Happy New Year from DIY SCI-FI!
With the prospect of a whole new year ahead of us, its a great time to reboot the blog and refocus. The last half of 2011 turned out to be a doozy for me, and while I’ve been crazy busy, DIY SCI-FI has always been at the top of my mind. Nearly every week I would have a great idea for a post or a feature, but it also seemed that every week my to-do list got longer and longer.
But 2012 is shaping up to be an all new story; I’ve got new resources, new ideas, and plan to have a bit more time on my hands to do the things I enjoy…specifically making movies and blogging about them.
See you soon…
Isn’t it great when the best, most evocative effect is dirt cheap and easy? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the mighty fog machine.
Whether you’re shooting footage of your actors or miniatures, a little bit of haze can add instant depth and visual interest to the scene and give all that lighting you worked so hard on something to really play around with.
Fog machines are generally dirt cheap, especially around Halloween shopping season (which, lets face it, is usually like late august these days). You can usually find inexpensive fog machines for around $20-$30 dollars, along with the chemical solution that it uses spew out the haze.
It takes some finessing to get just exactly the look you want. Fog machines do ‘haze’ pretty well right out of the box, but if you’re looking for more of a swirly, thick fog that rolls and ‘falls’, you’re probably going to want to build a chiller.
CHILL THAT FOG
Fog machines work by heating up a kind of oil until it vaporizes. This means its warm when it comes out of the machine, and as my favorite science teacher Mr. K taught us back in high school, warm air rises. The result is a thinner, gauzy haze rather than rolling fog.
In order to get a thicker, rolling fog effect…the sort of mist that clings creepily to the ground around graveyards in old movies…you need to chill the fog before it disperses. This is pretty easy to do. Here’s a video of a guy (via the ever-awesome Backyard FX) who came up with a shockingly simple solution:
NOT JUST FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS
Its important to note that using a bit of haze and fog in a scene isn’t necessarily just for explicitly foggy scenes. Filmmakers employ haze in films all the time when you’d least expect it. This is because a little bit of haze in the air gives light something to reflect within, which can really help build and direct the composition of the scene. Almost any time you see a beam of light actually spanning a distance in a movie, you can bet a little bit of fog has been used.
Here’s a pretty damn fantastic YouTube vid from polcan99 explaining how fog can be used in this way. Pretty much says it all:
Questions, comments, or suggestions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Twitter: @diyscifi. Now I’m going to go clean my fog machine.
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One of the pitfalls of having technology out the wazoo ( I mean I can make video calls from my cell phone now, for Bob’s sake) is that its easy to shove aside the old school way of doing some things. This really is a shame. Combining old school methods with modern technology can be a recipe for epic winning.
Here are 4 traditional (read: pre-digital) filmmaking effects methods that you can use to to score big “WOWs” on your next SciFi epic:
1. MATTE PAINTINGS. Matte paintings are still a staple of filmmaking today, but the technique has come a long way from the days artists painstakingly painted on large sheets of glass. Technically, the ‘Making a Starfield’ tutorial we posted last week was actually just a matte painting. Now with 3D environments and a bevy of slick visual software, ‘matte painting’ backgrounds are frequently in full motion rather than merely the still images filmmakers of past decades had to settle for. But then would you really call the beautiful reveal of Cloud City boring and lifeless?
HOW TO UPDATE IT FOR YOUR FILM: As small filmmakers, we don’t always have the time or the means to create the elaborately animated and rendered backgrounds of large budget films. So why try? Take a cue from the old school matte paintings and learn how to use still images as effectively as they did. When you’re making an establishing shot of your alien city, is it really necessary to zoom over the streets and through the buildings? What about a majestic still image from a distance, with perhaps just enough small moving elements composited in to give your composition life. Never be afraid to take a breath in the action.
2. ROTOSCOPING. Rotoscoping is tracing over a live action image to create some kind of animation. This has been used from everything from the mind-blowing Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings animated film to the lightsabers in the original Star Wars trilogy. More recently this technique was updated and used by Richard Linklater in his films A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. Though the technique is old, its an essential bit of movie magic that can create some rather startling visuals.
HOW TO UPDATE IT FOR YOUR FILM: Adobe AfterEffects makes rotoscoping simple. All you need to is create a layer on top of your original footage and use AfterEffect’s bottomless bag of magic tricks to do pretty much anything you want to do to your image frame-by-frame. Make no mistake, even in the digital age rotoscoping frame-by-frame is painstaking and requires industrial strength patience. But that’s a small price to pay for provoking that “how exactly do you do that?” look in your audience, right?
3. MODEL MAKING. It doesn’t get more old school than this. Everything is CGI today, and its create almost anything to populate the environment of your frame. But I don’t have to tell you that its hardly the push-button age for creating perfect CGI for film. Its really hard work and requires a lot of time, computing power, and technical skill to pull it off convincingly. Building a physical model of a spaceship, space station, or cityscape isn’t exactly a cake walk, but its well within reach of most filmmakers today with a bit of liberally applied elbow grease and some imagination. After all, we’re trying to tell a story, and that’s worth some late nights, right? Right. I predict that physical models and miniatures in filmmaking hasn’t exactly disappeared into the mists of time just yet. Just ask Peter Jackson. There’s an art to shooting a real object that is hard to define but almost impossible to mimic digitally. Hell, compare the new Star Wars trilogy to the old one. There’s just..something…sort of missing, right?
HOW TO UPDATE IT FOR YOUR FILM: Learn how to make a decent model, the old school tricks that the masters would use to create a sense of believable scale. Figure out how to light it convincingly, and then shake and bake. AfterEffects makes compositing from a green screen pretty much primary-school easy. Think using models is passe? Go check out Duncan Jones’s Moon, and then decide for yourself if using models doesn’t just effin’ work.
4. FORCED PERSPECTIVE: Forced perspective is simply using clever camera placement and set & prop construction to make one object appear larger than the other. If you’ve ever taken a picture of your Aunt Minnie pushing over the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you already understand how this works. The most obvious example of how forced perspective shots can create a believable sense of scale, look no further than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. When Fellowship of the Ring first premiered, a lot of people assumed it was all digital fakery that made Elijah Wood seem tiny next to Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, but more often than not it was merely clever placement of the camera and some practical set & prop construction wizardry.
HOW TO UPDATE IT FOR YOUR FILM: Creating convincing forced perspective shots requires serious planning and forethought. If you want to get really fancy, there could be actual math involved. Figure out exactly what the size different between your foreground object and your background object is and its possible to calculate how far away from the camera they should each be to achieve the look you want. I know: doesn’t sound as easy as positioning Aunt Minnie just right, does it? But the benefits can outweigh the pain.
Using Adobe Photoshop and a little patience, its possible to create flexible star backgrounds for use in compositing however you see fit. Take a look at our tutorial below, and feel free to leave a comment!