Learn How to Create Practical Special Effects on a Budget with Shanks FX

With the advancement of computer generated animation, many effects are no longer done on set where safety and cost are priorities (though it seems CGI ends up costing just as much, if not more). I personally have always been a fan of real effects, and it's one of the reasons a movie like Star Wars, made back in the late 70s, still looks as good as it does today. A recent example is the practical effects used in the movie The Fountain, where organic fluid effects were filmed on a microscopic level to help make the film feel timeless. A new PBS Digital show created by Joe Schenkenberg (also known as Joey Shanks) gives some practical examples of visual effects that anyone can create at home on a budget.

Episode 1:

Episode Extra:

Episode 2:

Many of these effects will be used in a film Joey is making:

SCI-FLY is a space adventure short film that follows the tiny vessel "Spud" trying to allude a black hole that is engulfing the universe. A dark premise contrasted with divine imaginary. A fluctuating ride of tone and emotion. SCI-FLY will rely heavily on "in camera" visual effects using stop-motion animation & time lapse photography. CGI will be used sparingly during the shooting process.

Some of these are just downright beautiful, and when used in the right spot, they could really complement computer animation and live action. Real visual effects seem to be a lost art, but when it comes down to it, if you're creating something for a science fiction universe, practical effects will probably be much cheaper and save you time as well -- especially when you're on a budget. Obviously some of these are a little dangerous, and we would recommend that if you're going to try them, that you take extra safety precautions.

"Joey Shanks" will be producing a new episode for PBS every other Friday, and you can find all of the episodes online from the link below.

What do you guys think about the effects? Have you ever used similar effects in your own films?


Your Comment


We tried a few FX shots for a music video we did earlier this year which has now been released (link below) -


It was shot on the Mark II and the Scarlet and we tried to do as many FX as possible using practical means.
For example - the throat slit scene was a simple prosthetic (which could have turned out better but it was our first attempt :/) from liquid latex with some heat shrink tubing connected to a hand pump filled with diluted maple syrup and red food dye.
The beating heart segment was a pig's heart I got from the local butchers. We sealed all the holes with some modelling clay and passed tubes into the main chambers. I would rhythmically blow into each pipe trying to simulate a heart beat. We then masked out the tubes in post.
The last scene with the walls of eyes was quite time-consuming as it involved filming around 35-40 takes (10 seconds each) using the Macro 100mm Canon L lens and then stitching them together in After Effects. The hand from eye scene was similarly made albeit being a closer macro shot of my eye being used.

So yea, I guess we combined more practical effects with compositing etc.
This is definitely a useful post and thank you for posting it - I'm just starting off with effects and resources such as this are very useful :)

October 7, 2012 at 4:20PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Pretty awesome - but I think all three videos linked in the article are the same...at least they are on my screen.

October 7, 2012 at 4:22PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


My mistake, it was linking to the playlist for the other two videos, but it's fixed now.

October 7, 2012 at 4:54PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Joe Marine
Camera Department

How much would it cost to make a low budget CGI film?

December 26, 2015 at 8:08AM


Everyone loves practical effects because they think of all the successful movies that used them well; we forget that there were also shocking FX work (the movie would not have succeeded if the effects had been shite).

When people bemoan bad VFX they are thinking of the numerous cases where it was done poorly, forgetting that the two seminal movies from the start: T2 and Jurassic, have artful, graceful effects work, some of which is done in a computer.

The fact is well executed special effects are either unseen or taken for granted. Gollum was never an issue for anyone. Poor VFX are present in our mind because we see a lot of it and not a lot of the practical stuff, but back in the 70s and 80s much of it was laughable (just like VFX today).

The reason there's a lot of shit VFX is the studios and effects facilities are engaged in a 'race to the bottom' bidding war for each picture which means a starvation of resources and overworked artists, the most experienced of which either move to management positions or leave the industry.

Just a rant I feel is important for the health of the filmmaking community, and something us digital-wave filmmakers should keep in mind.

October 7, 2012 at 5:45PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I think the appreciation of practical VFX stems more from the ingenuity that goes into creating them than just assuming the best movies have used them (which, as you pointed out, is not necessarily true). While CGI can certainly take comparable amounts of time and labor to produce, it typically doesn't require the same sort of inspiring creativity that something like in the above videos takes.

October 7, 2012 at 6:24PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


How do you know CGI doesn't take the same kind of inspiring creativity?

That just sounds like the same 'hipster' mentality of something older being somehow more creative/organic/ect....just like what always pops up in digital vs film discussions.

Now don't get me wrong, I love practical effects and all the creative things that were done to achieve them. I also love to shoot 35mm film stills, and wish I had a wooden tripod. There's nothing wrong with appreciating these things. But don't disparage other techniques and technologies. Movies have always been a technology driven art form, which means the techniques and technologies are always shifting. It's a wonderfully rich world, and appreciating practical effects doesn't require crapping all over CGI.

To me, the main difference between practical effects and CGI is that it's easier to get realistic and interesting looking physics out of practical effects. CGI's advantage is creative control, which is a double edged sword because you also have to make *everything*. You don't get a free lunch with CGI. It's much harder to do a realistic physics simulation in CGI then it is to do the effect with a miniature (which is why miniature effects have survived for so long beside CGI). Practical effects are full of happy accidents. CGI is full of frustrating glitches. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who does amazing work with CGI because I know how hard it can be to get everything working right. A lot of times it means coming up with creative work arounds, just like with any other tool. CGI is definitely *not* a magic wand that somehow does everything for you.

October 7, 2012 at 7:47PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I watched the original ridley scott alien and I cringed when that lifeless looking fetus ran across the screen, and i thought, "boy i used to think these movies were the shit as a kid" now as a filmmaker i cant stomach some of those lifeless looking practical effect, but hey for others nostalgia is a logic dimmer

October 8, 2012 at 2:38AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


To be fair, though, a crappily designed CGI animation makes me cringe equally, mostly for its abhorrent unrealism.

See: the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy.

October 8, 2012 at 7:03AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


CGI requires as much invention and craftiness as practical effects. In fact, historically it has been more challenging to do computer based stuff since you were literally weaving the fabric of reality. Now the elements of reality have good simulations built in to the software so making things in the computer is quickly becoming very similar (albeit faster) to making something out of actual materials.

October 8, 2012 at 12:47PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


While certainly ambitious, the illusion of the warp effects didn't really work for me. They looked exactly like what they were, an extreme close-up of someone spinning a light really fast in the dark.
On the other hand, the fish tank effects looked absolutely beautiful.

October 7, 2012 at 6:41PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I agree that the "sparklers" look like sparklers. As for the fish tank effects, I've been playing with that for over 30 years and what I've seen here look just like my early efforts: it lacks "huge scale". But I still love that stuff !

October 10, 2012 at 3:45AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I love that his ridgeback made the videos. Those are some beautiful effects. Oddly enough I just watched "Wrath of Kahn" today. All the nebula scenes, In the liquid tank. Very cool. Thanks for sharing.

October 7, 2012 at 8:20PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Hey, Those are ghetto sparklers my momma use to make for us!

October 7, 2012 at 8:24PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


It's not a case of either one or the other!! You can combine both together.

Here's the Trailer for John Carpenter's "Dark Star" (1974) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSccwmmrS5A It was shot in regular 16mm and blown-up to 35mm. IMDB says the budget was $60,000.00. Here's the full movie on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FvCrfAuvEo&feature=related

If you were doing a similar low-budget Sci-Fi today you could do a real/digital mash-up. The stars are nothing but splattered white paint on black masonite, the star movement is simply dollying the camera. A little CGI would go a long way with this movie.

In days-of-yore a lot of SFX had to be put together (married) on an optical printer. Today you can shoot in digital and marry the shots in your computer.

October 7, 2012 at 9:09PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I think the key thing its not use just practical effects or just CGI, But using one to help another... There is no need to choose a side, just enjoy booth. :)

BTW, I made a pack of practical effects of muzlle flashes, smoke, fire and explosions.. If anyone needs, I release to download it for free on the piratebay. If you want to see us making it, just look for "Action Pack Trash Uncompressed" on youtube and on thepiratebay for download! :)

October 7, 2012 at 11:12PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Heard of a story of a guy who did some light painting, got a bit of the hot metal wool melted into his L glass.


October 8, 2012 at 1:48AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Interestingly, i was just reading this article about the techniques they used in The Tree of Life for the sequense with the birth of the universe.

They really took it to another level i think and they also combined cgi into it.The result is breathtaking of course.



By the way Thadon Calico very well said.And with some poetic flare too ''nostalgia is a logic dimmer''.

October 8, 2012 at 6:58AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Thanks for posting those links Konstantin and for another great blog Joe.

October 8, 2012 at 9:08AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


The fx look great, nice and organic. It's a special style, nice and fresh especially nowadays, when you often can't tell if something is real or fake.

October 8, 2012 at 8:37AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


New short film shot on the Canon 60D-

October 10, 2012 at 11:45PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Now, this is a useful video and idea. Creating something unique without EA is clever.
Damn good article!

October 12, 2012 at 9:55AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Steel wool makes great space explosions too. Rig up your camera to point directly up at the ceiling. put a glass shield over the camera. Put black Duvetyne on the ceiling. Rig the steel wool up above between the ceiling and the camera. I rigged the steel wool between the ends of a frayed electrical cord, which is kind of dangerous, but works really well. When the electricity is turned on the steel wool ignites and burns very quickly. Sparks fall down towards the camera. Shoot in super slow motion for an amazing looking explosion.

January 19, 2014 at 12:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM