Anatomy Of A Special Effect


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Everybody loves a good special effect, or, perhaps more accurately, nobody really notices a good special effect. The preferred result is to leave people genuinely believing a man can fly or that a small boy is shooting electricity at a grotesque spindly nightmare monster.

We can talk about that second one because, well… we did it, we put that in a film. And forgive the self-praise, but we think it looked damn good, especially given the time constraints placed on its production (more on which down below).

Given that success, we thought we’d spread the goodwill and share everything we’ve learnt about producing that effect and others – about how to make (and then murder) a monster…

Now, before you read on, check out the effect here in our film Leadtime, specifically the sequence from 2 minutes 39 seconds in:

Fun, right?

So, key bit of context before we begin: Leadtime was produced as part of a 48-Hour Film Challenge. For those not in the know, that’s a competition where various teams of foolhardy filmmakers have to produce a short film from scratch over a weekend – writing, shooting, editing and yes, monster-making, all in an extremely tight, sleep-free 48 hour period.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get started.

A special effect breaks down into three distinct parts:

  • The musculature: costume forms the real-world foundation of an effect. Even CGI-heavy creations often need some form of token costume to give the actors and post-production artists something to work with.
  • The bones: Your actors create the structure and underlying nature of the special effect. Good acting can be ruined by a special effect, but bad acting can rarely be saved by one.
  • The skin: Digital effects in post-production build on everything to create the finished product the audience sees. Do this badly and your viewers will be quick to notice exposed musculature and bone underneath.

So, how did we go about implementing each of those elements in Leadtime? Read on to find out.

The Musculature
We had two fantastic, endlessly inventive costume designers working on Leadtime – Morag Hickman and Magda Durka.

The Monster Makers Focused And Intent!!

Morag (top) and Magda (bottom)

Inspired by films like Pan’s Labyrinth, they set about conceptualising the monster, coming up with a design for a sinewy, insectile, carapaced entity that would almost glow in the dark.

The basis of that costume was a flesh-coloured, matte-lycra bodysuit with a lizard-like print, a smart choice for a couple of reasons:

  1. The script demanded an elaborate fight scene. Therefore, flexibility was a must.
  2. A bodysuit works as great base layer for further attachments and augmentations. And, given our designers planned for the costume to be truly terrifying and otherworldly, those would be an essential next step…
Monster in the Cinema

No Cinema goers were terrorised in the making of this movie (or not too many, at least…)

As Magda says “While working on the costume concept, I noticed that Morag had a bag of unusual materials with her. We dug into that and realised immediately that thermoplastic would be our friend. This heat-mouldable, waxy polymer offered a perfect solution for claws. Alien creatures should have claws!”

Thermoplastic is Morag’s go-to material for creating structural elements on the fly. It’s sculptable after submersion in hot water, it’s springy enough not to be a genuine danger to anyone, and it’s tough enough to stand up to rough treatment.

As the monster needed to be a clear threat, it was armed with six scything claws, a weird pointy mandible, and spines on the head, elbows, and anywhere else that felt like a good idea. Most of this was accomplished with thermoplastic pierced through the bodystocking or attached with double-sided sticky tape.

Mandible Adjustment, Morag Hickman is this season's mandible adjuster du jour

“Would you mind terribly if I adjusted your mandible?” “Please, go ahead”

However, while this hideous humanoid alien hedgehog was coming together nicely, it still looked a bit blank and didn’t have much secondary movement to show up in our super slo-mo camera takes. Therefore, the designers hooked some rusty-looking bundles of long, fake hair through the stocking and around the creature’s multiple spines, producing a disturbing ‘hairy insect’ effect along with a great flowing motion.

Just a few finishing touches remained. One, mixing fistfuls of black and red acrylic paints with hair gel, and plastering the hair up into a stiff, animalistic mane. Two, strategically applying paint to dirty up the monster even more, giving its skin a nasty sweaty sheen. And three, encrusting the claws with a good layer of blood and gore, a remnant of its encounters with previous victims…

All of this design work meant the creature looked brilliant on camera. The pale theme made it stand out starkly against the dark sets, especially when light glowed through the thermoplastic weapons, and the silhouette of the monster allowed for some wonderfully creepy, shadow-based cinematography.

Throwin' Shapes

The Bones
With a creature-feature like Leadtime, the actor playing the monster would usually have a long prep period to explore movement ideas with the director. However, in a 48-Hour Film situation, you only have a fraction of that: everything has to happen far, far faster it normally would.

Luckily for us though, we had an incredible actor on board, someone who could deal with those constraints magnificently: Jinny Lofthouse. Among other things, Jinny has an extensive background in fight choreography, meaning she has a mastery over physical, movement-based acting.

Jinny getting into character

Given that experience, Jinny was quickly able to find an approach to embodying the monster, much of it emerging organically from Magda and Morag’s creature design. The prosthetic extensions for the fingers lent themselves to spindly motions; the clacking, clutching claws created an unsettling sound when dragged across the surface of a dry concrete wall; and the way the costume restricted Jinny’s vision meant that only slow, careful movements were possible. Given the latter, the monster became a creature that crept around cat-like, stalking its prey from the shadows until, finally, the moment came to pounce.

Of course, this costume carried a a number of practical challenges with it as well…

“As a physical actor, it’s always a great pleasure to bring an inhuman character to life.”
says Jinny. “However it can come with its issues. For this project that would be the restrictiveness of the costume – I had to be sewn into it and so was unable to go to the bathroom. Then, since I couldn’t really see, moving around the location was genuinely problematic, especially when faced with stairs.”

So there’s an important lesson: when building a special effect, take good care of your actors. By transforming them into a monster from another dimension, you may have made them a lot less able to traverse our own…

Taking The Monster for a walk

The Skin
Ordinarily, it takes time, effort and careful planning to create good visual effect. On a film challenge you have effort and, if you’re lucky, a lot of coffee, so things have to be sped up and compromises made.  It’s an exercise in not only raw skill but problem-solving as well.

Outside of film challenges, digital effects sorcerer Cat Harris does this work professionally, generally using a piece of software called Houdini to produce complex effects for blockbuster movies. However, that’s a slow process. You need to build models and simulation setups in the 3D world, then output the 2D images from that, then composite them into the original footage. When really pressed for time, the best option is instead just to bash stuff out in 2D in Adobe After Effects.

Cat's overnight wear - crucial for a 48 hour filmshoot.

Cat’s overnight wear – crucial for a 48 hour film-shoot

Sometimes a spanner is found to have been carefully placed in the works without anyone realising that it is in fact a spanner and that its location is in fact the works. With Leadtime, when Cat received the footage to work on, she discovered that a key element of the monster’s screen presence was its tendency to flail around everywhere. In her own words, ‘this was not ideal’.

To explain: during the electricity attack effect, each of the lighting bolts needed to lock onto the monster’s body in a particular place and then stay attached to that location throughout the shot. You don’t want something hitting an ear in one frame and an armpit the next, as that would break the reality of the moment.

David Hing checks an actor for signs of life.

Now do that scene right or I’ll hit you again.

With smooth movement in the footage, you can mark a point on one frame and then another few frames later, the software working out the motion between them. However, in the case of Leadtime and the frantic flailing of its monster, Cat could only achieve the needed consistency by animating the lighting manually. Frame by painful frame.

As Cat says, “This is sloooow work”. Thankfully though, it’s also “infinitely improved by a room full of hilarious and talented – albeit slightly knackered, stressed and unwashed – people.”

So, just as you need to look after your intentionally blinded actors, make sure to give the same consideration to your overworked VFX artists…

The Finished Effect
When the crew saw the finished effect for the first time, they were speechless. Despite being produced in a hurry, it looked great, the talents and efforts of three different departments combined to make a genuinely terrifying, heart-pounding sequence.

You can have excellent acting and it will show.

You can have outstanding costumes and it will show.

You can have the flashiest CGI you’ve ever seen and people will leave thinking that, well, at least the effects looked cool.

If you have all three though, all working together in tandem, all with a shared vision of story and cinema, that’s when an audience is going to be truly blown away.

Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 17.45.10

Many thanks to Morag Hickman, Magda Durka, Cat Harris, Jinny Lofthouse and David Hing for helping put this article together.

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The Lead Time weekend: A Sci Fi London 48 hour film challenge adventure

“…as I was watching the finished film with the mountain of kit around me and saw the perfect blend of physical and digital effects thanks to a leaf blower and some digital lightning sorcery at the climax of our film, I came to the conclusion that there is definitely value in these film challenges and angry pigs could not hold me back from doing another.”

With 48 hours behind us and two car-loads of equipment successfully decamped from the two Travel Lodge rooms, the five of us slumped down amongst the kit mountain outside of the lobby and watched our film for the first time.

We had spent the last two days working on this practically non-stop with a frantic mad scramble in post production right up to the very last second to get it completed and finished in time, but none of us had actually seen it all the way through. Even those primarily responsible for the editing had absolutely no idea whether it would hang together properly.

Whilst it felt incredibly rock-and-roll to have submitted a film to the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge practically blind, it was more than a little nail biting to hit play. Would everything be in the right place? Would the sound sync up with the video? Would the effects have rendered properly? Did we accidentally use that shot where after hitting the clapper board I got confused, ran into shot, out of shot and then in a small little panicked circle into the shot again?

The feeling of euphoria that not only did everything hold together really well but that it was probably the best short film we had produced as a team was overwhelming. Thrusting my hands up into the air I immediately forgot how to lower them and in a stunned state of sleep deprivation and happiness, all of us could barely comprehend what the Tortoisebutler crew had managed to pull off this time.

Lets do something simple this year

A lot of film challenges start with one of us saying something along the lines of “let’s do something simple this year” because most of us remember trying to film a five minute steampunk version of the Matrix.


It’s an excellent idea. A lot of the more successful entries to film challenges tend to be simple ideas that are well executed and well polished. A few beautiful shots with a subtle plinky plinky melancholy piano track underneath followed by some kind of twist that they were clones all along. Unfortunately, that sort of artsy approach doesn’t seem to appeal to any of us on the crew when it comes to making our own films. We have a few themes that we tend to revisit, such as time travel and robots and we have a slight tendency towards plots with a couple too many twists and turns than is reasonably filmable.

The weird thing is that this year, during the writing process, we thought we’d come up with something really straight forward. After brainstorming around 20 ideas, we settled on idea number 21 which appeared to plop in out of nowhere and we were even really proud that the finished script sat around the four-pages mark. At the standard rule of one-minute-per-page, this meant we would be happily under the five minute time limit. More than anything, it made a refreshing change from the forty page monstrosities that we’ve turned out in the past because one of the writers went rogue and tried to write a TV pilot instead (and I regret nothing).

Despite this we ended up with a twisted-mutated monster and an electricity-shooting robot, giving us some heavy physical effects to pull off as well as some heavy digital effects as well. In a 48 hour window, you’re probably better off picking one, especially when beyond not showering for a few days, none of you have really tried pulling off a monster effect before.

The windows within the 48 hour window

With most filming projects and projects in general, there are plenty of nested time dependencies alongside the the over arching looming deadline. In our case, we had a lot of time limitations in terms of actor and location availability as we were filming in an arts centre that was still very much in operation.

With a church group using the theatre in the morning, a children’s birthday party set to invade our current basecamp studio room in the afternoon and the centre cinema’s scheduled showing of the Lego Movie lurching ever closer, we were kept on our toes moving from place to place and generally working around the real world. How we managed to avoid traumatising the group of six-year-olds with our monster walking up and down the stairs too and from the cinema I do not know, or at least did not notice. It is possible that we were responsible for a couple of quiet mental scars after all.

All good films are made with hefty constraints imposed on them. I’m a firm believer that creativity is born in the fires of constraint and the more pain you go through on a project, the more likely it is to be of a solid quality. The pain-to-gain ratio on Lead Time was definitely evident with the quantity of chaos that we had to deal with over the  course of the weekend.

Mood spirals and meltdowns

Question: What do you get if you put 15 creative people in an enclosed space and stop them from sleeping?

Answer: A crime scene. Or at least that’s what should happen.

I’m not sure if it is just the critical mass of experience that we’ve built up, the fact that we were all working on something that we thought was bleeding cool, or me living in a rose-tinted world and being oblivious to issues around me, but this time round no such drama occurred.

Normally some kind of meltdown will strike, often due to not inserting the right amount of food or sleep into critical crew members, but this time things felt incredibly civilised. Some of us even showered, which is an unparalleled luxury.

There were apparently a couple of hairy moments where it looked like everything was going to fall apart that happened whilst I was asleep, but there always are. I faintly remember awakening from my four-hour slumber (another luxury) and casually walking to the bathroom to brush my teeth whilst general filming preparation chaos was going off around me, but after that initial flurry, things calmed down to a much more manageable flurry.

I’m not even sure why everyone was in a generally positive mood, but it could just be familiarity. If you are making films with a crew, getting to know the crew you’re working with is incredibly useful and a loosely coherent group of us have been doing this for about six or seven years now.  We know how to deal with each other’s quirks and we know how to handle ourselves in the film-making situation.

We’ve also noticed particular quirks and phrases that come up every time we do any filming and are on the verge of having a kind of swear jar for anyone suggesting that we cover something in a montage or that we fix something in post. Lead Time was no different and had the other popular choice of arguing about the criteria – we did spend a while discussing whether it should be ‘lee-d time’ or ‘led time’.

A positive outcome

A couple of years ago I began seriously questioning how much I was getting out of film challenges and I suspect I wasn’t the only one. There was talk of us doing more planned and less break-neck-speed projects over weekends at some point and we may do that again.  But as I was watching the finished film with the mountain of kit around me and saw the perfect blend of physical and digital effects thanks to a leaf blower and some digital lightning sorcery at the climax of our film, I came to the conclusion that there is definitely value in these film challenges and angry pigs could not hold me back from doing another.

If you want to make films, you should absolutely do a film challenge, even if you have a small crew. Nothing gets something done more effectively than a tight deadline and nothing tests your capabilities like trying to channel your ambition into a finished project within a weekend. The outcome won’t always be good and between the Tortoisebutler bunch we’ve got a few duds, but the rate at which you improve is significant.

Film challenges can be surreal as well as a way of meeting interesting people. Experiences whilst filming can creep you out, but no matter what happens, at the end of the 48 hours you have something to show for it and an experience you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.

After the Lead Time weekend, I felt increasingly in awe of the rest of the Tortoisebutler crew. They frequently leave me feeling like an idiot-hanger-on as I lurk around with a clipboard and wonder where I left the clapper-board and I’m starting to feel that there is actually no limit on what we could achieve. I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge and am dangerously inspired to push for another project before then.

As for next year, maybe we’ll make that spaceship…with a time travelling robot monster of course.

David Hing is a Writer, Runner and Optimist.   He is regarded by the Tortoisebutler Team as a cross between a Panacea and a Good Luck Charm.  Attempts are ongoing to find a way of cloning and shrinking him so he can be kept on a keyring.

Butterfly System Wreckage Of EditingTeam

How I learned to stop worrying and love the (film) challenge

It’s Monday 4th April 2011, 3am. I’m in the middle of a dream about travelling through time.

I jolt awake. Looking around, I see I’m on the only bed of a small hotel room. The room holds three other people, two of whom work on laptops and pay no attention to me, one of whom stands over me, holding out a cup of tea.

I have no idea who these people are.

Nor where I am. Nor why I’m here.

As my memory floods back in, it turns out I have met these people before, albeit for the first time only two days earlier and in highly peculiar circumstances. For about half the time since I’ve known them I’ve been wandering around the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in one of two costumes- either dystopian machine-slave dressed in torn-up sheet or dapper top-hatted resistance fighter. For the other half I’ve been sitting in various tiny out-of-the-way spaces (the most recent being this hotel room), in front of Final Cut, steadily going insane as I work on cutting a short film together.

We’re doing the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge. You get given a film title, a prop and a line of dialogue at the beginning of the weekend and have to hand in a science-fiction film, including all of those criteria, by the end. We’re now in hour 39 of the challenge and I’ve just had my first (very short) sleep of the challenge. It hasn’t helped- I feel worse now than before.

The people around me are those still left after all the filming finished, the post-production team: Cat on VFX, Jon on sound and me on editing, as well as Alia, the director, the one holding the cup of tea. This production team, known as Tortoisebutler, needed an editor ASAP- I was a friend of a friend of a friend who said he could edit. One week later and I’m cutting together their movie.

Despite my dream, the film is not about time-travel. In fact, now that I’ve come to know this group of people in the years since, it’s especially surprising it isn’t about time-travel- the device seems to turn up a lot in their films (check out 2013’s challenge film, ‘Crosses’, for my favourite).

The film is instead a sort of steam-punk cousin to ‘The Matrix’, depicting a rebel group’s attempts to free enslaved humans from the grip of the overlord machine race. The machines are being played by the massive, marvellous steam-engines of the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, who were kind enough to not only let us shoot there, but also to switch on the machines specifically for scenes in our film.

Editors usually hate it when their job is misrepresented as “cutting bits out of a film” or “making it shorter”, but in this particular case, that’s actually a large part of what I need to do. The challenge organisers only accept films of five minutes length, maximum. Our film could easily stretch to double that. As the 48 hours run down, Alia and I strive to chop big chunks of story out of the film, using elliptical voice-overs, nightmarish jump-cuts and highly dramatic music from Jon to paper over the cracks.

We do manage to finish and hand in the film, ‘Butterfly System’, on time, only moments before the deadline. The final product is mad as anything, but I love it very much. My dad tells me he understands the plot, although I haven’t quizzed him on the specifics. You can watch it for yourself right here..

Three years, two more sci-fi film challenges and various other projects later, and we’re about to enter into another insane weekend of film making. We get the criteria 10am on the morning of Saturday 12th April, just two days from now.

It’s going to be a very strange 48 hours. I cannot wait.


Making of Crosses credit sequence

One of my contributions to our entry into the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge 2013 was the closing credit sequence:

Our film was based on the following criteria:

Title: “Crosses”
Dialogue: “There’s no way of knowing I’m afraid. Only time will tell”
Prop: “A torch – A character shakes the torch, pulls it apart, and puts it back
together again. It still doesn’t work.”

We came up with a complex yet tight script involving time-travelling cops, the fight actors (including one untrained!) developed some kick-arse fight scenes, I knocked up some props and tattoos and we shot a beautiful, tense, cohesive film.

As with most creative products though, the ‘finishing’ is at least as much work as the creation. The second night of the 48 hours was spent packed into a tiny hostel room, where a truly stunning number of macbooks were put to work on the editing, graphic effects, scoring, sound design and grading of the film. Alongside them all, I was in the corner making 8 seconds worth of credits (Final version has an extra 4 seconds to credit the installation artists).

As our composer was creating the score live from Germany, the editors pulled together a rough cut to give him an idea of what we’d made. I snagged a copy of this, identified key moments from the narrative, and selected dynamic and interesting stills to represent them. Manually tracing the stills gave me silhouettes, with which I created a huge spread which the final animation explores, reflecting the journey of the film. It was great fun to apply what I know of storyboarding, composition and comic design to creating something dynamic, stylish and exciting.