Burning, Bleeding, Floating, and Flying: Simple, Low-cost Special Effects

Long ago, in a land far, far away from Hollywood, a young boy saw a movie. It was nothing memorable–
one of those Saturday afternoon "Chiller Theater" television programs. Attack of the Crab
was the title.

In the flick, a couple of horrific, giant-sized crabs terrorized the residents of a Louisiana swamp. Several
man vs. monster fights took place throughout the film. Of course, man destroyed the bayou beasties in the
end. But the crabs really didn’t die. In fact, they lived on for years. And you know what? They’re still alive
today in the mind of the young man who watched them that Saturday afternoon.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the story above is my own. When I first saw that film, I was 7 years old.
Though I was not of sufficient age to take any action on my newfound interest, I was old enough to make a
decision about my life’s direction. Filmmaking was to be my profession. I said then, as my Mom tells me,
"I want to make monsters scare people." When I turned twelve, my parents presented me with a fully
decked-out super-8 film system. I began experimenting with what I had seen five years prior–the "magic"
of movies. I was totally sold on the fact that a film could convince the audience they were seeing
something that didn’t actually exist or never really happened. I was beginning my journey into the realm of
special effects.

Trial and Error
Special effects are one of the most popular reasons people become fascinated with videomaking. As I’ve
already told you, effects were my impetus to film experimentation. And from conversations I’ve had with
other film and videomakers across the country, cinematic special effects proved to be their starting point as

In those stumbling and awkward formative years, I made many bad movies. And the cause of shame for
most of these pictures was the unprofessional and amateurish special effects. I just didn’t know how to do
the things I was seeing in the theaters or on television. The knowledge required to pull off even the
simplest effect wasn’t readily available in some slick newsstand magazine. What I would’ve done for a
step-by-step guide describing the methodology of some basic special effects…

Just as I was hungry for knowledge in my novice filmmaking days, I’m sure many readers want the
same. And if you’re in this group, you’re in luck. On the following pages are instructions for creating and
shooting more than 30 special cinematic and sound effects. You can create most of these effects with easy-
to-find household items. Some are obvious once you’re aware of the method. Others are more detailed. But
all will hopefully contribute some "magic" to your videos–the same magic that drew many of us towards
this profession in the first place.


  • 24" x 12" piece of fabric;
  • yardstick;
  • thumbtacks.

Though not as exciting as actual flames and billowing smoke, this effect will give the flickering light we often associate with fire.

  1. Cut the fabric in long strips to the top, but not all the way through. The fabric should look like a

  2. Thumbtack the solid end of the fabric to the yardstick.
  3. Hold the fabric between the scene you’re shooting and a red- or orange-gelled light.
  4. As you shoot the scene, gently move the yardstick back and forth, so the light flickers through the fabric onto the scene.

Fog and Smoke

  • boiling water;
  • large pan;
  • dry ice;
  • fan;
  • gloves.

Just like fire, real smoke is dangerous on a set. And it’s almost impossible to find fog. For a safe
alternative that’s cheaper than a fog machine, try the following:

  1. Fill the pan with boiling water. Use only a small amount at first to experiment.
  2. With the gloves on, place a small chunk of the dry ice in the pan. Do not touch the dry ice with bare

  3. Use the fan to blow the steam into the desired direction. Vary the amount of water and ice and the
    temperature of the water for different smoke intensities. Combine the smoke and fire effects for realistic results.


  • tiny pieces of Styrofoam, confetti or store-bought spray snow;
  • a large fan;
  • a large piece of canvas;
  • a ladder.

To imitate snow falling on a scene:

  1. Place the fan off screen, aimed up and towards the scene to be shot.
  2. Position a helper on the ladder, between the ladder and the scene.
  3. Spread the canvas beneath the scene to be shot, keeping it out of camera range.
  4. Turn on the fan and spray the canned snow or drop the confetti or Styrofoam into the airstream. If using spray snow, be careful of the actors’ eyes.
  5. Clean up your snowstorm by gathering up the canvas.


  • white thread;
  • rubber cement;
  • baby powder;
  • gaffer’s tape or thumbtacks;
  • two pieces of wood.

Cobwebs add eerieness and atmosphere to any horror scene. But using real webs is not very practical.
This effect will provide convincing and reliable cobwebs.

  1. Use the white thread to make a frame for your spider web. Connect the thread with gaffer’s tape or

  2. Pour a thick line of rubber cement on one of the boards, and cover with the second board.
  3. Leave the boards together only for a couple of seconds. Carefully pull them apart to approximate the size
    of the web frame.

  4. Place the boards over the thread to transfer the glue onto the frame. You may need to "help" it out with
    your hands.

  5. Sprinkle the cobweb with the baby powder.

Water Reflections

  • two large mirrors;
  • child’s swimming pool.

To make your scene look as though it’s reflected in water:

  1. Fill the children’s pool with about an inch of water.
  2. Place one large mirror in the bottom of the pool.
  3. Set up the second mirror so that the scene you’re shooting bounces off of this mirror and down into the second mirror.
  4. Shoot the reflection from the mirror in the water.
  5. Add ripples or break the water for a more realistic effect.

Moonlight Reflections

  • several small pieces of mirror;
  • child’s swimming pool.

Moonlight shimmering on an actor’s face helps create a romantic or dramatic mood. To do it:

  1. In the water-filled pool, randomly place the small pieces of mirror, shiny side up.
  2. Aim a light at the mirror pieces at an angle that will reflect it back upon the actors.
  3. Ripple the water and record the scene.
  4. Use a bluish gel on the light for a more pronounced "nighttime" effect.

Highs, Lows and Reverses

  • two mirrors;
  • mounting materials.

Sometimes it’s impossible to get a high, low or reverse angle shot. This is usually due to space
limitations. Mirrors can solve the problem. For high angles:

  1. Place a mirror at the high angle needed. For example, you may want an overhead shot of a scene in a
    room. Secure the mirror to a ladder or a bookcase in the corner. Be sure the mirror is "seeing" the angle you want to tape.

  2. Place a second mirror in front of the camera and tilt it so it reflects what is seen in the high mirror. The purpose of the second mirror is to get the shot back into a normal perspective. If you shoot directly off of the high mirror, the image may be distorted due to the angle.
  3. Tape the scene from the second mirror.

For low angles:

  1. Position a mirror low on the ground, reflecting what you want to see.
  2. Place a second mirror to "catch" the reflection from the low mirror.
  3. Tape the scene from the second mirror.

For reverses:

  1. Place a mirror behind the scene and at an angle to reflect the reverse of the main shot.
  2. Be careful in positioning this mirror so it does not appear in the first shot.
  3. Tape the scene off the reverse-angle mirror.

Defying Gravity

  • cans or bottles of pop;
  • a glass;
  • tennis balls;
  • gaffer’s tape;
  • posterboard.

Displacement of the camera’s point of view can lead to some amazing gravity-defying effects. These are quite simple to pull off, and the results are hilarious when you adapt them to various objects and situations. To make a drink appear as though it’s flowing sideways out of a bottle:

  1. Set up the solid colored posterboard for your background. These effects really stand out when you tape them against a solid background.
  2. Place your camera in front of the posterboard. The camera must lay on its right side, level with the plane of the floor. You may need to tape it down to a tripod or a book for steadiness. A small bean bag is also helpful in leveling because of the camcorder’s irregular shape.
  3. Bring the pop bottle into frame. You’ll want to adjust it so the pouring action is visible, but not the glass in which it will fall. Your hand should also be out of the frame.
  4. Roll tape and slowly pour the pop into the glass.

To make a thrown ball appear as though it stops and returns to the thrower in mid-flight:

  1. Position your camcorder and background as above. You may want to use a large piece of fabric or a wall for this effect. It gives the shot more room.
  2. Position yourself off screen, below the view of the camera.
  3. Roll tape and gently throw the ball up into the frame. This effect is only convincing if the ball does not exit the frame when you throw it. Otherwise it will only look like a ball is simply crossing the screen. For maximum effect, the ball should reach its arc at the very top of the frame.

Climbing Mountains

  • tripod;
  • duct tape;
  • open field with no discernible background.

It’s quite simple to make your actors appear as though they’re scaling a steep hill:

  1. Place your actors on hands and knees or in a crouched climbing position lateral to the ground

  2. With the actors on the ground, begin taping as they climb across the ground, hand over hand, struggling
    as though they were on a steep hillside.

  3. Use the duct tape and tripod to secure the camera at a tilt, somewhere between plane level and 90
    degrees. The amount of tilt you apply to the camera will determine the angle of the hill. This effect will only "play" if the actors are convincing enough in their portrayal of actually climbing a hill instead of merely crawling along a flat surface. Also, be sure no buildings or vertically-oriented objects, such as a tree or a building, are in the background. Items like these are a dead giveaway that the shot is a cheat.


  • high-intensity light, or tiny white Christmas tree lights;
  • a large piece of black fabric;
  • duct tape;
  • long, sturdy piece of wood.

Space effects are very popular with many videomakers. And you can’t do them right without a realistic
looking starfield:

  1. Make a number of holes in the black fabric. Black felt works best because it is very non-reflective. Make
    these holes small at first; you can enlarge them later.

  2. Attach one side of the material to the piece of wood, allowing the fabric to fall downwards.
  3. If using the high-intensity lamp, position it behind the cloth. If you’re using Christmas lights, push them
    through the holes in the fabric.

  4. Turn off all lights in the room and record the lights as they shine through the cloth. If using a high-
    intensity lamp, pay special attention to the framing of the shot to eliminate any spill coming from the top
    and sides of the black cloth.

  5. Hang a spaceship model with black thread in front of the black cloth. Light it from the side, top or below
    with a colored spot to avoid over-lighting the background.

Sinister Lighting

  • light source.

This effect, known as "underlighting" by the pros, will make even the kindest face look malevolent.

  1. Light the talent’s face from a low angle with no overhead light. The resulting shadows will make them
    look evil and demonic.

  2. Add cackles, suspense-filled music, etc.

Splitting the Atom

  • camera with a manual iris setting.

This will simulate the bright blast of light that heralds a nuclear (or other very large) explosion.

  1. Start the scene normally; then open the iris all the way, very rapidly. The scene will flash with bright white light.

Stormy Weather

  • aquarium;
  • turkey baster;
  • tempera paints;
  • ink;
  • milk.

Many of the cloudy effects you see in Hollywood productions were actually done underwater. Here’s
how you can produce a similar effect:

  1. Set a water-filled aquarium up in front of a sky-blue background.
  2. Set up the camera’s field of view so it points through the aquarium. Zoom in tight to leave plenty of room on the edges of the aquarium.
  3. Fill the baster with milk, paint or ink. While being careful to keep both hand and baster out of the shot, inject the material into the water. With practice, you’ll be able to create the appearance of billowing clouds and raging storms.

Flashing Lights

  • a number of large sequins;
  • thread;
  • small fan;
  • light source.

To fill a scene with an array of tiny, flashing lights:

  1. Attach several large sequins to a thread.
  2. Hang the thread (or several) in the background of the scene.
  3. Aim the fan at the sequins, then point a light source directly at them.

Experiment with different colored sequins and gels to get a variety of effects.

Safety First
Though many of the effects we’ve discussed merely involve the use of household products, remember to
keep safety in mind as you shoot your scenes. Take extreme care when handling sharp objects such as
thumbtacks, knives, mirrors and scissors. Wear safety glasses whenever using a hammer. Put on gloves
when using tools and especially in the handling of dry ice. Make sure two people are around if you’re going
to climb any ladders. It’s also a good idea to have a fire extinguisher around for any unforeseen

With this in mind, you should be well on your way to producing your first Saturday afternoon

Videomaker contributing editor Mark Steven Bosko is vice president of a film
production and distribution company.

Sound Effects

Many of the sound effects you’ll need are obvious. You can recreate noises such as water from a tap,
newspaper rattling and keyboard typing in a straightforward manner.

But in some cases, no direct sound for an application is available. Sure, there are plenty of sound effects
libraries out there. But sometimes, due to timing of the visuals, your work will require a live recording of
the effect. It now becomes necessary to devise an approximate sound to supplement the video.

  • Creaking floors. Find a thin piece of wood, possibly from an old desk drawer. Twist it from top to
    bottom to produce the creaks.

  • Doors. When taping door sounds, always keep the microphone near the latch, as this is the most
    identifiable sound. Record from the outside of the door, keeping the mike away from the rush of air.

  • Falling body. Use your arms and elbows for this effect. Let both elbows drop onto a tabletop padded
    with a blanket. Your forearms should hit almost simultaneously to imitate a complete body fall.

  • Fire. Crumpling stiff, cellophane wrapping paper produces a variety of fire effects. For a forest fire,
    record bacon sizzling in a frying pan.

  • Gunshots. Strike a leather- or vinyl-covered pillow with a yardstick. Avoid recording the wind whistle
    from the stick moving through the air or the blast of air coming from the impact.

  • Fist fights. Hit a large, wet sponge with your hand or strike your body with the sponge. Take care not
    to splash water on the mike or camcorder.

  • Mud. Soak a generous amount of newspapers in a water-filled tub until they are soggy. To imitate
    someone walking in mud, smash your fists in the tub.

  • Hoofs. Here’s an oldie but goodie that still works. Alternately strike half coconut shells or small wood
    blocks against different substances for a horse sound.

  • Rain. Suspend a piece of paper about four or five inches above a microphone pointed towards the
    paper. Sprinkle salt or sand onto this paper for rain noise. By using cardboard, tin or cellophane instead of
    the paper, you can imitate rain on different rooftops.

  • Stabs. Get together a variety of large fruits and a blunt knife. Place the mike close to the point of
    impact and stab away. Overripe grapefruit is a personal favorite.

  • Streams and brooks. You can simulate a babbling brook by gently blowing through a straw into a
    container of water. Gentleness is the key.

  • Surf. You can create a rolling wave sound by rolling BBs around the inside of an oval cardboard box.
    Similar sounds can be produced by using lead shot on a baking sheet.

  • Telephone. To make voices sound like they’re coming from a phone, try holding a large glass under
    your mouth as you speak. Experiment for the perfect sound by varying the distance and angle of the glass
    in relation to your mouth.

  • Thunder. Hold a large, thin cookie sheet or piece of sheet metal by one end and slowly shake it. Try
    different intensities and speeds to create a variety of storm sounds.

  • Breaking bones. To produce the effect of someone’s bones breaking, slowly twist and then beak a
    handful of uncooked spaghetti. Try different lengths and thicknesses for the perfect effect.


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

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