Creating the Cosmos with Household Items; Shanks FX's Practical Approach

Shanks FX_cosmosYou can make pretty much anything with visual effects software: other worlds, new creatures, even sharknadoes. With so much creative power at our digital fingertips, it's easy to forget the incredible effects that we can pull off in the real world with real objects. About a year ago, we shared a few practical effects tutorials by Shanks FX (aka Joe Schenkenberg or Joey Shanks,) which showed how to create warp speed effects with steel wool, as well as alien atmospheres with a fish tank. In this demonstration, Shanks shows us how to create the cosmos with a few dirt cheap household items.

In the video below, Shanks demonstrates how to "create the cosmos" with just a few inexpensive items. A sheet of glass and a black backdrop form the stage, or the "space" of your universe. Mixing food coloring with sweetened condensed milk (the demo doesn't mention this, but it looks as though the milk has been reduced to be made thinner,) as well as other "assorted liquids" will form the "galaxies", while fibers from paper towels form the stars. The key ingredient, however, is hydrogen peroxide. Put some into a syringe, distribute it onto the glass, and watch the cosmos you created come to life.

I have nothing against creating effects in post (how else could I create a skateboarding dinosaur for my new film Kickflipasaurus 2: Juraskin For Trouble?) However, there's something so attractive about creating them with my bare hands. With so many opting for CGI and post-production methods, you don't come by these in-camera techniques nearly as often, which means many don't realize the incredible effects you can create with real stuff.

That's what Shanks' tutorials and demos do so well. He takes everyday household items (fish tanks, sheets of glass, food coloring, eye droppers, rope,) some professional equipment (stands, lights, a DSLR) and creates images that you would've never thought were possible outside of post -- effects that could work just as well for title sequences as they would in the body of your film.

Shanks FX_glass

Be sure to check out Shanks FX's YouTube channel for other tutorials and video demonstrations on how to create practical effects, like making planets out of dry ice, using blood cannons, and painting with light. I mean -- if you're making an experimental film, his channel is essentially the bible.

What do you think of Shanks' practical approach to creating effects? Do you have any tips you'd like to share?

Link: Shanks FX channel -- YouTube

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Your Comment


Amazing techniques. I have been into macro shooting, but this is something extraordinary! Thank you for sharing it.

November 16, 2013 at 12:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Wonderful, similar to how they did the effects for Solaris (1972). Thanks.

November 16, 2013 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


THANKS -no film school - for this nice write-up about SHANKS FX on PBS Digital Studios-You Tube. We really do appreciate it and it's FREE to subscribe to any of those PBS Digital Studios channels. And I liked the APPALACHIAN STATE hoodie too! And the SLIP was cool = Joey Shanks - always was 'good on his feet' ---

November 16, 2013 at 1:44PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Jimmy Shanks

Joey's a good friend of mine and a talented, really hard working guy. Great job on profiling him here!

November 16, 2013 at 6:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Superb stuff.
Would you not get more depth in an actual fish tank - similar to the way they did the billowing clouds on 'Close Encounters'?

November 17, 2013 at 6:22AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Fresno Bob

The fish-tank technique... or ("cloud tank" as us snobs call them :P ) Works great for clouds where there should be depth. Though, with these cosmos-types of effects, I think it works better to work on flat planes since it would more closely feel like the telescope images... also, I think that with a tank you'd get opaque globs instead of the cross-section effect where you see both inside and the borders and everything like that.

I really need to watch this video since I've been fascinated by effects like these ever since the first viewing of the stargate-sequence in 2001.

Also, effects like these will play in nicely when I make my own Baraka style space-movie with only slow moving heavenly bodies and experimental music... No dialog or VO whatsoever. just 2 hr of trippy space-stuff... and... it'll be so magnificently groundbreaking in its cinematic experience... that noone will be bothered to seit through it all :P

November 18, 2013 at 5:18AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


For more details on the Joey Shanks episode on 'Fish Tank', you can check out that link to SHANKS FX on PBS Digital Studios - YOU TUBE of Joey's episodes and FREE to subscribe.

November 22, 2013 at 3:55AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Jimmy Shanks

Wow, this is a really amazing tutorial! I Really enjoyed it!

November 17, 2013 at 12:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Check out the effects in Tree of Life. Also this:

November 19, 2013 at 7:49PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


i had very similar ideas for fx: i was spreading some butter and jam onto a slice of bread, and those substances often mix into an interesting pattern. then i angled it right under the light source to reveal another "dimension" to it - the spatial irregularities, you know, the texture, i think it's called "tessellation" nowadays. and i was thinking, if i zoomed the tits ouf of it, a proper macrodetail, this would look like the surface of jupiter. there i go, in-camera fx and a good-looking one. some are more like space, some are more like underwater world. i gotta act on this idea more :)

November 20, 2013 at 1:50AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I haven't had this much fun since watching Cameron animate worms by giving them electric shock.
Not good for the worms and highly politically incorrect but it looked great on camera.
Now, for my cat and the next Pet cemetery.... where's my taser?
*Just kidding. Don't do this at home children.

November 25, 2013 at 1:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thank you very much for the information I have so much need it

December 31, 2013 at 9:32PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM