Thinking about writing a low budget feature? Ever imagined that you might be able to stuff it full of visual effects…?
I’d currently define myself as VFX-curious – I’m interested but inexpert. Most writers and editors know very little about the VFX world. But earlier this year my virtual mind was blown by two fab workshops led by experts in the field as part of our Cross Channel Film Lab preparations. Here are some of their top tips for embedding lower cost VFX in your screenplay:
1. Keep the monsters under the bed
Don’t show us your monsters. Even Jurassic Park limited the number of dinosaur shots to good effect. At the opposite end of the financial spectrum, recent films like Monsters and Grabbers built tension by keeping the full horror/beauty of their freaky creatures hidden from us until late in the film.
2. Go green
Spend your money on green screen instead of fuel-burning flights to exotic locations. We’ve all seen green screen make superman fly or distract kissing drivers in a moving car. But with green screen, almost any setting is possible – as long as it’s contained and you limit the number of locations. Green screen and matte painting could take your audience into the past, or on to a futuristic world. While fresh ways of using green screen can add a whole new layer to your story (check out the strangely artificial painted backgrounds in L’Anglais et Le Duc).
3. Be a cartoon hero
Are you working in the realm of comic-books, or writing something completely different that might benefit from a heightened style? Technology has moved so fast that you can now build something as distinct as A Scanner Darkly or Renaissance at a much lower cost. Check out Franck Chiche’s Je vous ai compris for a recent drama that combines image processing with on set treatment of props and actors – Boys Own imagery adds to its dark human story.
4. Create your own ‘zen garden’
Those perfectly raked zen gardens can cost a fortune. But the basic ingredients are cheap. Define your own minimalist visual style and engage your audience’s brains to fill in the details you can’t afford. See how much we discern from a few moving dots?
5. Embrace your inner Tron
Machinima fans are already creating content from existing game engines. Picture a CGI game world, playing out in real time. But instead of a player, a director chooses the shots, actors inhabit performing avatars, and each scene follows your script. Sadly, the rights to use a current game for a feature film would cost a fortune (unless your story’s also a brilliant piece of marketing, you never know…). But some time soon, you’ll be able to find someone to build your very own game engine ‘stage and performers’.
6. Celebrate your crapness
If all else fails, embrace your complete inability to afford any decent visual effects. A recent short film from Switzerland parodied low budget retro Star Trek-style visual effects to become one of the most successful Swiss shorts ever. And it’s now spawning its very own feature version…
Of course decent visual effects require skill, time and money. You can’t create a Hollywood blockbuster in your bedroom… yet. But don’t assume you can’t afford visual effects, and don’t limit your aspirations to recreating what you’ve seen before.
Write a blockbuster if that’s your passion. But if you want to break the mould, embrace your restrictions, collaborate with experts from an early stage, and develop your story and screenplay with the technical possibilities in mind.
P.S. I will now show you my monster.
Pippa Best is an experienced script consultant and UK project co-director of the Cross Channel Film Lab.