Independent filmmakers are wary of effects, not without reason. They can be time-consuming and expensive, require some expertise, and can distract you from telling your story. But they can also help you tell your story and raise your production value . If you just follow some simple steps, you can produce good effects on a tight budget. So don't be afraid. The force is with you.
Special effects can be broken down into four broad domains:
Includes blood, tattoos, prosthetic monster faces/limbs, aging
includes smoke/fog, fire, wind, rain, lighting, automation (think of the doors opening on "Star Trek"), puppetry, explosions, gunfire
includes shakes, split focus, on-set filtering, slow-motion/fast motion, fancy camera moves, shutter-angle adjustments
includes greenscreen or other compositing work, 2D and 3D animation, digital blood/prosthetics, color correction and filtration
In practice a single "effect" may require all of the above. A ghost may be a guy in a prosthetic outfit, who comes out of the fog, is shot in slow-motion, and is then tweaked in post to appear more "ghostly."
Here are some tips for doing low-budget effects:
- Limit the "scope" of each effect. The above-mentioned ghost example requires all four domains - that's four things and more people that have to work together to sell the effect. Do your ghost effect without moving the camera, or with minimal makeup work.
- Try to do as much work on-set as possible. Post effects work can be costly and time-consuming.
- Conversely, it's worth looking into digital gunfire and wounds/blood. It's safer, (sometimes) faster, and armorers, squibs, and blank-firing weapons aren't cheap.
- Use rubber prop versions of your weapons as much as possible. They're safer and still look convincing.
- Light greenscreen and foreground elements separately, and keep them as far apart as possible.
- Don't move the camera if you're doing a composite shot. Shoot the various elements with the same angle, height, lens, f/stop and focus. This will make your VFX artists' job a LOT easier.
- If you're doing post animation, write down then lens height, lens length, exposure, filters, and focus when shooting your elements. Jot down a lighting diagram. This helps the animators match their lighting.
- Do NOT schedule makeup effects shots for the beginning of the day or right after lunch. Prosthetics take a lot of time to apply - so shoot something else with other actors first.
- Budget for post "tweaking." No matter how well-executed a shot is, chances are you'll have to work on it in post at least a little.
- Shoot clean background plates, without actors. This gives the VFX artists something to use if they have to paint someone or something out of a shot.
- Gore looks cheesy very quickly. Less is more.
Most importantly, don't schedule too much on your effects days! Take the time and be safe. Good luck!