feared it would require a budget worthy of Aliens or Star Wars?
If so, then you should know that many aspiring sci-fi videomakers have made up for their lack of funds with an
inventive mind and an eye for useful junk. In this article, we’ll discuss ways to bring your fantastic vision to the video screen
without a gargantuan budget.
If you don’t think it can be done, consider the 1993 British Amateur Video Awards. Top honors went to The Day
of the Invaders, a science fiction spoof produced and directed by Philip Beasley. It featured, among other things, a space
ship approaching earth, a blaster-toting robot and a plastic bag alien simulation. It took nine months to complete and cost
$525. Philip received $3000 in prize money, as well as the coveted award.
A Popular Genre
Science Fiction continues to occupy its slot in TV schedules, and every summer’s crop of blockbuster films includes at least a
few sci-fi offerings. Star Trek, arguably the most popular of the genre, is said to be on screen somewhere in the world
every moment of every day.
Interest in sci-fi reached a new peak last year with the release of Jurassic Park, a movie which awakened
latent desires in many a camcorder owner. Which of us, on finding a plastic dinosaur in a box of cereal, didn’t twiddle it across
the table and dream of animation? Jurassic Park, like other big screen epics, was a multimillion dollar movie, but on
TV, sci-fi serials require only modest budgets.
To show how even the most ambitious script can be realized without spending a million bucks, we’ll take a
hypothetical story involving prehistoric animals, spaceships, hostile terrain and a few other effects found in popular science
Spaceship Design 101
Not surprisingly, designing spaceships is one area in which fiction seldom mirrors reality. Modern space travel involves
vehicles not much bigger than an average truck, but popular fiction decrees that spaceships should resemble miniature cities.
Fact is, small and simple ships lack excitement, while large and detailed behemoths look impressive. For this reason, TV and
movie designers tend to create spaceships that rival ocean liners.
Because a single object in space has no reference to size, it is necessary for the fictional spacecraft to
include things which give it scale. A line of holes or dots suggest a row of tiny windows, while miniature ladders, doors, pipes
and other extraneous items support the illusion. This convention makes it easy for videomakers to create their own spacecraft.
As long as the surface looks big and intricate, any shape or form will pass.
Popular convention also demands that when astronauts land on other planets they use a shuttle. This is one effect
for videomakers to avoid, if at all possible. Tiny shuttles leaving large spaceships are among the most difficult model shots to
pull off. Even major movie studios have occasionally failed to make shuttle launches look believable. The producers of Star
Trek knew a thing or two when they created their transporter beam–a tube of light surrounds the actors and the famous
crew can beam to anywhere in space. No fuss.
In modeling a spaceship, it’s wise to work big (say three to four feet long). Small models are more difficult to build and
offer fewer opportunities to use perspective.
But big should not mean heavy; if the model is to hang on invisible lines, keep everything light. Modern art-boards
of paper or expanded polystyrene are ideal. Provided the body is embellished with such items as paper discs, drinking straws
and truncated plastic coffee cups, the model will remain sufficiently light to be hung on fine nylon threads.
Note: check all materials before painting–some solvent-based paints attack plastics. It’s far from amusing to
see a carefully modeled spaceship disintegrate like melting snow!
Now That It’s Finished…
Many movies have sequences which feature a slow track past the hull of a ship as it travels in space. It’s a cliche, but looks
good. Being well within the scope of an aspiring videomaker, it’s definitely one to consider. As the saying goes, if you’ve built
a good spaceship, flaunt it!
Models can stand on a rod behind the hull or hang on fine nylon fishing line. Both methods work well, but when it
comes to moving the model, nylon threads will often bounce around. Solution: leave the spaceship hanging and track the
camera past the model.
There is an unusual method of doing this and it works well. Mount the camcorder on a short board which hangs from
above on a line. You can then manipulate the camcorder like you would a submarine periscope. This method makes for easy
operation and allows short tracks and crabs to appear smooth and dramatic.
With a wide-angle lens, the effect improves, but don’t try to keep your eye to the viewfinder except for the gentlest of
pans–it’s better to let the camera roam free. You can make this rig move smoothly up and down by taking the line over a pulley
and using a counterweight. A bag of sand works well.
The Illusion of Empty Space
Because space is so vast, stars remain where they are as you move horizontally or vertically. They shift only if you
swivel your head–all of which affects the way you record linear motion in artificial space. Studio backgrounds are far from
infinite; a starscape that is only a few feet from the model appears to be just that if you track across the picture. Stick to pans
and tilts if you’re using stars; otherwise, use a plain black backing and move freely.
A large black drape is best for a negative background. Place it as far back as possible to avoid spill light.
Lighting is all important for these shots. A key-light positioned below, up front and slightly to one side of the
spaceship will bring out maximum detail. One excellent tip here is to make a dummy space ship (a roll of paper will do) as a
stand-in for the model. The hurly-burly of setting up equipment and lights, moving tripods and laying out cables can
sometimes inflict mortal damage on the unprotected masterpiece. Sacrifice a stand-in instead.
Interiors: The Flight Deck
If the astronauts are on a dramatic mission, you can build tension in the control room. Starship Enterprise has a large, well-lit
flight deck with most of the cast operating various items of control gear and acting frenetically. But we’re talking one-room,
low-budget video. What we need is a flight-deck that is compact, easy to build and convincingly real.
An excellent ‘role model’ for this is the fighter cockpit depicted in Star Wars. Here the astronauts huddle
closely together while they manipulate the flight controls. To capture this sort of claustrophobia, seat your actors on
chairs with a few flashing lights on a panel in front of them. Then, with some gear at the back, record the action in near
darkness–without overhead light, the scene is more dramatic.
Feature the actors in close-up as they strain to see what’s outside the observation window. Flash some indicator
lights so they light up the sweat on the actors’ faces–and don’t forget the urgent bleeps from a warning speaker.
Of course, we’ll want to show our viewers what the astronauts are looking at outside the observation window. For this
you can set up two sheets of hard-board or cardboard, one with a rectangular cut-out framed by metallic molding and
surrounded by instruments. This becomes our window.
Paint the other piece black, splash on some white stars, and add a bright disc to represent an unknown planet. If you
want your planet to appear fantastically luminous, cut out a circle the size of your planet and cover it in tracing paper. Color
the paper with pencils, if you desire, and light it from behind. Voila’--instant glowing planet.
While you’re at it, poke some tiny holes through the bigger stars to make them shine brightly with the backlight. Place
this starscape a few feet behind the window and move it smoothly across the shot. The effect is to make the spaceship appear
to turn towards the planet. This sequence could be a cutaway–the window as seen from the astronauts‘
point-of-view. However, if your ‘studio’ has the space, build the observation window into the set where the astronauts sit and
you can get some interesting shots from across their shoulders.
Prepare to Land
Some videomakers may feel that a spacecraft landing on an unknown planet would be beyond their capabilities. Not so.
Darkness is the key. Looking out of the window, we see an alien landscape, a place of strange trees and unfamiliar
vegetation. But we’re coming in to land and the landscape moves slowly past the window. To the accompaniment of hissing
air and scraping metal the ship comes to a stop–or rather the model does. It is what you might describe as a sand-tray
landscape, a board with twigs stuck in holes and covered in sand or peat. It should be at least eight feet long so that it can
truck past the window or move towards it.
The strange gnarled trees are simply twigs wrapped in glued tissues and painted in menacing colors. Adding paper
leaves improves the effect. Remember to put tall ones in the front and tiny ones in the background to exaggerate depth. At this
stage, we are looking down from the window, so there’s no sky.
Now comes the chance to produce a really good cutaway shot. This is a sequence in which we feature the recently-
landed ship in the foreground and our sand-tray model behind. Now we can see the sky, but it’s very much a dark sky with a
band of color at the horizon. Use this back-lit sky to throw the trees into silhouette and light the spaceship; it makes for a
One Small Step
To show everyone that our astronauts are about to disembark, we have only to pull a piece of card from behind a
tiny, back-lit rectangular hole in the model. This makes for a convincing door-opening scene, especially the light from inside
the spaceship falls on some fine dust floating outside the ship. Don’t show this straight on, but obscure it slightly with part of
the ship or a convenient foreground tree.
Now, unless the epic is being recorded in a large studio, we move our actors outdoors at night. The purpose of this is
to capture a sequence where the astronauts actually appear to leave the ship. We are hoping to do it with a minimum of
scenery and lighting effects, so all we need do is to set up the camera behind the actors who are standing on a box or a two
foot rostrum. From here they step down and walk off into the unknown. To create the effect that they are leaving the ship, we
have only to set up some boards around the edge of the picture. Paint them to represent the frame of the air-lock door and
apply some pipes or levers. Spaceships like this come cheap and easy.
Enter The Monster
There is nothing more ludicrous than a badly animated extra-terrestrial monster. We need to adopt a ploy which, while
showing a monster, economizes on movement. Sound is a great ally here; the cries of a howling monster accompanied by the
noise of trees crashing and branches breaking will alert our audience to the fact that danger lurks not far away. The astronauts
should look alarmed as they probe the semidarkness with a powerful flashlight and attempt to locate the source of trouble.
At just the right instant, we treat our viewers to a fleeting glimpse of the monster. Over the tops of trees, a giant
Teeth-o-saurus is caught in the beam of a flashlight and turns towards the astronauts. The astronauts sense imminent danger
as trees and branches crash around them. They beat it back to the ship. The prehistoric monster could have been a plastic
model used in conjunction with the sand tray or it could have been a much larger sculpted head. Expanded polystyrene is easy
to carve, and if you add a scaly texture and fearsome looking molars, a likeness is fairly easy to achieve. Remember, we’re still
in near darkness.
Those with a slightly bigger budget might decide to rent a dinosaur costume. With this comes there’s the danger that,
having booked it for a couple of days, the director will succumb to temptation and over-use it.
Having regained the safety of their ship and wanting to get space-borne, the astronauts frantically operate
the controls. Suddenly one of them, looking through the window, shouts something like “Oh man–look out!” There’s an
enormous clanging crash as a huge head tries to smash the glass of the observation window. This monster, seen as mostly
jaws and teeth, crashes against the window and slimy spittle runs down the ‘armored’ glass.
Because it’s a very quick shot, little more than the jaw bone needs modeling. The slime that runs
down the glass will obscure the view outside and produce a horrifying effect. The slimy saliva is simply thin wallpaper paste
contained in the hollowed out jaw.
So far we’ve depended on dramatic lighting and darkness to create an atmosphere, but should the plot call for the
astronauts to perform their actions in daylight, there is a trick that works very well: create a landscape with a black
Try this on an open beach in full sunlight: fix a black-painted board on two poles about ten feet in front of the camera
and arrange the shot so that the lower edge of the board matches the horizon. It is important that the black board has its back
to the sun and is unlit. Sometimes it’s necessary to erect an awning over the top of the board to keep it in the shade.
The camera should be high enough to ensure that the actors’ heads are always below this line if they are not to
disappear behind the blackboard matte.
To some videomakers this may seem a bit of an operation, but the results more than justify the labor involved; the
effect is “something out of this world”.
Other Sci-Fi Ideas
There are many other genres of science fiction, examples of which have appeared in such movies as The Thing
(superb special effects), Alien and even the original War of the Worlds. These all contain their quotas of
heart-stopping moments and illustrate how shock tactics can create the thrills. Such movies rely on the sudden appearance of
things unknown. Try this if you’d rather move away from Jurassic Park.
Science fiction offers great scope for imaginative design and unusual story lines, facts that make it worth considering
for competition purposes. Whatever the story, remember that it’s about people–people in danger, people being killed and
people confronting and escaping the unknown; the effects are there to support the plot.
The ideas just scratch the surface of sci-fi videomaking. There’s literally no limit to what you can accomplish with
household materials and a good dose of ingenuity. Even the lowest budget science fiction video can take you where no
one has gone before…