Fun with a meat cleaver

Andrew and I are heading for a film festival in Ballycastle this Satuday, to deliver a presentation about our filmmaking exploits – specifically the area of doing special effects with little or no money. We’re in the process of preparing some material. I thought I’d share this semi-successful experiment we tried yesterday …

Turn your actors into ghosts

You know the special effect I’m talking about: somebody walks across the room, and you can see right through them. It’s an easier effect to produce than you might realise. All you need is a tripod and some video editing software that allows you to layer two video tracks on top of each other whilst controlling the opacity level of each (i.e. how much you can see through the image). If that’s a bit of a mouthful for you, let me explain.

First, set the tripod up nice and steady. Tighten all the adjusters so that it won’t move during, or after, recording (this is very important). Now, have your actor walk across the room in front of the camera. When you’ve finished the shot, film exactly the same shot without the actor.

For editing, I use a great little budget video editor called Serif Movie Plus. After you’ve captured the two shots into your computer, position them each on separate tracks so that they will both play at the same time. Of course, no magic will happen yet; the computer can only play one video at once … until you adjust the opacity level of the shot with the actor so that the shot becomes partially see-through. What do you think will happen to all the bits and pieces of scenery in your shot? Absolutely nothing, becuase the shot behind this shot contains exactly the same scenery. But what will happen to the actor? You will see the scenery through him.

You can also experiment with cross-fading the two shots together, which will produce an effect just like the TARDIS taking off or landing.

Two other things are important for an effect like this to work. (1) The camera is not allowed to move, so you’ll have to live with a static shot; no pans or zooms. (2) Nothing (except the actor) is allowed to move. You may have trouble filming outdoors if there are plants and bushes blowing in the wind, or moving traffic.

The poor man’s dolly

A dolly is a piece of equipment that allows you mount a camera on a set of tracks and push it along, creating super-smooth movement. Naturally, Midnight Pictures doesn’t have one, so we improvise. On the evening that we were filming the closing shot of Don’t Look in the Attic, Andrew brought a big blue trolley to the set. We tried putting the camera and tripod on it and pushing it along, but it was a disaster. The camera was sitting too high for the shot; the trolley’s wheels kept mis-steering; the resulting picture was none too steady.

But sometimes, if you just open your eyes and look for a simple solution, you find one. Smooth floor, not exactly slippy enough for movement, but with the camera set atop an upside-down bathroom mat – bingo! Of course, you’ll hear the mat dragging, so you have to forget about recording the sound, but that can sorted out later during editing. Check out the close of the movie to see this camera shot in motion. I think it worked pretty well.

"Meat cleaver in shoulder" effect

Ouch! Don’t you just hate it when somebody comes up to you and sticks a meat cleaver in your shoulder? What’s the world coming to?

Obviously this is one of Midnight Pictures’ special effects, courtesy of Andrew Harrison. I’ve decided to start blogging about the tips & tricks of filmmaking-on-the-cheap that Andrew and I have learned in our many years of experience as low-budget filmmakers.

We’ve borrowed this one from the master, Tom Savini. First, you need a suitable implement such as a cleaver or axe – something with a reasonably wide blade. Then you need someone who has the kind of equipment that can cut through the blade. You get them to cut an oval shape out of it. Then all you have to do is press the gap against a suitable part of your body, and with the help of a little stage blood, presto! For our effect, we also drilled a couple of small holes in the cleaver, one on each side of the gap, allowing us to tie on some elastic and feed it under my armpit to prevent the cleaver from falling off.

A more elaborate variation on this effect can be seen on Dawn of the Dead (1970s version), where one of the bikers slams the blade of his machete into a zombie’s forehead. Here’s how to make the motion convincing: start the shot with the blade already embedded in the forehead, then have the actor pull it away very quickly. The editor then plays the shot in reverse, and it looks as if the machete cuts right into the zombie’s head. The final touch is to quickly move on to another shot before you need to show the blood spurting.

Zombie Genocide fans will be confused about what the above photograph relates to, because “Doc” (i.e. me) is clearly a lot older than he was in that film. Well, a couple of years ago, Andrew and I recorded a trailer for an as-yet-unmade film entitled Shadow of the Dead. We’ve kept fairly quiet about this project. There are no firm plans to make it, but it’s the one Andrew and I keep talking about.