What does it take to make the special effects in a movie blow away an audience? What gives it that “wow” factor? The secret to effective and believable special effects in movies are in the little details. The special effects department covers a wide spectrum of roles in the shop and on set. There are a number of tips and tricks that special effects artists use to make their creations impress the audience.
As a special effects artist, you never know what you will be asked to build from day to day. Special effects covers a broad spectrum of builds from arterial spray to full body monster suits. Before beginning to design a zombie, monster or even a fake injury it is important to be familiar with the real life counterpart. Between Google searching pictures of horrific mutilation for slasher flicks and decaying bodies for shows like Walking Dead there are probably a number of special effects artists on government watch lists. In this industry it pays to take the time to flip through a copy of Grey’s Anatomy before beginning a new project.
Sculpting is a huge part of creating complicated props and makeup. Clay is usually the material that comes to mind when people think about making a sculpture. There are many varieties of clay on the market which are ideal for different applications. Softer material such as plain ceramics clay is useful for building up large sculptures quickly, but it does not hold detail as well as other clays. Chavant or Monster Clay is the industry standard for sculpting complicated prosthetics. Chavant is much harder to work with than normal clay, but gets softer when worked or heated in a microwave. It also will not dry out and crack if left unattended like regular ceramic clay.
As for the process of sculpting, that is a skill attained through practice. Much like drawing or painting, it pays to attend sculpting classes with live models. Having a friend pose or reference pictures from many different angles will work as well. Pay special attention to proportion as well as texture, and keep a variety of sculpting tools on hand for every situation.
There is also a two part sculpt-able epoxy clay that requires no firing and allows users to sculpt larger,
stronger pieces in a much more detailed way with more control over weight distribution.
To allow for natural movement, each foam latex makeup appliance is made to custom fit the actor playing the part. This means that before sculpting can even begin the actor must be live cast to have a base to work off. That sculpt is then later turned into a mould so the latex piece can be recreated over and over for every day of filming. Even non-makeup special effects and props often use a mould of some description at some point during its construction. If latex seems too much for you, you can also use silicone appliances to make sure that your spooky creation will fit perfectly on the actor.
A clean and well-built mould without gaps and bubbles will also mean less time spent fixing flaws later, so it pays to know the basics of mould making and moulding and casting materials. Believe me, there is nothing more tedious than patching a bad seam on a latex body suit dozens of times over the course of several weeks.
Every custom makeup job for TV and film is painted by hand. The exact color pallet is often determined by the vision of the director and the creative leads, but it is the special effects artist’s job to translate their vision to a physical product. This unfortunately requires some knowledge of color theory. It also once again requires a bit of research. Painting realistic skin involves more than mixing varying shades of skin tones. Skin is just a little transparent, so adding layers for veins and muscle can bring creations to life.
Before the day of the shoot, make sure to use the seconds (poor quality pulls from the mould) for test painting. This will ensure that the painting does not get overworked and muddy, and will also cut down the painting time the day of filming. There is still a person under all the makeup, so be as efficient while applying and painting as possible.
The women of the world already know the secret of using makeup to highlight and contour the face to create a desired effect. A well-placed highlight or shadow has the potential to completely change the shape of a face without the use of any complicated latex appliances. A special effects artist can create a top notch prosthetic but the translation to the screen will fall flat if the application has low contrast. It is worth taking the time to check out body painting videos and taking note of the tricks used to create the illusion of depth using only paint.
It is worth mentioning again that special effects artists get strange requests on a daily basis. The position requires a high degree of problem solving skills in order to make everything on screen look believable. This involves a combination of both research and creativity. When making props and puppets, it is often easier and faster to use shapes which already exist. Most special effects shops will keep bins of toys and broken home appliances to take apart and reassemble.
Another problem which should always be a top priority for every build is the comfort of the actor. No matter what material is being used on a given day an artist should remember than the actor will be using the final product for eight or more hours a day. Always be thinking of ways to build lighter, and make everything as durable as possible, because it will break on set.
Special FX is an industry of artists, engineers and problem solvers. Mastering new skills and researching new materials and products is crucial for success!