Friday, May 23, 2014

Presentation Speech (Read-only version)

Had a few people ask if the presentation I did earlier this month for a group of independent film-makers was filmed so they could see it. It wasn't. In fact, Duckie and I had to completely change our script once we got there because they didn't have the things we needed to go forward as planned. So in the spirit of sharing knowledge with others, I've edited the speech I gave so that it doesn't involve visuals or a hands-on demonstration and posted it here for your viewing pleasure.

My name is Shiva Rodriguez, and this is my husband Duckie. We both work in practical effects for stage and screen. Duckie is also a stunt and fight choreographer, which also comes in very handy in our world.

A lot of people aren't terribly familiar with special effects or what exactly an F/X artist does. We often get mistaken for makeup artists, and a lot of makeup artists we know groan about being asked to perform special effects. So the first thing I want to do today is make sure that we're all on the same page in regard to that.

When a film needs actors to look like they are diseased, sickly, bald,hairy, bruised, slashed, battered, zombified, vampirized, or even just plain dead... they need a makeup artist.

When any of those beautifully made-up characters need to be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, decapitated, disemboweled, dismembered, run over with a car, set on fire, attacked by a lion, drowned, tortured, or pretty much any other nasty action... they need an effects artist, or in many cases, an F/X team that has members who specialize in different types of effects.

Special effects also covers things like rain, fog, snow, explosions, robotic creatures, mechanized props and puppets, and things of that nature.

Duckie and I often work together as a team and we have a list of other specialists we call in to meet the needs of the productions we work on. This includes F/X makeup artists, assistants who are trained to use our rigs, and even a cinematographer who has worked with us for years and can advise a production on not only how to shoot an effect but also how to light it. We also work hand-in-hand with visual effects artists to combine their CGI and our practical gags to create some very realistic effects.

Special effects artists are the MacGuyvers of a film crew. I generally tell people that working F/X is 10% know-how and 90% making things up as you go along. A lot of the equipment we use to create effects either has to be made from scratch or at the very least customized for each production. We just can't jump onto Amazon and order a special attachment for our gore cannon or a perfect replica of an actor's head that needs to come off. We have to cobble that stuff together using whatever money and supplies that we have to work with.

Special effects also covers an incredibly wide range of knowledge and skill sets, many of which you wouldn't think would have anything to do with it. Between the two of us we've worked in set design, costume design, prop fabrication, puppeteering, wig-making, makeup, editing, craft services, storyboarding, and both of us have been directors on feature-length productions.

We've also studied art, sculpting, metal working, wood-working, leather-working, rope and knotwork, interior decorating, electronic engineering, physics, furniture-building, hand magic tricks, stage illusion magic, con artists, psychology, execution and torture history, victimology, anatomy and physiology, first aid, forensics, entomology, funerary customs, chemistry, cooking, dance, animal wrangling, and weaponry... just to name a few. All of these things have been important for us to know at one time or another while we were working in special effects.

Of course, what most people see is that we just bring a truckload of gadgets and props to a set and do cool things to actors that look pretty easy. And it's not uncommon at all for me to talk to film-makers who think they can cut a lot of corners by just having a PA or a makeup artist do this stuff for them instead of bringing in some experienced F/X people.

While we may look like maniacs when we work our magic on a set, the Number One priority for us is the safety of everyone involved. The fact is, many special effects can be dangerous if precautions aren't taken and there is always a chance that an accident can happen. Duckie and I even learned how to catch flying edged weapons in order to help insure the safety of the people around us in case something goes wrong during a swordfight.

Sadly, we don't know of too many people on the micro-budget film level who take the kind of precautions that we do. A very common issue that we wish we didn't hear so many stories about is that sometimes people just forget that everything an effects artist does is 100% fake.

We don't really tie people up in torturous positions, but it's amazing how many people think that that's exactly how it's done. I've seen actors being strung up in the air by their arms. They might as well have been crucified because the physical effects to the body are the same.

There was a director who decided not to hire me to do a car hit effect for him and told me that he was just going to hit his actress going 20mph because “It's not that fast and won't hurt her.” Doing that, by the way, is the equivalent of throwing her off the roof of a two-story building.

We've also heard quite a few stories from actors about sprains, bruises, cuts, even cracked ribs and broken bones because a director or makeup artist had no idea how to execute a special effect.

What every story has in common is that they each happened because a director or producer decided to try to cut down on either cost or time, and in many cases, both.

I understand that financing is one of the biggest problems for film-makers. I've been there myself and I know how frustrating the process can be and how tempting it is to just cut as many corners as possible to get your film made. So I want to talk to you a little about budgeting for special effects.

I'm not going to lie to you... special effects are rarely super-cheap, and if they are then they need a lot of prep time or they are not going to be very good. It's just the nature of the can only pick two.

Unfortunately, many people don't even think about budgeting for special effects until last, if at all. This would make sense for a project that only needs a minor gag, but the folks who call on us are usually making films in either the action or horror genre. If your project is relying on a lot of gunfire, explosions, gory deaths, or elaborate monsters... special effects should be one of the first things that you consider while in the development stage.

After all, your audience is not going to see what kind of camera you used. But they will see the effects (and in horror films, that's a big part of the draw.) Our job as F/X people is to add production value to a project, which is especially important if you're looking to sell your finished film or pick up wide distribution.
Nine times out of ten, the first thing people ask is how much is it going to cost for us to do effects for their film. Unfortunately, they usually don't even contact us until right before they start shooting, which ties our hands quite a bit when it comes to low-cost options.

The first thing that we ask for from film-makers is a detailed list of every effect they have in their script. This list will give us a general idea as to how much work will be involved and if everything is even feasible for their time frame. Some effects can take several hours (if not days) just to set up and rehearse, so it's important for us to know if there are any of those little monsters crammed into a tight shooting schedule.

After we've seen the effects list , our big question to the film-maker is usually the stumper... “How much is your effects budget?”

It never fails to amaze me how many times we've been given a long list of effects and then been told that there is no money set aside for them. People seem to assume that just like their camera and sound guys, we have everything they need just sitting on a shelf and ready to go. To be frank, this is almost never the case... not even if all you want us to do is splash blood around.

We don't keep barrels of blood on tap. We actually use eight different blood formulas on a regular basis and only two of them have a long shelf life. The chances of us having a perfect replica of your actor in our workshop is extremely low, and chances are even lower that we have the exact gag or prosthetic you want sized to fit that actor. Effects gags that you've seen us use in an open field will probably not work on your interior set. While we do have a lot of the tools and equipment used to build rigs and prosthetics, most of the things we use on set do need to be either custom-built or altered for each project.

We do keep some of the more commonly-requested things on hand for quick shoots, but sometimes even they need a little money in order to fit the project. I'm pretty sure that our life-sized corpse prop doesn't look like any actress on your cast right now. We can give that prop any woman's likeness, but it does cost some money to do a lifecast on the actress.

So the time to start working out a budget for your effects-laden project is right after you break down the script. I can't stress enough how important it is to bring on your effects crew as soon as possible to help you with this. When we're working with a producer during this stage of development, we can come up with several different plans on how to execute the effects at various price ranges and time frames and give him an idea of what to shoot for with both fund-raising and production scheduling.

Now I know you think it would be a no-brainer to just go with whichever plan we present that costs the least. That's not necessarily the best option, nor is it an impossible dream to aim much higher while fund-raising. You just need to be patient and persistent with fund-raising until you get what you need, or you re-work your script and limit yourself to fewer special effects that give you the most bang for your available buck. Completely scrap the gory effects on your horror film and you risk really disappointing your viewers who are fans of the genre. However, a few well-placed memorable effects will work just as well (and sometimes better) than just throwing your entire cast into a wood-chipper.

Scheduling for special effects is also very important if you want them to look good. You can never assume that something can be done quickly unless your effects artist tells you it can be. Even something as "simple" as a gunshot effect can take hours to set up, rehearse, and very likely reset for a second or third take.

As you can imagine, we've got a few different ways that we execute gunshots. I know that many people automatically assume that we use squibs because that's the standard Hollywood fare, so it might surprise you to learn that we never work with them. They are expensive, they are very dangerous, and you need to have both special permits and a fire marshal on set when you set them off.

Instead, we use methods using things like compressed air, tubing, wire, buttons, and fishing line to replicate gunshot hits. For high velocity blasts and small ground explosions, we use our “gore cannons” that we power up with an air compressor. For simple body shots, we often just use hand-pumped garden sprayers. Right now we're also working on a new gag that will deliver perfectly-timed machine gun hits via remote control.

Gunshots are generally stand-alone effects for us. They are achieved either by one practical gag or a combination using both practical and CGI effects. In the case of the latter, we'll work in conjunction with a visual effects artist who will make the entry wound magically appear while we supply the splatter associated with the exit wound.

I'm going to take a moment here to address the issue of practical effects verses CGI. With practical effects you know that there is going to be some cost involved, even if it's just the ingredients for the blood, and you know that it's going to take a bit of time on set to rehearse and execute.

With CGI, it usually just involves one person in front of a computer who has both the experience and the software to create the effect for you. It might take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to have it done in post.

We generally suggest using a blend of the two when it comes to creating things like gunshots on a low budget, and not just because we're practical artists. Some people think that because they have a friend who has the software and will do the whole effect for free that that is the way to go.

Our question to you: How good does it look...really?

Can your friend work on the same quality level as The Avengers? If the answer is no, then chances are good that he doesn't have the fine-tuned skills or the software to produce a realistic blood spray. And honestly, even at the Hollywood level, blood sprays done completely with CGI very rarely look natural. At best, they tend to move too slowly and often bend the laws of physics. At worst, they can look like globs of bright red paint are attacking characters.

With practical effects, if we have to create both an entry wound and an exit wound simultaneously without a budget and lots of prep time, it's going to be an awfully long day on set and the director might not be too happy about the very specific camera angles needed to pull it off. Timing is everything with these effects, and ample rehearsal time on set is mandatory.

Speaking of rehearsals... they are something you should never omit when you are working with any type of splatter effect. There really is no way of knowing how something is going to splatter unless you test it first. And it is so important to have a cleanup crew standing by to be sure that everything is made spotless immediately afterward. Even when the effect works perfectly on the first take, the actors might not.

As I said, gunshots are usually done with what we refer to as simple,stand-alone effects. For more elaborate sequences, such as taking someone's head off, it requires a combination of different effects as well as the full cooperation of the actors, the camera operators, and the editor. They also take an awful lot of time.
We had a very violent werewolf attack in Predatory that took us almost three days to shoot. The poor character took quite a mauling using a combination of eight different practical effect gags and props, a lot of makeup, and a lot of stunts.

Stunts do play a big part in our work. Bodies have to drop, right? So as a little bonus for you guys, I'm going to turn the floor over to Duckie, who is the stunt choreographer on our effects team.

(Duckie didn't write his part down. He basically did a hands-on demo to illustrate different ways to do a shovel-to-the-head hit.)

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