How to Create Convincing Practical Effects for Your Indie: Creatures

Max Mad: Fury Road Still
Credit: Mad Max: Fury Road, Courtesy WB Pictures
Here are some doable ways to bring the high-budget feel of practical effects into your indie films, with real-world examples to prove it. 

[Editor's Note: This post is the first in our new series of posts on how to pull off high production value effects while maintaining a low budget.]

In an industry ruled by computer-generated imagery, the champions of special effects are still creating brilliant work every day.  As such, many think pieces popped up around last year’s Academy Awards, claiming the comeback of practical effects. And it’s true for Hollywood. The most recent Mad Max and Star Wars films openly bragged about their shirking of CGI, as a nostalgic marketing tool, something akin to releasing an album on vinyl. But in the indie world, practical effects never went anywhere to begin with.

Famously, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the team used Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to create Aurochs, the film’s mythic beasts.

Effects are almost always a strain on the budget, and at an indie level, CGI can be prohibitive. Whether out of preference or need, filmmakers have successfully employed in-camera tricks and special effects for the entire history of filmmaking. Even in Jurassic Park, a film lauded for its CGI innovations, there were times when a computer just couldn’t cut it. To pay tribute to that fact, Colin Trevorrow, director of 2015’s Jurassic World, lobbied hard for the one animatronic dinosaur on set, an apatosaurus made of “old-fashioned foam rubber.”

In this series, we will be picking apart some special effects techniques, for any level, that could save you tons of money in post. While all effects are designed specifically for their project, these are a few tricks that are useful for any filmmaker to keep in mind. Part I will discuss working with creatures, alive, dead, and imagined.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
'Famously, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the team used Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to create Aurochs, the film’s mythic beasts.'

Create monsters and beasts from easy-to-find animals

Depending on the monster you’re creating, it may save you time and energy to consider working with a real, live, animal. Of course this means hiring an animal wrangler, renting the animal, and the intimidating task of directing the animal… but, it’s almost definitely still cheaper than animating one.

Famously, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the team used Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to create Aurochs, the film’s mythic beasts. 5 pigs were trained for months, and eventually donned the costumes that transformed them on camera. In Beasts, the pigs are essentially wearing tiny fur sweaters with horns. By shooting the animals close up and compositing in the lead character, Hushpuppy, they created the illusion of giant creatures. Learn more about how they did it with this featurette.

The brilliance in using live animals is the visceral quality of it. There is life and “acting” in an animal’s eyes that’s impossible to truly recreate with a computer. In addition, your human performances will be elevated through their interactions with the creatures. Think about the 450+ real snakes that were used on the set of Snakes on a Plane. I bet that created some extra salient fear for the actors.

Toy with taxidermy

If you can’t afford an animal wrangler, but have an easily-found animal in your film, taxidermy might be an option for you. You’d be surprised what you can find on eBay or Etsy for relatively cheap. This works particularly well for brief animal appearances. If it needs to move, the animal can be used as a puppet and manipulated from off out of frame.

You can also create your own animals, especially the small dead kind, with relative ease. For example, a small rodent can be made cheaply by sewing together fur swatches from your local craft or fabric store. Add some stuffing, black beads for eyes and a small rope tail, and you have yourself a mouse!

Build puppets to bring your creatures to life

One of the most standard ways to create convincing practical creatures is with puppets. This is the way some of film history’s most famous monsters and friendly beasts came to life. Before computer graphics existed, audiences everywhere were scared silly by the terrifyingly real moment in The Thing when one character’s head pulls entirely off his body and grows legs. Guess what? That severed spider head was a puppet!

The Thing Spider Head Puppet
Credit: Henry Alvarez operating the Spider Head puppet in "The Thing"

Of course, not all of us have the skill, money, or energy to achieve Rob Bottin-level effects (the film landed him in the hospital due to exhaustion related conditions)—but the point is that they’re possible.

A more recent example of successful puppet usage is Where the Wild Things Are. For this 2009 film, director Spike Jonze tasked Jim Henson’s Creature Shop with reimagining the tale’s beautiful and terrible beasts. The result was astonishing. Jonze ended up with towering 8’-9’ tall suits ready for performers to step into and bring to life.

Designed to be puppeteered from the inside, these suits are lightweight and articulate, with many levers for operating the fingers and toes (and terrible claws). Though your budget may not allow for employing one of the most world-renowned creature shops in existence, these are all concepts you can apply to building your own puppets.

Spike Jonze in Jim Henson's Creature Shop
Credit: Spike Jonze compares concept art Jim Henson's Creature Shop, Courtesy WB Pictures

Whether the puppet is controlled from outside or in, it’s important to consider weight. How will the heft of your materials affect the puppet’s performance? Consider this question from both utilitarian and emotional perspectives.

Many of the materials used to build these beasts are readily available at affordable prices. Like with horror prosthetics, puppets often use a combination of silicone and latex to imitate skin. Both are relatively cheap to buy and easy to sculpt.

In order to build a believable puppet, you must consider its construction from the inside out. How does it walk? How does it breathe? From whence did it come? When you have these answers, your mechanics will become clearer. You can select textures that make sense for your back story. Even if you’re using exclusively found items to build your creature, a deeply considered approach will yield a more realistic effect.

The key to special effects is keeping a curious mind, one that pushes the boundaries of reality.

Use models for scale

Star Wars may be the most famous example, but George Lucas is not alone in his use of models. When it comes to creatures, using model sets and miniatures to control scale in your film can be immensely impactful. The original King Kong stood just 18” tall, with an even tinier city beneath him. Combine the principles above with those of stop-motion animation to create your scene.

There are many pre-built miniatures available online and in specialty shops. But if you’re crafty, the cheapest way to build your sets is by hand. Some paint and cardboard can go a long way towards the mini-metropolis of your dreams.

The Blair Witch Project
Credit: "The Blair Witch Project"

Build the world, not the creature

While these aren’t technically a special effects, misdirection and SFX are two long standing low-budget techniques. Using a combination of realistic sound design and distracting camera movements can sometimes sell a monster better than any low budget puppetry. The Blair Witch Project is a brilliant example of “embracing your budget.” Who says you can’t make a horror movie for under $100K? Not Myrick and Sánchez. They made the directorial choice to use shaky footage and “bad” audio as a tool for tension. The same thing can be said of the fact that we never see the witch. The sound, score, and camera angles used to tell the story are all scary enough.

Have a large animal that you can afford to build or buy? Consider instead showing the world that exists around it. Does it leave tracks? Piles of dung? Does it crush cars under its feet? Showing the path of destruction it leaves can often be just as disturbing as seeing the real monster.    

Ultimately, there are an infinite number of solutions for making your creature, and many of those solutions are cheap and practical. The key to special effects is keeping a curious mind, one that pushes the boundaries of reality.     

Look out for the next post of this series, where we'll be discussing gore effects.

Featured image is a still from 'Mad Max: Fury Road,' Courtesy of WB Pictures.

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Your Comment


Actually, the cheapest budget SFX! It's pretty straightforward today, and you have a choice of various compositing programs like AE, the economical Hitfilm, and the freebie Fusion, as well as various 3D modeling programs, some free, to choose from.

The real secret is in finding people who have the talent to make effective use of these resources. If you can find talented people who are willing to work on your project for peanuts or free than you have struck SFX gold. Spend quality time in preproduction, blocking, and figuring out the best production process for effective digital post, and you can have killer SFX.

The 3-minute short 405 is a shining example of this.

August 23, 2016 at 7:24PM


Digital is so difficult to use for creature for credible animation.
I do 3d animation from 25 years, i know a tons of great modellers, excellent shader and lighter, terrific compositors, but very few good creature animators.
Real practical creature (i came from that ) is more simplier to add weight, to add credibility for actors that interact with them, is better for low budget, especially today with many new materials to mold skins and many electronics tools to add secondary motion and complex animation by electronics, cable and so on...
3d animation is simple with hard surface, space ship or phisical veicole, bruce branit (creator of 405) was a long time vfx artist that do that short to promote himself and his newer vfx society (20 years ago). Today i can suggest you the group of Ningyo, a great short with tons of creature, but behind of it there is again seasoned vfx artists that work for free for three years, and a tons of frineds of them that help with their skill.

July 14, 2020 at 12:28PM, Edited July 14, 12:30PM

Carlo Macchiavello
Director (with strong tech knowledge)

Great article, lot's to consider in terms of world or character building.

I think the best results are obtained generally by starting with an element of practical effect on set & augmenting with SFX in post ie; doing an explosion: have a 'kicker' that throws up some dirt or painted bits of foam to look like rocks or wood & add the actual flaming ball of explosion in post, the results are way better than either one or the other alone (not exactly a new or earth shattering concept, probs preaching to the choir on that one).

Totally right re: you can produce some pretty cool results just using cardboard, paint (LOTS of paint) & stuff lying around. For an example of this check out the space ship cockpit & the space station sets for the upcoming sci-fi comedy spacedude 2420.

We've blended the sets into 3D models and environments and used the real sets as a texture base for the 3D models, hopefully selling the end result a bit better.
Most of the shots of the spaceship are 2D rendered pics with the live footage placed behind it that were then placed in a 3D composite that has stars etc.

August 25, 2016 at 9:00PM

Justin Peacock