I love working with small, independent films. When I talk to a director for the first time about the FX he (or she) wants for his film, I really never know what to expect. (Mind you, on very small productions the Director and the Producer are usually one and the same.)
However, I've also found that film-makers who approach me to work for them often hold back or scale down what they'd really like to see me do for them. Usually it is budget concerns that weigh on the mind. I really encourage people to tell me what they really want to see and let us work out the kinks from there.
Don't get me wrong, makeup supplies can be expensive. Anyone who has ever visited a magic shop or an online horror outlet has seen bottles of pre-made blood run as high as $28 for a small bottle or masks and props that go into the triple-digit price range. It's easy to assume that wanting a fake arm and leg will cost you...well, and arm and a leg.
However, people who are new to working with FX in their projects do need to remember that those stores that market to the general public are banking on folks doling out a lot of money for one special occasion... usually at the end of October. Any FX person worth their salt can whip up a gallon of realistic-looking blood in their kitchen for less than $28 if a situation called for it.
A practical FX person is a problem-solver. His (or, as in my case, her) job is to try to figure out how to trick the viewers into believing that something amazing has just happened. Since I myself work mostly in splatter FX, I'll be using more examples of that in this essay than anything else.
I said earlier that I love working with small independent films. I think one of the reasons I enjoy it so much is because I want to give the film more production value than they ever thought possible on a small budget. For example, I worked on a very small production last year that called for a woman to be shot in the face. They expected a simple bullet hole and a blood spray. I told the director that I could take half the actress's face off in order to give the viewers something to talk about. We went with that. Like I said... problem-solving. Practical FX artists are the McGuyvers of the industry.
But, we're not miracle workers. Really. It does take some planning and preparation. If a director is willing to work with me on those points, I can usually plan out something special for his film that works within his budget.
So the first step is communication. Giving me a general outline of the project and telling me about any specific FX that are desired. It's not uncommon for a director to ask me what I'd like to do, and we'll spend an afternoon talking about different ways to rack up a body count. Sometimes I come up with death/injury alternatives that a director hadn't even considered before and we go with that.
After discussing the general idea of an FX and the budget limitations with him, the first tool I need from a director is a script. A script will generally tell me everything by way of environment and characters that I need to know about the scenes where FX are required. Having a script also helps me storyboard an FX scene by filing in the blanks as to what the characters have been through (and any damage they might have incurred) prior to the scene.
Once I have an idea about the scene is supposed to play out, I start brain-storming and sketching. Often the FX requires to be done in stages (which often need various camera angles) in order to make the overall effect believable, so I've found it extremely helpful to storyboard the options out and discuss them with a director. Practical FX is often a combination between makeup and device gags, so storyboarding also gives me an opportunity to plot out how much time will be required to do the scene. (Some makeups can take up to six hours just to apply!) It also tells me how much prep time I'm going to need prior to shooting the scene.
After the FX plans are approved by the director, then I start on building whatever props and prosthetics (appliances that are glued onto actors) are needed for the FX scenes. Sometimes this requires me to have an actor come in for body-casting or fittings, other times it doesn't. Often it means I'll be running around to flea markets and thrift stores looking for items to convert into gags that a Hollywood FX shop would charge a premium for. And, like many in this line of work, I have a collection of previously-used devices and weapons that can be re-purposed for the project at hand. Why would I have a production buy a machete for me to modify when I already have three that are already prepped that I don't mind loaning out?
I can't stress enough about how important planning and preparation is. If you want good quality FX in your film, you have to plan for them. They can often be done on a shoestring, but they can rarely be done on a minute's notice.
I do know people who swear by the motto “Anything is possible”, but in my experience, “anything” does have some limitations on micro-low budget productions. I pride myself in trying to give the folks I work for the most bang for their buck, but sometimes the bang they've envisioned is just too big for the buck they are willing to spend.
There have been some projects that I've turned down because the budget was just too low for the amount of complicated FX a director wanted. (The best example of this I've had to date was someone who wanted a very realistic on-screen decapitation on a budget of thirty dollars.) If you want something more than just blood sprinkled around and quick weapon gags, you do have to expect some degree of expense. In the graphic horror genre, blood-sprinkling really doesn't cut it if you are looking to do a violent slasher or torture-porn film. My advice to anyone wanting to do a film with a lot of gory FX with no money is to either tone down the gore or hold their production until they can raise enough of a budget to do the gore. This isn't me being a greedy bitch... this is me believing that if you do a film to be marketed as being like the Saw series and your FX aren't anywhere remotely near on par with Saw, then you are going to disappoint your genre fans. Directors I've worked with in the past can tell you that I'll take a pay cut if it means doing something really special to add production value to their films.
Don't let that last paragraph scare you though. You'd be amazed at how far a small budget can be stretched in the FX department. You just never know until you ask.