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The Cost of Special Effects

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Lily Blaze's picture
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Joined: Aug 2019
The Cost of Special Effects

I have general questions for filmmakers and people with filmmaking experience. I'm screenwriter only, happy with that, no desire to be anything else but a writer. Having said that, one of my biggest future goals is to work efficiently with filmmakers for feature length scripts. I'd love to see opinions and direct experience in regards to special effect costs. I can guess a lot, ranging from no effects to expensive CGI, but I'd like to get a more personal opinion on effects and how it reads to you in a script.

What are the lowest cost effects?

Which effects are easiest for you as a filmmaker? Which are the hardest?

Which effects do you enjoy the most? Which effects do you hate?

CJ Walley's picture
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Joined: Jul 2016

Off the shelf effects are by far the cheapest because they can effectively be dragged and dropped into a scene. SFX like muzzle flashes, sparks, and blood splatters are common and generic so thus cheap.

After that comes green screen which can become expensive if it's shot badly or trying to do something particularly complicated/unusual.

CGI cost tends to be a factor of screen time. There is a lot of tidying up that can take place such as the removal of logos or ugly clutter from a shot but it's stuff that's mostly seconds long if that.

Make up based SFX can impact production time significantly as can pyrotechnics. Any time the camera isn't rolling during a shoot is effectively sunken cost.

We had to effectively pause development of a feature because it required a big shootout in a gas station mini mart and even simply finding a mini mart we could perform that in was hard enough. Something like that often requires building a set on a soundstage. A small shootout on the other hand without any property destruction is just a case of some fake guns and after effects.

I know of a production where they had to stop in post and try to crowdfund $25K just to complete a few shots where a mutant wolf fights the lead actor. It's the bespoke stuff that costs.

The good thing is, a director/producer should be reading a script with a lot of leeway in their mind. 

Lily Blaze's picture
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Joined: Aug 2019

Thank you! All useful, practical info. Also a good reminder.

Any time the camera isn't rolling during a shoot is effectively sunken cost.

I'm going to make a big forget-me-not note with that one.

What about puppets? I suppose it depends on complexity and how it takes to set up the puppet. I'm thinking of the original The Thing movie. They ripped the head off a puppet and the result looks fantastic.

CJ Walley's picture
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Joined: Jul 2016

I've not had any direct experience with puppets but, from everything I've read, they are like working with animals and children and exponentially problematic as they get more complicated. Not only do you have a puppet which needs setting up, it needs designing, building, storing, and transporting to and from set. Then you have the need for operators as additional members of the crew getting their daily specialist rate while being fed and watered (plus a cot if traveling out of town).

The closest I've got to puppets is air operated weapons. Even these relatively simple devices can fail regularly during takes which is very frustrating for everyone as those perfect moments are ruined and time is lost.

With CGI, an SFX artist can download a licensed model and insert that into the best take. You can use a crew member as a stand in if needed. Most cinematographers know how to shoot for it now too.

As writers, we can help keep costs down by doing things like reducing direct interaction between cast and any puppets/cgi.

Lily Blaze's picture
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Joined: Aug 2019

Funny, that's one of the biggest complaints among movie goers - lack of intection between the actors and whatever SFX that was used for the movie. Looking at behind the scenes info, it's not that simple.

I can imagine the frustration with timing and all the operators that could be involved. No wonder CGI seems easier.

Thanks, this dicussion has helped me a lot with various ways I can approach SFX in my screenwriting without directly naming any SFX. An option, but not mandatory. It's one way to go.

CJ Walley's picture
Script Revolution Founder
Joined: Jul 2016

That sounds like a wise strategy. Focus on story first and the SFX will have to be what they have to be. An in between with puppets and SFX is costumed actors. I think you can get some pretty good costumes that are full body and the performers only need some dark makeup on their face to hide them behind the masks.

Lily Blaze's picture
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Joined: Aug 2019

Costumes. I'm mentally slapping my forehead here. I can't believe I forgot that.

Yeah, agreed, focus on the story, keep it to whatever the story needs, don't worry about anything else.

CJ Walley's picture
Script Revolution Founder
Joined: Jul 2016

To be honest, the only reason I thought of costumes was because I watched a low-budget scifi recently where they'd done just that. It was the same people raising $25K for a few seconds of CGI. I'm betting the costumes cost a lot less than that LOL.

Lily Blaze's picture
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Joined: Aug 2019

Hah! I'm reminded of one of my favourites B-rated sci fi movies, so bad it's funny. The Revenge of Teenage Vixens from Outer Space. The cheapest costumes. Plastic ray guns that turn teen boys into garden vegetables. One victim turns into a pickle. It's a prop in a glass jar with glued on googly eyes. I laughed so hard I cried.

CJ Walley's picture
Script Revolution Founder
Joined: Jul 2016

In the last production script I wrote, I had an action scene which storms through a medieval reenactment group. The idea originally was that we'd buy some really cheap costumes and make it look deliberately bad. Well, it turned out one of the leads new some proper larpers so they showed up in costume. I'm talking people in full suits of armor. Then it turned out some of the crew were serious larpers too and showed up in full costume. Everyone had a blast, got to show off their hobby, and the production value went up as result - win win!

Lily Blaze's picture
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Joined: Aug 2019

I love that, the power of Larpers lol. Sounds like so much fun!

Roman BRuni's picture
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Joined: Feb 2021

In my experience, there is too much 'difficult' jargon in VFX and making ofs are slowly becoming part of the marketing launch campaign of movie & tv making.
I reccomend using DAZ3D.com as a starting point: free soft w nice 3d puppets, w lots of experience opportunities to understand the whole enchillada process; and second VIDEOCOPILOT.NET any tutorial will make you understand the 'kitchen' aspect of the creative effects.  Perhaps to become a true VFX programmer / animator might be a long up learning curve, but I'm sure a few hours w those two refs will make you able to 'think' 3d... which is absolutely tantamount to write 3d and effects... cheers from Rio

Greg Derochie's picture
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Joined: Jun 2020

Lily,

I'm a VFX pro and a filmmaker, and I can offer this advice - don't worry about VFX in your script while your writing - just tell the best version of your story. Yes, you can certainly think about combining big set pieces and what not, but the VFX work will be sorted out at the budgeting stage. And if you're lucky enough to get there, one more tip is to push your producer to hire a VFX Supervisor early and listen to their advice - it will save money on the backend.

Cheers from LA!

https://www.gregderochie.com

Lily Blaze's picture
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Joined: Aug 2019

Thanks, Greg! I really appreciate more confirmation that it's not something I need to worry about as a screenwriting. For later, if my script is acquired, later maybe work with a creative team, if my input is needed. If not, I'm okay with that. This whole thread has provided such useful insight for me and I'm certainly glad I asked.

Anthony Rodriguez's picture
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Joined: Jan 2021

Thank you for that wisdom Greg.  As Lily can tell you, I am a sponge for learning.  I wrote my first script with set economics in my mind...low intensity blue light to show only the subjects in the tunnel and create a feeling of claustrophobia and unknown in the darkness...green screen background in other shots, etc..  Should I mention points like that in the synopsis or at the beginning of the script?

Greg Derochie's picture
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Joined: Jun 2020

Hi Anthony,

While VFX/production ideas like that are great to have for yourself, I would not recommend they be part of the script at all. Just tell your story, as vividly and emotionally as you can for the reader.

Lily Blaze's picture
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Joined: Aug 2019

I agree with Greg 100%. Script should be nothing but telling the story. However, having read a lot of examples of treatments and scriptments, it seems making suggestions for VFX in treatments/scriptments is okay, and might be welcomed. depending on the story.

On an unrelated side note. I really wish the word scriptment would be added to dictionaries so that I wouldn't get a bold red line screaming at me that it's a typo.

Anthony Rodriguez's picture
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Joined: Jan 2021

Thanks Lily.  Thanks Greg.