Using basic techniques combined with creative thinking to achieve stunts and special FX, in low-budget film making.
This paper has been written with the low budget film maker in mind. Seeing as though I am personally used to working with little or no money to produce a film or a video, I have always searched, through nessicity, for new ways to create effective looking stunts, special effects, and in general unique looking shots, devices and looks in my movies.
Of course stunts and special FX may not be your cup of tea when it comes to making or watching a film, and this is fair enough. If a dialogue laden script and endless two shots and close-ups take your fancy, then Im sure you dont need to be told how to achieve this. It is simply a matter of writing the script, then setting up the camera and shooting it, generally speaking.
However when it comes to low budget film making these days I feel that the film maker must make a special effort to produce a movie that is unique and interesting for an audience to experience. This does not necessarily mean that the film maker must load the film with cheap stunts, blood and guts to grab an audiences attention. However they should at least try to create something that is very original and makes the audience question how they achieved the results that they did, even if the movie does consist of only two shots and close-ups. In the case of this type of movie (two shot/close-up style), the obvious place to start with creative thinking is when writing the script. However this should be fundamental to any script, story or idea.
First of all, whoever you are, you must realise that it isnt money that makes a good film, it is the idea and how that idea is achieved in creative ways. Of course its a great thing if you do have a little bit of money to put towards a film, however, throwing around creativity will always win over throwing around a ton of cash at a film, I believe anyway. You probably already have realised this, but for the uninitiated, this is the core theme of this paper; use your creativity where possible, not your money.
Of course both creativity and dollars will always show up on the screen, just in different ways. I believe however, that any given audience would rather see creative ideas expressed in a proficient manner in a low budget movie, rather than seeing expensive production values apparent in a poor idea. This is because everyone knows what is achievable these days if you have the money. However I think the same audiences are starting to get very bored with these expensive films, because the film makers havent really used their creativity to develop their ideas, they have used their wallet.
So how does one go about achieving a high standard when producing low budget films, in particular action and horror movies?
Obviously it will depend on what your idea is, but over the following pages I will present certain methods, ideas and techniques for achieving pleasing results. Most of these methods are very basic, and it would surprise most people to find out that some of these techniques are actually used in similar ways in the film industry, not just in low budget, renegade film making.
Problem: You have an idea where a character must crash through a thickly frosted glass door. How do you achieve this in a safe environment, with little or no money, and so that the finished stunt or shot looks effective and exciting?
First of all, the biggest issue here is safety. Whenever possible you should employ the services of a safety officer and qualified stunt person to carry out the scene or shot. This is fundamental and goes without saying, and it is standard protocol in the industry. However things can and will go wrong, even if youve hired 10 safety officers. (The film Love Serenade is a solid example; a stunt person died jumping off a wheat silo.)
However, you may not have the money to hire a stunt coordinator, or a person to perform the stunt, or a safety officer. All you have is a camera and an actor, and the actor must be the one to crash through the glass door.
Seeing as though the actors safety is the main issue here, the question is how are you going to protect them during the stunt? Firstly you will need to cover them with heavy duty protection so they will be in no danger of cutting themselves up. Having done this however, the problem then shifts to the fact that they will look different during the shot, because they are wrapped up in all sorts of head gear, knee pads and chest guards etc. They will no longer look like their character is supposed to.
This problem is easily solved if the film maker is willing to fit his or her story slightly to fit the stunt. If the film maker is making a horror film for instance, the standard formula in a horror movie is to have a killer chasing one or more helpless victims. So if the film maker is willing to use this formula all they have to do is make the killer so that we, the audience, cannot tell what they really look like, ie: The killer would be wearing a mask that covered their head, and a costume that fully covered their body.
So if the killer is dressed as mentioned, there will be no problem in fitting protective clothing and/or equipment under the characters costume. This will enable the film maker to still show the character as they were intended to look, and still have them crash through a glass door. The audience will be impressed with the actual stunt and still believe that it was the killer who crashed through the glass. What the audience wont see, in regards to safety, is all the protective gear underneath the actors costume. Protective equipment can range from old sporting attire, such as cricket knee pads or skating knee and elbow pads, to using off-cuts of old car tyres to wrap around the actors neck, arms and chest. (The latter is probably better in my experience, as I have found the rubber from car tyres is very thick and cannot be easily punctured by glass, no matter how thick the glass is).
In regards to safety, this is not the only preparation or precaution that must be adopted if performing this stunt.
Another huge factor in achieving this type of stunt is allowing as much time as possible to prepare for it. Under no circumstance must anyone on the set be rushed, especially the actor or person who will be performing the stunt. Of course the person who will be crashing through the glass door must be
totally willing to do it, if they have any doubts whatsoever, do not let them perform the stunt. (Obviously it helps if you have friends who have tendencies to participate in high risk shenanigans.)
Having said this however, there are still more ways to create an extremely safe environment in which to execute the stunt.
One of these methods is to select your glass door with an attention to detail. Assuming you have no money, you will have to scrounge around in junkyards, on peoples nature strips, or old building sites to find your door. However if you have at least a minimum of twenty to thirty dollars you should be able to pick up an old glass door from your local house wrecking yard.
When choosing your door, you must try to find one that has a full glass panel stretching the entire length of the door. It is no good only having a door that is half glass and half wood; how is your actor going to pass through it?
The next thing to check, once acquiring your full-length glass door, is what is the thickness of the glass like? Hopefully it is thicker, rather than thinner. I have found that thin glass can be more dangerous than the thick, because it has a tendency to shatter into smaller fragments, where as when thick glass breaks it tends to remain in larger pieces.
Another technique, which is a very handy and ingenious method, and should definitely be employed when performing the glass door stunt, is using a glass-cutter to lightly pre-cut the glass. This is done so that when the glass breaks it will shatter along the small incisions you have already made, and you can therefore control where the glass will break, and then, in turn, roughly where it will land. Take care however not to cut right through the glass, you dont want to break the door before youve even set the camera up. When cutting the glass, try to observe the actual thickness of it, and then make your cuts about one-third to a half deep. By pre-cutting the glass, the actor will be able to pass through the barrier with greater ease.
Last of all the actor must be trained in the basics of jumping through glass, and when it comes down to it, there is just the single basic rule. The basic rule when jumping through glass is this: When passing through the barrier of glass make sure, if you are the person performing the stunt, that you remain in a solid, forward motion for as long as possible, and that you do not pull back any part of your body during flight. The stunt performers body must remain in forward flight at all times so that the speed of the persons body is matching the speed of the breaking glass, and in fact the body continues to propel the glass in a forward manner. If the person were to suddenly pull their arm back during flight for instance, this could result in a shard of glass catching their arm. Even if this resulted, the film maker has made sure that the actor has been fully padded up, all over their body, so even if the actor does happen to pull back during flight, the glass cannot harm them because of the thick rubber they are wearing. This is an obvious rule to observe, but its often the straight forward ones that are forgotten.
Having now prepared for the execution of the stunt, you, the film maker, are now ready to determine where it is youll set frame. If lighting the shot make sure that no cables, light stands, or lights are going to interfere with the actors or stunt performers pathway through the glass door, and that they arent going to crash into anything when they come out the other side. Make sure that the area where they will land is free from any obstruction whatsoever.
Before you actually set your frame, I have always found it useful, for editing purposes, to get a shot from the inside of the door, of your actor walking or running towards it, as though they were about to actually do the stunt. Of course dont actually let them break the glass. However this shot is then useful to cut to before the actual stunt. Also by covering the sequence from numerous different angles, and providing your skills are good in the cutting room, you will be able to make the scene look almost as though youve used a multi-camera set up. So ideally, you could actually get at least two or three different angles of your actor about to break though the glass.
Having completed these first shots, you are now ready to carry out the stunt. Once again make sure that whoever is on set is calm and relaxed, especially the stunt performer.
Set up the camera outside the door. This angle, without a doubt, will look the best as opposed to having the camera indoors. Also, for aesthetic purpose try to position your frame at a low angle; it will simply make the shot more spectacular.
Once the camera is set in position, make doubly sure that you have enough film or video in your camera. There is nothing worse than preparing for three hours and then missing the stunt because you ran out of tape.
The last thing to do, now that your camera is fixed, is to work out with your stunt performer some reliable cues, so that the actor knows exactly when to jump, and you know exactly when to roll camera.
Finally, do one last check of the actors safety equipment and you are now ready. Once you are rolling the camera the best thing you can do is to simply relax and concentrate on what you see through the viewfinder. The actor or stunt performer will probably still surprise you when they come flying through the glass, because firstly, they will still do their last minute psyching before they jump, (which may be longer than you think), and secondly, the stunt always looks so spectacular that you cant believe your film could ever look so good.
Dont take your eye away from the viewfinder until at least two to three seconds after the actor and glass has finally settled, this is just to cover yourself in terms of shot length. Also you will want to protect yourself from any last minute flying debris coming towards the camera.
Having continued rolling for a few more seconds, you can now cut. Provided you have followed all the correct procedures, you should have accomplished the shot with spectacular success. If, in the one in a million chance you notice your actor lying in a pool of blood in front of the camera, dont panic. Obviously, you did not equip your actor with enough safety gear, and you will know to pay more attention to this next time. The one advantage of this however is that you can continue to roll camera and get some footage of the actor injured and hurt, which will make the audience believe the scene even more. Of course if the actor is hurt you must attend to them immediately, and get them to a doctor or to the hospital. However, you still may as well get one shot of them, it will only take a few extra seconds and will be worth it. However, this is truly the worst case scenario, and to just repeat, if you follow the correct procedures, and pay particular attention to safety, everything will run smoothly.
Once again I stress the point; when performing a stunt like this in the industry, you would employ the services of a safety officer and stunt person. If this particular stunt was performed for a production with a budget, there would not be much difference in the way it was actually carried out. The basic difference would be that the actor wouldnt be rigged up for safety, the door would be. The glass wouldnt be real, it would be made up of a mixture of different materials, (including sugar), that when pressed into sheets and hardened, breaks very easily and harmlessly.
So, to sum up, you have just achieved a high quality stunt for next to nothing, using available resources and materials. If you had employed the services of a stunt coordinator, trained stunt person and then a safety officer, you will have run up a bill of, at the very least, over a thousand dollars. Of course if you have the money then go with the safety people, dont leave anything to chance.