How do you use horror movie special effects effectively?
There’s a reason so many indie filmmakers are drawn to the world of horror. Horror is a compelling genre that seeks to tell the truth about the world we occupy, and it can often be done well with a low budget. However, as any horror aficionado can tell you, there’s a thin line between a good horror movie and a funny horror movie. Not funny as in horror comedy (we love those!) but funny as in… you’re laughing so hard you can’t be afraid. Maybe it’s a goofy concept, maybe it’s over-the-top acting, but more often than not, what brings horror out of the realm of scary and into the realm of funny is the special effects.
Special effects are hard, even for studios with huge budgets. For small creators, they can feel impossible. We just wrapped filming for our upcoming horror short, Biters and Bleeders, a movie that required a lot of special effects. In fact, the special effects are the key to the whole movie, and when we decided to produce this script, we were very, very nervous. It’s a very serious piece, definitely not a horror comedy. We want our audience to be shrieking in terror, not laughing, when they see the creepy-crawly bugs that are the star of this film, so we worked really, really hard on the special effects. We believe that the best space for creativity is when you’re pushing yourself a little bit, and this project definitely pushed us farther than anything we’ve produced before. Here are a few things we learned.
One: give yourself options
For Biters and Bleeders, we used a mix of practical effects and VFX, or visual effects. On both ends, we were lucky enough to work with really, really talented people. There were eleven scenes that required use of the bugs, and we shot each with both practical effects and as a clean plate for VFX. We did two versions of each clean plate; both moving and stationary. Not only that, but we had multiple versions of each bug, so we filmed many different iterations of each scene. Each iteration required multiple takes, of course, which means we have… a lot of options. That’s exactly what we wanted. This way, if the practical effects look amazing, we can use them, or if in post we notice that a scene would really benefit from VFX, we can make that happen.
The funniest scene to film was when a bug was coming out of Raven’s mouth. First, we filmed it several times with a real, practical bug coming out, and then we had to film it multiple times where she was pretending to have it come out of her mouth. Movie magic, baby!
Two: you don’t know what you don’t know
We knew we’d been challenging ourselves with this project, but we didn’t understand exactly how steep the learning curve would be. We consulted with a VFX expert before the shoot to make sure we were setting ourselves (and our future animator) up for success. The biggest thing we learned from this consultation is that we actually knew even less about this process than we thought we knew. Make sure you do your research, and be humble; there are people out there who specialize in this and they can help guide you as you attempt either practical effects, VFX, or a mixture of both.
Three: work with the best
We were lucky enough to have the absolute best cast and crew for Biters and Bleeders. Our DP, John, had an incredible vision, and used a fisher dolly to capture the movement of the creepy crawlies. This really helped the practical effects bugs come to life. Then of course there are the bugs themselves. Matt made the bugs for the practical effects. We were so lucky to work with him and he made some truly incredible pieces for us, which will make the bugs look amazing. We also had an amazing on-set special effects coordinator, Sally. She is also an incredible horror makeup artist, and created the most amazing gruesome wounds for us. Basically what we’re saying is, if you have a good team, you’ll have a good product.
Number four: variety, baby
We can’t take any credit for the amazing variety of bugs that we used for our practical effects–those were all Matt and Sally–but we wanted to talk about them, because we had different bugs for different purposes. They were made out of a wide range of materials, including:
- Unlubricated condoms full of blood
According to Raven the pudding bug was especially delicious, so props to Sally!
Number five: safety first
There is one scene where Joyce, the actress who plays Tad’s mother, appears behind Raven and shoves a bug in her mouth. Once again, Sally provided for her and made a bug out of chocolate. However, Raven is supposed to start choking on the bug once it’s in her mouth. One problem with pretending to choke with something real in your mouth is… it’s very, very easy to actually choke. So after a few takes, it became clear that for safety reasons, we were going to have to stick with VFX for this particular scene, despite everyone’s hard work on the practical effects.
If you’ve ever worked with these kinds of horror movie effects, or if you’ve ever wanted to, we’d love to hear from you! Drop us a line about your experience working with special effects.