Horror movies have no season, but Halloween tends to bring out the most releases and with them often come in-film special effects created on a big Hollywood budget. But you can make many horror movie effects on your own without breaking your piggy bank. Here are just a few tricks, for more see our special effects DVDs: Make Your Own Special Effects, Special Effects and Green Screen Tips and Tricks.
The Broken Bones Effect
There are few moments in a video that make audiences squirm more than seeing a bone broken. Most people sooner or later in their life experience the pain of a broken bone and seeing it even for less than a second on screen can elicit an involuntary squeamish spasm. Luckily there are some easy ways to achieve this effect with very little effort or cost, and no persons should ever be harmed in the making of your movie.
First, make sure the actor/talent is wearing a long sleeve shirt. The moment you have to attempt this illusion with skin, your expense goes up exponentially and the believability plummets. Take a small water bottle, perhaps the 16.9oz. variety and cut the ends off. Thread it with a small branch of dry wood or a wooden dowel. The bottle represents the shape of the arm or leg, for a thigh or thick body part. A 2-liter plastic soda-pop bottle works nicely. For joints like an elbow, use two water bottles. Frame the shot in a closeup and from an appropriate impact, break the wood and it will appear as if the bone was broken. Using wood really sells a great sound effect for the bone too.
In a similar effect, chopping into a leg with an axe can be done by stuffing a log into an old pair of pants and hacking away in the closeup. Gross as it may sound, using some real meat from the grocery store can be used on top of the log. Flesh coming through the gash makes the effect look very realistic. A rump roast or even chicken breast can work wonders. Be careful not to let the meat go bad or you might risk some health issues later. Make sure to clean up within an hour and dispose of anything that can spoil.
One of the coolest trends of the last decade was the use of “paintball” squibs. A squib used to be a semi-explosive device set off with remote charges and electrical signals. Today, people buy what look like paintballs. There are three flavors, the blood packs, dust hits and sparks. With special effects dye, these are expensive but they’re easy to use and the dust hits and sparks are really convincing.
Careful planning and being a good shot are essential to making paintball effects work. Never strike near a person’s face with these. Wearing padding underneath clothes is essential to approach safety with these paintball effects, but they are never intended to be used on people – only walls, the ground, etc. The red colored, blood-like paintballs are probably the highest risk with the lowest reward in terms of being realistic. Enough people know what a paintball hit looks like and with the risk of injury, you can find better ways to get around shooting a body with fake blood effects.
The most popular re-created special effects in movies has always been making fake blood. There are several recipes for the crimson color, but the main three types are:
1. Blood that will be in someone’s mouth
2. Blood for show
3. Blood that doesn’t stain
You can find how to make realistic blood in our “Make Your Own Special Effects” tutorial for details, but the most common recipe for making fake blood is as follows:
- 1 cup corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 tablespoons of red food coloring
- 1/2 tablespoon of green food coloring, (which surprises most people that the green makes it more ‘blood’ like, by giving it a deeper almost brick-like color).
If this is blood that people need to have in their mouth, they will be grateful if you use this recipe instead:
- 1 cup corn syrup
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons of red food coloring
- 1 tablespoon of chocolate syrup
- 2 tablespoons of cornstarch
Fake blood can be expensive to whip up, but having a blender on site and extra ingredients saves time. It’s always better to have too much and not need it than not have enough and waste the crew’s time and resources waiting to make more.
Digital blood has become all the rage these days. There are blood splatters, bullet holes, and all kinds of post-production trickery that were out of reach for the average video producer even three to five years ago. Companies like Video Copilot and Motiondrops sell pre-matted digital blood clips that you can easily composite into your footage. Our “Special Effects” training DVD mentioned earlier shows you how to make your own, too.
A recent indie film used digital blood and pulled it off when the bullets hit the actor in the chest. That is, until two clips later you saw the actor on the floor with his white shirt unstained. Remember that some digital blood looks good, but combining it with the old school fake blood will really sell the whole effect. Continuity is key to making any effect and illusion work.
You also need to pay special attention to color correction when using digital blood. Dropping in stock shots of blood splatter can be very convincing, but without taking into account what the lighting conditions may do to colors can destroy the illusion.
Old School Tricks
Never forget that forced perspective can be an effective tool for illusion. From the dawn of cinema, people have used the angle of the camera to cause more realistic trickery than any other method. Recently, The Lord of the Rings trilogy used this trick to make hobbits appear small and Gandalf the wizard appear tall. In a horror film, if shot correctly, staging someone swinging an axe or slashing a knife from a safe distance, can still look realistic and deadly from the camera’s point of view and be a bit safer for all involved.
As cool as both practical and digital effects can be, the best scares still come from editing. How long a shot lasts and when you choose to use it results in the best impact. Remember that a few quick cuts of an effect can be the difference between realistic and “get real” – sitting on a shot too long starts to show flaws.
Household Objects to the Rescue
Big budget movies can afford a special effects designer, but many Hollywood movie effects are easy to recreate. In the 1982 movie, Poltergeist, flickering lights on a wall were simply made using a light shot through a fish tank full of water. A fan swirled the water in the tank giving it a cool and eerie effect.
In the latest Star Trek (2009) movie, director J.J. Abrams uses a simple trick to make then-cadet James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) appear to be falling headfirst from space toward Vulcan, a planet in peril. To shoot the number of takes needed with them hanging upside down was difficult for the actors, so Abrams brought in a giant mirror and had them stand on it looking up. They shot with a camera looking down on them with the earthly sky reflected effectively in the mirrors, then they simply reversed the footage in editing.
Glow-in-the-dark paint is good for many things, and you can find glow sticks at any store that carries party supplies or novelties. These phosphorescent wands are great little tools for a ghostly effect. They can be held in a specter’s hand, glowing between the fingers or covered in cheesecloth and set in a corner of darkened room with a fog machine making the glow flicker – and, note: during, Halloween, is the best time of year to find a smoke machine on the shelves. Glow sticks encased in a thin gossamer fabric and hanging from twine in a dark woodsy area can bring up all sorts of imaginative ethereal beings from sprites to phantoms. These real, physical subjects might look more believable than using digital effects. Sometimes “smoke and mirrors” are all you need.
Looking for a glowing ember effect but don’t want to burn down the house? One answer is a miniature candle that is actually an LED light in disguise, you can find these in most variety stores.
Green Screen is Easy Today
Shooting against the green screen background and editing in today’s green screen video editing software has made using green screen effects easier and more affordable than ever. However having it available doesn’t mean you can make it believable unless you follow some time-honored techniques practiced by the pros. Using proper placement, perspective and angles, as well as good lighting techniques for green screen will all help your project fool the audience into believing in your story. Videomaker has many good DVD tutorials and features for green screen work, be sure to check them out.
And, remember, for any type of movie effect, whether it’s for horror films or weddings, how you execute it and sell it to the audience is the most important “effect” you can create. Making a movie that captures the attention of the audience and immerses them into your tale is the goal – and that’s no horror story!
Safety is paramount. Never put someone at risk for a video or film. In one local video community, there were two stories of people attempting effects that went south in the last few years. One was trying to get the effect of an axe being put in someone’s back. The crew had the ingenious idea of putting two phone books under his shirt and hit him with a real axe. The concept of missing the mark or causing damage to the spine from the impact did not occur to them. Common sense prevailed and luckily no one was hurt.
The second story was less fortunate. Some young filmmakers wanted to use real guns in their short. Without hiring a specialist, the weapons were not properly checked and the shotgun was loaded. The director was merely carrying the gun from inside the house to the garage when it discharged by accident. He spent time in a hospital and didn’t lose any toes, but did make the 11 o’clock news and became a Yahoo! News story.
Remember to always be safe. Treat any and all weapons with the utmost caution. Even kitchen knives and scissors need to be handled with care and keep an eye towards the safety of the talent and the crew.
Videomaker Disclaimer: Be Safe Out There!
As with any do-it-yourself project, unfamiliarity with the tools and process can be dangerous. This story should be construed as theoretical advice. Videomaker, its editors and authors will not be held responsible for any injury due to the misuse or misunderstanding of any DIY project Videomaker publishes. This story cannot be construed as formal advice, Videomaker will not be held liable in any instance of an action resulting from this story, and Videomaker assumes all our readers will exercise good common sense. This disclaimer assigns the readers all responsibility for their own decisions.
Peter John Ross is an award-winning filmmaker and author of “Tales from the Front Line of Indie Filmmaking”.