist safe alternatives, which, if used imaginatively, can appear as

convincing as those in the movies.

You can use a bicycle pump for bullets in the chest. Record as a separate close-up, for it works only with a short tube close to the pump.

Suck some fake blood into the tube and seal the end with a small piece of tightly stretched party balloon. Hold the balloon in position with several turns of a rubber band. Placed under thin cloth, the

pump will rupture the diaphragm, flipping the cloth realistically and producing a spatter of gore.

For continuity, shoot the garment on a stuffed sack. Then remove and place on the actor.

A limp balloon containing blood and worn under a garment will produce a spreading stain when punctured by a spike attached to a ring worn by an actor. The flow will increase by keeping the hand in place

and pressing hard.

A rat-trap set up behind scenery can punch out a piece of wall or knock a hole in a door. The hole must be premade, filled with appropriate material to disguise its true nature. Insert a captive peg from

behind. When struck by the trap the peg ejects the filling, leaving a hole.

Rat-traps can also simulate a bullet hitting a mirror. Protect the front with a sheet of rigid plastic and cover the back with self-adhesive vinyl. This is essential to produce a really good shattering

effect; without it the glass just breaks.

A bicycle pump with some talcum powder in the barrel will produce a convincing spurt of dust from rocks or concrete. Use energetically and apply a good ricochet effect on the soundtrack.

No bullet effect wifl impress without realistic sound. Conversely, a poor effect can often pass with a professional soundtrack liberally sprinkled with gunshots.

Smoke and Flames

This can be a touchy area; as always, Videomaker does not recommend you endeavor to create sequences involvng fire, smoke or explosions without assistance from experts.

Movie and TV producers often rent an empty house or store when they need to create an outdoor fire sequence. To record in a studio is too impractical and too expensive.

However, property is property, so these big fire scenes are rigidly controlled to ensure they don’t get out of hand.

In many cases fire can be simulated without actual flames. At night, back-lit smoke rising from behind a building suggests it’s on fire. Rooms powerfully lit, with smoke pouring from the windows, imply a

house afire. Stretch a clear polyethene sheet behind the window and pump smoke up underneath it. This ensures maximum effect at the window while preventing too much smoke from filling the room.

But the fact there’s no flame doesn’t guarantee total safety. Always ensure crew and artists have a clear exit to the outside. No one should have to stumble around in thick smoke and darkness.

Smoke, of course, is essential for all fire sequences. Much depends on the sort of smoke used. In moviemaking there are two type& pyrotechnic, and machine-made. Of the two, only the smoke machine is

controllable. Pyrotechnics, once lit, will burn to a finish.

You can rent smoke machines; those who don’t know where to look should contact a local theater or TV studio.

Smoke from reputable machines should cause no breathing problems, even when discharged indoors. Pyrotechnic smoke is appropriate only for exterior work or in places where itwon’t be inhaled.

Movie studios produce controlled flames by igniting propane. The gear usually consists of a fireproof and crushproof hose with a shut-off valve and pressure reducer. At the business end is a length of

copper tube terminating in a sort of flattened funnel.

You can smatter small areas of flame around a set by using absorbent material treated with a dash of kerosene, burned on metal sheets or fireproof board. With the appropriate amount of smoke this will

simulate the aftermath of an explosion.

House Mess

Many videomakers must shoot in their own homes, which can cause problems when trying to capture scenes of dirt and degradatiom Fortunately, it’s usually possible to obtain materials easily cleaned up at

the end of the day.

Freely spread sawdust, dry peat, coconut fiber, Fullers Earth, rubber dust and torn-up paper; all will disappear beneath broom or vacuum at the end of the shoot.

It’s not easy creating convincing scenes of mess and filth. The camera has a habit of pretti’ing even the nastiest setups. It’s therefore often necessary to exaggerate the dirty scenes.

For oil, food or paint spills, pour liquid latex onto a sheet of glass or metal. When set, spraypaint the mess with any color. Peel off to provide a movable puddle; place where required.

Dead and dried vegetation often complement this sort of scene. Torn polyethene sheeting sprayed nasty colors and wrapped around pipes, faucets and radiators also looks good.

To make metal appear rusty, wipe with a smidgen of petroleumjelly. Then blow cocoa atop the grease.

Cobwebs are great for dirty scenes, produced by spinning liquid latex in a special device called a cobweb gun. These guns are for rent, the fluid available from TV and theatrical supply houses. Spin webs

over a collection of objects bunched close together for the best effect Cobwebs won’t straddle open spaces; string thin cotton across voids. Blow talcum powder onto cobwebs to make them visible. Don’t apply

to absorbent surfaces.

Caption Making

Electronic devices to produce lettering for videos are now available, either as separate equipment or as integral camera circuitry. Stick on or rub-down letters come cheap and offer a variety of

typefaces. Even magazines and newspapers will produce usable opening titles.

No one wants to engage in the laborious chore of cutting round letters with a stencil knife. But if you cut the letters or words as rectangles from white paper you can stick them to a white backing, the

joins between painted over with white artist’s paint or typing correction fluid. Photocopied, the joins disappear.

You can apply rub-down lettering or re-usable vinyl stick-ons to a sheet of glass and place over various fancy papers or illustrations. You can also place the glass in front of three-dimensional objects

like flowers or coins. Table-top captions are simple to produce and offer more variety than stereotypical electronic images.

A tracing paper screen and a slide projector are also useful for graphic backgrounds. You need not project slides onto a flat screen; you can project them onto textured surfaces like rumpled cloth, rough

plaster or piles of snow.

Interesting animations can result by fixing the lighting, the camera and the lettering to a common mount in which loose objects such as marbles, sea shells, sand, sugar or liquids are free to move around.

When you tilt the rig, the camera perceives no movement of the backing; meanwhile, the loose objects react strangely, defying gravity and moving in a random and seemingly unpremeditated fashion.

President Matte

Miniatures are models placed in front of a set to extend the scenery or provide an effect unobtainable by other means. Mattes perform a similar task, but are simply flat paintings on glass.

This is an over-simplification, because there also exist creatures like “hanging miniatures” and “traveling mattes.” But these characters would take us into deep technical water, and we’re interested here

only in the simple stuff.

Say the action occurs in the oval office of the White House. They won’t let you tape there, and a recreation would eat up your entire budget. So go for the special effect.

You may have to hire a table and some chairs-pretty safe stuff, because who, after all, recalls exact details of the White House?

Sensibly, you’ll video your fake president against an easily-obtainable neutral wall. But at some point you’ll have to show the room, or at least a convincing recreation.

One option is a matte. If you can procure a talented artist, take a large pane of glass, mount it on legs and position it between Mr. P and the camera. With constant reference through the camera

viewfinder the artist can paint the oval office, leaving a hole in the middle to perceive Mr. P, his desk and the back wall.

Suppose you don’t have such an artist. So get a photo of the scene, blow it up, cut out an area where Mr. P will sit, and, if your photo is black-and-white, add some color washes. There. The White


Miniatutre Quixote

Let’s try a second example: the story of Don Quixote, the man who tried to kill windmills.

Unable to take your unit to Spain, you’ll use plaster-of-paris, sawdust, sand, cardboard and other materials to construct a baseboard model of a sandy plain. On the horizon position a model windmill with

anotordriven sails. Finally, mount the model on a rig supported from one side only. Put in a sloping floor in the studio and cover it with sawdust and sand. At the back paint a ground row to provide the


Finish up with three components; the sky backing, the main scene on the floor and, sticking in from one side with its supporting leg out of vision, a model of a sandy plain and the windmill. Make sure

everything lines up and adjust the lighting to insure a complete blend.

When using a miniature, join the model to the set along natural boundaries-hedges, woods, roads-where the foreground, which we see as the background, will blend unnoticed.

Don Quixote will stand on the opposite side of the set from the windmill, pointing towards the background and yelling “1(1111 KillI” He’ll look at the distant windmill, which in fact sits right in front

of him. Keep him stationary: if he strolls across the set he’ll pass behind the model and expose the trick.

If you’d like to try a matte shot, paint on a board a simple sky and set it up where it will cover a busy background. Make sure the bottom of the board lines up with the top of awall or some similar

feature. Shoot it. The effect can be quite extraordinary.

Cartoon Creations

Children exposed to television since birth accept everything on the screen without question, and quite often without interest. So why not give them the chance to participate as creative artists?

A cardtoon is the electronic counterpart of the puppet theater, where little figures move around on sticks. Recording the cardtoon technique on video gives youngsters the opportunity to design their own

characters and write their own scripts. After the show they can sit back and view the results.

Unfortunately, video cameras don’t work in the same way as the movie cameras that film Disney cartoons, so the action and movement must take place in real time. This is accomplished by cutting characters

from stiff card and articulating them with tiny rivets and paper hinges.

Animation comes from fixing the various parts to hidden sticks or incorporating cardboard levers hidden behind parts of the background.

A simple example involves a picture of the sea, drawn as repeating lines of stylized ripples. Suddenly, up leaps a fish, attached to a cardboard lever and rotated between two layers of the wave


Still at sea, imagine a pirate ship sailing across, pushed or pulled from one side. Or a diver surfacing from beneath the waves.

All videomaking is a combination of long shots and close-ups, so we’ll have to see the faces of the pirates onboard ship. You can make them speak using a simple up-and-down movement of the jaw. It’s the

eyes moving that most give the characters expression.

A few versions of the same heads- left and right profile, large and small- will result in a really satisfying cardtoon.

You can usually manipulate the parts by hand, though certain creatures may have to move faster than your digits can. In these cases you can employ thin dressmaking elastic as pulling springs.

Tuck of the Light

Light, like sound, is too often taken for granted. It can suggest things which aren’t really there; back-lit smoke that looks like life is but one example.

Take a look at movie scenes set in the countryside. The trees and the dappled sunlight through the leaves say we’re in a wood, but the effect is truly produced by shining a lamp through holes cut in thin

plywood sheets.

Look at the two people in the front seat of a studio automobile. We know the vehicle is moving because the background is receding-achieved via chromakey-but the scene would look dead if it weren’t for the

fact that shadows continually sweep across the faces of the actors. A spotlight, some plywood, flags on broom handles and some keen staff to wave them about and we achieve the effect of an auto in


For night shots sweep a handheld lamp from front to rear.

The prison scene looks a lot more sinister if a spotlight, trained on the floor, shines through a cut-out silhouette of iron bars.

Many of these effects cause the autofocus to hunt. Switch to manual whenever this occurs.

Bernard Wilkie, a Videomaker contributing editor, designed special effects for the BBC for over 25 years.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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