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.
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!
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.
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.
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.