Submitted by James Cole
The Reality of Adding Special Effects to Your Low Budget Film
Too often I get producers and directors asking me to add an effect into their movie when the project is well into post-production and the deadline is all too close. Or else I’ll get asked to fix a shot where a do-it-yourself effect didn’t work. Most directors seem to think that with the advent of desktop computers and software like Photoshop and After Effects that anything is possible, and quite simply if you have unlimited time and money, almost anything is possible. Unfortunately, however, most of us do have limited time and very limited money. Many people seem to think that they can check out a book about special effects from the local library, learn what matte paintings and blue screens are, then go out and produce their own effects of equal quality to what George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic seem to pull off. If you are incredibly gifted this may be so. But then you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?
So how do you achieve that great effect you imagined when you first wrote or read the script?
The first step is simple but most of you will hate it. Go through the script and make a list made up of all your dream shots. I can hear the cries already, “but I get a much better energy if I make the shots up on set,” and “I can’t do that, what if I see something on set I can use that I just can’t think off now?” Valid points, but putting together a shot list doesn’t mean you have to stick to it once you get on set. It’s just a guide, a road map of one way to get your finished movie. I find that it makes you think of all the little shots you need to get. Like the cutaways and close-ups that you usually run out of time to shoot cause you didn’t think of them before. A shot list will help in so many areas of planning your movie, not just the effects.
Once you have your shot list, go through it shot by shot and figure out how you are going to get each shot. At this point let me just ask the question you probably haven’t asked yourself. Why are you making this movie? There are many answers and all of them are personal. You could be making it to prove that you’re not a loser and that you can achieve something. You may want to be cool and say, “I am a film director” when all the people you meet ask what it is that you do. You may want to be a star and the only way you can get a lead role is to make the movie yourself. Or, and this is a wild one, you may just believe in the story you’re going to tell and want to share it with the world in the best way possible. What I’m getting at is, are you making this movie for the benefit of your own ego or is it to tell a story? If it’s for your ego go make your movie and don’t bother reading on. Oh yeah, and don’t invite me to the screening. If it’s to tell a story you must now swallow your pride and say the three magic words, “I don’t know.” Learn them, commit them to memory, get comfortable with them. Now as you are going through your shot list and you come to a shot you really want but aren’t sure how to get, can you guess what you are going to say? That’s it, ten points for the girl in the third row. I don’t know. It's simple isn’t it? Don’t be afraid of using these three words, no one will criticize you for not knowing something. Actually they will, but don’t listen to them.
The next step now that you have created a list of “I don’t know” shots, is to find out how to get them. One of the best and cheapest sources for this kind of information in this modern day we live in, is to find a movie with a similar shot, rent the DVD, and listen to the director’s commentary. This approach may be a bit hit and miss as the director could be talking about something else at the time or the bimbo actress who’s also doing the commentary won’t shut up about how good she looked in that shower scene ten minutes earlier.
Another approach is to talk to people who know. The best way to handle your “I don’t know” shots is to hire a special effects coordinator, or at least talk to one. Now don’t go calling up the guys at Industrial Light & Magic for your mini digital video short. Be realistic. Find an effects company or person that supports and understands the style of moviemaking you want to pursue. If you are a guerrilla movie maker, you don’t want a coordinator who takes six weeks to set up a shot that, no doubt will look magnificent, but is way more than you need. On the other hand, you don’t want someone who says, “that’ll do, no one will notice,” because I guarantee they will.
Now you’re probably thinking, “I can’t afford to hire a special effects coordinator.” Now this is another time to swallow your pride. Tell them the truth. I guarantee everyone who has worked on more than one movie has heard the lame bit about how “I’m going to make a movie and then get it into festivals. It will be really good for your show reel. You should be able to get more work by showing it off. When it’s finished we’ll get funding to re-shoot it properly and then we can hire you at your full price.” This kind of hype may work when getting volunteers to help out, but not when you’re talking to industry professionals. Even if you truly believe any of the above lines are going to happen (and who am I to say they’re not), please don’t use them. Speak the truth. Say “Hey I’m making a movie, I haven’t got much money, and I really want it to turn out good, but I’m not sure how and I would really like some help.” If you’re honest in your approach, there are no surprises later and you’ll gain more respect. You’ll find that many professionals will be willing to talk to you and give you advice simply because they love the business they are in and enjoy talking about it whenever they find someone who is interested. Once you’ve spoken to them, if they seem interested in your project ask if they can help out. You may find that if you have a good script and they feel they’ll enjoy working with you, they may drop their ten million an hour rate to something more workable. I doubt that you’ll get a professional for free but you never know. I have never met a person in the movie industry who’s price wasn’t negotiable.
Essentially a movie has three types of effects shots. The one that’s written in the script, the one that’s thought of on set when you think of something you couldn’t have thought of before, and the shot that went wrong somehow and needs to be fixed. Every movie has a shot fix-up job somewhere. Even if it’s just having to edit around that close up you really wanted but the moron sound guy keeps getting the microphone in frame. Unfortunately you can’t avoid these fix-up shots, but you can avoid turning the other two types of effects shots into fix-up shots. Simple advice from actually talking to a professional can often lead you to shoot something slightly different that, in turn, can save you hours, maybe even days, of work in post-production. The advise may be as simple as put the camera on a tripod and film with a static shot then when the digital effect is added you can add a little camera movement and everything will be in sync. Or in one example I came across, a director wanted a building to explode. They couldn’t afford to do a real explosion, or even a miniature explosion, so they came up with the idea of only seeing the reflection of the flames in a shiny car. They went out and got a magnificent shot of the actor walking towards the car. If I was involved during the shooting of this scene I would have recommended igniting a gas flame bar behind the actor and out of frame so that you captured the reflection of real flames in the car as well as getting a real light source. It would have taken ten minutes to set up and been relatively cheap. Instead the shot took more than a day to rotoscope all the elements and add the flames and in the end it looked like a cheap shot and cost more to get done.
Another common effect shot I get asked to do is to add muzzle flashes from guns being fired or to add bullet wounds on people. Although they are fairly simple to add in a computer, it truly isn’t that expensive to have real guns firing blanks and have your actors loaded up with squibs. It’s much more effective and realistic and probably doesn’t cost any more than getting it done in a computer. Of course there are occasions when you just can’t fire guns for real. Like when they are too close to another actor or in public places and you don’t really have a permit.
In the end it all comes down to your own personal choice and how you want your movie to end up. Having an effects coordinator on set can be of great value and can even save time and money, but if your production is unorganized or you just don’t have any cash at all, you can still benefit from just asking for advice.